One clear fruit of following Jesus is the ability to worship with, share with, work with people of different economic status, skin colour, nationality, language, gender, marital status, abilities, personalities, talents, gifts, backgrounds, careers, intelligence and age. For some of us, some of the things that are listed seem silly to even have to discuss, ie. skin colour? really?, while others are quite challenging to navigate, ie language or personalities.
The challenging thing is that we are currently living in a transitional age. We are currently living in a we are almost there but not yet status in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus has come. Jesus has provided the bridge between us and our Father in heaven. But, he has not returned to make all things new yet. And so, it is quite reasonable to say that the church, the bride and body of Christ, is in her adolescent stage. We know what it is to be mature; we know what it looks like to be an adult in the kingdom of heaven (Jesus), but we still lack the wisdom and experience to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect.
The church, therefore, at times looks quite awkward in living out what we are led to believe through the Word, following the Son while being led by the Spirit. In this case, to believe that all people are created equal because all people are made in the image of God. We are still transitioning from a world that creates artificial divisions to a kingdom that only makes one distinction: those who know the One, True God and the One He has sent and those who do not know the One, True God and the One He has sent.
And, so, as a church member and budding church leader, there are many battles that should be expected as we learn how to worship, share and work together. One battle that I did not expect, that has made me weary is the battle to worship alongside my children. No, I do not battle with my children, but the church.
My first foray into leadership ministry was a small group of people just out of or ending college. Once a week, we would get together to study the Bible and pray for each other. And, there would be other social occasions beyond that. I have great affection for that group because they were the first people to really care about my family and my walk with Christ.
Things were going very well for a year or so as we were really bonding as a group. But, there was a potential problem and division that was happening that was predictable for a group of people in their 20s. Some of us had children and some didn't. And many of those children were babies. And, as we all know, children, particularly babies, are often quite disruptive. Add to this mix, one developmentally-challenged boy who was being lovingly cared for by his mother who could only add to the discussion with loud yelps and one could understand why most of the group came to me with their quiet complaints.
Although I was concerned that our group was being divided into parents and non-parents, I was also inexperienced and tried to find solutions for a problem as though the non-parents had legitimate complaints. We would be delving into the word, praying for each other around a living room and many did not want this peace disturbed. So, I tried finding sitters who could watch the kids. But, there was no easy solution for finding anyone who could care for children with special needs.
I'm sure she heard the complaints. And, being the loving, Christian woman she is, she probably felt unnecessarily guilty about what her child could not control. She had to think, "Well, maybe this is another place where we don't belong." Instead of rallying around her and reassuring her in the midst of her difficult situation, we acted like the world in further discouraging her and further isolating her.
Eventually, no solution was found for the children and as our situations changed, the group slowly drifted apart. But, that's what happens with young people; situations change.
The second church I served as a pastor with, after I was forced to leave my first through an overseas move, was a small church with very few families and mine was the only one with small children. Over time, more younger people started attending the church. One day a visiting family with two primary aged children came through the door.
That Sunday morning, the church leaders stirred to action and announced there would be a time for children to step into the other section of the building while the sermon was preached. This put me in an awkward position for two reasons. One, I wasn't told such an option existed. Two, I didn't want my children participating in children's church as I liked having them as full participants in church.
They were stunned I held such a position. I'm sure they expected my excitement in sending my children to children's church. It was awkward. My wife and I didn't allow our children to leave and it just further cemented a very unhealthy situation between an older church and their young pastor. For this and other reasons, I was not offered a position after my initial contract ran out. I haven't been a paid pastor at a church since.
My wife and I's position on children's church is quite unique. For most churches, it is quite a normal thing to send children away as soon as possible; especially when things turn serious.
After a time, we decided to become members at a church as our family endeavoured to become full participants in the life of a local congregation. One reason we chose the church is because they didn't have children's church. We didn't have to fight that battle. And, once again, it is worth pointing out, we never battled the children on this point. We battled fellow adults who felt our children's best place while corporate worship was taking place was going somewhere else.
But, the inevitable battle crept in to even this church. Without consulting with any other parents, the pastor announced there would be children's church. But, he said that it would be optional. My heart sank because this was a small church and we were one of but three families with small children who attended the Sunday meetings regularly. And there was only one family with one child who really wanted children's church. I knew what the outcome would be. Either we would stay true to our parenting and offend the family and the pastor who did not agree or we would compromise what we had held as parents for so long.
