God’s Plan for Generational Blessing Through the Church

Are we prepared to put the same strategic, financial and people resources into nurturing the children of the church, and reaching the unchurched child, that we pour into our evangelism courses, youth work and church fabric budgets?

Dave Roberts was a founding publisher of Youthwork magazine, the annual Eastbourne, UK children’s ministry training event. This attracts up to 1000 people from nations across Europe every year. He is the editor of the Aim Lower Journal

It is my belief that there will be a spiritual revival in many nations of the world during the corning decades. There will be multiple reasons for this. Worldwide prayer movements will release a passion for evangelism; Adults will be won by the reflective, process of faith discovery found in the welcome courses of many churches.  World events will prompt a renewed sense of spiritual need. Individual Christians will carry their faith to the communities in which they live. But a key factor will be a renewed purpose in the worldwide church with respect to children.

The need is urgent. A church leader from Liverpool, England told me that youth work in his area is often futile. ‘They are hardened criminals by the age of 12,’ he said, ‘If we don’t reach them before that they become difficult to speak to.’ He put his words into action and was part of a team that reached over 2,000 unchurched children every week. His passion is needed.

The challenge for the church is this:

  • Are we prepared to put the same strategic, financial and people resources into nurturing the children of the church, and reaching the unchurched child, that we pour into our evangelism courses, youth work and church fabric budgets?
  • Are we willing via schools work, midweek clubs, Sunday schools and specialist programmes, to re-stock the imagination of the children of our society with the knowledge of the Christian story?
  • Will we seek to create a climate where a seed planted in the life of a child can bear fruit in the teenage or adults years? Will we make this a priority? Gavin Reid, the former Bishop of Maidstone believes we must. He told a gathering of children’s evangelists that research indicated that ‘76% of adult converts refer to childhood faith experiences’.

These then are the headlines. How can we begin to implement these goals? First we need to clarify the principles that will inform our actions

From a firm foundation
Much of the way we think is expressed in proverbs or short verses. We all need memorable lines that capture our understanding of life and how to live it. When you think of children, verses such as: ‘Train up a child in the way that they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it’ (Proverbs 22:6), and ‘suffer the little children to come unto me’ (Matthew 19:14) spring immediately to mind.

Behind these pithy proverbs, however, lies a pattern of thought in the Bible that can help us understand our roots. From these roots spring our values. From these values spring our actions. Before we can discover God’s plan for the children of this generation, we must first discern his eternal heart for children.

His Heart
There are six distinct biblical patterns that will guide us as we seek to work with children. These are:

• God loves and values children from their conception.
• God asks parents to both teach and care for their children, and gives the parent the primary role in their spiritual nurture.
• Children are to be involved in our communal worship gatherings.
• God uses children and youth at pivot points in the salvation history of Israel as his messengers. The Bible values age and wisdom for government and authority, but clearly mandates children to be carriers of truth into the most difficult of situations.
• Jesus was very clear cut in including children when others were ready to exclude or marginalise them.
• The Scripture returns again and again to a concern for the orphan and widowed, and also has significant counsel for parents regarding the physical and emotional well being of their children.

We will also find it rewarding if we seek an understanding of education in Bible times. All of the above combine to give us a comprehensive picture. Let’s look now at the details.

God’s heart for children
The Psalms are a rich source of insight into God’s heart for children. Psalm 71:6 reminds us that ‘From my birth I have relied on you, you brought me forth from my mother’s womb. I will ever praise you.’ The Christian concern for the child is rooted in the recognition that we are all made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), and that each and every child has dignity and purpose as a result. The psalmist in Psalm 139:13-14 tells us that God has ‘Created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.’

As you read on you will discover a rich matrix of biblical teaching on nurture, discipline and the passing on of the faith. The foundation of it all, however, is that we worship a God whose ‘loving kindess endureth forever’ (Psalm 136) and who is ‘slow to anger and abounding in mercy … as a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him’ (Psalm 103). We need to help our children grasp the compassion of their heavenly father. As we start on a journey of understanding about work with children, it’s the release of a ‘sense of wonder’; an awe, a reverence and an amazement that we want to enable, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to enter their lives. Telling stories and drawing the conclusions is not enough unless they feel the heartbeat of the Father of creation through all we say and do.

