The Child in the Midst

The content of this post is drawn from a short paper I wrote for a graduate studies subject I undertook this year (2021).

Matthew 18:1-5 is widely regarded as a foundational passage for theological reflection concerning children. It is, for instance, a keystone text for the child theology movement, whose mantra is “doing theology with a child in the midst”.  Following the example of Jesus, the child theology movement seeks to “reform all theological reflection and enquiry ‘with a child in the midst’.”[1]  White writes of “foregrounding the child”[2], that is, using the child as a lens through which to explore and interpret the full range of biblical, historical and systematic theology”[3].

A central question that arises from Matthew 18:1-5 is, “What does it mean to become like a child?” In this paper, I will provide a response to that question, and examine some other biblical passages in relation to it.

Becoming like a child …

In Matthew 18:3, Jesus makes the remarkable proclamation that unless one changes to “become like little children”, they will “never enter the kingdom of heaven”. These words of Jesus were subsequent to a question posed to him by his disciples about greatness in the kingdom of heaven.  From other passages in the Gospels it is apparent that the disciples argued amongst themselves about their relative status and position (cf. Mark 9:33-34, Luke 9:46, Luke 22:24). Personal honours pertaining to following Jesus were of great interest to them (cf. Mark 10:37).  Jesus’ response was to put a child in their midst. Their ambition, he declared, must be to become child-like, for in the kingdom of heaven greatness means taking the lowly position of a child.

One response to Jesus’ words about becoming “like little children” has been to propose qualities of children that adults should embrace.  Surveying biblical commentators, Zuck variously found suggested:

being receptive, responsive to Jesus’ call (like the little one Jesus called to him), amenable and simple, teachable, modest and unspoiled, trusting, in need of instruction, or sinless.[4]

Yet Jesus does not specify any such qualities of children, virtuous though they may be.  He does, however, speak of humility.  Gundry-Volf explains that this “could refer both to a condition typical of children[5] (who by virtue of their weakness and vulnerability are “humble”) and to a corresponding quality or frame of mind (humility as trust in divine favor).”[6] In ancient times, children were “the least, the lowest, and the last in terms of social status.”[7] They could have no pretensions towards greatness, and knew that to be the case through their daily existence.[8]  Therein lies an important clue to what it means for disciples of Jesus to “become like little children” – it is to avow any pursuit of greatness or claim to it[9], and to recognise that in relation to the kingdom of heaven, we are dependent on God’s providential grace.  For all children of God, heavenly hope lies not in achievement, honours or relative status, but in being summoned and welcomed by Jesus.[10]

Little children were the weakest and most vulnerable link in the social chain and therefore in many and profound ways dependent on God’s rule being implemented in their lives. If Jesus’ ministry has demonstrated so far that the kingdom of God is for those who are needy because they are needy and dependent on God, then clearly it belongs to the little children.[11]

The child’s littleness, immaturity and need of assistance are realities with which Jesus calls all people to spiritually identify.  The “becoming” of childlikeness is the “becoming” of humility, the denying of self before Jesus and for Jesus’ sake. The child, write Willmer and White, “is another way of inviting us into the way of the cross.”[12] (Location 156)

Children, Jesus implied, show us how to enter the kingdom. A child has no way of earning entrance to the kingdom. … How then are we to enter the kingdom? We are to come like a child, with empty hands and no merit of our own, trusting the God of grace.[13]

That said, to regard Jesus’ call to become like a child as only spiritually metaphorical is to lose sight of the actual child.  The way of the cross is follow Jesus wherever he leads us in this world, and invariably he draws us to serve the marginalized, disempowered, weak and defenseless.  To become like a child is to empathise deeply with the vulnerability of children, and to enter their world in such a way as to welcome them in the way and spirit of Jesus.  The welcome of children which Jesus speaks of in Matthew 18:5 is much more than sentimentality: it encounters the actual child at their point of need and serves them for Christ’s sake. In Gundry’s words, “The humility of the great … consists particularly in their stooping humbly to serve children.”[14]

The child in the midst …: A look at other biblical texts

Are there connections between Jesus’ call to us in Matthew 18:3 to disavow greatness and “become like a child” and other biblical passages? Are there other passages where we might find a child in the midst and what might these say to us about the theology of the child?

  • The infancy-of-Jesus narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 tell us of God’s sending of God’s Son as a human child into the midst of human existence. The infant Jesus is dependent and vulnerable, his very life under threat. The so-called “great” of the world – symbolised by Herod – seek to destroy him. Yet, he is under the heavenly Father’s care, and his mission of sacrificial, self-emptying, humble service to the world is carried forwards. To welcome the infant Jesus is to see in him all vulnerable children, and to serve them in the way and spirit of Christ.
  • In John 6:1-14 we are told of a hungry crowd and a boy who is brought into the midst of Jesus’ disciples with five small barley loaves and two small fish.  Andrew’s words in John 6:9 exaggerate the “smallness” of both the boy and of the food at hand.[15]  Yet, Jesus esteems the child and his “meagre” offerings by performing a miracle of abundance. The child who is looked upon as little becomes an instrument of God’s big workings, inviting onlookers then and now to re-evaluate how we regard and treat children.
  • Acts 20:7-12 tells of a child or youth named Eutychus who falls asleep on an upstairs window sill while Paul is talking “on and on”, presumably unnoticed by those gathered. He falls out of the window and is picked up dead. Paul rushes down, throwing himself on the child/youth.  Eutychus is miraculously brought back to life, and placed into the midst of his Christian community with celebration and thanksgiving.  Interpreted symbolically, this passage highlights the marginalisation of children that takes place even in Christian communities. It also calls us to an alternative way of life with children – one that truly recognises them as present, is conscious of their needs, and celebrates them as integral members of the body of Christ.


