Think Smaller – How do we actually relate to children

Ideas have consequences. How do we take the biblical idea of the faith of the child and start to think smaller

Scripture Union staff member Wendy Strachan offers a perspective on the child faith journey and asks some provocative questions.

In 1780, one man with a big vision and a simple idea changed the way the church thought about children. In England, Robert Raikes had a passion to change the lives of children living in poverty. The tools he used were to combine biblical instruction with social action in the form of popular education for working children.  Under God’s hand, the Sunday School movement was born and the idea sparked a fire.  Within 5 years, 300,000 unchurched children had been touched by it.  For many, it was the beginning of a life-long transforming faith in Jesus.

I wonder if the missions movement itself was influenced by some of these children.

More than 330 years later, big vision and simple ideas are still the keys to effective mission amongst children. The vision needs to be big – there are 2 billion children in our world and they are not just ‘souls to be saved’ but children created in God’s image who deserve to become all that he intends them to be.

The ideas need to be simple  – so simple they can be shared and implemented wherever children are. They may be simple – they are not simplistic!

The key questions still remain:

How do we effectively disciple children for a faith that will fit them for life now and as they grow older?  Since we cannot apply a ‘one size fits all’ approach, what are the simple discipling ideas worth sharing because they have proved useful in the variety of contexts where children are found?

Let’s explore some of the ideas God is using.  One simple idea is that every child is prayed for.  Not only the children in our homes, our churches and our neighbourhoods. Imagine the difference it would make if we pleaded with God about the despair or confusion in which children live.  Imagine the directions God might take the church if in humility we looked to him for solutions.  Praying for every child is a simple idea that is taking root around the world. I wonder how we could incorporate this idea more centrally into the missional focus of the church…

Another simple idea grows out of the realisation that many children  – probably the majority – have never met a Christian though they might already have pre-conceived ideas about them.  So let’s introduce children to the people of God (or is it vice versa?).  Not to connect them into our programs to fulfil our goals – but to listen to their stories, concerns and aspirations.  Imagine the barriers of prejudice and ignorance that would be broken down.  Imagine what would happen if genuine relationships began to form between children and adults.  I wonder how evangelism would be different if we prioritised friendship on our ‘agenda’ with children…..

Imagine how a child’s faith might grow if they encountered compassion from God’s people.  A simple idea  – but an essential one.  Words are only one part of the good news. It is unhelpful simply to tell an abandoned, abused, neglected child that God created her as unique, and God loves her. It is unhelpful simply to tell a child soldier that God forgives and can satisfy his human longing for acceptance. It’s unhelpful simply to assume that an affluent child whose material needs are met is in no need of compassion.

Children need to be clothed, fed, sheltered and loved unconditionally by the people of God. Perhaps only in and through such compassion can an experiential space be created for an encounter with God that will grow into a life-long faith.  Demonstrating compassion is not a means to an end. Nor is it expressed in the unequal relationship between a generous giver and a grateful recipient.   I wonder what questions arise for you as you offer Christ-like compassion to children….

As children see faith demonstrated in the Kingdom actions and attitudes of God’s people, some will begin to wonder: ‘What might it be like to live my life with this God?’. Whether or not they belong to a community of faith, they benefit from being surrounded by it in such activities as camps and clubs. Faith has the opportunity to grow as children witness faith in a community, noticing how God’s people follow Him and interact with others. I wonder what aspects would be most likely to impact observant children and lead them in the direction of God .

Woven into all these encounters is the opportunity for children to respond to Jesus and his message, as the story of God is unfolded naturally to them.  It will – in careful and appropriate ways – include Jesus’ invitation into his Kingdom.  The Gospel is intentionally shared: a simple pivotal idea.    Do we breathe a sigh of relief at this point?  Surely the task of evangelism ends with proclamation?  But how can our mission amongst children end once the message has been heard – or once a child has responded?  Or worse still, how could it end if a child has not responded?  And how could we expect that an overt response from a child would indicate to us all that God is doing in his or her life? I wonder whether we have created an artificial between evangelism and discipleship when Jesus’ invitation is to follow through life…..

