Bill Wilson, founder of Metro Ministries, a Christian, non-profit organization, shares with City News the secret behind running the largest Sunday School in the world.
By Dawn Seow
City News: In the Gospels, Jesus readily welcomed children to draw near to Him. Why do you think Jesus was so open to them?
Bill Wilson: Jesus makes reference to children saying: unless one is like a child, he won’t enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I think there is an element of innocence, openness and faith in children that causes Jesus to often use them as an example or as a point of reference. And unfortunately, the older we get, the more doubtful we get. You can tell a child a story of Noah’s ark and they will believe it; you tell that same story to a 50-year-old person and chances are they are not going to.
And I think Jesus always has a spot for children, because they are easily reached. Children are very easily influenced and molded, and it is critical for the church to understand that. Unfortunately, there are so many programs in the church that are not really teaching programs for children–it’s more baby-sitting. And we need to get the church out of that mindset. Kids can learn, they can be shaped and molded. It’s not about just having the class for them when their parents are in church. It has got to be more than that.
How have changing social trends in society affected the way you do ministry?
I think because we are living in the technology age, the attention span of a child is shorter than it used to be. It used to be anywhere from five to six minutes some 20 years ago, now it’s down to two minutes. Because of MTV and video, everything is just instantly there and kids are used to that. So instead of saying we can’t communicate the gospel anymore because their attention span is shorter—I would disagree with that—I would say let’s take the tools available and use them to teach kids the gospel. I have been in this for 44 years and have watched communication tools evolve these 44 years, what we did in the old days may or may not be the best communication tool today.
But having said this, it is not so much the technique as it is the person that is using the tools, and I think that is a very important point for people to understand. For instance, I can still take a flashcard, get up in front of the kids and still communicate. It’s not so much the tool but the people using the tool. It would be no different than a person working in construction: a person can have the best tools but if he doesn’t know what he is doing or why he is doing it, it is not going to matter. So it still comes back to the heart of the teacher. Even though we may not have money to get the best technology, we can have people that have the hearts to reach kids. They can take a straw and use it as an object lesson to captivate kid’s attention. So I don’t want for people just to think that times have changed and because we don’t have certain things, we can’t communicate. It’s in the heart of the teacher. Always has been, always will be.
If you have the heart to do something, you’ll find out how to do it all by yourself. When I first started ministry, tapes were not even invented. So we were the pioneers in doing filmstrips. For instance, I made my own slide stories and I had a series on the fruits of the Spirit called The Adventure Of Fruits. I made little characters, animated them, told stories. This was where the folks who do Veggie Tales got their idea from, the things I did with the still characters. We were the pioneers who took everything we could and use it to capture the imagination of a child. So we have always been on the cutting edge. We were able to take the simplest things, turn them around and communicate with them.
Through your ministry, how do you help children to be godly yet connected to the world?
Our mandate is to reach, to win, to disciple, to get them involve in reaching others–that is the pattern of New Testament evangelism. When you talk about affecting a child, particularly when we minister to them—whether in a garbage dump in the Philippines or in different areas in India, America or Eastern Europe—it’s always about relationship. If people don’t like you, they are not going to listen to you. It’s very simple; it’s true with kids, teenagers and adults.
To me, Sunday School is great, it’s important, but it’s only the icing on the cake. Once you build a relationship with these kids by visiting their homes, going to their schools, checking on them every week, they will be receptive when you talk to them. You guys can come to New York and say the same things as I’m saying, but it’ll not be received as well as if I said it. That is because they don’t know you, they don’t have the connection. But when I say it, it carries weight because there is a connection. It took me nine years to earn the respect of the drug dealers, prostitutes and everybody in the neighborhood where I live. I was the only white person over there when I first reached that place. So the question they asked was: who is this white man? Why is he here? What is this white person doing? I had to earn the right to speak and earn the respect of these people. Now we have it, but it took us nine years. But we know that most Christians won’t spend nine years, they don’t want to pay the price, to invest (the time).
Now spending time is different from investing time. Spending time is just talking chatting, mindless chatter, with no long-term, long-range goal or intent. Investing time is like investing money. You can spend money or you can invest money, same principle. You are investing time with a long-term goal of bringing this child into a closer relationship with Jesus Christ.
What is the best advice to give to a child who is struggling with a school bully?
It is easier said than done. Well, we always teach the children to be in the world but not of the world. In another words you can take a stone and put it in a glass of water, it can be in the water but it’s not affected by the water. We need to have a close relationship with the kids, teaching them to understand the word of God and applying those Biblical principals in their daily life. It’s not easy for a kid, especially those who come from non-Christian homes because they have no support; the only support they have is us. When we have close relationships with the kids, they are very quick to share things with us and ask questions. Like the one you’re asking me: “Pastor Bill what do I do when someone bullies me?” I’ll tell them, “Go tell your teacher. If that doesn’t work, let us know and we’ll tell your teacher. We’ll deal with it.”
It is about teaching them not to react but to respond. Usually kids in the gather are raised rough, they react. When somebody hits them, they hit back, that is a reaction, it’s normal. We teach them to respond according to the Word of God. It takes a long time, it is a process. You’ll learn that everything in life is a process, nothing comes easy.
You travel weekly and run a busy schedule, how do you still manage the biggest children’s ministry in the world so well?
I surround myself with great people and that is the key. I have invested in great people all round the world. I think City Harvest is a classic example. Years ago in 1995 or 96, I met Connie and Eileen for the first time in KL. We clicked, they got the book, took the principles, started learning, and then we kept a close relationship. Just like I have invested in this church, I have also invested in people all around the world. Now if you go to New York City, we have 140 full-time staff and these are people I have invested in. So whether I am there or I am here, the ministry goes on. But then again, it is a process, an investment, and training. There is really no substitute, whether working with kids or teenagers or adults. Reach, win, disciple, involve.
How long does it take to train someone?
Depends on the person: some people get it, some people don’t get it. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince. Some Christians have it up here (pointing to his head), and some people have it in here (pointing to his heart). People usually have it in either their head or their heart; it’s rare to find people who have both. That’s what you have to find, the word I use is invest-able people. I have no problem investing in somebody if I feel that they are invest-able. I am not going to waste my time in someone not invest-able, show me you’re invest-able and I’ll invest in you.
What is one piece of advice you would give to people, whether parents, siblings or ministry workers, who have to deal with a difficult child?
Never give up. That has become the message that I preach over and over again.
I have a message that I preach from Amos 3:12 where it talks about two legs or a piece of an ear. The old prophet Amos visualized this lamb caught in the jaws of the lion, and the shepherd came in, took a leg and pulled it off. He didn’t give up, went back a second time, pulled off another leg. Even though he saw that the thing was dying and knew that it didn’t make sense to go back a third time, the Bible said the shepherd did and he grabbed an ear. So what does it tells us? The prophet is looking through the eyes of the Spirit: that we should never give up on people.
My advice to ministry workers and parents, who are dealing with troubled kids or not-troubled kids—because they go through phases as well—is to love them and be there for them. Let the love of Christ continually come through them, through their words and actions. The Bible says very clearly (in Proverbs) that when we raise a child in the way they should go, they will not depart from it. They may go astray, this way or another, I’ve seen all throughout my life, but somewhere later in life, they will come back.
For more information, visit www.metroministries.org, or follow Bill Wilson on Facebook (search ‘Pastor Bill Wilson’). To contact the Singapore office, write to Metro Ministries Singapore, Katong PO Box 199, Singapore 914307 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.