The landscape of every ministry has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic. And yet, finding ways to get the good news of the gospel to the hearts of people is an unchanging priority, according to Matt Henslee, pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, N.M.
That includes the hearts of children too. Inquisitive young voices are still asking questions, many times prompted by the changes they’ve observed in their world and their family routines.
Alongside parents and other church leaders, Henslee has sought to continue to seize open moments to share Christ’s love with the children of His church. In many ways, he said, the hardships that have come with the pandemic are helping young minds realize their need for the redeeming grace of Jesus Christ.
“A lot of it now is continual conversation,” Henslee said, referring to conversations that point children to Christ.
That’s true even if those conversations and the events leading up to them have to shift, at least for now, in format or venue. Children’s ministry at Mayhill Baptist, which is located in a small, rural community on the eastern slope of the Sacramento Mountains in southern New Mexico, has transitioned primarily to remote platforms, with teachers utilizing outreach methods such as personal letters, Zoom call classes with those children who can participate and a minimal-attendance, socially distanced Vacation Bible School.
“Our conversation was, do whatever you can in your wheelhouse, to keep some of that training going,” Henslee said.
The effort to keep preaching the gospel to the children, even amid the challenges posed by the pandemic, has shown fruit.
Mayhill Baptist member Katie Jones’ 5-year-old daughter came to an understanding of the gospel and was baptized shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold in the U.S.
Photos by Adam Covington Pastor Matt Henslee counsels a girl who is to be baptized at Mayhill Baptist Church, N.M., and then baptizes another. Though unable to meet in person, the church’s children’s ministry has seen several children make a decision for Christ during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jones recounted how her daughter, who has grown up in the church, initially had difficulty understanding why their family could no longer attend church in person or travel or go to public places. Katie came to her mother one day and said, “now we need God most.”
Soon, she decided she was ready to “go to heaven,” Jones said, and after a FaceTime call with Henslee, she prayed to receive Christ. At that time, Mayhill was conducting drive-in services, so the girl was baptized outside, in a large trough the church bought from a tractor supply store.
Julie Johnson, also a member of Mayhill Baptist, said her adopted 10-year-old daughter came to an understanding and acceptance of the gospel in recent months as well. Johnson’s daughter, who experiences a language barrier and blindness, had bits and pieces of the gospel message in her heart, but had not fully pulled it all together, Johnson said.
But one Sunday, after Mayhill was able to return to in-person services, Johnson was sitting with her two daughters. She noticed her 10-year-old crying. When she asked why, her daughter simply responded, “because I trust in Jesus.”
Following a conversation with Henslee and evidence of a full understanding of the gospel, she too was baptized.
Johnson said the daily influence of the body of the church on the children’s lives, as well as the example and love demonstrated by the family, were significant factors in helping the children realize they needed the Lord.
“If it was something they only did once a week, like on Sunday, I don’t think she would be there yet,” Johnson explained. “It takes that daily, living it and praying as a family and talking about it in our home and her seeing me walking and serving in the church, that helps them come along to that place.”
Ellie Axford, member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tenn., told a similar story in recounting how her 8-year-old daughter recently came to accept Jesus into her heart amid the pandemic. Axford said her daughter had seen Christ represented in many ways in the lives of those around her, whether it was her older sister getting baptized, or the family mission trip she participated in last year or simply the loving interactions of the church family.
“(Those examples) got her thinking more, and the last couple years God’s been working on her heart,” Axford said. “Different people being in her life, that consistency, and her seeing, ‘Oh, it’s not just my mom and dad that feel this way,’ is what ultimately drove her to realize her own need for Jesus.”
In each girl, the excitement following salvation led to a desire for baptism, as well as an excitement to proclaim to the watching world what Christ had done in their hearts and lives. It’s glimpses of hope like these that motivate continual preaching of Christ during these times, Henslee said.
Brad Smith, children’s pastor at Brentwood Baptist, said the stories of new life help fuel his passion to keep finding ways to get the gospel out into the world, even as the ways it can be done seem to shift at an unprecedented rate.
“People’s energy is just not there because for most children’s ministers, if they’re honest with you, they draw energy from being with kids and their parents and not doing that at all really weighs us down and slows us down in many ways,” Smith explained. “So, where we’ve drawn our energy from is the stories like (Axford’s daughter).”
However, Smith said parents have told him they are grateful for all the extra time spent with their children to engage in gospel conversations – time that would not have been possible without the COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s been really encouraging to be able to see how parents have stepped up,” Smith said.
Henslee called them encouraging moments “where it just seems like God is smiling.”
“Where I might have been frustrated,” he said, “getting a few extra gray hairs through all of the ins and outs, trying to keep people happy and safe, understanding what we’re doing … there’s been these little bright spots along the way, where it’s like God’s smiling and saying, ‘Hey, you’re on the right track, you’re doing the right thing, I’m blessing this, I’m in this, I’ve got this.’
“It’s been those reassuring things that keep you going.”
Although both Henslee and Smith noted they cannot know what the future holds, both said they are motivated to continue helping children know Jesus and see His love on display.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Sunday, July 19, is Children’s Ministry Day in the Southern Baptist Convention. Tess Schoonhoven is a Baptist Press staff writer.)