I have this deep conviction that shapes the way I think about the world, my faith, and my place in God's mission:
ALL OF OUR PRACTICES ARE EMBODIMENTS OF OUR THEOLOGICAL CONVICTIONS (ABOUT GOD AND THE WORLD) EVEN IF THEY HAVE NEVER BEEN ARTICULATED.
Yesterday's introductory post to this conversation has absolutely exploded. With 200x the traffic of any other post I have ever written and with emails and Facebook messages coming in from around the world we have clearly struck a chord. Painful stories from victims, messages from people who were ostracized for their bravery to expose abuse, people asking "have you ever heard about _____?". The narratives are heartbreaking, and a number of them will be featured here in the coming days and weeks.
But today, I want to explore what I think is one of the most important underlying realities that have made addressing this issue all the more complicated in Churches of Christ. What I am about to suggest may be seen as controversial by some and offensive by others, but it is written out of deep love and respect for our tradition and from a genuine concern for the children (including my own!) in our churches and their formation in the way of Jesus.
What do our practices say about the value we place on children?
Typically (and I am thankful for one that the congregation I attend is a wonderful exception) children are not utilized (and certainly not our young girls!). While I understand that this some will suggest that this is merely for pragmatic reasons, I believe that this also betrays a much more elemental theological assumption that I will explore shortly.
Our children are typically segregated from the rest of the church for their education from birth through college age. I recognize the need for age-appropriate formation, but this practice (distance from the "adults") again underlines and reinforces the root conviction that we need to talk about.
Our children have little (if any) role in the larger mission of the church. Perhaps bringing some change for the missionaries, or being taught about basic moral principles (like kindness, sharing, and obedience... not particularly Christian traits), but they are not (in my experience) treated as "equal" in value or in their ability to contribute to the work of God in the world.
So what is the underlying theological conviction here that I believe makes our children more susceptible to abuse (sexual and otherwise) and neglect (spiritual and otherwise)?
WE DO NOT TREAT OUR CHILDREN AS EQUAL MEMBERS OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD. WE INSTEAD TREAT THEM AS IF THEY ARE "CHRISTIANS IN WAITING" OR POTENTIAL CONVERTS WHEN THEY REACH THE APPROPRIATE AGE.
The results of this unspoken (and perhaps unconscious) assumption are the following:
- Sometimes we view the formation of our children as the duty that should be filled by those who are willing. We spend time begging, recruiting, or relegating certain adults to a "life sentence" of "children's ministry" (why isn't it just ministry?) and in congregations of all shapes and sizes it can be a perpetual challenge to maintain. Well, guess who is always willing to go above and beyond?
- A child's "distance" from the life of the church creates a dangerous "gap" in their formation. Our unwillingness to allow children to participate fully in the worshiping life of the congregation (for example by denying them admission to Communion, not allowing them to lead the congregation in the ways that they are able and gifted, and the total exclusion of our girls) creates within our children a great disconnect between their lives and the lives of (adult) members of the Kingdom of God. Well guess who is willing to tell them what God "wants them to do"? (Remember what we said in the previous post about "stayers"!)
- Our segregation of children minimizes "safe" adults. If an abuser has placed themselves within our children's formation in our churches (bible classes, Vacation Bible School, youth ministry, short-term mission trips) and the children are largely isolated, or more accurately, segregated from the rest of the church, we have significantly diminished the number of safe adults which our children can know, love, and seek help from in instances of abuse.
For more about this read my previous post:
A Gospel Big Enough for Little Ones?
One of the conversations that we need to have in Churches of Christ is not merely about prevention policies and procedures for addressing disclosures of abuse. We need to talk about the underlying assumptions about God, the Gospel, and the mission of God in the world that shape the way our churches treat and shape and protect our children. The consequences are too high for us to do otherwise. After all, it was Jesus himself who said: