Welcoming Messiness: “Doing Church” with Children

Donna SuganoCommunity News

You might be reading this because you have little children and are learning the meaning of messy in real time. You are struggling, also, to understand how that can possibly effect your faith positively.  Church used to feel like a place of rest…now nowhere with your children is restful! This is also for those in our church who still don’t understand why we place such importance on our care for children.  You are in need of experiencing the rewards of service to our children to move you beyond a sense of tight-jawed duty.  The truth is, children not only don’t fit within our tidy adult systems, they sometimes tear them down as they enter. I don’t need to tell this to new parents nor do I need to tell them to nonparents who have ever sat in church next to a first grader.  So how can “doing church” with children be a positive thing when it is so high-impact? Why do we involve the whole church through homegroup childcare in children’s ministries?

The idea that children are important to church life is not a novel one. Jesus’ example in the New Testament is our inspiration. The summary that Professors May, Posterski, Stonehouse and Cannell put forth in their book, Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community (p. 39) expresses it well:

The writers of the Synoptic Gospels all chose Jesus’ teachings regarding children as essential:

• Jesus sets a child in the midst of the disciples as the symbol of humility and greatness. (Matthew 18:1-5; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48)

• Jesus warns those who would cause a child to stumble. (Matthew 18:6-16; Mark 9:42-48; Luke 17:1-2)

• Jesus blesses the children. (Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)

John does not include these events in his account of the good news. However, John highlights children as metaphors to help his readers understand entering into relationship with God (John 1:12; 3:3-6). Not only is the presence of Jesus’ teaching on children in the Gospels significant, but the emphasis in those teachings heightens their importance. A major focus in Mark’s Gospel is discipleship. Mark 8:27-10:45 addresses what it means to be a follower or disciple of Jesus. At the center of this major block of teaching on discipleship, Mark places Jesus’ teaching on children.

This is the foundation that undergirds not just our ministry but also that of other churches and para-churches such as Compassion International. In the book Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most, Dr. Wess Stafford, President Emeritus of Compassion International says, To welcome the young into the center of our lives is to enrich not only them but ourselves as well.  Why then, is it sometimes hard to incorporate the children into our church life?  Why is it so hard to worship alongside children? These are questions we must address as we seek to be faithful to the teaching of scripture on the value of children.

As I study church history, I realize that each generation has had to grapple with the question and has culturally bound roadblocks. Perhaps taking a look at some of the factors in our present culture can shed some light on what stands in our way at SBCC.  Some current sociological factors that might come to bear on us at our church include:

•    The busyness intrinsic in a technological world which can divide and deplete relationships.Not only are we distracted at church, we arrive often depleted.

•    The frantic pace of activities our wealthy society upholds as necessary for the proper development of our children. These can lead families to see the children’s program at church as the only “break” parents get during the week.

•    The economic necessity for childcare in our society leaves parents feeling inadequate about their own ability to provide leadership to their children.  This professionalization of parenting can bleed over into the church.

•    A sense of fear in our world that fosters ‘helicopter parenting’ at the same time.

In addition, there are some that are from our evangelical society:

•    The emphasis on “right thinking” in the reformed evangelical camp has the potential of marginalizing children from being seen as full participants in the church because they do not have an adult level of reasoning.

•    An adult-centered perspective on worship and didactic focus in preaching, edges children out of the sanctuary.

•    Church is for believers so anything that disturbs worship should be eliminated from our services.

Being aware of these sociological and philosophical influences can be the first step of grappling within our own church context about how to care for our children as Christ commanded. Proactively choosing to also examine our practices and be intentional both as a church and as individual adults can go a long way to stem the tide toward more Christ-like church family dynamics. Here are a few suggestions for us to consider:

We can use Jesus’ perspective on children to shape our church activities, allowing them to be a full partner in church life.

Jesus’ attitude toward children (and Jesus’ teaching through children) was so new and astonishing that his disciples could not grasp it. One even wonders whether the Christian Church since then has fully understood these amazing actions and sayings. Grasping and living the reverse values of the kingdom still challenge followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century. Like Jesus’ first disciples, we need children in our midst, showing us how to trust our gracious God and encouraging us to live kingdom values by welcoming, respecting, and serving the least among us, who are greatest in the eyes of God.  (May, Posterski; Stonehouse, and Cannell, Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community, pp. 42-43).

Older parents and single adults, come alongside young parents to encourage and support them during this time of cataclysmic change.

The word community is more than just a gray sociological descriptor. It is a God term, designed by the Creator of children to water their souls and enhance their spirits as they grow. To ignore this is to sow seeds of dysfunction and future trauma. (Wess Stafford, Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters Most)

We can reexamine our lifestyles and weekly rhythms to include church as a family event (not a time for parents to get a break).  Come prepared to worship with your children whether in the sanctuary or in children’s ministry elsewhere on campus. Take advantage of what happens on Sundays to actively pursue your family’s discipleship during the week.

As we recite and ruminate on what the children have learned, it reminds us that these truths are for us as well. As the people of God were instructed in Deuteruonomy 6:4-6,

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts.  Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.

As we parents seek to incorporate what the children are learning on Sunday into the daily rhythm of our lives, we will be following in illustrious footsteps from Biblical history and, potentially, can ourselves be changed.

Dream about how we can grow in terms of seeing children as Jesus does and the implications for the gathered church at SBCC.  We have lots of room to grow if it includes the messiness of life with the very young, the very old and all that lies between.

When asked who is greatest in the kingdom of God, Jesus drew a child into the group of gathered disciples to teach them the ways of the kingdom. And Jesus promised to be with his people in some mysterious way when they welcome children (Matthew 18:3-5).

Children must be involved authentically in the activities of the people of God and helped to become responsible participants in the life of the church, or the church will fail to incarnate Christ and to see truly the kingdom of God. (May, Posterski; Stonehouse, and Cannell, Children Matter: Celebrating Their Place in the Church, Family, and Community, p. 143, emphasis added)