The red-headed, freckle-faced seven-year-old listened intently as I attempted to paint a picture of the day that Jesus welcomed the little children into his arms and blessed them. As the children’s minister of a small country church, I wanted to make sure that the children in attendance at Sunday School that morning knew that they were welcomed and loved, and that their presence in our church mattered. What better way to do that than to tell them of the way that Jesus showed how children mattered to him?
“Jesus welcomed the children because he loved them,” I told my class. “He believed that they mattered, even when others tried to stop him.”
The little redhead piped up, “Well, that’s my Jesus!”
For that little boy, there was never any question that he mattered to Jesus. He mattered to Jesus by virtue of who Jesus was. Jesus’ very life exemplified how the lowliest members of society held a place in the kingdom of God.
Being a children’s minister, I couldn’t agree more. I do what I do because God has placed in my heart a passion for the littlest members of his kingdom, the ones who so often go overlooked and get ushered out of the sanctuary as soon as the singing ends every Sunday morning.
I am blessed to attend a church where the congregation is supportive of its children’s ministry and will get behind just about anything that could result in its growth. My church allows the children to serve as a part of the congregation, whether it be through participation in choirs and worship teams, or serving food at a church dinner.
But in so many churches today, children’s ministry is viewed, at best, as a separate entity from the rest of the life of the church that is responsible for educating and entertaining children until they become adults and “real” members of the congregation, or, at worst, as a burden and distraction from the somber, sacred Sunday morning services.
Jesus, however, not only shows his disciples that children are important in the kingdom of God, but holds them up as an example of what the kingdom of God should look like. In the book of Luke, chapter 18, verses 16 and 17, Jesus tells his disciples “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:16-17, NIV). The same must still be true today. We should welcome children into our churches, not only to see the numbers grow and not only to prepare them to serve as adults, but because the Kingdom of God belongs to them already, and because children have so much to teach adults about what it means to receive the blessings of Jesus.
To heed the words of Jesus here, our children’s ministries must not only operate as separate, programmatic entities that serve the children in a church, but must be fully integrated into the life of the church and create opportunities for children to serve in the church and interact with other members of the congregation on a regular basis. Adults are not the only teachers in a church. Children have plenty to teach adults, too.
So how do we design our children’s ministries to allow for mutual ministering? The solution will vary from church to church, but the key is to keep Jesus’ words about children front and center when selecting curriculums, planning events, and thinking about the life of a church. Perhaps children can “adopt” a senior adult Sunday School class. In some churches, perhaps children can help collect offering or serve as greeters on Sunday mornings. Perhaps it is as simple as allowing children to be present for communion or church business meetings.
The degree to which churches show that children matter to them, will communicate to children the degree to which they understand how much they mean to Jesus. Young people often remain in church after graduation not based on how active the children’s and youth programming are, but based on how active they were allowed to be in the everyday life of the church. Young people remain in church because they have a connection to the church and relationships with others in the church, not because of Sunday School and slumber parties.
The faith of a little child is so often held up as an example of the Christian’s relationship with Jesus. If we truly believe that childlike faith is so exemplary, we must put that belief into practice. May our churches communicate to all its members, “Let the little children come to [us], and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”