Interview with Keith Poletiek
As a boy, Keith Poletiek lived the life of “Johnny Lazarus,” the namesake character in a book series Keith devised to encourage young people toward evangelism. As a popular children’s conference speaker and author, Keith has also connected with children through Project316 (pronounced three-one-six) to motivate, train, and encourage young believers to take the message of John 3:16 to the world.
Keith grew up at First Christian Church of Huntington Beach where he learned the beach culture of Southern California; he now uses that as a means of telling the message of Christ. In addition to his ministry to children, Keith is the marketing and sales director for Angeles Crest Christian Camp. Find out more about Keith’s ministries at www.KeithPoletiek.com.
How did you end up on the children’s speaking circuit?
I worked in the junior high ministry under two great men, Tony Allmoslecher at Rowland Heights (California) First Christian Church for a year and Arty VanGeloof at Eastside Christian Church (Fullerton, California) for two years. Since Eastside is such a high-profile church, that opened the door to speaking at other churches. I didn’t know if I had a gift for speaking, or holding the attention of kids. But I had been nominated for class clown at my high school, always being the guy that could make people laugh, and I knew you can usually hold the attention of kids with humor. So why not try?
I was always honing my craft as a would-be comedian, making me the central figure. God said, “Maybe we could hone your craft to make me the central figure.”
What have you done to put the focus on God?
We have this website kids can go to (www.project316.org) and log in a “Dare to Care” person. That’s the person with whom they want to share the message of John 3:16. Sharing John 3:16 on or before 3/16 (March 16) is the “Dare to Care Challenge.” We’ve dubbed March 16 Dare to Care Day—the National Day of Outreach for Kids. It’s the target—to introduce at least one friend to John 3:16 by that day. That’s the message I take to churches and Christian kids.
Has your message changed since you started out?
Twenty-something years ago my passion was junior high. Today I’m speaking mostly to fourth- to sixth-graders and I never changed my message. What a seventh- and eighth-grader was needing to hear 20 years ago, I’m teaching these younger kids today. It’s kind of sad, but it’s a reality that kids are getting older quicker.
What message seems to resonate with kids?
I have found that my primary target, that preteen or tween, is becoming bold enough to have a faith of his or her own. They want to make life-changing decisions for themselves and they want to determine how bold they’re going to be with their faith. They don’t want to have someone tell them how dynamic they can be, they’re really into having somebody tell them it’s their church today, not tomorrow or when they grow up.
How do they carry that out?
Children in junior high know they need to share their faith, but they won’t do anything to mess with their reputation. But with these younger kids, if you don’t have Jesus and don’t go to Heaven, that’s a bummer and you need to get on board. They’ll do whatever they can do to get somebody in the room to hear about Jesus. They don’t have the hang-ups and they’re not thinking they’re going to lose a “BFF.”
When you introduce the idea that they have the keys to the kingdom and their friends do not, they instantly say, “I’m the guy to show them those keys.” They want to add evangelism to their spiritual makeup when they’re 8, 9, or 10 years old! That was the birth of my Project316 outreach to kids. They are now ready to be the spiritual giants in their families.
How do you cut through the media clutter to connect with kids?
What I try to do is to get churches to think about programming. Five or six days each week these kids are getting hit with vivid, bold, colorful stuff in the media. If churches are trying to reach kids with a black and white approach, unfortunately, they’ll bore the kids.
We try to get the church to be more creative. Don’t borrow from the world. Meet it head-on. Be creative about how you approach something. Try and measure up with what you have. You’re not going to measure up with the $290 billion that’s being spent by industries to reach a kid in a preteen world, but you need to give it your best try.
How do you win kids so that they stay committed through their teen years?
One of the best ways is discussing topics that have been taboo in the church because they’ve been considered too mature of a topic. The church needs to wake up. Some topics aren’t fun, but these kids are facing them every day. The kids are either going to get the answer to life’s big questions from friends, family (which can be reluctant to discuss them), or the church.
Give me an example.
One of these is their spiritual makeup. Talking to fourth-graders about their spiritual makeup is something few churches do. We send them off to junior high to handle spiritual makeup. That can be a nightmare, trying to deal with spiritual makeup in “peer pressure central.” The idea is to hand off a kid to junior high with his or her spiritual makeup in place.
Have children’s ministries coddled kids?
I think it’s been ingrained for so long that it’s just the way we do things. Fifth- and sixth-graders, for the most part, don’t want to do puppets.
What are preteens looking for?
They’re more here and now than most of us. A preteen is so here and now that if the cause is Jesus, they’re ready for the cause. If they’re properly discipled they come into junior high saying, “When are we going to start talking about reaching my friends, because I’ve got a list.”
Don’t be the church that relies on your “killer” programs to reach non-Christians. Train your kids to reach out to their friends and bring them forward. It’s possible; they just need to have the pump primed a little bit and need to be motivated, trained, and encouraged in their 9- to 11-year-old world. That works for this age group. If you give them the tools they need to make it happen and encourage them to go out and try it they do it more than any age I’ve seen.
What limitations do children’s ministries face in trying to move ministry forward?
They are so volunteer driven and need so many adults that they are sometimes forced to make things easy for their volunteers. The idea of turning that volunteer into a driving force to promote evangelism is too much on the plate for most kid’s ministries. What are we going to do with crafts, what if the service runs too long? I understand all that, but we need to challenge them to look outwardly to their unsaved friends and invite them in. Teach them that church is not a private club anymore, it’s a public offering.
Budget is another thing. Some churches can afford to hire a kid’s evangelism pastor full time. When I heard that, I thought, Here’s a church that gets it! We’re going to take a portion of our budget and put it in the hands of someone who will produce little outreach giants.
How do you reach a balance between the fun stuff and spiritual training?
In Project316 we let kids know that they can be evangelists. My messages are always packed with humor, but also plenty of outreach training and purpose. I’m trying to create a two-step program with churches. One where Project316 comes out and gets the Christian kids excited, motivated, trained, and encouraged to share Jesus. It’s a fun message, but it’s very poignant that the culmination of your faith is you need to go find the lost, like Jesus.
The initial motivation and the training on how to do this is the first step. The second step is to leave it in the hands of the church to come up with outreach events that will leave their student’s friends saying, “That was the best thing I did all summer, winter, whenever!” I really want the churches to take on the idea that their calendar events should drive people to a relationship with Jesus.
Brad Dupray is president of Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.