Saturday 21 February 2009

Being a church that welcomes children

I wrote a post last year that focussed on the need to love your neighbour's children (here). In that post I stressed the need to understand the biblical definition of neighbour broadly and suggested that the challenge for all of us is to understand that children are precious in the sight of God and that we share responsibility collectively within communities to care for them. In this post I want to focus on the challenge of loving children in the church.

My earliest introduction to attending church was as a 7 year-old boy invited to Sunday school at a Brethren Assembly. I had an older (adult) second cousin in the church and he was keen to see my family won for Christ. He would pick me up and take me there each Sunday for several months before I refused to go any more. I have just one overwhelming clear memory of that time, one of feeling an outsider. It's hard to know almost 50 years later why I felt this way. There were significant challenges just in the cultural practices of the church and the Sunday school, I was a working class kid with the seat out of my pants (literally), and most people were in fact strangers to me. But the strongest memories are of children who made me feel like an outsider. I've reflected on this memory for many years and have never shared it with anyone. In recent times as I've thought about the importance of each member of a church understanding their responsibility to children it has made more sense to me, particularly in light of two important biblical themes the 'stranger' and the 'family'.

How does the Bible help us to understand the way we treat children in the church?

a) Strangers

The biblical theme of the stranger runs right throughout Scripture. The foundations are in the Old Testament. The Israelites as a people from the earliest of times were ethnically diverse and were surrounded by even greater social and cultural diversity. They knew what it meant to have strangers in their communities and to be strangers in the land of someone else. Their expulsion from the Garden was their first taste of separation from what was known and the beginning of their experience of what it would mean to be strangers living with strangers. Later as God made his covenant with Abraham he made it clear to him that the Israelites would know what it meant to be strangers.

'Then the LORD said to Abram, Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But they shall come out with great possessions.' (Gen 15:13)

It is hardly surprising then that God challenged the Israelites that having been strangers and aliens themselves, they needed to be concerned about strangers. While the nations with whom they sojourned would one day be judged (Gen 15:14), they were to show them kindness. The response expected from the Israelites to strangers is seen clearly in the Law and Moses teaching:

'When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God' (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Jesus took this idea of being concerned for strangers a step further by using the word neighbour to bring it home to the expert in the law (Luke 10). Jesus challenged the expert in the law ("lawyer" ESV) who had just tried to challenge Jesus himself. The lawyer asks, "What shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus responds by asking him "what is written in the Law?" The lawyer then quotes from Leviticus 19:8 - we are to "Love your neighbour as yourself." Jesus responds with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan and makes it clear for the lawyer that the extent of his love and concern for others should extend beyond his family and fellow Jews even to a stranger (Luke 10:25-37), in fact in other places Jesus extends this even further - "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:43-45).

Above: I took this photo in Indiana, this church at the very least was aware of strangers, how they welcomed them I don 't know

The writers of the epistles, notably Peter, (1 Peter 2:10-12) also remind us that it isn't others that are strangers to us, we are strangers to them. Being a stranger in the world is fundamental to the Christian experience, and a reminder that this earth is not our ultimate home. Like the Israelites, we experience what it means to be a stranger, and while we live in this strange land we seek to reach out to others with the message of the gospel that promises that they can be reconciled to God through Christ.

b) The heavenly family

Children throughout the ages have been treated not just as strangers but also sometimes as less than human. History is filled with harrowing reports of widespread infanticide, abuse, ritualistic practices and neglect. Even today, in middle-class western communities we see more subtle forms of abuse that still reflect a sense that children are objects or possessions to be displayed, promote our used to promote our own self-worth. Jesus made his views clear on the importance of not viewing children as secondary collateral:
Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there. (Matthew 19:13-15)
The key to understanding a response like the above from Jesus is the way he encourages his disciples to place a priority of the Kingdom of God and our heavenly family above all else. The notion of family is foundational to Christian understanding and biblical teaching. In the Old Testament we see how just how central the idea of family was to their lives. In fact, they defined themselves as one family, the children of Abraham. As his children they were part of tribes that were defined based on family lines and within these tribes there were clans based on families. The role of father throughout the Old Testament is key to understanding the way families and in fact the whole nation of Israel was structured and led. The New Testament affirms the importance of the family, marriage, fathers as leaders of families and so on. We are still children of Abraham (Galatians 3:26-4:7) adopted into the family of God through Christ. But it also more strongly affirms the priority that is to be placed on the family of God over the biological family. And so Jesus taught his disciples that

Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 10:37-38)

What Jesus was saying is that allegiance to the Kingdom of God must have priority over the earthly family; but of course it does not destroy it. Jesus does not argue for the neglect of the family; rather he challenges us to have a right view of it. Paul continues this message in his writings. Paul's argument for church as our first family is clear in his letters. Paul makes it clear that as followers of Christ we are God's adopted children and brothers and sisters to one another. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in his greetings at the end of his letters (e.g. Romans 16) where he demonstrates how broads his concern is for others in the church and how their growth in Christ is his priority.

Both these biblical themes help us to understand our responsibility to other people's children in the church. Our starting position for relating to the children of brothers and sisters in Christ is to see that we share responsibility for their children. Yes, the nuclear family has special responsibility to love, care and nurture the children that God has given them, but we too, must see these little 'strangers' as those we must love and seek to see won for Christ and matured in him.

Children in the church

How do we apply this teaching to children within the church? Here are four ways that I think we do this. In each case I've framed the response with a question that we should ask ourselves and our church.

a) In the teaching of the church - Do we place equal priority on the biblical teaching of our children as we do on the adults?

  • Do we take the same care in choosing teachers for Sunday School/Kids church as we do when choosing people to teach and lead the congregation?
  • Do we include children in church services, acknowledging that they are there, seeking to involve them, praying for them and so on?
  • Are we as systematic with the biblical teaching of our children as we are with our adults?
  • What resources do we apply to the teaching of our children?
  • Do we treat children as important part of the church, who we need to nurture and teach, or simply a distraction and at times a problem?
b) In our prayers for others - Do we pray as earnestly for the spiritual well being of the children of others in the church and outside the church as we do for other adults that we know?
  • Do we include children in corporate prayer?
  • Do we include the children of missionaries and new people in our prayers?
  • Do we include children in our prayers for families in crisis?
  • Do we demonstrate in our personal prayers a desire to see the spiritual growth of the children of other people?
c) In our desire to see others won for Christ - Do we have the same burden for the children in the church that we have for the adults who struggle in their faith?
  • Do we pray for teenagers who are struggling?
  • Do we plead with God to rescue children from lifestyles that them down the broad road?
  • Do we do things to build relationships of support with the children of other people in the church?
d) In hospitality - As we exercise hospitality within the church do we give equal consideration to children?
  • Do we consider the physical needs of children for food and sustenance?
  • Do we give equal priority to the facilities that they have to use (Is the church heated and the hall unheated? Are the seat ergonomically right for young bodies?)?
  • As we plan hospitality in our homes, do we plan around the adults alone?
  • As we greet families do we talk over the children and pretend they are not there or do we try to acknowledge them and show an interest in them?.
  • How do we welcome children at church and how much effort do we make to connect them with other children?
As I reflect on my experience in that Brethren Assembly I wonder whether I too could be guilty of treating other children at times as strangers and aliens in our midst. Furthermore, do my actions teach model for the children within the congregation how they are to treat others. Were the children who treated me as if I wasn't there at times in that Sunday school almost 50 years ago, simply following what they had seen demonstrated in the actions of their parents and other adults within the church? I continue to be challenged by this and to consider how I can demonstrate the love of Christ to children who are so precious to Jesus.

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these."

A related post

I have written about the importance of communities being concerned about children more generally in a previous post titled "Other people's children"

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