The case has been made that to “become like a child” is to disavow worldly ambitions of greatness, understanding ourselves as wholly dependent on God’s grace in Christ.  It is also to empathise deeply with the vulnerability of children, entering their world in such a way as to welcome and serve them in the way and spirit of Jesus.  Three other biblical passages that involve a “child in the midst” have been explored in relation to these understandings.


Gundry, Judith, ‘Children in the Gospel of Mark, with Special Attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 143-176.

Gundry-Volf, Judith ‘The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), Kindle Edition.

Haddon, Willmer and Keith W. White, Entry Point: Towards Theology with Matthew 18 (London: WTL Publications, 2015), Kindle Edition.

May, Scottie and Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, Linda Cannell, Children Matter: Celebrating their Place in the Church, Family and Community (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2005).

Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J., Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003).

Richards, Anne, Children in the Bible: A Fresh Approach (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013).

White, Keith J. ‘”He Placed a Little Child in the Midst”: Jesus, the Kingdom and Children’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 353-374.

Zuck, Roy B., Precious in his Sight: Childhood and Children in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996).

[1] See

[2] Keith J. White, ‘”He Placed a Little Child in the Midst”: Jesus, the Kingdom and Children’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 355.

[3] White in Bunge (ed.) The Child in the Bible (2008), 355 n. 11.

[4] Roy B. Zuck, Precious in his Sight: Childhood and Children in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 206.

[5] Can I suggest that we should be cautious in ascribing humility to children as an inherent, universal quality? Haddon Willmer and Keith W. White write, “Whatever the child meant in the time of Jesus, children today are not models of humility and cannot be for social reasons.” Source: Haddon Willmer and Keith W. White, Entry Point: Towards Theology with Matthew 18 (London: WTL Publications, 2015), Kindle Edition: Location 1979.

[6] Judith Gundry-Volf, ‘The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), Kindle Edition: Location 789.  See also Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003), 96-97.

[7] White in Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (2008), 371.

[8] Anne Richards, Children in the Bible: A Fresh Approach (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013), 124.

[9] Zuck quotes Tasker as follows: “A little child has no idea that he (sic) is great, and so in the kingdom of heaven the greatest is he (sic) who is least conscious of being great.” Source: Zuck, Precious in His Sight (1996), 207.

[10] Gundry notes that the children do “nothing to obtain Jesus’ blessing: they are simply brought to him, and he takes them into his arms and blesses them.” Source: Gundry in Bunge, The Child in Christian Thought (2001), Kindle Edition: Location 768.

[11] Judith Gundry, ‘Children in the Gospel of Mark, with Special Attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark’ in Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible, 154.

[12] Willmer and White, Entry Point (2015), Kindle Edition: Location 156.

[13] May, Scottie and Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, Linda Cannell, Children Matter: Celebrating their Place in the Church, Family and Community (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2005), 41.

[14] Gundry in Bunge, The Child in Christian Thought (2001), Kindle Edition: Location 811.

[15] See my article, ‘What is in a Boy?: Reflections on the Feeding of the Five Thousand’ –

Helping Parents Nurture Faith

The content of this post is drawn from a short paper I wrote for a graduate studies subject I completed last year (2019). I hope it contains some helpful thoughts and suggestions.

Helping parents nurture their children in faith is vitally important aspect of children’s ministry.  Partnering with parents to form faith in children involves leveraging an arena of faith influence equivalent to, or greater than, that of church-based programming.  Providing parents with vision, training and resources to engage with their children in faith-related conversions, devotional activities, faith rituals and traditions, and service is both a wise use of ministry time and effort, and fertile soil in which to sow. With an appropriate awareness of the related opportunities and challenges, children’s ministry leaders can significantly broaden the scope and effectiveness of their ministries by partnering with the home.

This paper discusses the children’s ministry dimension of helping parents to nurture faith in their children, examining aims, benefits and challenges.  Practical suggestions are provided for the development of this ministry dimension in a church setting.


Helping parents nurture their children in faith is a vitally important aspect of children’s ministry.  There is substantial research attesting to the significance of the practice of faith in the home for the faith formation of children[1], together with strong Biblical support (e.g. Deuteronomy 6:1-9).[2]  In Bruner’s words,

The home is the primary context of our spiritual formation – for better or worse. God wired us for flesh-and-blood relationships with a mom, a dad, a spouse, a child, and others who profoundly shape our perception and experience of faith – whether they intend to or not.’[3]

The aim of this ministry dimension is to grow parents in their understanding of their spiritual role; affirm them in sharing faith with their children; and provide resources and practical support to them for faith life in and through the home. 


Partnering with parents to form faith in children involves leveraging an arena of faith influence equivalent to, or greater than, that of church-based programming.[4]  In comparison to church ministry leaders and program volunteers, parents have more time, opportunity and influence through which to “impress” faith upon their children. 

The deliberate efforts of a lay-level parent, who only brings a passionate love for Jesus and a passionate desire to pass that love on to their children, can eclipse the most sophisticated efforts of the best seminary-trained professional a church can find.[5] 

Moreover, because faith formation is ultimately a relational endeavour, with faith “more caught than taught”[6], a home of Christian practice is a powerful “crucible” for the spiritual growth of children.

It is precisely among our most intimate and abiding relationships that the character of our spiritual life is not only shaped but seriously tested and revealed for what it is.[7] 

Providing parents with vision, training and resources to engage with their children in faith-related conversions, devotional activities, faith rituals and traditions, and service[8] is then both a wise use of ministry time and effort, and fertile soil in which to sow.