An understanding of the grace that God shows towards us and the godly joy that can be our response is vital. The authors of The Child in Christian Thought (Eerdmans) describe the attitude towards children of the key figures of the last 2,000 years. All, it seemed, were trying to walk the tightrope between discipline and nurture. Some emphasised the sinfulness and rebellion of the child and the need for strong discipline. Others, such as the early church father John Chrysostom, believed that our rebellion ‘soiled’ the image of God within us, rather than causing us to be ‘totally depraved’. God, in this view, has taken the initiative to heal and restore us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Chrysostom used the metaphor of the artist as a description of parents. ‘To each of you fathers and mothers, I say, just as we see artists fashioning their paintings and statues with great precision, so we must care for these wondrous statues of ours. Painters, when they have set the canvas on the easel paint on it day by day to accomplish their purpose.’ Gregory and Suzanne Wolfe writing in Circle of Grace (Ballantine) capture it beautifully: ‘The secret to your child’s moral and spiritual development is this: Your child should not simply admire goodness, but should actually fall in love with goodness.’

The theologian, Horace Bushnell, writing in his landmark Christian Nurture expresses it this way: We should rather seek to teach a feeling than a doctrine; to bathe the child in their own feeling of love of God and dependence on Him … ; to make what is good, happy and attractive, what is wrong, odious and hateful; then as understanding advances, to give it food suited to its capacily.’

This emphasis on the grace of God through Jesus as the dominant note in the biblical symphony creates a different response than a theological tune dominated by God’s judgement of rebellious, hard-hearted people. The second view is important, but is by no means the only theme in the Scripture. It the warning note to those inclined to take God’s love for granted.

Extensive research, with over 8,000 individuals, by the Lutheran sponsored Search Institute identified 10 characteristics of committed youth. Understanding grace and living in grace is considered key. The authors reflect in Passing on the Faith (St Mary’s Press) that: ‘If a grace-oriented relationship with God is not modelled and taught … the tendency of children and youth is to interpret Christianily as a religion of expectations, demands or requirements. As a result, many grow into adulthood assuming that their efforts to live a good life qualify them as Christians. Their attention is on what they do and not on what God has done, is doing and will do for them.’

On the frontline of grace
Another major thread in the faith and life tapestry is the role of the parent. The church fathers have been very clear on this. The parent or influential adult is a key ‘means of grace’ for the child. Martin Luther said ‘Most certainly father and mother are apostles, bishops and priests to their children, for it is they who make them acquainted with the gospel.’ Karl Barth encourages parents to ‘joyfully invite children to “rejoice” with them in God.’ The parent has the potential to interact with the child in several ways. Here is a brief summary.

• Facts – the parent shares the facts of the faith.
• Example – the parent offers the child an example of Christ.
• Revelation – the parent equips the child for revelation py introducing them to the Scripture and prayer.
• Doing – the parent helps the child ‘learn by doing’.
• Parable – the parent shares their own faith and that of others via story telling.
• Tradition- the parent promotes everyday rituals and traditions that provide both order, structure and faith content for the child.
• Reference – the parent is an anchor and a reference point for the child as they learn the lessons of life.

This ideal is not always the reality. In Passing on the Faith the authors tell us that their research indicates that the average church going family is not talking about faith to their children (65% reported no family devotional life). Walter Brueggemann, theologian and writer notes that: ‘One major function of intergenerational life is to transmit the stories and promises which identify the family, so that each new generation has an inheritance that gives both identity and roots, purpose and vocation.’

Much of this happens in the mundane things of life. The National Merit Scholars organisation found that the one thing that most of the high achieving students had in common was that they ate dinner with their family almost every day. The key factor in their growth was domestic. Christian thinkers from across the traditions and from around the world, are calling the church to rediscover the primacy of the ‘domestic church’. In the face of societal breakdown and the spiritually thin Christian household it may seem like a new message, but it’s timeless, echoing through the Scripture and church history.

The influential thinker and theologian Jonathan Edwards reminds us: ‘Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church consecrated to Christ… family education and order are some of the chief means of grace. If these fail all other means are likely to prove ineffectual.’ This positive influence is not solely the prerogative of the traditional two-parent family, with positive adults and circles of adult acquaintance also being crucial for a child’s growth and maturity. A University of California study into why some teens from difficult situations were more resilient than others discovered that: ‘They all experienced the non-exploitative interest, care and support of at least one adult during their childhood years – a parent or grandparent, aunt or uncle, older brother or sister, coach or teacher, pastor or youth leader.’

