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"

Thursday 12 February 2009

Abraham Lincoln: A man used by God

I have always admired Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) but became more interested in him when living in the United States in 1984. Living in Indiana meant that there were a number of Lincoln memorials within close distance, including the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Spencer County Indiana. As a family we visited the farm site where Lincoln lived from 1816 to 1830. While living in Bloomington Indiana we also learned that our daughter shared Lincoln's birthday. This increased our interest, especially my daughter's, who read everything she could find about him. There was one embarrassing moment at the Lincoln Memorial when as a 7 year old she corrected the tour guide in one museum about the facts of Lincoln's life (and she was correct).

It is the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth today (and Nicole's 32nd birthday - happy birthday Nic!). Lincoln's life demonstrated how God could use a less than perfect man to bring an end to slavery in the USA and to reunify a nation.

Lincoln is typically seen as a Christian who was used by God. However, biographers report that Lincoln's faith was paradoxical. He did not go to church, and yet, many suggest that he had a spiritual depth not matched by many of his contemporaries.

In the 'Puzzling Faith of Abraham Lincoln', Mark Noll outlines how confusing Lincoln's faith proved to people of his time. He contrasts Lincoln with the two most influential preachers of Lincoln's day. In the North there was Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) who was from the most prominent evangelical family. He was the pastor of Brooklyn's Plymouth Congregational Church, and had the most influential pulpit in America. In the South, Robert Lewis Dabney (1820-1898) was a Presbyterian and strong defender of the Scriptures, a man even more orthodox than Beecher. Each man was certain they understood the will of God in relation to slavery and the future of the Union. Each was convinced of the other side's guilt. Dabney saw the conflict as caused deliberately by evil abolitionists from the North who persecuted the South. In contrast Beecher, saw that the evil was perpetrated by the South, he saw "the whole guilt of this war upon the ambitious, educated, plotting leaders of the South".

And yet, God used a non-church goer to challenge the conflicting certainty of the leading preachers of his day in relation to the rights and wrongs of the conflict. Lincoln said this of his contemporaries:

"The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God can not be for and against the same thing at the same time."

In his second inaugural address of 1865, he challenged the nation with these words:

Neither [side] anticipated that the cause of the conflict [i.e., slavery] might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. 'Woe unto the world because of offences! For it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh! [Matthew 18:7]' If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. [Psalm 19:9]'

When reflecting on his speech just days later he commented:

"Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and deny it, however, in this case, is to deny that there is a God governing the world. It is a truth which I thought needed to be told. . . .”

Irrespective of just how deep was his faith, and where he stood theologically on many things, Lincoln seemed to have had a good grasp of sin and man's need of redemption, and an understanding that God is sovereign and will work out his purposes for his people through whoever he chooses. Lincoln eventually gave his life in the service of God's purposes. On the 14th of April 1865, just five days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln was assassinated while attending a performance at Ford's Theatre in Washington. He died the next day at 7.22am.

I praise God for Lincoln's life which began on this day 200 years ago.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

City living, architecture and the gospel

When police broke into an apartment in Sydney in January 2008 and found the decomposed body of 61 year-old Jorge Coloma (here), there was much community discussion of how his absence could have gone unnoticed for over a year. He had died from natural causes in his bedroom. No one noticed that he'd disappeared. Even a pile of twelve months worth of mail and unpaid bills did not lead anyone check to his apartment or call the police. It took a year before neighbours felt that something was wrong. People asked why authorities had not done something. Others wondered about his family; wasn't there one family member that had missed him? Neighbours also began to ask themselves questions, why hadn't they spoken up much sooner? Jorge's story and many others like it are the dark side of city life, but there is another side. The Bible depicts the new restored and redeemed world as a city. Jesus revealed to John what God had in store for his people, he saw '...the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband' (Revelation 21:2). The city is not an evil aberration that is a consequence of the fall, but rather it is a form of human settlement. Jeremiah (29:5-5) commended the survivors of Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon with the words of God that they were to:

"Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper."

