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KIDS AND CHRIST: Let the children come Bishop William H. Willimon, Mar 17, 2010
Bishop Will Willimon
By Bishop William H. Willimon Special Contributor
One day Jesus was teaching. Everyone gathered round was attempting to pay attention (Mark 10:13-16). Nearby, a couple of children scuffled in the dust.
“Can’t something be done about these children?” said one of the disciples. “Send them away. We can’t pay attention to you with the distraction of these children. Don’t we have a nursery for people like them?”
Do you remember what Jesus said? “Let the little children come to me.” And embracing them in his arms, Jesus blessed the children saying, “The Kingdom of God belongs to children. Grownups have difficulty getting into a kingdom with such a small door.”
Children, whom we tend to regard as distractions, were put by Jesus at the center of his realm. Biblical interpreters agree that in a day and a culture when children were considered less than full human beings, Jesus performed a radical, countercultural act when he put children at the center, making them the enactment of his Good News.
What Jesus said about children is similar to what Jesus said about the poor, the marginalized and “the least of these.”
Before I rose to preach last Sunday, the host pastor said, “And now the children are dismissed to go to children’s church.” The implication is that my sermon was for adults only. Was Jesus in error when he said that children have no problem entering the Kingdom of God?
The average age of my church is about 58 years old. The proportion of United Methodists who are under age 12 is in serious decline. Children’s Christian education, judging from the sales of literature, is virtually extinct. We are therefore in violation of Jesus’ clear command: “Let the little children come to me.”
And yet—according to my read of Jesus and the children—one of the distinguishing marks of the church is the active presence of children.
One of my district superintendents recently invited me to preach at Trinity UMC, in the northern part of our conference, to see the transformation that is occurring there.
I had trouble finding a parking place in the streets around this once moribund church. They had quite a crowd gathering for worship. I was amazed. But the most amazing sight was yet to come: The first four pews were packed with children and youth.
“That’s a rare sight,” I commented to the pastor. “You have so many children!”
“Only four of those kids are related to anybody in the congregation,” the pastor told me.
“What? Whose children are they?” I asked.
“They belong to Jesus,” said the pastor as he busied himself with pre-service preparations. “He’s loaning them to us to help turn this thing around.”
The surrounding community lacks the social services to care for children in need, the pastor explained, so he had “cut a deal with the police in this county.”
“When they go in to bust up a meth lab,” he said, “there are usually children present in that horrible place. They can call us day or night, and in 30 minutes we will have trained people to rescue the children and provide them a safe place to stay until the courts can sort things out.
“We’ve got a family court judge who works with us, too. We’ve got six families that are certified foster care parents. Two of these kids were threatened by their parents, who told them that if they didn’t behave they couldn’t come to Sunday school! Our Sunday school is that good!
“Half of our kids are only allowed by the court to live at home with their parents if our church certifies that we are working with the parents properly to care for them.”
There were tears in my eyes.
“Those children have given us more than we’ve given them,” the pastor said. “Like Jesus said, ‘When you receive one such child in my name, you receive me.’”
Our culture is not very child-friendly. Only a tiny proportion of North American children have been introduced or instructed in the Christian faith.
Yet God has blessed many of our congregations with older people who have the talents and the time to lead ministries with children. Any United Methodist church that is bereft of children, that has no program for reaching children and allowing children to reach us, has yet to meet the theological criteria for church.
I can show you churches that grew tired of competing with Sunday morning youth soccer league games. Instead they formed their own soccer league to play at times other than Sunday morning.
I’ve visited churches with after-school programs for latchkey kids.
In one of my congregations, older adults offer a “Parents’ Night Out” on Fridays where parents can bring children for an evening of stories, games and food. The size of their children’s ministry doubled in one year, confirming our conference children’s coordinator’s dictum: “The easiest way to grow a church is with children.”
I appointed a former elementary school teacher to be pastor of a small, declining church with a median age of 60 (a typical United Methodist church, that is). On her first Sunday, she announced, “I am here to see if God can give this church a future,” and told them that the only way for that to happen is to be hospitable to children as a way of embracing the “least of these.”
Unused Sunday school rooms were a disgrace, so she had a team of painters refurbish them. The next Sunday, she gave an altar call and asked people to come forward who were gifted for children’s ministry.
Three older women came and knelt at the altar. The pastor consecrated them to lead the congregation into a new century and promised to equip them. By the next Sunday, she said, each of these teachers would prepare a great lesson and be ready for God’s children.
If no children showed up, the teacher would sit in the newly painted Sunday school room and spend the hour praying that God would bring children who could lead the congregation to Jesus. Then she charged each person in the congregation to bring at least one child with them to worship next Sunday.
A year later, that church is being reborn, confirming the truth of the biblical promise, “A little child shall lead them.”
United Methodist Bishop Willimon leads the Birmingham Area.