The Lord Jesus Christ had a deep love and care for little children. When they came to Him, He took each of them up in His arms and blessed them. One can only imagine how some of us, dressed in our Sunday best, would have fared. Had we seen the children coming in our direction, we might have been hoping fervently that the little child with the sticky fingers and runny nose might pass us by and run to someone elses open arms!
The disciples too had their own mindset; they would have chased the children away. Their hearts were out of tune with the heart of their Master. They regarded the children as something of a nuisance or distraction and not that important. Perhaps they thought that giving time to little ones was beneath them; the childrens work could be conveniently left to the next batch of young novice recruits. Such attitudes still prevail.
The Lord Jesus did not spare His disciples. He was sorely displeased and immediately corrected their glaring error, saying to them, "Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of God Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein" (Mk 10:14-16). The Savior recognized the importance of the children, not only for their own sake, but also for what they represented; a simple, unquestioning faith. That was the kind of faith He valued most in His kingdom.
In our own experience of serving the Lord in Botswana, we have seen the importance of childrens work. It is not that we regard ourselves as specialists in this age group the gospel is for everyone and no one should be neglected but the interest that young children have shown and continue to show in coming to hear the Word of God has developed into a large and fruitful work.
After moving to Gaborone in 1984, we sought to carry out the good advice we had been given: "Start as you mean to go on." In the first week after our arrival we visited all the neighbors in the street and invited them to a gospel meeting in our home. That particular evening we waited and waited, but not one person came. By contrast, when we invited the local children to a Sunday school in our garden, on the first day we found 30 boys and girls waiting excitedly at the gate, long before the time. Soon we had 150 children coming regularly.
We did persevere with the adult gospel meeting and after two years of seeing no fruit the Lord began to bless in salvation amongst the older friends. It has been our joy every year since, to see both young and old trusting the Savior. The assembly continues to conduct other activities; childrens work is only one aspect of our service, but an important one.
The value of childrens work
A number of factors combine to make childrens work in Botswana a vital area of service. Over half of the population is under 20 years of age. We enjoy a high literacy rate among the young. While it is common to see an elderly person sign their pension book in the post office by making a thumbprint, most children can read and write and love to receive any form of gospel literature. A number of tracts and gospel booklets have been produced especially for young ones.
A large percentage of the young adult population is HIV positive. The government is frank about the situation here and although it now offers treatment for those affected, the reality is that many still are dying. We always rejoice when an adult is saved but there is the lingering question at the back of ones mind: how many years might they have left to live for Christ? On the other hand, a boy or girl trusting Christ could be likened to a new candle that, God willing, can burn over a whole lifetime for His glory. Not only is a soul saved but also a life is saved. By His grace that life will be preserved from the effects of sin.
Another valuable result of childrens work is that it opens up to us the homes and hearts of the parents. On many occasions a child has been saved and then has begun to bring his or her mother to the gospel meeting. The mother has been saved and one finds a sudden and wonderful change a household has now become a Christian home.
If children are valuable they are also vulnerable. We are often shocked these days with news headlines from all around the world telling of the evil abuse and exploitation of little children. Maybe such a thing has always been, but it does seem more prevalent and shameless in these days. It is only by the mercy of God that small children can be preserved. The number of orphans and street children increases year by year. It is estimated that there will be 200,000 orphans in Botswana by the year 2010.
We take heart, however, when we read the story of Samuel. Gross evil was all around, even in the environs of the tabernacle. Elis sons were the worst role models one could ever find. Yet the Scriptures show time and again that the boy was preserved and made progress in the things of God. (See 1 Sam 2:11-12; 17-18; 21-22; 25-26). He went on to make a mark for God in his own day.
A Sunday school teacher can be a stabilizing and sanctifying influence on young children. Some of them grow up in difficult household environments (often with a single parent, usually a mother) where both love and discipline are lacking; but every week they know that they have a teacher who will welcome them with a smile. There is constant care shown to them and a consistent standard lived before them so that the child, in learning the truth of the Word of God, also sees and understands how Christians act. These children never forget you because you have become, in many ways, a special friend to them. We are frequently greeted by name by young men and women in the street. When we struggle to put names to the faces they quickly remind us that they once attended Sunday school.