Understanding the importance and role of the city

Cities can be lonely places, where it is easy to be anonymous or to lead an isolated life. They can be places where people like Jorge can die alone, and where others can suffer physically and emotionally alone and without support. Cities are places where homelessness is common and abuse of one kind or another a daily part of life. But they are also places of rich culture and learning, places where ideas are exchanged and people's lives can be enriched. They are places where Christians can preach and share the word, serve the sick and needy, train and equip others for ministry and life, raise a family, be part of the delivery of God’s grace to lost people. Tim Keller has pointed out that the human desire to congregate inevitably leads to the formation of cities as people congregate together for security, to share resources, for commerce, to learn from one another an so on. Keller suggests that if you capture the city with the gospel you capture the nation (here). The city he points out can be a wonderful place to live and raise a family (listen to his talk here). It is a strategic place to build gospel ministry.

As Christians it would be easy to assume that the city is a sinful wasteland and retreat to the peace and tranquillity of a remote farm to live a life of isolation, but that is not what we are generally called to do. Cities are places over which God is sovereign where he is at work, and as always they are strategic, because it is in cities that many people come together to work, trade, learn, play, create, perform and so on. There is much talk about the impact of technology on human activity - new ways to travel, instant forms of mass global communication, new ways to connect or ‘wire’ communities (see previous posts here and here) - but while technology is changing the way we spend our time, where we spend it, and how we communicate with one another, the need for human contact remains and community remains. As such, the buildings and physical buildings and spaces we create should reflect our desire to be with other people, to share our lives and the gospel others.

Understanding space and architecture and how they can support community

Related to having a better theology of the city is the need for a better understanding of space and how we use it. Like Tim Chester, I have a particular interest in how space both influences community and in turn, how the type of community shapes space. Tim Chester wrote about this in a blog post last year (here) which I linked to from this site at the time. He has also expressed similar thoughts in his book The Trinity and Humanity (you can read an extract of it here) that:

'Architecture and town planning cannot of themselves create community. But they can facilitate the flourishing of community or they can impede community. This then is one criteria by which we assess architecture and town planning from a Christian perspective.'

I have had an interest in space and how it shapes and in turn is shaped by human activity for over 30 years. My first degree included a major in urban geography/planning so I have had an ongoing interest in the shape of cities, how they spread and the diffusion of ideas within them for a long time. My life experiences growing up in a 1950s urban fringe community, living in an apartment as a young married in Sydney’s sprawling western suburbs, a house in a culdesac in regional NSW as a young father, life as a family in a commuter city to Sydney and now the cafĂ© society of the Inner West of Sydney as an older man (kills me to say that!), have all shaped my views of the city. So too did my work as a researcher focusing on families and early learning in some of Sydney’s poorest and most difficult suburbs.

My lived experience, my interest stimulated by study, and my work as a researcher focussing on families, communities and children's early learning, have taught me that use of space, patterns of human habitation and ideas are closely related.

One example of how a theology of the city and architecture can shape what we do with space

It was this understanding of the relationship between space and community that influenced the architecture of a residential building that I initiated in 2004 and which opened at the University of New South Wales Sydney in January. The New College Village is now our home too, along with 316 postgraduate students. New College has been providing ministry to young undergraduates (mainly from regional Australia) for 40 years and has been a central part of gospel ministry on campus at the University of New South Wales. New College Village was conceived to try to provide a building that seeks to meet the perceived needs of today’s students for quality space, convenience and service while not retreating from our mission to the people on this campus. The challenge has been how to meet such needs while facilitating community? The design brief was also informed by our New College experience, experience and knowledge of some of the best postgraduate communities on campus around the world. It led to a brief that had a number of basic principles that shaped the architects’ (Allen Jack Cottier) wonderful design:

  • While all bedrooms were to allow complete privacy if required and ensuite facilities, these rooms were not meant to encourage totally independent living by being too large and self sufficient.
  • There were to be common spaces off clusters of rooms (one on each floor to have TV and cable facilities to discourage people getting their own).
  • Access to and egress from the building was to be via communal areas where residents could see others gathered there.
  • Elevators were to open onto common rooms.
  • Common areas and activity zones were to be created that would allow lines of sight so that people could see other people doing things in different parts of the building.
  • There were to be varied communal space that would encourage different sized events (whether formal or informal) and meet varied interests.
  • Good central access to administration and a convenience store in the building.
  • There would be many gathering points in the building.
The outcome is a beautiful building that we opened in January which already is showing signs that it will help to facilitate community. It won't make a community, a rich, caring and open community, this will depend on the commitment of those in the building to build relationships with each other, to spend time together, to share in word and deed their lives.

What are the implications of the above more broadly for Christian witness and ministry?

In summing up, I want to briefly have a stab at answering this basic question. How does the above inform the way we use the space that we live in at home, the way we think about the role of space and property in gospel ministry, the way we engage with and seek to build our local communities? A few quick thoughts on practical ways that we can think about these issues.

a) Our houses - if we need to choose a house or apartment to rent, or we're fortunate enough to be able buy one, we should look at the property with community eyes. How easy will this property make it to get to know my neighbours? Is it open in design or closed? How is the space within the property conducive to family life and offering hospitality to others? Can I see other people from my apartment balcony, the front veranda, the front or back yard? How long will it take me to get to work, church, the people I care for, and so on (loss of time due to travel is important)? Such thinking turns on its head the way we generally think about our real estate. As well, within the apartment or home, is there a good mix of individual and shared space? If raising a family we should avoid creating personal retreats equipped with all one needs for individual survival. Don’t locate televisions and computers in children’s bedrooms. If you are building a house, don’t cover the block with house at the expense of yard.

b) Church buildings – When designing, renovating, relocating or extending church buildings, we need to think about the type of spaces that we create in the church and how we use it. Rows of pews facing a high alter will have a different effect on communication and interaction than seats in the round or even at tables. Our traditional church buildings with stained glass windows and grand facades were designed like the temple to be seen from afar and to draw people to them. While accepting that heritage issues will prevent us making too many changes to such buildings, we can praise God that they are often in the best locations in town. We can also change how we use space inside them and how we use their location and their use to establish relationships with the people living near us. If locating a new church we need to consider all options for where we place it, what form the building should take and whether it will serve ministry to one another while ‘connecting’ with our communities. Of course the activities we develop in and from the building and the way we live our lives within the community will matter, but the buildings and their spaces do make a difference.

c) The city around us - As citizens within a city what are the things that we should join others in advocating? While Christians represent a small proportion of citizens how can we use our voices and sometimes public and professional positions to influence public decisions about our cities? And how can we use the spaces we have? In relation to planning we should be supportive of:
  • More and better public spaces (parks, playing fields, walking tracks, cycle ways etc).
  • Better public transport, pedestrian ways, cycle ways, spaces to encourage people to congregate (see Tim Chester’s thoughts on this).
  • Careful planning to integrate commercial, residential and recreational spaces in ways that make human movement easy, that increases visibility (for safety as well as community building), that reduce isolation and the need for long distance travel.
If this post has raised some issues for you keep a look out for the next edition of Case magazine with the theme 'City Life' in which we will explore a number of these and other issues as they relate to living and engaging in ministry in cities.

Related links and reading

An excellent book on this topic by Philip Bess, 'Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred (Religion and Contemporary Culture) (here) [I'll review this later]

Tim Keller's excellent summary of a biblical view of the city (here) and his talk on how the city can help us to raise a family (here).

You can see another expression of interest in this topic in a post I wrote on my 'Literacy, Families and Learning' blog last year on literature and 'Sense of place' (here).