The Gospel does not focus on a one-off decision but a life-long relationship with Jesus.  If we are serious about discipling children for a faith that grows up with them, then our missional task is long-term one: mature spirituality in all its dimensions, a faith robust enough to flourish in life’s experiences. Unfortunately, it’s easier to produce activities than to accompany a child on their spiritual journey.Have we replaced mentoring friendships with educational programs that focus on knowledge and rules (an approach the Pharisees might have endorsed) or with high-energy entertainment that keeps our children occupied while ignoring the fact that it has not stemmed the drift of children from the church?

How can we be satisfied with approaches to discipleship that focus on rules more than the adventure of living life with Jesus? How can we be satisfied with prioritising fun over relevance when we children need to know how to make wise choices in everyday life?
I wonder if we could – for example – recover the lost art of simply spending time with children – talking, laughing, exploring their tough questions together, being a witness to each other’s lives.

Since faith is personal but not solitary, the ideal is that children have the opportunity to belong to a local community of Christian faith. Let’s not ignore a simple biblical idea: the family is, for some children, their first community of faith.  Parents are the best disciplers of their children and we should never rob them of that privilege. But for many children, a key community for discipleship will be a local church – one where children are not seen as disruptions or performers but where they participate in its intergenerational life of worship and service.  For still other children, it would be impossible for them to be found in a church building.  We need to trust God for creativity!  If we took into account the variety of circumstances children find themselves in, I wonder what different shapes of ‘Christian community’ might emerge that would provide long-term discipling for children…..

Spiritual maturity involves children in discovering their God-given gifts.  As children grow in faith and love, we will discover that they – alongside us – are actively serving God in his Kingdom.  ‘You can do that when you are older’ is the impression we sometimes convey – when we could be releasing them to become involved in God’s mission now. I wonder what would happen in the church and the world would be if we took this simple idea seriously……

In 1780, Robert Raikes dared to imagine a different world for children in England.  Can we dare to imagine a different world for all 2 billion children today?

A world where every child…..

  • is prayed for
  • is introduced to God’s people,
  • has the opportunity to thrive in safe loving relationships,
  • encounters compassion that changes her circumstances,
  • experiences faith in community,
  • is given the chance to respond to the love and forgiveness of Jesus,
  • belongs to a faith community and grows up into mature ‘child-like’ faith using their gifts to serve the    Kingdom and through that,their communities.

If we think that is beyond the realm of possibility, the parable of the mustard seed reminds us that with God, the impossible becomes possible. Simple ideas can accomplish huge vision if both are from the heart of God.  And the means that God uses to extend these simple ideas to every child in the world, is his people, his church.

A church that can no longer default to its current paradigms in the face of the numbers or needs in the 21st century.  A church that ought not default to its ‘activist’ mentality offering easy or quick ‘solutions’ when we are called to long-term discipling.  A church that listens to God – and through him to each other and to his children.

Imagine if, in humility, we listened together – all over the world.  Imagine if we trusted that Christ is equipping his Body with all the creativity and resources needed for the task.  Imagine if we understood that the best ideas often grow in places where the church has the least material resources.  Imagine the simple ideas that we would discover God has already been germinating and watering all over the world.

Imagine if we worked to share those ideas freely and openly with each other, not content to protect our ‘part of the Kingdom’ but to celebrate wherever and however children are being encouraged to follow Jesus and to serve their communities both in the church and way beyond its walls.

Be encouraged: God is using simple ideas in the hands of His people, to reach the 2 billion children living in our world – one at a time.  Simple ideas are being shaped, shared, adapted and multiplied into different contexts all over the world.  Local churches, whole denominations, para-church agencies, children and adults, are sacrificing their individual ambitions and generously partnering together with God and each other to accomplish this very big vision.

It’s profound. It’s demanding.  It’s rewarding. It’s simple.  It’s the Kingdom in action. It’s happening now.

  • I wonder how partnering with others is changing the way we engage in mission with children in the church, your denomination, your organisation…..
  • I wonder what impossible dreams will become possible as we continue to put aside our differences and worked together as the one body of Christ – for the sake of the children.
  • I wonder if we are ready for the adventure that God will take us on – together.