This week I have been attending a major, ecumenical children’s ministry leadership conference. Participants have come from every state in my country, as well as from New Zealand. I have been blessed to meet and interact with many gifted leaders who share a passion for children, youth, families and the wellbeing of the church. But one thing has surprised me and saddened me … of all the attendees, I am the only senior pastor! I can’t help but wonder if this reflects a view that children’s ministry is something of a sideline activity in congregational life, adjunct to the “real business” of church ministry. [Along these lines, one of the conference presenters commented that, in effect, the senior pastor in most churches is really the “adult pastor”. Ministry to children is seen as the domain of other pastors, staff or lay people, not an area of primary focus for key congregational leaders.]
So why have I come? Contrary to the above, I am of the view that ministry to children should and must matter to church leaders! … that it warrants and deserves much more attention from those in primary leadership positions in our churches. Here are some big reasons why:
Jesus’ Teachings about Children
Jesus’ words about children call and invite us to welcome, include and esteem them as a primary practice of communal faith life. Christ says to his disciples, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.” (Matthew 18:5). He also declares, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14) The implications of these words are truly astounding, and present many challenges for adult-oriented and adult-focussed forms of church life and practice.
- In extending hospitality and honour to children, we receive Christ himself into our communities of faith.
- According to Jesus, children in our circles of faith are not Christians-under-construction but citizens of heaven just as they are.
- Adults are called to ensure that nothing in our circles of faith hinders children from receiving and encountering Christ.
Moreover, Jesus declares that adults can and should uphold children as models of faith for imitation. “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3) Here children are placed into the position of teacher and adults in the position of learner.
What would it mean for the church to take Jesus’ words seriously … to place children into their midst as did Jesus? Perhaps we would experience the presence of Jesus more keenly … perhaps we would learn more about what it means to accept and embrace and serve … perhaps we would rediscover a profound simplicity of faith in valuing and learning from our children. Perhaps we would experience new life and growth by being drawn more deeply into God’s love for all his children! I strongly suspect we would!
The Gifts Our Children Bring
Children offer to our communities of faith a spirit of wonder, creativity and enthusiasm that is often absent in adult-oriented environments. The faith and presence of children enlivens and blesses people of all ages. In my own ministry context, I have observed that children lack many of the inhibitions of their parents and other adults. They often volunteer, participate and contribute more willingly and enthusiastically. In valuing the presence and giftedness of children, congregations are led to discover and explore new expressions of faith which enrich all.
The Hope of Renewal and Revival
In every age the church is confronted with the need to adapt in the face of new trends and challenges. Very often those at the cutting edge of this adaptation are constructively and thoughtfully involved in ministering to children and young people (for example, Thomas Bergler has chronicled the impact of innovations in youth ministry in the last century in shaping contemporary expressions of church). Church leaders do well to pay attention to emerging trends in ministry to children and youth, and to the conversations and reflections of child and youth ministry practitioners.
It is often said that children are the “future of the church” (… of course, they are also very much the “present” of the church”). Can I suggest that the seeds of the “church of the future” are already being planted in today’s efforts to minister to children?
In my view then, the development and practice of children’s ministry is simply too important for key church leaders to ignore or devalue!
What do you think?