Let the Children Come

Growing Healthy Children through Congregational Life

by Doreen Olson and Steve Burger

Five-year-old Joey bounded into the kindergarten classroom. “Teacher, is it true that God made all the people?” Without waiting for a response, he exclaimed, “I wonder where he got all the parts?”

Children have an innate sense of God at an early age. Joey’s sense of wonder exemplifies this truth. Often our best response as adults is one that allows plenty of room for that sense of wonder to flourish—and learn to develop that sense of wonder in ourselves.

What if the spiritual guidance we all need is meant to include children in a mutually beneficial way? It seems that’s precisely what Jesus intends. “Let the little children come to me and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Luke 18:15–17).

In a world that sends constant messages to children that they are not valued because of gender, ethnicity, ability, or physical appearance, the church ought to be the one place where every child knows he or she is loved

It would be difficult to read the Bible carefully without noticing that Jesus loves children. His actions demonstrate that he makes place for them. Respects and values them. Sees them as a vital part of his kingdom. As Jesus walked this earth, his actions demonstrated that he desired that all of us be healthy and whole, experiencing an abundant, joyful life. Children are no exception.

Aiming for the whole-person health of children is essential if we are to live into the teachings of Jesus. Congregational leaders need to carefully consider what that means. What might a nurturing environment for children look like in the church and beyond?

Research conducted by Church Leadership found that children who do not feel valued or needed by the church community will leave the church as they enter into adulthood. But what does it mean to a child to be valued?

For preschoolers, it’s the opportunity to help. They want to emulate what they see adults doing. Yes, it may take more time, but they will feel valued if we encourage and provide space for them to help in the ministry of the church even if it’s just for minutes at a time. Grade-school children feel valued when they belong. In a world that sends constant messages to children that they are not valued because of gender, ethnicity, ability, or physical appearance, the church ought to be the one place where every child knows he or she is loved and valued by God and the church community. We can do this by inviting children to enter into the ministry and mission of the church.

In short, we need to view children as whole persons, fully belonging to the community of faith. The health of the body of Christ, the church, is inextricably linked to the whole-person health of children. Our future absolutely depends upon it as the church is always just one generation away from extinction.

Consider these truths. Children can:
• Be forgiven and forgive others.
• Be a disciple and make disciples.
• Identify injustice and stand up for the bullied.
• Pray and lead prayer.
• Worship and lead worship.
• Share the love of God and extend mercy.
• Reflect on their place in God’s story and share their faith story with others.

If we believe this, their fingerprints should be all over our ministries.

In what ways might we consistently and faithfully give evidence through our congregations that we aim for the whole-person health of children? A five-part framework gives some guidance.

1. Encourage a sense of wonder in children and let a sense of wonder infect all ages. Spiritual experiences with God can happen long before children can articulate what they are experiencing. As adults, we may need to give voice to what they are experiencing and help them learn from it. At the same time, adults need to enlarge their own capacity for wonder and curiosity in order to keep growing spiritually. It’s mutually beneficial to foster communication between children and adults. Our health and growth depends upon it.

Eight-year-old Habtamu listened intently as his grandmother read the story of a woman who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment and was healed. Jesus had felt the power go from him and asked, “Who touched me?” “Wow,” Habtamu exclaimed, “that’s a lot of power! How much power does Jesus have? And how did he feel it leave him?” As his grandmother engaged in this wonder-filled conversation, she found her own sense of wonder and amazement was fostered.

2. Equip parents and grandparents to nurture children in a life of faith. Research consistently shows that modeling faith and engaging in faith-talk at home and dialogue with other adults on faith and life are strong contributors to lasting faith in children and youth. Parents have the greatest spiritual influence on children, so let’s equip them to be effective spiritual mentors for their children.

Six-year old Aubrey sat in rapt attention as her parents told the stories of how they came to know Jesus and chose to follow his way. The intergenerational class gave opportunity for parents to experience faith-talk with their children. Afterward, Aubrey’s parents reflected, “We’ve talked about the Bible and stories of God’s people at home but haven’t thought to tell our own stories of faith. Through this conversation, we can see how much that’s needed.”

