The greatest difference a church can make

December 16th, 2015

Every year, significant events take place that ripple for years.  

For instance, consider 1994. Justin Bieber was born in Canada and apartheid died in South Africa. Share those facts with a teenage girl and only one event will seem important. Anyone old enough to read this article will likely feel different.

That same year in the United States, a significant research project sought the answer to a single question: What is the most impactful action our nation’s churches can take to make a difference in the lives of America’s at-risk children? After extensive research involving a long list of experts, one solution received unanimous support as most important: Send a church’s greatest resource—the people who attend—into public schools to form caring, reliable relationships with young students. While many physical and material needs seem obvious to address, the greatest impact will happen when someone fills the relational void that leaves a hole in a child’s heart.  

That was the right answer then, and it’s the right answer still today. Yes, school doors open wide to people from churches willing to show up, share hope and love, and change children’s lives. 

Girls like Emma, a six-year-old whose dad lost a battle with cancer. She spent most days at school with a finger in her mouth and eyes cast downward—avoiding life. For five months, the teacher and school specialists made no progress with her. Then the school and a nearby church partnered together to launch a program that equipped congregants to serve as mentors. So a teacher requested a mentor for Emma.

Throughout their first session together, the mentor asked simple questions and encouraged Emma to talk. But the finger stayed in, and her head stayed down. Determined to make a connection, the mentor showed a family picture to the young girl. Emma’s only response after seeing the photo: “My daddy died.”

“Mine did too,” whispered her mentor, who had lost her dad just two years prior. “It’s okay to miss him. I miss my dad every day.”

As Emma’s hand left the front of her face and went down to her side, she looked up and knew she now had a friend who understood, who cared. A smile appeared for the first time in a long time; she had hope. By the end of the school year, Emma tested above grade level in all areas—and now talks and plays like a little girl should.

“Hope is the indispensable fuel for all human action. Once hope enters a child’s heart, anything is possible,” says author and pastor John Ortberg.

The school specialist credits the mentor’s emotional support. The mentor (and her prayer partner), on the other hand, know that only God could orchestrate this profound, life-changing relationship. And it happened in a school, during a school day.

Welcome to a typical story from Kids Hope USA.

With a mission that reads like a simple checklist (“One child, One Hour, One Church, One School”), Kids Hope USA partners local churches with local elementary schools and then equips the church to provide mentors and prayer partners for at-risk children. One hour a week with a mentor is plenty of time to share God’s love and hope—while blatantly abiding by church-state separation guidelines. Add in a behind-the-scenes prayer partner pleading to heaven on that child’s behalf, and the result is a profound program growing into national significance.

Emma’s bright smile returned for good. For too many kids, though, their smiles leave and never return. Life can grow quite dark as children face challenges that many adults struggle to navigate. A missing parent(s) from divorce, death, illness, or incarceration. Desperation caused by short- or long-term poverty. Strained or strange relationships with adults. Frequent moves, meaning infrequent friends. Emotional challenges. Behavioral challenges. Loneliness.

Reality check: A child with a stormy life will not sit at his school room desk (or in a Sunday school classroom) and think “Okay, let’s forget all that stuff so I can learn.”

The next time you drive past an elementary school, let this thought grip you: More kids than you would ever imagine sit in that building and feel lonely—not the way God designed life. It’s a simple problem every church has the ability to solve just by showing up.       

Drive by Helen’s school in Waco, Texas, and she will share a very different thought with anyone who asks. As principal, she sees firsthand the difference a nearby church makes on people in her building. “Our entire school feels the love and presence of this program,” she says.

Exactly the ripple effect our society needs.  

Note: Today, 156 United Methodist congregations run Kids Hope USA mentoring programs. Also today, over 2,300 schools wait for churches to partner with and launch programs. Learn more at

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