The growth of the work
At present we have 12 weekly classes for children. There is at least one held on each day of the week, but, being Irish, we still call them "Sunday schools." These are conducted in various locations in Gaborone and in surrounding villages. On the Lords Day there is a main Sunday school in the gospel hall (around 200 children) and this is taken mostly by local believers in the Setswana language. The sisters teach the little ones and the brethren take the older classes. Later on in the day there are two English classes in the Broadhurst hall.
On Mondays there is a large class of over 100 children held under a tree in another area of Broadhurst. On that afternoon Hazel and I travel out to Mochudi village to spend a few days there; we now have two new classes in different locations in the village on Monday afternoons. These were started by invitation when local people pleaded with us to come and speak to the children in their areas. On Tuesdays there are two other classes in Mochudi village. On Wednesdays we travel to the village of Kopong for another time with the boys and girls. On Thursdays my wife teaches a group in our garden in Tlokweng village and our colleague, Joy Griffiths, has a group of neighborhood children from her own area of the city. On Fridays, Joy is often able to teach some children in the local hospital. On Saturdays we have another larger school of about 80 children divided into three classes in the new hall in Gaborone West and just in the past few weeks my wife has begun teaching a new group in Old Naledi, a poor district of the city. We were unable to transport all who wanted to come from that area on Saturday morning and some little ones were left standing in tears.
Each week over 1,000 boys and girls are hearing the Word of God in our area alone. Those who serve in other areas of Botswana have a similar story to tell. We are grateful for other believers from the assembly who can occasionally help in the various peripheral locations. Joy and Hazel both have opportunities to teach the very young in several school groups and it is always surprising how much they take in. For a number of years Joy has had the opportunity to teach once a week in a local government primary school. She was concerned when there was a syllabus change in favor of moral teaching and comparative religion. In the goodness of God she has been allowed to continue to teach only Scripture in that school. I have been frequently invited to take an assembly in a local secondary school where at seven oclock in the morning one finds 800 young men and women standing quietly and listening reverently to a short message.
No country stands still and there are changes in Botswana affecting the attitudes and values of young ones. Widespread access to television and the Internet means that a new trend or fad starting in London today can be found on the streets of Gaborone tomorrow. The universal young persons uniform of jeans and a T-shirt is seen everywhere now with both sexes. Children are becoming more sophisticated in a worldly sense but we continue to be amazed at the numbers who still come each week to sing a few choruses, learn verses from the Word of God, and listen to a simple lesson with a gospel application. Last year was our best year ever in Gaborone for the recitation of Scripture verses. We had taken time each week to teach the verses from Luke 15 to the children few will ever be taught them at home but the story of the prodigal son has a flow to it so that even very small children can remember it.
School life has become more demanding and competitive. No longer does primary or secondary school work end around midday. There are now many compulsory activities that children must attend, often in the afternoons but also on weekends. There is one term when sports are prominent and another term when traditional dancing and singing keep the children busy. One can find that a mid-week or Saturday "Sunday school" suddenly becomes smaller because so many of the boys and girls are required to attend these extra activities.
Another matter is transporting children who live a distance from any one of the Sunday schools. Our vehicles are often crammed with little ones and the main risk is either lack of oxygen or a compression syndrome. Government lorries are still used in the same way so we are not the only ones with this problem, but should the legislation move in the direction of compulsory seatbelts and individual seating, we would be at a loss to cope.
The greatest challenge of all is a spiritual one, not a practical one. How can we make the best use of the opportunities and the many open doors we enjoy at present? How can we spend and be spent for these precious young lives to make sure that this generation of boys and girls hears the good news of the Savior and His love?
Over the years we have had the joy of seeing many boys and girls saved, most of them as first generation believers. What gives us even more joy is to see them going on well and growing in the things of God. Eventually they have been baptized and added to the local assembly of believers. In the goodness of the Lord they find a suitable partner, marry, and have a family of their own. We thank the Lord for the godly young couples who presently grace the local companies. We are grateful too for brethren who have developed into "Timothys" and true shepherds of the flock. For many, it all started in a Sunday school. Will the subsequent generations have the same commitment as their parents? We cannot tell. But what we are sure of is this: our Lord made no mistake when He welcomed the little ones into His arms. Heaven will be full of those who, as children, came to know the Holy Scriptures which made them wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:15).