Last year, I had the privilege of representing the Brethren on a mission trip with Samaritans Purse, Operation Christmas Child in Merida Mexico. Many of our churches have already begun to partner with this incredible ministry through the simple format of building and shoeboxes. Each one of these little containers is packed full of items like t-shirts, toys, games, hygiene items, and candy. The idea of seeing some little boy or girl receiving such a power-packed wonder connects to each of us at a deep level. However if we originally thought that was the extent of the ministry, a box of toys, a sheet pointing to Jesus, and a little prayer, we would be so very wrong. Operation Christmas Child is so much more.
Beginning with the local church. Packing a box is more complex than often appreciated. There are planning and promotion and all the necessary stuff just to get people fired up, to begin with. Each box is filled with someone's ideas of what a kid might love or need. Then copious amounts of deep and often childlike prayer that is poured into and over each one of these simple boxes. These prayers embody the hopes for love, family, faith, trust, and encouragement a person or family can muster. Praying for the recipient isn't just hoped for, but critical, essential to the process. God does something amazing with a person’s heart when they pray, but when one prays over a box, the prayer has an added meaning that changes the box into a veritable chest of treasure.
Having experienced this personally, I can tell you that children the world over are essentially the same. The minute one of these boxes is placed into their hands, an overwhelming wave of excitement and childlike impatience immediately consumes them. The moment a kid opens a box is hard to describe. Staring into the treasure chest is in many ways overwhelming. Most kids smile and laugh, some even cry. Others look around furtively as if afraid someone might suddenly wisk away these gifts and they closely guard the secrets laid within. Others spend their time with even less fortunate friends. In one setting we experience a young boy, blind and nervous, brought to church by a friend. This same friend lovingly helps him "see" his treasures by helping hold each item and explaining what they were. I must admit the tears begin to well up as I write this.
The experience is amazing from start to finish, but the real story isn’t about the boxes, though one might be inclined to think so. If Operation Christmas Child were simply a benevolence mission, that would be amazing all on its own. The gifts though are but a part of a whole ministry designed not just to lead kids to faith in Christ, but help them walk the journey of faith and spiritual growth.
One might be inclined to believe that the boxes themselves make a difference because they touch the life and heart of a child. In truth, each box actually acts as a catalyst that touches the lives of at least ten people. Each box impacts whole families.
There is another component that really needs to be understood. These boxes are really just tools. Tools that catalyze a process but are not in themselves the end. Leaders in every country like Mexico, Sudan, and India look for volunteers, not paid staff, willing to give time and travel to be trained in the process. The process isn’t about the boxes, rather it’s about evangelism and discipleship. Notice the two are together not separate. Each box event is done with and through local churches and church leaders. Without these amazing people engaged the process falters and dies.
Operation Christmas Child national and regional leaders recruit teachers and pastors from all over the area to be trained in evangelism and discipleship. Leading not just kids to Christ, but youth, young adults, and parents as well. During the boxing event special gatherings happen with the kids while parents meet separately to hear about what the church is doing and receive a clear presentation of the gospel that the children also receive. This isn’t about notching a belt with the number a person brings in to faith, but rather about connecting both parents and children to a local church.
The boxing event is the kickoff where kids hear and see the gospel story and are invited to experience the love of Jesus for themselves. They laugh and shout and sing. Each child receives a box and they are invited back weekly to participate in a discipleship program called “The Greatest Journey.” This is where the real impact is felt as they hear the gospel stories presented from Adam and Eve, creation and sin, to Zacheus’s transformative encounter with Jesus.
Often kids who received a gift return each week, hungry to hear and learn more. They go home and tell their families and friends about the lessons they receive and the change that God is doing within them. Often these same kids find other friends or family members to join them and if another boxing event occurs, they either find friends they want to hear the story and get a box for or they participate in bringing the story to life through dramas, songs, and skits.
Through participation in Operation Christmas Child, churches have the opportunity to partner across denominational lines and truly impact the world for Christ. God’s kingdom expands exponentially on a daily basis and the darkness loses its grip just a little more.
Operation Christmas Child is so much more than a good and benevolent organization, they work to see lives, families, and communities transformed through the power of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. It begins with a simple box of toys and goodies and creates an invitation that changes multitudes. Isaiah 58:10 says "and if you spend yourselves on behalf of the poor, if you feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and love the people, then your light will rise and shine like the noonday sun.” I am paraphrasing of course, but the transformative expression is dead on! Through partners like Operation Christmas Child, Samaritans Purse and others like them, we have an opportunity to change our world in ways we cannot do alone. We are able to participate in bringing the “Greatest Journey,” to places most will never see, while continuing our own Greatest Journey. That’s the power of fervent prayer and a simple shoe box.
So, here’s an update on the Brethren Church for 2018. We sent out an email asking about our churches, specifically if they participated in the Operation Christmas Child Outreach this year. We got a really great response. Over 30 churches sent in an affirmative response. Combines our churches sent in just over 3600 boxes filled with toys and essential items. The two biggest contributors were Tucson First Brethren Church in Arizona with a whopping 818 boxes and the Cheyenne Brethren Church was right behind with 782 boxes. Other Churches like Park Street Brethren Church, Mount Olive Brethren Church, and Smithville Brethren Church also doubled as collection or relay centers where other churches could bring filled boxes to be sent on to the processing centers. Several other churches such as the Berlin Brethren Church sent groups to the processing centers to help examine, fill, and package thousands of boxes for shipment. That’s an extraordinary outpouring from our churches and an incredible commitment to following the prompting of the Holy Spirit. Thank you all for participating.