The gathered church
The family may be the ‘hot house’ of Christian growth, but the role of the wider church is also important and vital. The Jewish experience of faith was intergenerational, and found particular expression in feasts and celebrations. Moses told the people of Israel: ‘Assemble the people men, women and children, and the aliens living in your towns – so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God and follow carefully all the words of this law’ (Deuteronomy 31:12-13).

The people gathered with their children to hear Jehosaphat and the prophecy of Jahaziel (2 Chronicles 20:13). In the book of Joel God urges the people to gather for a solemn assembly. ‘Bring together the elders, gather the children, those nursing at the breast’ (Joel 2). Walter Brueggemann reminds us that the liturgies, ceremonies and practices of our churches are part of the child’s mental landscape. He talks of ‘defining memories’ and how the church remembers its roots and children perceive these ceremonies of remembrance.

He cites five key biblical incidents, occurrences or traditions.

• The Passover Feast – a special meal remembering the deliverance of Israel from Egypt (Exodus 12).
• The Feast of Unleavened Bread – a seven day feast which involved a special diet (Exodus 13:8).
• The Offer of the Firstborn – the first child was to be I given over to the Lord’, as was the firstborn of all the animals a family owned (Exodus 13:14).
• The Ten Commandments – these and other decrees and stipulations guided the people in their new found freedom (Deuteronomy 5 & 6).
• Crossing the Jordan – this was followed by a special ceremony where symbolic stories created a memorial to God’s provision Goshua 4).

Running through the biblical accounts is a reminder that these communal celebrations and actions will provoke the curiosity of children. All the passages remind the fathers and mothers to be ready to respond to the questions of a child about the ceremonies, with the stories behind the symbolic acts. They are stories of deliverance and God’s provision. Israel being spared God’s judgement; Israel being delivered from the hands of the Egyptians; Israel crossing the Jordan on dry ground when it should have been in flood. These seemingly odd acts or rituals speak of the root memories and root values of the people, although on the surface they seem non-rational. The world, the child learns, is not as it seems.

The gathered church meeting, it would appear, is a time to remember and re-enact the deliverance that God has bought us through Christ’s life, death and resurrection. The parent in this situation helps the child grasp the history behind the liturgy, ceremony and song. The role of festivals such as Christmas, Easter and the Bible Weeks that many attend mirrors the Old Testament celebration of salvation history. Mark DeVries, writing in Family Based Youth Ministry (IVP) notes the findings of the United Church of Australia regarding the involvement of children and youth in the congregational worship life of the church: ‘The researchers discovered that people who grew up in church attending worship but not Sunday school were much more likely to be involved in church as adults than were young people who had only attended the Sunday school without attending the worship.’ Whatever arrangements we make for the formal teaching of our children in a church context, it seems clear that there is an important role for the multi generational congregation celebrating the goodness of God together.

God uses children
Neither are children mere spectators in the drama of salvation history. We will examine their role in more depth in another chapter, but let’s consider the following at this point:

• Daniel and his friends – defied their persecutors, even to. the point of death.
• Samuel- heard from God, prophesied to the chief priest.
• Josiah – raised to reverence God, acted swiftly against pagan idolatry.
• Naaman’s maid – gave the advice that led to his healing.
• David – challenged Goliath, the man the nation feared ..
• Jeremiah – told not to use his youth as an excuse.
• Joseph – his ability to interpret dreams caused him great pain, but was to lead to greatness.
• Jesus – debated with the High Priest at the age of twelve.
• Mary – a teenage girl who gave birth to the Messiah.

The biblical record and a wide range of commentaries suggest that all of the above were either children or teenagers. Are we ready to give children and teenagers tasks within the life of the church? Are we willing to admit to the possibility that they might have insights and perceptions prompted by the Holy Spirit that are every bit as valid as the pastor, the vicar, the deacon, the elder or the PCC member? Jesus certainly thought so.

Jesus and Children
Jesus’ attitude to children is deeply instructive. He drew them in from the fringes, but also made it clear that despite the high regard of his culture and the scriptures for the family, following him took precedence. In Mark 10:13-16 we read of Jesus calling the children to him. He was indignant at the disciples attempt to exclude them. The disciples reflected the culture of the day, which didn’t encourage women or children to participate in the more formal teaching and discussion that surrounded rabbinic figures like Jesus.

Jesus makes his point strongly by insisting that ‘The Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these’. His audience would have expected a kingdom and a Messiah that would free them from the burden of the Romans. Jesus places children at the centre of his kingdom. Jesus also held children up as an example to adults: ‘Unless you become as a child’ (Mark 10:15) reminds his listeners that the uncynical trust of a child is an example to them, but also clearly infers the child’s ability to have a personal relationship with God. Jesus goes on to warn adults that they are not to lead children into sin or they will face a severe judgement. In a poignant and powerful statement he reminds the adults to have the humility of a child and to be aware that when they welcome a child they welcome Jesus (Matthew 18:1- 5).

Ponder verse 5 for a moment before you read on. ‘And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.’ That’s why we work in this sphere. We give Christ’s love away to others and worship him through our work with children.

The response of the church
The picture we have just seen of God’s heart for children is wide-ranging. What can the local church do in concrete terms to respondto the heart cry of a generation that does not know Jesus? Here is a reminder of the seven foundations of our approach. Is my church willing to:

Make children a priority?
Equip Christian parents with a range of parenting skills?
Dedicate resources to activities that build a bridge out to unchurched children?
Grasp opportunities to participate in the education of children?
Provoke other churches to similar action?
Promote culture that uplifts our children?
Teach our children about compassion, care and justice for children everywhere?

Let’s focus for a moment on ‘making children a priority’. This has two expressions. Are children a priority in our overall mission strategy to our neighbourhood? And, are we willing to make the budget commitments that will enable us to implement our strategies and plans?  Part of the reality of our commitment to our children and the children of our communities is however reflected in our budget.

A UK Children’s Ministry survey conducted suggested that up to 60% of churches were spending less than £500 on children’s work each year. There is significant anecdotal evidence to suggest that the average church is spending about £10 per child per annum. With the average non-Catholic church attendance being 90 and about one third of that being children, the figure of £300 per church seems likely and would bear out the survey findings. If the church is to make an impact on a new generation of children there will need to be a radical new approach to financing our work with children. I believe it would be a realistic goal for churches around the world  to see its number of dedicated children’s workers rise ten-fold in the next 10 years. Sunday activities, midweek clubs and schools outreach tasks are sufficient to fill out the workload of a local church worker, even before we begin to explore meeting the social needs of children in our locality and being an advocate for them in the wider political and social arenas.
I believe that if we produce coherent strategies for local children’s work that the leadership teams of our churches and the people themselves understand they will give generously.
It will be a sign of the health of our churches if expenditure in this area becomes a significant and remarked upon item in the coming years. Money, however, is not the only priority. We will need to work hard to help our churches to see themselves as spiritual nurture centres for children. How might that be demonstrated?

The reality of priorities

Children as a priority will need to be lived out, not simply theorised about. Here are some provocative questions that a church might want to ask of itself:

  • Do the adults in our church greet the children by name?
  • Is there any cross-generational conversation?
  • In the case of toddlers and younger children, are we willing to crouch down to their level to talk with them?
  • Are the facilities we provide for their classes warm, comfortable, age-appropriate and well kept?
  • How many times a year does the church leadership meet with the children’s ministry team?
  • Is there a role for a children’s activity in the main congregational worship time?
  • Do we use younger people and children in servant roles in church life, such as ushering, worship groups and a myriad of other tasks, thus significantly increasing their sense of belonging?
  • Do we publicly affirm those who teach the children, in the same way that we honour others in the congregation who undertake major projects or foreign trips?
  • Do the children in our church ever get asked to read the Bible publicly or pray?
  • If our church prays for people who respond to what God may have said to the congregation, are their children amongst those doing the praying?

We face a huge challenge as we seek to ‘reclaim a generation’. Penny Frank, summarises the growing passion of many in Every Child a Chance to Choose: ‘I want all of us to own the problem as our responsibility. Maybe our local church has a thriving children’s work; perhaps we are thrilled at what God is doing through us with children. But I would still like us each to pause where we are and, for a moment, look further afield. I beg you to consider that the way things are going in your church may not be typical of the British Isles as a whole. I would like each reader to be willing to get involved in some way in bringing children’s evangelism across the land into a ‘better place before God’. Our society is concerned about human rights. That’s good. Let me offer this challenge: how can we express genuine concern for the rights of children if we ignore their basic right to their Christian inheritance? We need to give them a chance to choose. In calling for every child to have the chance to choose Jesus, I am not campaigning for high-pressure missions or indoctrination programmes. I simply want children to hear the Christian good news in the way that most helps them to understand and absorb it. I don’t want them put in a position of dilemma and anxiety. But I do want them to go through their lives knowing how to have an everlasting relationship with God that will enable them to achieve their full potential as human beings’.