Spiritual Formation

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?
Bible 6.jpg

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.

An Encouter with the Flannel Jesus...

In the church that I grew up in there was a rite of passage that you had to go through if you were in elementary school. It happened in the Winter and Spring of the fourth grade. It was absolutely unavoidable in my day, you simply had to go through it and hope you came out on the other side. No, it's not some kind of hazing or some intense "proving ground" as we prepared for our teenage years. It was Mrs. Gorton's fourth grade Sunday morning Bible class.

Perhaps the worst part of this experience was that the primary teaching method was the dreaded flannel board. This came with a seemingly endless supply of clouds, boats, loaves and fish, and Jesus in the same outfit that he always wore (it almost made you wonder if he had two outfits). The 12 Apostles all looked like brothers or at least cousins and they were all about 2 inches shorter and reasonably less handsome than Jesus. How could a kid like me ever survive six months of Bible class with this inhumane mode of teaching?

Mrs. Gorton was legendary. She had probably taught this class for well over a 1,000 years if not more. Her material never changed, her voice was firm, any form of distraction or not paying attention was greeted with a no tolerance policy. I'm sure she would have sent me out of class back to my parents had they not both been teaching at the same time. (I dodged a bullet there.)

For all the complaining, dread, and clock watching that I did in that cold classroom with the movable wall partitions and table with gum on the bottom I see things a little differently now. You see, this wasn't the last time that I interacted with Mrs. Edna Gorton. A few years older (not many) Mrs. Gorton has fallen victim to an agressive form of Alzheimer's and was in a nursing facility way across town. One week we decided that the youth group was going to go visit and sing hymns to/with Mrs. Gorton and those at her nursing facility. Two confessions here that I still think about: (1) I didn't even notice she wasn't around and (2) when I found out we were going to see her those same feelings of dread and impatience came rushing back. But something happened that night that I will never forget.

It was a cold night and the church van was jammed full. This was one of those nights that no matter how many layers you had on or how long the heater in the van had been running it was still cold. We pulled up to the nursing home and hesitantly went in. We went into this large open room that had a fountain in the middle and rather sizeable trees in large pots all around the outside. It was like a little oasis of life and warmth from the ice world we had just been in.

We finally found Mrs. Gorton and I couldn't hardly recognize her. She wasn't wearing her glasses that I'm sure she had had since maybe before I was born. Her frame had withered to not much more than skin and bones, she couldn't stop drewling, and was completely unresponsive to any engagement whether verbal or by touch. So we just began to sing circled around her wheelchair that she was restrained in because she lacked the strength to keep herself in it.

The first song garnered no response. The same with the second. The third song which wasn't in our music that had been prepared for us was My God and I. We knew it because many of us had just sang it at a funeral. We finished the first phrase "My God and I..." when Mrs. Gorton sat up and smiled. Her jaw began to quiver and her hands curled up. I wasn't sure what was happening. By the middle of the first verse we could tell what was happening. She was singing!! She joined us as we reached these words of the first verse...

My God and I walk through the meadow's hue;

We clasp our hands, our voices ring with laughter,

My God and I walk through the meadow's hue.

She lowered her head and went silent for a few moments. The third verse came around and the preacher started it with extra fervor and volume. And again Mrs. Gorton came to life joining us this time for the entire verse although still with eyes that were as blank as before.

My God and I will go for aye together,

We'll walk and talk as good friends should and do;

This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,

But God and I will go unendingly;

This earth will pass, and with it common trifles,

But God and I will go unendingly.

A with a smile on her face she took a deep breath and bowed her head and that was the last we were able to really interact with Mrs. Gorton.

I never saw her again. I don't know how long it was before she passed away, but that last time that I saw her, in retrospect, was probably one of the defining moments of my life.

You see I learned something about myself, Mrs. Gorton, and God that night. (Although I must admit I didn't learn it fully that night, but only after time and experience and some serious growing up.) I learned that in my arrogance and impatience I had severely limited the extent to which God was able to teach me and shape me. I learned that God works in ways that seem trivial, silly, or sometimes even downright insulting to our intelligence (Balaam and his donkey come to mind here).

More importantly I learned something about crusty, scary, old, and unpleasant Mrs. Gorton. I learned that in fact she wasn't any of those things (well, except old). In fact, she knew intimately something that I in some ways still haven't wrapped my mind around. For her, Jesus wasn't a white guy who always wore a white robe with a blue sash and brown sandles with his hands always lifted in some unnatural position. Jesus was alive, he was a dear friend and the one who set her heart on fire so that even after her mind had been devoured by her Alzheimers her spirit burst forth at the thought of God as her dearest friend and companion.

I'll never forget that flannel board. In fact, the last time I was at Northwest in the resource room I went and pulled out a flannel Jesus just to remember what she had taught me. An encounter with the flannel Jesus ultimately changed my life.

I hope someday to have the intimacy with God that was so obvious in my beloved Mrs. Gorton. I can't wait to tell her someday how thankful I am for that silly little flannel board.  

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7, NIV) 

#SilentCofC: Our Theological Assumptions About Children are Dangerous

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?

Worship Practices

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.

Education Practices

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.

Mission Practices

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:

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea." (Matthew 18:6, NRSV)

So, are our children as important as we say they are? What kinds of changes in our practices and language would need to take place to address some of the things that I have only mentioned briefly here?