The fruitfulness of church-based programming is also enhanced through partnering with the home.  As Kehrwald explains, children and young people are spiritually formed in “systems”, with those of their families being of primary significance.  If the church is not working in partnership with parents, there is a very real danger that our efforts in age-specific ministry will be ‘undone unconsciously by the family system’.[9]

Partnering with parents also extends the reach of church ministry.  Not all children of the church will become regularly involved with its age-specific programming, or engage with it to the same extent. Active recognition and support of the home as “domestic church” expands both the scope and influence of children’s ministry.[10]


Developing an effective ministry of support to parents requires an awareness of the following associated challenges:

  1. While faith-at-home is a significant factor in child faith formation, the practice of faith in the home does not guarantee an adult faith life.  Care must be taken not to give parents the impression that the faith formation of their children is their sole responsibility, or that their faithfulness will always be rewarded through the responses of their children.
  2. Not all children associated with a church’s ministry may have parents of active faith. 
  3. Parents who are “single in the faith” (i.e. their spouse/partner or ex-spouse/partner is a non-Christian) may require particular support and care.
  4. It should not be assumed that parents have confidence, skills or experience to support faith practice in the home.[11] 
  5. Many households are “time poor”.  These households will be best served by providing easy-to-use resources and building on and around their existing involvements with the church.
  6. It is important to recognise the diversity of family types within the church.  Care must be taken to avoid communicating that ‘there is some abstract norm for the Christian family, whose secret is known and dispensed by the church.’[12]
  7. Merely sending resources home for parental use may not guarantee they are used or used well.  Processes of modelling, encouragement, follow-up and feedback may be necessary.
  8. Not all parents will feel “up to the task” all of the time.  A culture of grace and mercy will be helpful for encouraging parents to “give it a go” and “keep on keeping on”.[13]
  9. Supporting faith life in the home involves encouraging households to practice faith in connection with the wider church community, rather than becoming separate, isolated units of faith.  Parents should be helped to understand the importance of “widening the circle” of faith influence for their children through cross-generational engagement with the wider church community.[14]
  10. Congregations may need to downsize their demands on households to give them time and space to “do faith” together.  Age segregated programming can also work against the goal of bringing parents and children/youth together around matters of faith.
  11. Effective support of parents to pass on faith requires an understanding of the different stages of child development and household life – what is helpful for parents and children will differ according to age and stage.[15]

Some Practical Suggestions

  • Tweak current ministries to add a faith-at-home support or resourcing component e.g. provide “take home” Sunday School or worship-related materials.
  • Leverage existing points of engagement with parents to encourage home faith practice e.g. add a “faith at home moment” to Sunday worship.
  • Provide practical modelling of the basic “how to’s” of home faith life (e.g. rituals and traditions) and promote easy-to-use models and resources for the practice of faith e.g. the FAITH5[16].
  • Help parents to recognise the “ministry of the ordinary”, i.e. the opportunities God provides in the “creases and folds” of daily household life to share and teach the faith.[17]
  • Facilitate parent-to-parent sharing of stories and examples of faith life in the home.[18]
  • Draw upon the traditions and rituals of the church seasons (e.g. Advent/Christmas, Epiphany, Lent/Easter, Pentecost) to engage parents and children together around matters of faith.
  • Utilise child development and faith-related milestones as strategic opportunities to connect with parents and resource them to share the faith with their children.[19]


In conclusion, helping parents to nurture faith at home is a vital and fruitful dimension of children’s ministry.  With an appropriate awareness of the related opportunities and challenges, children’s ministry leaders can significantly broaden the scope and effectiveness of their ministries by partnering with the home.

[1] For instance, see Mark A. Holmen, Building faith at home: Why faith at home must be your church’s #1 priority, Ventura: Regal Books, 2007, pp. 25-27; Kara Powell & Chap Clark, Sticky faith: Everyday ideas to build lasting faith in your kids, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011, pp 23-24; Leif Kehrwald, Families and faith: A Vision and Practice for Parish Leaders, New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2006, pp. 105-107.

[2] For a discussion of this passage, see Phil Bell, Team up!: The family ministry playbook for partnering with parents, Loveland: Group Publishing, 2015, pp. 46-54.

[3] Kurt D. Bruner, & Steve Stroope, It starts at home: A practical guide to nurturing lifelong faith, Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010, p. 17.

[4] Robert Wuthnow, Growing up religious: Christians and Jews on their journeys of faith, Boston: Beacon Press, 1999, pp. xxxi-xxxii.

[5] Tim Kimmel, Connecting church and home: A grace-based partnership, Nashville: Randall House, 2013, p. 11.

[6] David W. Anderson & Paul Hill, Frogs without legs can’t hear: Nurturing disciples in home and congregation, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003, pp. 71-82.

[7] Marjorie Thompson, Family, the forming center: A vision of the role of the family in spiritual formation, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1996, p. 13.

[8] These are called the “four keys” for nurturing faith by David W. Anderson & Paul Hill, Frogs without legs can’t hear: Nurturing disciples in home and congregation, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003, pp. 96-111.

[9] Leif Kehrwald, Youth ministry and parents: Secrets for a successful partnership, Winona: Saint Mary’s Press, 2004, p. 87.

[10] Marjorie Thompson, Family, the forming center: A vision of the role of the family in spiritual formation, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1996, pp. 25-29.

[11] Mark A. Holmen, Building faith at home: Why faith at home must be your church’s #1 priority, Ventura: Regal Books, 2007, p. 37.

[12] Marjorie Thompson, Family, the forming center: A vision of the role of the family in spiritual formation, Nashville: Upper Room Books, 1996, p. 27.

[13] Anderson, David W., From the great omission to vibrant faith: The role of the home in renewing the church, Minneapolis: Vibrant Faith Publishing, 2009, pp. 71-85.

[14] Reggie Joiner & Carey Nieuwhof, Parenting beyond your capacity: Connect your family to a wider community, Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010, pp. 57-80.