There were pathetic, awkward scenes of the one child standing with her mother outside the main meeting area begging for our and other children to join them. Our children didn't go and the family eventually left the church. The pastor then accused me of undermining his authority and of selfishly keeping the church from growing because we did not want our children participating in children's church. And, when I suggested ways to help children participate in the service, those have not been adopted in typical, nice-guy, passive-aggressive Christian fashion. In other words, he doesn't say no; he just doesn't do it.
Why is it such a battle for parents like me who actually want to participate together as a family during a corporate worship meeting? Why is it so hard for parents like me to get cooperation from church leaders in accepting our children as full brothers and sisters in the Lord and assisting us in helping them feel so? I can honestly say that I am so glad that my youngest is ten and we will not have to fight this tiresome battle for much longer.
As with most church problems, this is not a new problem. People were bringing children to Jesus so that he may bless them. Wouldn't this be a no-brainer? Wouldn't this be a wonderful scene? It appears that in this fallen world, nothing good ever comes without conflict.
The disciples were not pleased with this scene. We know this because they rebuked those who brought the children. I can imagine their reasoning. Children are noisy. Children are messy. Children should be seen but not heard. Blessing children is nice, but Jesus is the Messiah. And it doesn't get more serious than Messianic business. Jesus' teachings were for those who fully knew and fully capable of grasping what their rabbi was trying to get across. Ultimately, children are not worthy of Jesus.
Jesus' reaction? He was indignant. Indignant is a way of saying that Jesus was grieved at an injustice or, at the best, he was displeased. He repeats his response so they do not misunderstand, "Let the children come to me AND do not hinder them..." Why? Because in the eyes of an unfallen man in a fallen world, in his right-side up viewpoint, it is much easier for children to understand the kingdom of God than it is for grown-ups. And, he drives home his point by saying that it is not up to children to become like adults to receive the kingdom, but it is up to adults to become like children in order to receive the kingdom.
Apparently, we adults have something to learn from children when it comes to receiving the kingdom of heaven. There is something to be learned from children's innocence, from their naivety, from their trust, from their dependence, from their kindness, their response to loving discipline, from their sharing, from their compassion, from their joy, from their love.
Children were always important in the faith-state of Israel. The key feast that commemorated God's deliverance of Israel from being Egypt's slaves has a role for children. The children participating in the feast were to ask their parents what this ceremony means to them? Their parents were to impart that meaning to their children. Even the new ceremony instituted by Jesus is an object lesson. We so miss an opportunity to teach our children about who Jesus is and what he has done when they are sent away before communion. What good reasoning is there for that?
For many of my conservative brothers and sisters, we tend to over-intellectualize our faith as one based on complicated, theological doctrine. We are indeed to love the Lord our God with all our mind as well as everything else we have. But, let us not be lulled into the lie that the kingdom can only be accepted once the proper arguments have been finely crafted by the intelligent and the mature.
When one looks at the teachings of Jesus, the greatest teacher who ever lived, which of his teachings can not be understood and accepted by even children? Jesus spoke about universal experiences in order to impart spiritual truths. He used agriculture, money, animals, bread, wine, water, houses, families as great illustrations. Jesus' teachings were simple. But, don't confuse this with simplistic as his teachings are a great, multi-faceted diamond that can be seen from many different angles by people with many different perspectives. I would say to all preachers and teachers that if your lessons or sermons cannot be basely understood by your youngest students, you are not giving the right lesson or sermon.
Children also added to Jesus' teachings. Who can forget the boy who seemed to naively, foolishly give Jesus his own meal of five loaves of bread and two fishes to feed five thousand people? Who can forget Jesus commanding "Little girl, get up!" to the death ridden daughter?
Is there a children's kingdom and a real, adult's kingdom? No. The good news of the kingdom of God is not just for those with photo IDs. It's for everyone. The good news of the kingdom is such good news in part because the table itself is cracked and the old ways of death and division start working backwards. Not only do children learn from adults, but when it comes to receiving the Kingdom of Heaven, adults have much to learn from children. And, this is best learned when gathering together to worship, pray, learn, share and grow together, all of us, from the poor to the rich, from the Africans to the Asians, from the women to the men, from those who work with their hands to those who work with their minds, from governors to the governed and yes, from the young to the old.
"Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.