3. Empower children. Inviting children into ministry and releasing them to engage in the mission and ministry of the church empowers them toward whole-person health and contributes to the health of the church.

Empowering means doing, not just telling; inviting consistent participation in ministry; giving opportunity to express thoughts, ideas or questions, and telling their stories; living into the reality that participation is more important than perfection.

Empowering is about demonstrating, then handing the reigns over and providing ongoing encouragement. Empowering children at an early age through intergenerational worship and church relationships has been linked in studies with lasting faith.

The second grade Sunday school teacher in a small rural church asked his class at the beginning of its new season whether they wanted to once again practice a quiet prayer at the start of each class. “We worked our way up to seven minutes of silence by the end of your first grade year, so where do you think we should begin?” After some reflection, the seven-year-olds took a realistic approach. Feeling a bit out of practice, they decided to begin the new school year with five minutes of silence and see how that might increase.

Other ways to empower children include inviting them to serve and lead in and with the congregation. Ideas are plentiful: read Scripture in worship, lead prayer, usher, share their faith stories, help with hospitality, greet, participate in a mission trip, reflect on Scripture, help with set-up, visit shut-ins, be a prayer partner, serve in the community, use skills in the arts.

4. Engage families in ministries of compassion and justice, both in and outside the church. A sense of belonging and value is engendered through using our gifts in ministry. Children need to have opportunity to discover and develop their gifts in service to others. Alongside others, these shared experiences as families and as a church body lead to having a shared story and a lasting identity as disciples of Jesus.

Eight-year old Erik was among the children, teens and adults who traveled from Chicago to the John Perkins Center in Jackson, Mississippi, to minister for a week in the community. He developed a bigger picture of the kingdom of God beyond his own church. He saw new friends within the community demonstrate love and grace despite life being hard and full of injustices. The relationships with adults who attended from his church continue to deepen as well as his relationship with Christ.

5. Enter the kingdom of God by receiving it like a child. Young children are great examples of receiving. From birth, children are dependent upon others to provide what is needed. No earning it. No sense of whether they deserve it or not. The kingdom of God is offered like that. But often as adults we think we have to earn or deserve it. So Jesus pointed to a child to help us see another perspective.

Eight-year-old Mia broke into spontaneous applause as she heard the resurrection story for the first time. Her response to the good news of God’s kingdom was exuberant and immediate joy. No hesitation. No question that this good news was given freely and without cost. Unless we receive the kingdom of God like a child, Jesus says, we cannot enter it at all.

“Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.” Church leaders don’t intentionally hinder children from coming to Jesus. In fact, many congregational ministries are created with the goal of introducing children to Jesus and nurturing their faith. But when, in the church, children are isolated rather than invited to serve, when they are not given opportunity to lead or be engaged, when they are not given a voice, then unintentional barriers can result.

So what might be the next steps? Begin by thinking about what you are already doing. Where are children currently being invited and empowered in ministry? Which of the five dimensions of the framework are current strengths? How might you bring added focus to the whole-person health of children in your congregation?

Attending to the whole-person health of the child is a mutually beneficial endeavor. Engaging relationally and compassionately creates healthy identity that lasts a lifetime for all.

Children and the Faith Community:
Key Scriptural Concepts
Children are welcome in God’s kingdom | Luke 18:16–17
The Word of God is for children | Deuteronomy 31:10–13
Teach children God’s Word | Psalm 78:5–7, Proverbs 22:6
Promise of the gospel for children | Acts 2:38–39
Children can be God’s ambassadors | 1 Samuel 3:1–19
Parents called as spiritual mentors | Proverbs 1:8, 1 Thessalonians 2:11–12
Faith community called to nurture children | Deuteronomy 6:4–7
One body, many valued members | 1 Corinthians 12:14–26

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