[15] Leif Kehrwald, Families and faith: A Vision and Practice for Parish Leaders, New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2006, pp. 26.

[16] Rich Melheim, Holding your family together: 5 simple steps to help bring your family closer to God and each other, Ventura: Regal Books, 2013.

[17] Mike Justice, It takes a family to raise a youth ministry: developing an effective strategy for serving families, Kansas City: Beacon Hill Press, 1998, p. 36.

[18] Pamela J. Erwin, The Family-Powered Church, Loveland: Group Publishing, 2000, pp. 81-88.

[19] Phil Bell, Team up!: The family ministry playbook for partnering with parents, Loveland: Group Publishing, 2015, pp. 113-126.

“Get to”, not “Got to”


When communicating to parents and grandparents about passing on the Christian faith, I stress that this is a matter of “get to”, not “got to”. We pass on the faith because we love our children and young people enough that we want them to know the much greater love of God, personally. We pass on the faith because it is our joy to be co-partners with God in the shaping of a life for eternity. We pass on the faith because we desire that our lives make a difference, and the most wonderful difference we can make is to see another grow in the grace of Christ.

I have recently begun reading Rachel Turner’s book It takes a church to raise a parent: Creating a culture where parenting for faith can flourish (The Bible Reading Fellowship, 2018). Turner suggests a number of “get to” (my words) messages we can communicate to parents. I have used some of her words and added some of my own thoughts.

  • God has given parents “a place of significant influence in the spiritual lives of their children, and that place cannot be replicated or replaced.” They have been uniquely positioned by God as instruments of spiritual blessing. Turner highlights two elements of this uniqueness. Firstly, “influence happens through personal connection“, and parents have a stronger and longer personal connection with their children, including their teenagers, than anyone else. Secondly, God is real in the everyday, and works through the everyday to relate to God’s people. “Our relationships with God are woven into those everyday boring bits of life“, and only parents are present in those moments.
  • Because of the unique positioning of parents, they are ultimately more effective in passing on faith than church professionals and church programming. What parents do “casually and imperfectly” trumps anything the church can offer.
  • God is not looking for perfect parents, he is seeking faithful ones. God works through the challenges and ups-and-downs or parenting to reach into the lives of our children and young people. “God knows what parenting is like” and has designed parents to be able to do it even when they are not functioning at their best.
  • What children need most is to see what a real relationship with God looks likes up close in the everyday.” The struggles, hardships, failures and failings of our lives are the crucible God uses to bring real faith for real life. As our children experience the struggles of life with us, they learn how faith responds and how God responds. When they see us fail and confess, and receive our forgiveness for their own failures, they learn of the grace of God in ways that matter. “Children need to be invited into the reality of the everyday” and only parents can “give them that invitation“.
  • Parents are the experts on their particular children, and know best how to respond to them and relate to them. This also means that parenting in faith will look different from family to family. There is no “one way” to share faith and values. Turner says to parents, “Comparison steals joy. Don’t compare your unique path to others. Delight in yours.
  • Though parents may not themselves recognise it, they are “already doing loads of useful and significant spiritual discipling” by living as people of faith from day to day. Faith is more caught than taught through informal, habitual, seemingly mundane words and actions over time.
  • Relationship with God is a journey, and like any meaningful journey, will have ups and downs. Parents “don’t have to go fast“, they “just have to be moving forward“.
  • Children are on a journey too. Some days they may exhibit strong faith, other days we may question their relationship with God. That is relatively normal. Parents can rest easy in God’s faithfulness to them and to their children from day to day, and from year to year.
  • There are no guarantees in Christian parenting. Our children are their own people, and we cannot control their spiritual lives. Our calling is to be faithful – to parent them to the best of our ability – and leave the rest in God’s hands.
  • In passing on the faith, parents are not alone. The wider Christian community is their God-given partner in faith formation. While church staff and church programs are not a substitute for Christian parenting, they can be a wonderfully helpful and supportive resource for parents.

I wonder, what might you add?

Congregations, Schools and Shoots of Faith


Over thirty years ago the congregation I serve as pastor stepped out in faith to establish a faith-based primary school. The congregation and the school are physically co-located and share some spaces in common e.g. the school regularly uses our worship space and the congregation uses school rooms from time to time. It is, however, one thing for a congregation and a school to be physically near; it is another thing for them to maintain and develop a strong partnership in ministry and mission. Sadly, there are many examples in my denomination of faith-based schools and congregations which have drifted apart over the years, becoming functionally separate in their respective foci and activities.

One of my key ministry goals since commencing in my current call has been to reinvigorate and energize the relationship between congregation and school. An initial step was for the congregation, in conversation with the school, to employ a part-time School Ministry Worker (SMW). In short, the purpose of the role is to lead the congregation in blessing the school community and to facilitate congregational connections with the life and ministry of the school. Since beginning her employment earlier this year, our SMW has organised a Shrove Tuesday breakfast for the school students (served by congregational members), coordinated a Holy Week “reflection stations” event for all school classes (overseen by congregational members), assisted with school camps and excursions, and provided pastoral care to students and staff. She has also played a key role in preparing for once-a-term Sundays we call our “Community Sundays” … Sundays on which persons of our congregation and school community are invited to come together in celebration. We work hard to involve school students (on a voluntary basis) in our Community Sunday Worship Services. With the help and coordination of our SMW, school students have presented readings, written and shared prayers, prepared artwork for display, sung in choirs, and presented dramas and liturgical dance. After each Community Sunday Service we have also had what we call “Experience” events … these consist of themed activity stations for persons of all ages to “do”, relate and reflect. And we have had food! Congregational attenders have been asked to show hospitality to our school community visitors be bringing a plate of morning tea to share, and we have provided a low cost Sausage Sizzle.

One of the outcomes of our Community Sunday Services has been some “new” attendance by school families at our other Sunday Worship Services (we have a very mixed school community, both culturally and spiritually). Our visibility to school households has certainly increased as we have expressed to them our desire to connect, relate and serve. Beyond that, however, I am confident that the Holy Spirit is at work through all the various ways our congregation and school sow the seeds of God’s word and embody the life of God.

2017-08-19 23.19.31

The theme for our last Community Sunday was “Growing”.  The key Bible passage for the Sunday was the Parable of the Sower and the Seed (the “stalks of wheat” visual display contained “grains” submitted by congregational attenders, each recording a favourite Bible verse). This Bible passage was especially appropriate because, as part of the Service, we gifted Lion First Bible Storybooks to fifteen Reception students of the school (the “back story” is that these Storybooks were directly donated by members of our congregation, many of whom personalized their gifts on a slip pasted into one or more). Then at the school’s weekly worship gathering the next Wednesday, over fifty more were presented by some of our congregational members. Since then, it has been wonderful to hear stories of how these Bible storybooks have been received in the homes of school households, including many for whom Sunday worship is not the practice. Today our SMW recounted a story she has heard one such home of a Reception student. The student so loves her Storybook that she “carries it everywhere”. In other homes, children insist on being read to (or read for themselves) from their Storybooks every night at bedtime. Seeds have been thrown out onto the fields and shoots of faith are bursting forth, just as God has promised (see Isaiah 55:10-11).

There are many chapters still to unfold in our efforts to better partner as congregation and school. We are currently exploring the merits of Prayer Spaces. In the future, we may look at engaging congregational members as mentors for school students (see Kids Hope). In all of this, I am confident that God is leading the way. As we act in faith, God is surely beneath us, alongside us and ahead of us. God will produce God’s fruit in God’s time … we, for our part, need to be ready to walk with our God, and to cast out into the fields whatever seeds are placed into our hands.

Fathering: Blessings and Prayers


This past Sunday (3 September) was observed in Australia as Fathers’ Day.  Like Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day is not a joyful day for all.  For many adult males, its observance can arouse difficult emotions and memories.  I think, for instance, of those whose fathers have died, those who have difficult relationships with their fathers, those who are separated from their children, and those whose hopes of becoming a father have not been realized.  While as a pastor and a father, I wish to see fathers affirmed and celebrated by Christians as good gifts of God, I also believe it is important to be sensitive and inclusive in our treatment of Fathers’ Day in our communities of faith.

In my own congregation, we have shifted our focus on Fathers’ Day from fathers to “fathering”.  This is a good day to recognize and affirm the ways in which all adult males in our churches guide, nurture and shape the young among us.  So yesterday, I asked all men present to come to the front of our worship gathering for a prayer and blessing.  We thanked God for them and gave them the gift of a pen as a symbol of God’s Fatherly love for them, and our gratitude for them.

Below are the prayers and blessings we used – feel free to use and adapt as you wish.

General “Fathering Sunday” Prayer:
God our Father, on this Fathers’ Day, we pray for all fathers:
for new fathers, coming to terms with both the joys and demands of fatherhood;
for those who are uncertain or confused about their role as fathers;
for those whose work keeps them from spending time with their children;
for those who are afraid of the responsibilities of parenting;
for those who are unable to provide for their children through unemployment or sickness;
for those whose children have physical, mental or emotional disabilities;
for those who are violent or unloving towards their children;
for those whose own fathers abused them or failed to love them;
for those who are separated from their children by marriage breakdown, divorce or death;
for those who care for the children of others;
for those whose desire to be a father has not been fulfilled;
and for those whose children have rejected their love.
Bless all fathers, so that their love may be tender and strong, and that they may lead their children to know and do what is good, living not for themselves, but for God and for others.

“Fathering” Prayer:
Heavenly Father,thank you for the gift of these men into our lives and within our community of faith.  Strengthen them as role models of faith, hope and love to our children and youth, and to other young ones in their lives.  Fill with them with your love, grace and power, so that may reflect your Fatherly heart and Fatherly will, and know the peace of being your children.  Amen.

“Fathering” Blessing:
Man of God,
May the love of your heavenly Father fill you and shape you.
May you be blessed in fathering others as your heavenly Father guides and nurtures you.
May you have peace in your heavenly Father’s presence, and joy in his service.

Rebuilding Confirmation: Learnings and Reflections




As a pastor involved in designing and delivering Confirmation Ministry, I recently read with interest Christopher Wesley’s book Rebuilding Confirmation: Because We Need More than Another Graduation (published February 2017). Below are some of the key points and learnings I took away, as well as some of my own reflections.

  1. Confirmation ministry is fundamentally relational. While the transmission of content (e.g. doctrine, Biblical knowledge) is a key purpose the overriding goal is the formation of disciples of Jesus Christ. Because it takes disciples to make disciples, connecting young people with other followers of Jesus who can live, share and model faith with them is crucial. The “informal” curriculum of shared life in Christ is as significant, if not more so, than formal teachings. As the saying goes, ‘faith is more caught than taught.’
  2. Less is more. It is better to focus on a few key aspects of Christian doctrine, life and practice in Confirmation ministry than to overwhelm young people with reams of religious information. Wesley writes of “narrowing your focus and teaching less for greater impact.” In my experience, it is infeasible and finally counterproductive to view Confirmation ministry as a comprehensive Biblical and theological course for young people … doing so ignores developmental realities and the “searching” dimension of adolescent faith. A better goal is to ground young people more fully in authentic Christian community and reassure them of God’s abundant love and grace in the midst of the messiness of teenage life and beyond. Through remaining in the life of God’s church beyond Confirmation they will have ample opportunities to grow deeper in theological and Biblical understandings. A lifelong perspective on faith formation views Confirmation ministry as one of a number of stepping stones on the path of discipleship.
  3. Give a “way out” and a “way forward”. Wesley stresses the importance of communicating to Confirmation students. “You don’t have to do this.” Young people who are attending reluctantly or without a sense of personal desire and conviction are unlikely to learn very much at all. It is better to give them a real sense of choice to ‘opt out’ if they do not feel ready or wanting. Giving them a real choice also encourages personal and authentic decision-making. At the same time (and even more importantly), it is vital to give Confirmation young people a positive vision of what God has for them as a young Christ follower. “You get to do this” … you get to experience a guided journey into the wonders and possibilities of the amazing life God has in store for his loved and treasured people.
  4. Develop healthy child and youth ministry around Confirmation ministry. Confirmation ministry needs to be seen as a one element in a continuum of ministry to children, youth and their households. In Wesley’s words, we need to provide an “on ramp” and an “off ramp“. Very often the health and effectiveness of pre-Confirmation ministry will underpin the health and effectiveness of Confirmation ministry.  And the health and effectiveness of post-Confirmation ministry will affect young people’s post-Confirmation involvement. We need to pay attention to what comes before and what comes next.
  5. Get personal. Wesley stresses the importance of leading young people to reflect on who and what they wish to be. He writes of an application process where young people are asked, “What type of Christian man or woman do you envision on being in the future?” and “What steps do you need to take to get closer to God?” In other words, Confirmation ministry can be understood as a time of discernment about identity, character and purpose (“Who do you want to be?“, “Whom has God created you to be?”).
  6. Adult mentoring is key. Confirmation ministry should seek to surround young people with a web of relationships with adults who love them and convey to them the life and presence of Christ. Wesley writes of his own experience of a small group-based Confirmation model where adults engage relationally with young people. “A healthy Confirmation program has adult volunteers whom teenagers trust and respect. When the relationship is strong then a teenager will be receptive to what the adult has to say.
  7. Adopt an “apprenticeship” mindset. View Confirmation ministry as an “apprenticeship in how to live life in and outside of the Church.” Give young people real opportunities to experience what it means to participate in congregational life and to serve and share in Christ’s name in the wider community. Move beyond a “service hours” requirement. Give Confirmation students genuine and meaningful roles and responsibilities in ministry and mission. And, of course, link them intentionally with adults who can show them what it means to “be” and “do”. An apprentice, by definition, needs a guide and instructor to teach, model and encourage.
  8. Cultivate spiritual habits or practices. Move beyond “textbooks to tools. … Too often we tell Confirmation candidates to read Scripture, pray daily and serve others without giving them the proper tools for success.” In other words, don’t just tell young people about the Christian faith, guide them into disciplines of faith practice through which Christ comes to them and they to Christ. In Wesley’s ministry context, the acronym S.T.E.P.S. communicates five key faith practices that are given focus in Confirmation ministry: (1) Serve in ministry and missions; (2) Tithe through sacrificial giving; (3) Engage in small group relationships; (4) Practice prayer and the sacraments; (5) Share through invest and invite.
  9. Encourage youth to share their faith. Invite young people to reflect on their own faith stories and what it means to share of themselves with others. Lead them towards investing in relationships with non-Christians and respectfully inviting others into experiences of church life.

I found much in the book which resonated with my own understandings. It also gave me some new ideas and suggestions. One area that I felt was largely missing, however, was sufficient emphasis on the significance of parent faith formation and involvement in and with Confirmation ministry. My own journey has led me to deliberately engage parents in the Confirmation learning process and conceive the home as a key context for faith practice and learning. I will share more about that at some future point.

I am interested in your thoughts and comments.  Does any of the above resonate with you? What might you add? In what ways to do you see similarly or differently?

Listening to Children

This post has been written by my dear friend, Marilyn Sharpe of Marilyn Sharpe Ministries It is reproduced here by permission.


The wolf shall live with the lamb,

the leopard shall lie down with the kid

the calf and the lion and the fattling together,

and a little child shall lead them.

– Isaiah 11:6

I am old enough to have grown up in a world in which the phrase “children are to be seen and not heard” was not uncommon. Thanks be to God, that was not my parents’ or my grandmother’s approach to children. I grew up and thrived in a family that listened to me, regardless of my age or expertise.

Although we don’t hear that phrase often today, children are often neither seen nor heard. Many adults spend more time looking at the screens on their cell phones than engaged in face-to-face, deep and attentive listening to the children and youth in their world. And we wonder why our teens don’t listen to us, look at us, or have many interpersonal skills. Hmmm …

Many adults feel that it is their role to dispense knowledge and values to children and youth, but miss the opportunity to be transformed by the wisdom of children and youth in their midst.

Our three adult children have been and still are our teachers, as are our four grandchildren. Here is just a sampling:

  • Our first child, at age five, was asked to find some toys in good shape that could be donated to an inner city pastor. She chose her very best doll to give.  It had been a gift from her grandmother who had recently died. She explained, “If I was a girl my age, who was only going to get one gift, this is the one I would want!” Amen.
  • Our second child, stood before a dumpster, overflowing with disgusting, greasy, sticky Fourth of July picnic trash, replete with hundreds of aluminum cans and asked, “So, what are we going to do about it?” She and her father and I did some serious dumpster diving and retrieved, washed, and recycled the cans! Amen.
  • Our youngest, who really loved and hoarded his money, came to the door after a panhandler had asked for money. Horrified that I had turned this child of God away, our child grabbed his stash of cash and ran after the man to give it all to him! Amen.
  • Our oldest grandson was only four, when his father, with a twinkle in his eye, inquired, “How did you get so lucky to have a perfect father?” We all giggled, except our grandson, who said, “Dad, you know there was only one perfect person ever … and he came so that you don’t have to be!” Amen.
  • Last Sunday, our second child, now an amazing adult, invited us to go to a local mosque that had been fire bombed the day before. Her dad and I went, armed with big bouquets of flowers to hand to our Muslim brothers and sisters, a sign of peace and solidarity, as they arrived to attend a parent meeting. What grace and generosity they demonstrated in welcoming us, who looked like the perpetrator, without judging us.  Amen.

