on children and church

I gained a new twitter follower this morning, @larry2_0, the Rev. Lawrence T. Richardson, who wrote this beautiful reflection on the blog for the United Church of Christ.  It’s a short one, so if you want to pop over and read it, I can wait for you.

I was quite taken by his story of being a child who hung out with the elders of the church, and this it in particular caught my eye:

They were also impressed with my ability to be deeply engaged in content that was for adults when there was adequate children’s programming available. I became a lover of wisdom because of all the stories and information they shared.

See, here’s the thing.  Children are not some strange alien creature.  Children are humans.  Children are also sponges, and they soak up everything that happens around them.  Children are perfectly capable of being deeply engaged in the sharing of authentic stories of faithful Christians who are working through their struggles, perfectly capable of being deeply engaged in free conversation about the overwhelming, scandalous love of God for us, perfectly capable of being deeply engaged in the wisdom of grandparents.

The other thing is that children are also not miniature adults.  While they are perfectly capable of this deep engagement, they also have different limits than most adults.  Or, to be perfectly honest, they may have the same threshold we have for boredom, but less self-control… so that when a child’s engagement has waned, they are not content to sit still and doodle in the margins of the handouts from some church council session.  So yeah, we do make some accommodation for their unique needs, in exactly the way we would make accommodation for our siblings in Christ who are unable to walk or to hear or to see.

Children's Chapel - National Cathedral - DC, by Tim Evanson
Children’s Chapel – National Cathedral – DC, by Tim Evanson

One of the great gifts I have learned in training as a catechist for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd is that children have a life of faith every bit as deep as any adult.  Children are capable of relationship with God — and with other humans — every bit as deep as any adult.  Children are capable of understanding liturgy every bit as deep as any adult.  And yes, I mean little bitty children – there are four-year-olds at my parish who are often more deeply immersed in the Eucharistic prayer than anyone else in the church.

In church, however, we tend to segregate our children.  We say they don’t know how to behave in church, but how will they learn if we don’t bring them into church and teach them?  We say they don’t understand what’s happening in worship, but how will they learn if we don’t show them worship and allow them to explore it? We say that the work of church councils is too dull for children – or that children are not smart enough for it – but how do we know if we don’t give them the opportunity to engage in it?

Some years ago, I had stewardship of a group of fourth- and fifth-graders for the Christian formation hour on Sunday mornings.  I kicked off our group discussions without a curriculum, starting with a saint’s feast day or a bible reading or something appropriate to the liturgical season.  Their favorite Sunday of the year?  It was the week after I returned from the annual council of our diocese, and I spread out all the papers I’d accumulated during that weekend, and we talked about running the church.  They looked at budgets and resolutions and canons and committee reports, and they were completely fascinated.  No, they didn’t understand everything. Guess what: neither did I.  But they were deeply engaged in this content for adults, when we could have been making a craft or doing a puzzle about the lectionary readings for the day.

Want to know something really sad?  I went to flickr to search for an image to go with this blog post.  I searched on the keywords children and church, limiting the results to Creative Commons licensed images only.  I did not see a single child in the first forty-one photos.  Most were of empty worship spaces, church exteriors, or sacred art. Only image number 42 showed children, and they were singing a song into microphones on church steps, wearing Santa hats.  It was only the 74th image where I actually saw some children inside a church, at worship.  How sad is that!

People like to say that children are the future of the church.

They are wrong.

Children are the now of the church.

Children are the now of the church every bit as much as you are or I am or Pope Francis is.  Children have an important place in the life of the church.  Children have ministries.  Children are capable of far more than we offer them in most churches.  So why do we offer them insipid coloring books with white, Anglo Jesuses and blonde Marys and all the dirt and blood and truth removed?  Why do we separate them, “until they’re old enough to understand”?  Why don’t we include them in the life of God’s people?

Why don’t we allow them to become lovers of wisdom – lovers of Christ – because of all that we can share?