By: Dan Lovaglia, Willow Global Volunteer
When I was eight years old, children’s ministry changed my life. Through a local church’s outreach daycare program, I chose to follow Jesus forever, and my mom, who was an atheist, turned to Christ not long afterward. God used the church to intercept my mother and me from an eternity apart from Him–and from a lot of pain at home. So it’s probably not surprising that I’m passionate about the way Christ followers care for kids, teens, and families around the world.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” (Matthew 19:14). Regardless of age, God invites us to be humble at heart as we come to Him. Through my serving experiences, both on Willow’s Africa Advisory Board and in my work as ministry catalyst at Awana, God keeps opening my eyes, breaking my heart, and stirring my spirit to bring the hope of Christ to children of all ages–particularly to those in a small corner of His creation across the globe in Zambia.
Luanshya is 8,196 miles from my home in Algonquin, Illinois. This once-thriving African mining town is nestled in the Copperbelt Province near Ndola, Zambia. I’ve traveled there four times since my first visit in 2012, when my heart was gripped by Willow Global’s longstanding ministry partnership with Serve Zambia Foundation.
Serve Zambia supports critical areas like water, health, nutrition, orphans, and HIV/AIDS patient care. They also strengthen spiritual leadership to promote growth in community schools, sustainable agriculture, organizational capacity, economic development, and more. When we stand side by side with Serve Zambia, a network of faithful leaders from 82 local churches is empowered to share the hope of Christ. We are fighting injustice and poverty with unprecedented capacity together.
Last fall, I had the privilege of focusing on holistic children’s ministry with Serve Zambia for the first time. Casey Fogerty, a Willow Creek section leader, and I spent a week diving into what Christ is up to in the lives of children and families through four townships in Luanshya: Roan, Mwaiseni, Town, and Mpatumatu, where Serve Zambia is headquartered.
On every trip to Africa, I make sure to connect with church and children’s ministry leaders to find out what ministries are working well in the lives of kids, teens, and families. I do my best not to share initially that I work for Awana, the global leader in children’s discipleship, because I don’t want to influence their responses. However, almost without exception–and especially in Luanshya–Awana is still the number one answer.
The quality of training and resources Awana provides is unbelievable, and the effectiveness of the philosophy and ministry model is proven. When a local church starts an Awana program, they are ensured fully trained leaders, two years of curricula, a game kit, and all the support needed to run a self-sustaining ministry. Serve Zambia and Willow work together to greatly subsidize the one-time start-up expenses for these churches, significantly lowering their costs. Because of this partnership, the gospel of Jesus Christ is shared, and lives are changed forever. And considering it’s common for leaders using Awana to serve 100-200 kids every week, that’s a lot of lives!
During this most recent trip, Casey and I met with children’s ministry committee members and church network leaders in Mwaiseni, the most spread out and rural church network in Luanshya. Two gifted and experienced committee members, Marcelino and Anne Joyce, inspired us as they passionately expressed the value of children, the message of Christ, and the importance of holistic discipleship.
Marcelino, a schoolteacher for 37 years and a deacon in his church, said, “Jesus taught about the importance of children. When we instill the word of God in kids, their lives change, they speak up for Christ, and become leaders in their families and churches.” Involvement in children’s ministry does much more than improve spiritual wellbeing. “We’ve had kids who won’t go to school. Now, because they’ve learned to recite verses in Awana, they want to go,” Anne Joyce told us.
To end our day in Mwaiseni, Casey and I drove to a public sports field where about 100 kids surrounded an Awana Game Square. Trained leaders stood with them as lighthearted competitions commenced. Using four balloons I had in my pocket, I introduced a couple of new relay games. Laughter, cheers, and excitement erupted. They caught on quickly and came up with more ideas for how they’d use balloons in the future. Simply providing a chance to experience a bit of fun amid daily hardships is a great way to invite kids of all ages to church. Wondering if it works? While we were there, one new face in the crowd, Noah, registered to start participating in the church’s Awana ministry on the spot!
After the games, the kids headed off to teaching and small groups, where two 12-year-old girls, Monica and Charity, shared their testimonies. Each of them used to insult others and skip school. Now, through the influence of scripture and the impact of their Awana leaders, they are following Christ daily and attending school regularly. They’re learning to read the Bible, pray, worship, and lead others in their church. I can’t wait to see what happens through Monica and Charity as they grow up to become a Christian nurse and a Christian teacher in Luanshya.
I don’t always get a chance to visit homes in Luanshya, so I’m grateful Serve Zambia scheduled opportunities for Casey and me to sit with families and their Awana leaders to find out how children’s ministry is changing homes, not just individual children. It was a powerful experience to witness tender moments between kids and the most influential people in their lives.
In Mpatumatu, Casey and I sat with Precious and her mom in the presence of her Awana leader, an elder from the church, and one of Serve Zambia’s staff members. They invited us inside their well-kept, cement-block home. Even though there’s not much ventilation in African brick homes, we appreciated the shade on another hot, sub-Saharan summer day. As we passed through the kitchen, I noticed they had running water, a rare but hope-stirring sight. As guests in their home, a few of us were encouraged to sit on their only sofa and chair while the family sat on the floor. Despite the lack of natural light, each person’s face and heart shone in the room. You’d think Precious would stay quiet around so many adults, but she had plenty to share. Being invited to church by her friend Charity, receiving the message of John 3:16, and having the influence of loving leaders changed her forever. A seventh grader, Precious is growing as a follower of Jesus and is a recognized leader in her church and school. She dreams of becoming a medical doctor, and with the hope instilled by the network of Christ followers in her life, that dream is likely to come true.
One of the teens we met with in Mpatumatu, Jonathan Ford, complemented his Sunday school teacher, Ruth, by telling us, “The first teachers either build or destroy.” She built into him, challenging him to step up as a preacher and leader, and he’s never been the same. God used Ruth to change the entire trajectory of Jonathan’s life.
In the Roan Network, we visited Margaret and her ninth-grade daughter, Betty. As we heard from Betty and her Awana leader and Sunday school teacher, Ennes, the proud look on Margaret’s face was priceless. You see, prior to starting Awana, Betty was known for being rebellious, and she didn’t get along with her mother. But after she became a Christian through Awana, she changed so much that even neighbors noticed a big difference in her. Betty is now eager to follow Jesus, study the Bible, and live out God’s plan for her life.
These are just a few examples of the life-changing stories I’ve encountered in Zambia throughout the years. I’ve seen firsthand how the grace and truth of Jesus is transforming individuals, families, pastors, churches, and whole communities through strategic partnerships like the one between Willow, Serve Zambia, and Awana. Through the power of integrated relationships like this, children’s ministry touches the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing of kids and teens–and gives them hope for a brighter future. I love that my heart still shifts each time I see kids thrive.
Willow Global sent more teams to Zambia last year than ever before. Luanshya is just one city in which we serve. If what’s happening in Africa stirs your spirit, here’s what you can do:
· Become a prayer partner for NGOs, technical partners, and serving teams through Willow Global. Click here for details.
· Participate in Celebration of Hope this spring at the Willow campus you attend.
· Speak with your section leader about ways to engage with Willow Global as a section community.