What have you learned from children? How have you given them the opportunity to lead you? Where have you seen the face of Jesus, heard the voice of God, and allowed yourself to be lead into kingdom work?

Opportunities in our Homes

Cultivate intentional times of deep listening.  When might those be for your family?

  • Family dinners are a perfect opportunity, especially if you turn off the television and all of your collective screens, light a candle, and soak in the presence of one another. Share highs and lows or blessings and bruises. Tell about your day, about the time when you were apart.
  • Put away your cell phone when you are with your child. Yes, I really mean it!
  • Never stop tucking your kids into bed. In the dark, listen to what they will tell you that they might not share when the lights are on.  Thank God for them. Literally. Pray together. Bless each other.
  • Do dishes or rake the yard or sort laundry together.
  • Turn off the radio in the car and just listen to your kids.
  • Take a walk with the dog and one of your children.  Just listen.
  • Share who you are and what matters to you, too.  Let your kids really get to know you.
  • Thank God for the amazing gifts that are the children in your life.

Opportunities in our Congregations

If you have the privilege of planning for the faith formation of children and youth, train your adult teachers and leaders to spend part of their time listening deeply to the kids they serve. Ask them, 

  • “Where did you see God this week?”
  • “What did you see this week that would disappoint God?”
  • “What did you experience this week that would delight Jesus?”
  • “What do you think God might be calling you to do in your world?” 
  • “What did you hear that violates loving God and our neighbor with everything we’ve got?”

Share the stories of the wisdom and insights of children with their parents, with your congregation as articles in your newsletter, with your pastor as sermon illustrations and prayers of the people.

Create opportunities for cross+generational conversations in fellowship events and in worship to really share the deep and important insights of your children and youth.

Remember that Jesus was asked by his disciples who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He replied by putting a child in their midst and declared, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Mt. 18:3 We must change and be lead by the children in our midst!

Living in God’s kingdom was counter cultural and transformative in Isaiah’s day, in Jesus’ time, and it is in ours. Won’t you let a little child lead you? May you be abundantly blessed.

What is in a Boy?: Reflections on the Feeding of the Five Thousand

A large crowd, perhaps up to ten thousand people, has gathered to see and listen to Jesus. Throughout the day many have been blessed by his teaching and he has healed many who are sick. But now the day is drawing to a close and a very practical question arises. How will the crowd be fed? The obvious solution is to send the crowd home before it is too dark to travel safely. But Jesus has another solution. From five loaves and two fishes enough food is miraculously provided to satisfy the hunger of all.
This story will be very familiar to those who have grown up in the life of God’s church. It appears in all four Gospels (Matthew 14:13-21; Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:12-17; and John 6:1-14) – the only miracle story to do so apart from that of the resurrection of Jesus. Those who attend a liturgical church will most likely hear it again this Sunday, read from the Gospel of Matthew. And while there are many similarities between the four different tellings of the story, they are not identical. For example, only John’s Gospel mentions a “boy” or a “lad” as the original human source for the five loaves and two fishes.
As I reflected on this feeding miracle in preparation for Sunday, I began to wonder about that “boy” or “lad”. Why does John mention him? What does his role in the story say to us? What is in a boy? How might our understanding of this story be informed and enriched through a focus on his presence and contribution?
John’s version of the story reads as follows:
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5 When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” 6 He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!” 8 Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up,9 “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?” 10 Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there).11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12 When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. (Version: NIV)
John tells us that the disciple Andrew presents the boy to Jesus, together with his loaves and fish. My sense is that he did so ‘tongue in cheek’ … perhaps to generate a laugh by highlighting the absurdity of the situation … “so many people and so little food … as if it would be enough, Jesus!” Andrew does not simply say “here is a boy”. He says “here is a little boy”(as Raymond E. Brown explains, “the Greek word Paidarion is a double diminutive of pais of which paidion is the normal diminutive). Andrew emphasises both the “smallness” of the boy and the “smallness” of the food at hand. Whether the boy was actually “little” in stature is an open question. What is clear is that Andrew chose to name him as such.
What can we surmise about this boy from the Gospel accounts and our knowledge of ancient Galilean society? In her book Children in Early Christian Narratives, Sharon Betsworth writes, “The presence of the boy indicates that children were among the crowd of people who followed Jesus. He was likely with family members as children did not tend to go places on their own in those days. Yet he is not just somewhere among the vast crowd. He is close enough to Jesus that Andrew notices the food he has. … The boy seems to be from the lower class of society. John specifically mentions that the bread was made of barley, another detail unique to the Fourth Gospel. Barley was cheaper than wheat, and the poor commonly ate barley loaves.”
John’s Gospel does not say by what manner the loaves and fishes were transferred to Jesus. Many preachers and commentators have assumed the boy freely handed them to Jesus or his disciples and credited to the boy virtues of generosity and self-sacrifice, but it is perhaps a “stretch” to do so. Jimmy Akin, for example, draws attention to Philip’s words about buying food and suggests that the boy could have brought food that day not for his own consumption (five loaves and two fishes seems like a lot of food for one small boy) but to sell to others. Akin writes, “It makes much more sense, given the context and the flow of the conversation, to see the little boy not as a local who happened to pack an extraordinarily large amount of food for him to eat at the day’s event but as an enterprising young salesman who brought food to where he knew there would be a lot of people spending the day and he could sell it. Like the kids who swarm over Israel’s holy sites to this day trying to sell trinkets or snacks or bottled water to the pilgrims who have shown up for religious reasons. Jesus’ crowds were bound to attract such kids, and Andrew happened to spot one.”
So, once again, what does the boy’s role in the story say to us? What is in a boy? The answer lies, I suggest, not in the boy himself, but in Jesus’ reception of his loaves and fishes, and by extension the boy himself, and in what Jesus does with what was the boy’s. Andrew sees “little” in the boy and his provisions. Perhaps his presence was to Andrew something of an annoyment; elsewhere in the Gospels we hear of the disciples rebuking parents who brought children to Jesus (cf. Matthew 19:13, Luke 18:15). Jesus, however, places value on the “little” boy and uses him to do something “big”. I wonder if, through the “sign” of this boy, Jesus is inviting us to also place “value” on the children amongst us. I wonder if he is inviting us to be open to “big” things he can do through them to bless us and many others. And not simply those children we might see as particularly virtuous – those who are generous and kind and selfless – but any children who happen to be in Jesus’ presence – whatever their motivations or backgrounds or journeys. I wonder how such an understanding and attitude might change how we view and involve and relate to children who are with us in the presence of Jesus? Do we see them as “little” or as “big” in Christ? Do we see the “smallness” of what they bring to the table or do we have a “big” vision for Jesus’ work in and through their lives?
So, what is in a boy? What do you see? What does Jesus see? And might we see through the eyes of Jesus? Food for thought … perhaps some food for Jesus to multiply in our minds and in our hearts.

