Matthew 18:1-5 is a foundational passage for children’s ministry. Jesus calls a little child and has them stand in the midst of his adult disciples. He then presents the child as a model for entry into the kingdom of heaven – “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” – and establishes “child welcoming” as a locus for his presence – “whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”
These words of Jesus are astounding and revolutionary; they were so for the hearers of his time, and they are for us today. They invite us to reflect deeply on what it means for us to relate to children and what they offer to us as participants within the body of Christ. In our times they have also inspired a great deal of conversation and contemplation within the Child Theology Movement. What does it mean for Jesus to place a “child in our midst”? In what ways does that affect our understandings of God, ourselves and our life in the world as God’s people?
One of the realities of ministering to children as adults is that we are ministering to those who, God-willing, will one day also be adults. Our ministries to them and with them become part of their life journeys. They are inevitably changed, to some extent or another, through our interactions with them. In touching the life of a child in the present we are touching the future. Moreover, through our stewardship (positively and negatively) of God’s gifts in the present we are perhaps opening up or closing down aspects of the future for them. I think particularly of our treatment of the environment. Through our individual and collective decisions about energy use and carbon emissions, for instance, we are generating consequences that our children and grandchildren will have to bear. What is our response as God’s people, who hear and receive his call to take care of his “garden” (Genesis 2:15)? It is one thing to live with an adult, present-focused perspective (“if it’s not affecting me now, I won’t worry about it”). It is another thing to open our eyes and our hearts to the child whom Jesus places in our midst and to lovingly tend the future they will inherit.