I recently went to a Children’s Ministries conference in Columbus, Ohio. It was hosted by our own Nazarene Children’s Leadership Network. There were workshops, keynote speakers, books and materials to buy, and a good social experience. I’m a huge supporter of ministry to/for/with children. Part of my education was in children’s spirituality and how to foster and strengthen a child’s relationship with God. Reformed theologians, at least Baptists, would prefer the term ‘acquaintance’ rather than ‘relationship’ when referring to children. One other reason why I like being Wesleyan!
So, in what follows, I am not at all attempting to malign children’s leaders. However, I think there is a key distinction that has had far-reaching ramifications when it comes to passing on our faith to the children in our churches.
I first noticed this a few years ago, while looking into the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). The Shema is a cornerstone passage in Children’s Ministry. If you work with children and haven’t heard of the Shema, you should check it out! Also, read past verse 9 and get cozy with verses 20-25. There’s some good stuff in there, too.
Anyway, I remember growing more and more frustrated with authors, speakers, and teachers of Children’s Ministry because, even though they hold the Shema as their flagship Scripture, they by and large misinterpret it. And to the detriment of their cause. This is a frustration I have expressed among my peers and advisors, who helped me to see this misreading of the text.
Here is how the Shema is typically interpreted: “Parents, teach your children about our faith. Teach them the stories and the characters, so that they can grow in their relationship with the Lord.” And so, we develop programs to get parents involved in the faith development of their offspring; we create booklets, design lesson plans, write family devotionals, and find creative ways to invite guardians into our ministry so they can take ownership over their children’s spiritual formation.
Here is the problem: the Shema isn’t addressing the parents. The Shema is addressing the entire community of believers. It is the role of the whole community to pass on the faith. Certainly parents play a special role in that, but the responsibility of raising our children to fear the Lord rests upon the community as a whole. What does that mean for us, millennia later? – The role of passing on the faith is the responsibility of the Church, not exclusive of the parents.
Somewhere along the way we have lost this. We have relegated spiritual development of children to a family endeavor, regardless of how sound or knowledgeable our parents are in their own understanding of the faith. We cannot imagine children not being always and only under the tutelage of their parental guardians.
One of the biggest reasons I hear against having children join in the regular worship service is that they will be a distraction to their parents. Disregarding the fact that such a statement assumes that parents are more important than their children, this assumption is completely ignorant of the fact that parents are not the only people involved in the faith development of our children. Let me illustrate:
For most of my childhood, I do not remember sitting with my parents in the Sunday morning worship service. Even during the Sunday night service, I do not remember sitting with them very often. But, I do remember Don and Martha. They were an older couple who sat in the middle rows of the sanctuary about 6 rows behind my parents. My friend and I would always push each other to ask for candy, and Martha would somehow magically present us with it.
There were other adults in the church who looked out for me and spoke into my life while I was a child, but Don and Martha left a mark on my life that I will never forget. In fact, it was Martha who first sensed I was called to ministry. Not even myself or my own parents started to catch on until several years later! And it was Martha who helped me to accept the Lord as my personal savior. I don’t remember the details of when/where/how, but my fuzzy memory of the whole affair has an unmistakably ‘Marthan’ aroma to it.
Now we come to the point of all this. Why do we wrongly assume that parents and ‘professionals’ are the only ones capable of speaking into the life of our children? Why do we continue these endeavors to separate our young people from the rest of the community that is responsible for their upbringing? Is it because we are afraid of what other people in the church might teach our children? If so, then I feel that speaks more to what we are teaching our adults than what we are teaching our young people. If we don’t even trust the theology of our seasoned veterans of the faith, then something has seriously gone awry! Perhaps we should stop with the gimmicky themes, programs, and events, and focus on – I don’t know – teaching sound fundamental doctrine, if that is the case. I know of many parents who, themselves, can hardly articulate the basics of Christian belief, so why not involve others in the process of teaching their children?
I love parents. I love the work that parents do. But parents can’t do everything. Spiritual formation absolutely occurs inside of the home, and in ways that cannot be replicated within a church setting. However, that does not excuse the rest of the community from adhering to their part of the deal. And it certainly does not excuse us from withholding children from the faith community.
“Hear, O Isreal: […]
These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children.” (Emphasis mine)
. Or, even more so, regardless of whether or not they are believers themselves.
. Should it not concern us that we have to ‘hyphenate’ our worship services? What hubris to claim we can justifiably segregate the community of faith!