by Kimberly Muehling
Many churches struggle with what to do with their children when they are in church, and yet mourn the exodus of youth and young adults. How do we both have and keep children in church?
Is it better to send them off to a children’s service and find some peace and quiet, hoping that volunteers will train children in the way of church and deliver adults, fully formed and mannered?
Or do you grit your teeth and bear the fussing infant or the rustling of paper in the hand of the desperately bored pre-teen aching to be set free, in hopes of building intergenerational community and somehow, some way, raise the leaders of tomorrow?
Both approaches have their pros and cons, but leaving the debate there misses the point. We miss Jesus; the God who so humbled himself that he met us in the flesh. We should not just bear with children, but join in fellowship with them as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. It’s not about tactics, it’s about posture.
The Example of Christ
Paul urges the church in Philippi to model the example of Christ who, though God, “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7).
This pattern of self-emptying is helpful both in developing our understanding of God’s character, and also in our lives as followers of Christ. We are to be generous with one another, eagerly willing to lay down any thought of pride or station.
It is difficult enough to think about how this humility should work in the church amongst adults. How much more uncomfortable it is to think about it in the relationship between adults and children!
Yet Christ called children to him and declared to his disciples “unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me” (Matthew 18:3-5).
But what could this self-emptying look like? How can adults follow Christ’s example and create an environment of practiced humility with the children in our churches?
Meeting Children Where They Are At
God is like the grandparent who, despite the inherent obstacles of age and station, gets down on the floor to play with their grandchild, ready to engage in wide-ranging imaginative play and responding with love and encouragement. That is love in action.
God IS love in action, and God loves to get down on the metaphorical floor with his children. God saw our need for salvation and arrived in the promise to Abraham and Sarah, in the leading of the Israelites with the cloud and the fire, and in the immeasurable discomfort of a body in both birth and death.
God enters into our time and space, and speaks to us in language and action that we understand. We must do the same with children.
Taking the time to learn how children think and feel and then creating church services and community that can speak to people of all ages is key. While specialized children’s services may connect with children intellectually, they often shortchange children’s ability to form intergenerational community and learn the ways of faith from their elders. Jesus called the children to himself, not to a program on the side.
It is important that the church worship and serve together, in ways that work to edify the whole body of Christ. The church must stop only ministering to children and move to minister with children. It is a balance to find those specialized times for children’s ministry while also doing the work of community together.
So Now What?
It is understandably difficult to rethink how we have always done things. Change can be difficult and messy. However, the need for change can be seen as an opportunity, and we are in such a time with children in the church.
Societal norms around church have changed and it is no longer seen as necessary to attend church regularly, and we expect to enjoy church. This is a complex change, but not entirely problematic. Enjoying a time of worship and learning is a good thing.
Cheryl Sanders, in her book Ministry at the Margins, is blunt about how the usual church service is torment to children (and let’s be honest, their parents too.) If a child does not feel welcomed and valued at church at age five, or fifteen, they are not likely to want to walk through those doors with their own children.
Structuring services and community with children in mind is not only about children’s features or singing a kid’s song here and there. These may be needed steps as a church works to build community, but they are not at the heart of the matter.
Meeting children at their level is kingdom work. It is recognizing the movement of God in children’s lives and creating church where everyone can thrive.
God Challenges the Adults
The parents were hovering, hoping that the Lord would see them, and grant them just a moment to heal or bless their child. Jesus responded “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15).
The Gospel of Mark places the story of Jesus welcoming the children directly before the story of the rich man who cannot sell all that he has in order to enter the kingdom. “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!’ The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, ‘Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Mark 10:23-24)
Not only does Christ lift up the faith of the child before the crowd, he then rebukes a grown man. Icing on the cake, Jesus then calls his disciples children. How very disorienting for them!
Samuel is called to his life of prophesy when only a small boy. “The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, ‘Samuel! Samuel!’ Then Samuel said, ‘Speak, for your servant is listening’” (1 Sam 3:10). The only requirement was that Samuel was willing to listen. Where adults had failed, a child was listening. What humility was required of Eli to recognize this!
A Surprising Gift
Walking alongside children in a posture of Christ’s self-emptying is a gift. It is one of those wonderful paradoxes of life, where what seems first to be a burden is instead an incredible joy and you find yourself wanting to selfishly self-empty! Children have so much to teach adults with their creativity, imagination, and easy hold of hope. There is divine mystery in the joyful exaltations of a child at play. May the church have the humility to see.
Kimberly Muehling has served in teaching and developing children’s ministry for many years. She is pursuing a MA through CMU and loves serving her local community as a school librarian. Kim and her family worship with Fort Garry EMC.