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Why the Church Needs to Fully Incorporate Children

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In this photo a little girl in our church was recreating the scene of Jesus and Blind Bartimaeus. Children share the experience of Bartimaeus when the church hinders them from encountering Jesus.

People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; stop forbidding them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such people as children.” Mark 10:13-14

When you read this passage, how do you imagine these kids? Are they well-behaved? Do they have good manners? Are they quiet and demure? Do we imagine them to be like smaller and cuter versions of adults? I do. Yet most kids in my personal experience (including my own) are boisterous, messy, and fidgety. We judge the disciples for being so mean for keeping such sweet children away from Jesus – but what if they were actually more like the little ruffians we know?

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These kids look unrealistically well behaved.

The story in Mark, if it were set in the present day, might sound like this: People were bringing the little children to the Sunday worship so that Jesus might touch them. The pastors did not want the congregation to be distracted by the noise and unpredictability of the children, so they created a separate children’s church. Or maybe…. the church was okay with the children being in the service as long as they were quiet and sat still.

We are okay with children being with us as long as they act like adults. Including difference means conforming to the culture of the dominant group, in this case, the culture of adulthood. Children are tolerated more than welcomed. Adults do not ask for their contribution to the work of the people, that is the liturgy.

Maybe we look to a few specialists to support and care for our children and then we segregate the children out of most our corporate worship time. The children’s minister becomes the proxy who receives the little ones on the church’s behalf. Except hospitality can never be experienced by proxy.

In the church’s corporate worship, the children’s participation is missing.    

Like the disciples, when we see children, we see them as problems to be solved. 

Yet Jesus repeatedly welcomes and affirms children in a world that was much less sentimental about children than our own culture. He does not just include them, but he holds them up as models of entering the kingdom (Mark 10:15) and radically identifies with them when he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37).

Paul uses the metaphor of the body in 1 Corinthians 12 to highlight diversity within unity and he subverts hierarchical power structures by saying that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable… for God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member. When we read this passage, do we think of children? Do we think of children as being indispensable to our worship? The church embodies faithful worship and communion with God in and through children who are fellow members in the body of Christ and co-participants in the Kingdom.

We see children as problems to be solved.

Jesus sees them as forerunners who lead us into the kingdom.

Paul sees them as indispensable members for the life of the body.

My first Sunday at Life on the Vine Community Church was on a Palm Sunday. Children processed into the sanctuary, singing and carrying palm branches. As they joyfully marched around the center altar singing Hosannas, I noticed the circle becoming more crowded with adults. That is when I realized that the children were handing extra palm branches to adults and leading them by the hand into the celebratory dance. Before long, we were all circling and singing – it was an exuberant moment with the children leading us with playful freedom and joy. Since that day, there have been so many moments when I’ve heard a shout of ‘Amen!’ from a child, a teenager reading Scripture, a kindergartner nervously sharing a story of wonder, a young child offering heartfelt simple prayer, a line of children snake-dancing around the outside of the room while we sing praise – and in their presence, the whole church is drawn in to the dance of the Triune God.

Jesus says we must become like children while the church tells children that they must become like adults. We know that the church has a responsibility to pass on the faith to children as they mature into adulthood, but we miss that the children as children have gifts that adults desperately need – gifts that can usher us into the presence of God. Children are not nuisances to be tolerated or cute comic relief in the service. They are meaningful participants in the work of the kingdom!

Children image the Creator God in their natural abilities to:

  1. Play. Kids intuitively experience play as a means to make creative connections and can quickly improvise new possibilities. Through the act of playing, the players see the world in new ways and create deeper bonds with one another.
  1. Be present in the moment. Kids do not get bogged down in the shame of the past or worry for the future. They make their home in the present where God always waits to meet us.
  1. Wonder. Kids see the world through eyes of faith. They are not cynical. They are open and free to entertain the impossible. When we tell the stories of the Bible to our children, rather than ask them propositional questions to test for comprehension, we ask them wondering questions that invite them to see the story from the inside. Their responses are often profound and different than adult responses.
  1. Love. Kids are more open-minded and generous toward others. When Eden was two years old, she would say goodbye to each person in our house group and give them a hug. I loved looking at the facial expression of the guy who was there for the first time and – of course, Eden gives him a hug without reservation. His face would turn from uncertainty to delight. Her hugs were a weekly grace: in Eden’s embrace, we also felt God’s embrace.

As we embrace the differences that children represent as gifts and full participants in the kingdom, God gives renewal, growth, and maturity to the church. Maybe as we embrace the difference of children, we can also begin to embrace the many other differences that so easily divide the body of Christ.

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The ideas here were inspired and developed from the book, Incorporating Children in Worship by Michelle A. Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin. This blog post stands on their giant shoulders and their book is a must read.

Life on the Vine uses Young Children and Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman as a guide for worshipping with children.

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