‘A Love for Watching Young People Grow in Christ’
By Melissa Wuske
JR and Debra Stephen have been volunteer leaders in the children’s ministry at Versailles (Indiana) Church of Christ since the mid-1980s. It’s a small congregation with “more older people than younger” right now, JR said. About 20 children regularly attend, and he described the church as “a close-knit family.” As a children’s leader, that closeness is an asset: “Everybody pretty much knows everybody, and you get to know the parents well.”
The couple have been through many seasons of ministry with the church: Families have moved into town and then away, staff have been hired to work with the young people and then moved on, kids have graduated and left the area, and culture continues to change as technology influences the lives of kids. Through it all, kids have been the couple’s passion. JR drives a bus for the local school system and the couple have 11 grandchildren.
Their partnership is the key to their decades in volunteer ministry.
“She’s my backbone,” JR said. “She organizes and does a lot of the planning and teaches the young ones.” What they both have in common is a selfless heart for service and a love for watching young people grow in Christ.
Longevity in ministry has taught them many lessons to share with other small churches.
1. Make Parents Part of the Team
“The biggest thing is it takes a team effort, not just me and my wife. It takes a lot of people helping,” JR said. “One of the benefits [of a smaller church] is . . . a lot of [parents] will help.” The church’s VBS had more than 40 adult volunteers teaching and serving kids this year. The Stephens said many parents over the years have taken off work to chaperone trips and help with events.
It’s important to “keep adults involved,” JR said. Don’t be shy. “Ask them [to help]—they like to be asked. Give them a job; that way they’ve got a ministry to do.” And show appreciation—a few kind words or a cookout go a long way toward encouraging adults to join in the ministry, he said. Seeing adults following Christ helps childlike faith mature into a life of walking with God.
2. Don’t Sacrifice the Bible for Fun
It can be tempting to focus almost exclusively on making things fun because children have short attention spans and the church desires to bring in more and more of them, but JR warned against that. “You don’t have very long to teach them,” he said. “Always have the Bible study time. I wouldn’t give up the Bible study time for outings. We use those outings for outreach.” Before you know it, he said, kids grow up and that critical time to build faith has passed.
When you take time to teach children lessons from God’s Word, they will learn, JR said. “They like it more than people think they do.” For the Stephens, the work is worth it “when you see them growing—they’re faithful, they’re enjoying, they’re learning.”
3. Keep the Momentum Going
Even in a small church, children’s ministry is “a busy job,” JR said. Relying completely on volunteers, with no paid staff in the children’s ministry, can be difficult at times. People who serve in the ministry have other commitments, especially with more people working more hours these days.
“It’s [also] hard to keep kids occupied these days,” he said. The key is to “keep it moving. If you slack up for two or three months, they become uninvolved.” Sustaining momentum has as much to do with parents, he’s found, as it does with kids: “Everybody’s tied up with everything else.”
Some events are well-attended and others aren’t, but it’s important to connect with families and keep trying to engage them. The church has been working to adapt to families’ needs, including starting Wednesday-night activities a little earlier so kids can get to bed on time.
4. Keep an Eye on Cost
“Resources are the biggest challenge,” JR said. “Everything costs so much.” He said the best way paid church staff can support volunteer leaders is to use church funds to help keep costs down for families.
Recently, JR and Debra took children from their church to the Indianapolis Zoo. “We were able to cover the cost of everything,” said JR. “All they had to do was take a sack lunch.” That helps families, especially those with multiple kids, and it makes it easier to invite friends.
5. Hand It Off to the Next Generation
After years of volunteer leadership for the children’s ministry, Versailles Church of Christ is currently looking to hire a youth minister.
“It’s kind of a slow process finding the right person,” said JR, noting it can be difficult “for a small congregation . . . to afford that type of position.” Also, with a close-knit congregation, finding the right person is vital.
“We’re just trying to reach the younger generations,” including kids, teens, and young adults, he said. “I enjoy doing it, but I’m 60 years old. They listen better if you’ve got someone more their age.”
After more than 30 years in children’s ministry, JR and Debra can look back and see God’s work in generations of kids in Versailles. They’re still in contact with some former kids who are still following Christ in their 40s.
The couple say seeing children from the church grow up and remain faithful makes it all worthwhile.
Melissa Wuske is a freelance editor and writer. She and her husband, Shawn, and their son, Caleb, live and minister in Cincinnati.