Please don’t panic. Please read on. I know that question induces a similar emotional reaction to, “Are you praying enough?” and “How is your personal evangelism going?” I promise to be gentle with you. I want to encourage you, help you and finish with a few quick practical ideas.
I recently heard (and watched) a fabulous talk by Gary Millar, the Principle of Queensland Theological College.
He identifies three common attitudes in pastors:
1. I’m scared of other people’s children. So anything can pass as children’s ministry. Anyone can lead it. They can do anything. Just so long as I don’t need to be near it.
2. I like children as long as they don’t get in the way of adult ministry. Because the real ministry is with the adults. The children just need to be kept quiet and away from their parents.
3. I think children’s ministry is strategic. We need to work well enough with children that our insiders do not complain and our outsiders are attracted. In effect, children’s ministry is in the same category as adequate car parking and good coffee.
He concludes that all three of these views lead to some form of babysitting. Perhaps the Bible will be opened. Perhaps all our leaders will be faithful Christians. Perhaps Christian songs will be sung. So we can call it Christian babysitting.
Gary walks through Deuteronomy 6, where Moses puts children at the heart of God’s covenant community, where they stay for the rest of salvation history. I am struck that Deuteronomy 6 is not just a side note of the Pentateuch (if such a thing exists), but a high point in the Bible story. It is part of Moses’ final exhortation to God’s people before their arrival into the promised land. It starts with the cornerstone of the Jewish life, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts” (Deut 6:4)
In Deuteronomy 6 we see that children are a precious part of God’s covenant community. Our children are children of God. If that is the case then teaching and discipling our children must be talked about in the same breath as our bible study groups. They are a section of the church family just as much as older people, students, young adults or parents. Each groups needs their needs met appropriately. Perhaps this is where the problems start: Ratios! All of these other groups need one preacher. Our children need an army to disciple them. An army of Bible teachers, often taking their very first steps in handling God’s word and seeing the work of the Spirit happen before their eyes (often more clearly than in adults). It is an army that every church would love to develop.
Gary draws three conclusions from Deuteronomy 6
1. God’s covenant people is intergenerational. Children are the people of God and every generation must be taught to serve God wholeheartedly. This wonderful mix of generations must have the chance to worship God together. So let’s not assume that any time children are in the room, everything must be dumbed down or focused on them. Equally, let’s not ignore them completely. There is a middle way.
2. Teaching children should be intentional. Talk to children about God all the time. Together we are responsible for the care of our children. So let’s encourage those in our congregations who are not parents to adopt a family, to be in their homes, and to have them in our lives. Let’s know more about one or two children than just their names or their favourite subject at school. Since parents are the primary pastors of their family, let’s address that in our preaching. What one idea from this sermon could they talk to their children about this week, and how might they go about it?
3. Our teaching is to be gospel-driven. Our great prayer for our children is not that they are well-mannered, good at cricket or well-educated. We want them to treasure Jesus Christ. So let’s find one or two senior, wise, godly people in the congregation, probably parents of older children, who younger parents can approach with questions about how to make Jesus central to their family life. Encourage them to encourage others in a radically Christian pattern of parenting.