A Gospel Big Enough for Little Ones...

Jesus loves me this I know,
     for the Bible tells me so.
Little ones to him belong,
     they are weak but he is strong.

In this series I want to ask if the way that we talk about the Gospel is big enough to include the scope of which Scripture itself speaks, and of the people that are served by those churches. The language that we use, and their formative impact both intentional and unavoidable, have immense consequences for any community of believers. So in this installment I want to explore this question:

IS THE GOSPEL AS IT IS TAUGHT AND IMPLIED IN YOUR COMMUNITY OF FAITH BIG ENOUGH TO INCLUDE CHILDREN AS CHILDREN?

Here are just a few of the issues and questions that need to be asked when thinking about the Gospel and its implications for children as children:

  • Does the way your church talks about the Gospel have a place for children to be full participants in the life and mission of the church?
  • Does the death and resurrection of Jesus have tangible implications for children as children or is its "real value" found only by those mature enough to grasp their own sinfulness and need of redemption? In other words, is the saving work of Jesus for them now, or for them soon/someday?
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The way in which we teach the Gospel to children speaks volumes about our convictions about God, evil, the life of the church, and the redemptive work of Christ.

If you want to know what someone thinks about the Gospel, ask them how they explain it to the children in their family or in their church.

DOES THE WAY YOUR CHURCH TALKS ABOUT THE GOSPEL HAVE A PLACE FOR CHILDREN TO BE FULL PARTICIPANTS IN THE LIFE AND MISSION OF THE CHURCH?

Are children welcome to participate in worship in keeping with their desire and gifting? Could a child read Scripture in the assembly? Can they participate in Communion? Do they feel as if they are full members of the Kingdom of God or merely as little ones who someday will decide to be Christians? Does your church employ language that struggles to articulate their relationship to the larger church (you might not necessarily call them "members" like you do an adult) and to the saving work of Christians (that they might not be thought of as "saved" in the same way as adults)? Does your church have any way for children to serve as equal participants (and not some other, more marginal capacity like "helpers") in God's redemptive mission in the world?

If your answer to any of these questions is "no" then it is possible that the way the Gospel is articulated in your community and the way that it is formed in the heart of that child is not big enough to include children as children

DOES THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF JESUS HAVE TANGIBLE IMPLICATIONS FOR CHILDREN AS CHILDREN OR IS ITS "REAL VALUE" FOUND ONLY BY THOSE MATURE ENOUGH TO GRASP THEIR OWN SINFULNESS AND NEED OF REDEMPTION? IN OTHER WORDS, IS THE SAVING WORK OF JESUS FOR THEM NOW, OR FOR THEM SOON // SOMEDAY?

When your community speaks to children about the death and resurrection of Jesus when do children experience the implications and benefits made possible by Christ's saving work? Is the Good News something for them in heaven (after death), when they reach the "age of accountability" and receive forgiveness of sins (after childhood), or in the present? Does your church use language that speaks about children as "innocent" or "exempt" that suggests that in some ways they are not (currently) in need of the redemptive work of Jesus? Is the primary formational response to the Gospel one of hope for the future (heaven or the forgiveness of sins when they become "accountable") or is it focused on the ethical response to the work of Christ here and now as children?

If your community struggles to articulate how children are active participants in the gospel as children then it is possible that the way you instill the gospel in children is not large enough to include them as children. 

ANY ARTICULATION OF THE GOSPEL THAT ISN'T GOOD NEWS FOR AND INCLUSIVE OF CHILDREN IS INSUFFICIENT. IT HAS CONSEQUENCES FOR THE FORMATION OF OUR KIDS AND MUST BE REIMAGINED TO BETTER ARTICULATE THE TRUTH THAT THE GOSPEL IS GOOD NEWS FOR ALL PEOPLE, NOT JUST ALL ADULT PEOPLE. 

Here are just a couple of ways that an articulation of the Gospel that isn't big enough for children as children has the power to (mis)shape the precious little ones in our care:

  • There emerges a false dichotomy between between childhood and "early adulthood". For little ones the Good News of the Gospel becomes little more than some form of preemptive insurance. It is information and truth that they will need as they emerge from childhood. There is often a move from positive, generic ethical actions (be kind, share, tell the truth, etc.) to more "Christian" practices such a repentance, baptism, spiritual disciplines, evangelism, and leadership development. 
  • The elements that "transition" them from children to "youth" are not theologically animated but are typically arbitrary (age, grade in school, etc.) This results in the formation of children serving functionally as some form of incubation or inoculation. It is preventative or formative work for when they can "respond" to the Gospel. And it is assumed, by the structure of many churches, that this place of transformation is rooted in someone's (arbitrary) age or educational achievement. 
  • We have done little to form and prepare children who do not continue in our congregation's spiritual formation program into adulthood. I think we would find that in this paradigm most children who don't remain in the community of faith into adulthood leave with little more than some basic ethical teachings they could get anywhere and a smattering of biblical stories, some of which could prove to be problematic later.

SO WHAT MIGHT BE WE DO TO BETTER ARTICULATE A GOSPEL THAT IS BIG ENOUGH FOR CHILDREN WHILE THEY ARE CHILDREN?

There are a number of important textual and theological questions that need to be explored as well as some time to reflect on our language and practice that I want to explore in future posts. So for now, let me propose a number of possibilities without explanation or the theological convictions behind these suggestions (that is what the future posts are for):

  • Children should be more intentionally incorporated into the worship service including in leading songs, prayers, and the reading of Scripture.
  • Children should be welcome and guided very intentionally as they participate in the Lord's Supper from an early age.
  • Children should be formed in an environment that engages them with the real ethical and moral questions that face their peers (e.g., hunger, abuse, poverty, death, etc.).
  • The biblical narratives that we choose as the primary formation of our children should be thought out more carefully than simply the stories that are "memorable" and can capture the imagination, but which can ultimately prove to be difficult and problematic texts later in life.

There can be no doubt that the church has both a great responsibility and great opportunity in the formation of children as participants in God's redemptive work in the world. May we take such a task with utter seriousness.