Current Trends: Children’s Spirituality & Discipleship



Daron Pratt is administrator for Children’s Ministries and Family Ministries for the North NSW Conference of the Adventist Church.  In June 2016, Daron attended and presented at the fifth Children’s Spirituality Conference at Lipscomb University, Tennessee, USA.  In this guest post, Daron shares some of the key terms/themes he heard from a variety of presentations from academics, researchers and ministry practitioners.


So much has been written and discussed especially in the last ten years when it comes to children and faith.   In my opinion these are the key terms/themes that all the academics, researchers and practitioners largely agreed on.

Intergenerational/together ministry:

The Sticky Faith research found that intergenerational church worship was the closest they came in their research to the “silver bullet” for developing a faith that sticks.  (Even the researchers themselves were surprised by this outcome.)

Conversational theology:

Children are more likely to  work out their theology/faith in conversation and relationship with their faith community than in deductional, doctrinal classes.  They need the space to ask the hard questions and to also be given the  space to wrestle with their faith.

Relational webs/mentoring:

Having significant others in their lives beside their parents is key.  Three-to-five adults besides their parents who invest in and journey along the way with children will make a huge difference.


Storying and testimony is key.  Children will not believe their faith until they have a opportunity to testify to their belief/faith/journey.  Children need a grand narrative to which they can belong.  They need to know the story so that they can be a part of it.  Saying really is believing.

Rites/ritual/mystery of God:

Children need to participate in rituals of the faith, see them modelled and experience/find God through them.  This happens best when children are immersed in the faith community as a whole.


Children need to feel like they belong not just to the children’s ministry but to the whole church.

Immersion in community service:

Shutting our children in a “Christian Ghetto” stunts and stagnates spiritual growth.  They need to be involved in intergenerational acts of service, preferably with their family.

Faithful parents:

Children are more likely to adopt the faith of their parents.  Longitudinal, generational studies prove that adults get what they are – children are likely to be as faithful (or faithless) as their parents are.

Parenting in the pew:

Worshipping alongside their parents is significant for our children’s long term spiritual growth.  Children belong to and in the faith community/village and we need them as much as they need us to understand God’s Kingdom.

Identity – beliefs and values are generally abstract and make much more sense when they are lived out in an intergenerational community. A worldview, ideology, or grand story shapes a person not simply because he or she knows the story, rationally understands the beliefs, or affirms a set of fundamentals.  Children  “get” the meaning and significance of beliefs when they are lived out in the lives of people that they care for, respect, and trust.   Children locate their identity – their place in the world as they experience a tradition faithfully practiced and modelled in an intergenerational community.


How to develop and integrate these terms/themes is up to each church/family … but if we can tick most of the boxes above we will be well on the way to launching lifelong faith in our children.  Balance is key for discipleship/spirituality/faith to grow, but so too is intentionality and intergenerationality!

The Holy Spirit and Parent-Student Faith Formation

Over the past few years I have been conducting a live experiment in Confirmation ministry. After years of frustration in teaching young people in peer-age sessions (most of them were nowhere to be seen after Confirmation Sunday), I resolved to put parents and the home at the centre of my approach. I no longer meet with young people by themselves, or together with just one or two other leaders. Instead, I offer a series of parent-student and mentor-student learning events. I also provide at-home materials to support parents and young people to share life and faith together around the topics we are exploring in Confirmation. Put simply, I believe that forming the young person in faith means forming their household in faith.

Which brings me to last Sunday night … The learning topic was the Holy Spirit. Because the Holy Spirit is best understood and encountered through experience, not cognitive rumination, I set up a series of Reflection Stations exploring different aspects of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives (I found a variety of resources on the internet that proved very helpful). The parents and young people were invited to explore the Reflection Stations one at a time, in any order they wished. It was wonderful to then observe parents and their teenagers talking together, acting together and praying together. Not only were they reflecting on the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit was clearly alive at work in them and between them. They were being grown together in faith as they journeyed together. Yes, I could have given a 10 point lecture on the Holy Spirit. I could have given them worksheets to fill in. However, I don’t believe they would have retained and remembered very much if I did. I am much more confident that through talking and listening, sharing and discussing, doing and practicing, both parents and young people experienced the faith-forming power of the Spirit, individually and together.

Note:  You can download my Station Instruction Sheets here – feel free to use them as you wish.