AT 35: Children … part of the church today

Bob Allaway
Originally Published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 35, February 2004

In 1994, Anabaptism Today published an article by Harry Sprange, ‘Children in an Anabaptist Congregation’. It concluded with an invitation from the Editor for others to submit responses, but this does not seem to have been taken up. I note, however, that one of the principles of ‘Church From Scratch’, the story of which was told in the last issue, was ‘Children were always going to be seen as part of the church today, not in training for tomorrow.’ A similar conviction led our Sunday-school teachers, in summer 2001, to inform the church that they felt the pattern of the young people going out from morning worship to Sunday school was no longer working. They proposed to terminate the Sunday school at Christmas. This gave the church time to prepare a new way of meeting, to begin in the new year. I wrote an article in our church newsletter, encouraging people to submit ideas.

The elders, deacons and Sunday-school teachers met together on an ‘away-day’ in November of that year prayerfully to seek God’s will for Sunday mornings. In preparation, all read Sprange’s article, together with papers by Paul Martin1 and Keith White.2 An agreed summary of our conclusions was submitted to and approved by the church meeting. This began with the following aim:

Our purpose in meeting on Sunday mornings is to meet with Christ, to be made his disciples. We meet him as he speaks to us in the Word, and we experience his fellowship in the fellowship of believers. All ages should be able to meet with and respond to him in a way that is appropriate to them, through active participation, and worship has to enhance this.

At the beginning of 2003, a survey was conducted of the entire morning congregation to gauge how people felt the service was developing (younger children were helped to fill in questionnaires by trained adults other than parents). From Easter 2003, my church gave me sabbatical study-leave to research how the ‘morning service’ might be further improved. In many ways, this opened up questions about our whole concept of church, not just how we do a particular service.

How has it worked out in practice?

Readings for each Sunday of the coming month (adapted from the Revised Common Lectionary) are publicised in our church newsletter. We had agreed that it would be best to concentrate on readings of a narrative nature, so we tend to focus on the Gospel reading. This ought to give an ‘Anabaptist’ slant to things!3

People are encouraged to prepare for the service on the basis of these readings, as I do, and to let me know of things they could contribute. In fact, adults have submitted little other than prayer requests. It is the young people, who were invited to submit songs, questions, etc. along with everyone else, who have done so! They informed me of their favourite songs, suggested a new song some of them had learnt at a camp and volunteered to do readings. One young man performed some magic tricks with a gospel message.

The majority of our young people are ‘tweenagers’ (10–14-year-olds).4 Some of the ‘non-church’ girls have been seen less, but visitors have found this is more to do with situations at home than any feelings for or against the service. Most youngsters continue to attend and most now have parents with them, which partly accounts for a noted increase in the congregation. I suspect the format of meetings is less important for holding them than the caring relationships that have been built up (in the survey 100 per cent affirmed the fellowship they felt!). Their former Sunday-school teachers are as much pastors as teachers to them, and they continue to meet some of this age group in a mid-week Bible study group.

Initially, our biggest problem (to my thinking anyway) was what to do when we have Communion. Although we felt children should not share in the bread and wine, as they have not expressed faith and fellowship in baptism, we did not wish to withhold these from them. We do not refuse bread and wine to adult visitors, but challenge them to examine themselves, and decline participation themselves (if necessary). We decided adults should sit with the children and help them examine themselves in the same way.

My main problem became the complaint from mature believers that they were ‘not being fed’. Those close to the young people point out that there is always the evening service for mature believers, and the evidence is that attendance in the morning by non-believers has gone up. Nevertheless, experiencing other churches’ all-age services, as part of my sabbatical study, made me aware of how I miss it when I am unable to apply teaching to myself – even when I respect how well the service copes with all ages, and when I also have an evening service in which to be spiritually fed. My study therefore concentrated on the question: ‘How can all ages learn together from the Bible?’ My sabbatical study had two components in parallel: practical experience of all-age services in other churches and theological reflection on relevant Scripture.

Practical experience

This was initially disappointing. I tried to visit two churches that were said5 to be successfully reaching young people and fully incorporating them in their life, only to find they had folded! Another church mentioned was still as alive as ever, but had a ‘family service’ where the children went out.

Nevertheless, I did observe some good examples of all-age services in local churches.6

I want to draw attention to a couple of challenges to conventional modes of church. First, where services kept the interest of all ages, this was not because of high-tech visual aids, but because there were lots of brief items, with opportunities for all to be involved. It seems to be better for people to do things, rather than simply to see or hear them. Yet how many of our meetings are performances (whether by preacher or ‘worship leader’ and band)?

Second, planning such services is hard work and really needs a team of people to share it. This may cause us to question our received patterns of one-person ministry.

Theological reflection

Many would argue for including children with adults in worship and teaching from such Old Testament examples as Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Psalm 78:5-8 and the Passover ritual. I believe they are mistaken. Such passages demonstrate the importance God’s people gave to instructing the children of their own families in the home. They have no bearing on the corporate worship and teaching of synagogue and temple, where women and children were positively excluded.

Rather, I take as my starting point God’s revelation to people regardless of mental capacity (Matt 11:25/Luke 10:21) and his gift of the Spirit to all, regardless of age, sex or social standing (Acts 2:17,18 [Joel 2:28,29]). Above all, if our purpose in meeting is ‘to meet with Christ’, we must base our practice on his. Did Jesus teach all ages together?

Ishmael points out that Jesus set an example in teaching all ages together at the feeding of the 5,000. Here, a young boy plays a central role (John 6:9) and those fed are actually 5,000 men, besides women and children (Matt 14:21, similarly in 15:38). It is interesting that only Matthew stresses their presence. Keith White argues that there is an emphasis on children running through Matthew 17–21. I would argue that this runs through the whole Gospel.7

Many scholars interpret ‘little ones’ in Matthew’s Gospel as a metaphorical reference to disciples. Discipleship is certainly a major theme: matheteuo (‘to disciple’) is found in Matthew 13:53; 27:57; 28:19 and elsewhere in the New Testament only in Acts14:21. Nevertheless, the children in Matthew 14:21, 15:38 and 21:15-16 are literal children and, if Jesus uses children as a picture of discipleship, this is following his practice in Matthew 18:1-5, where he uses a child as an example. Are we to suppose that ‘these little ones’ in 18:6, 10 and14 are not to be linked with the child Jesus mentions?

That passage is interesting, not only indicating (like John 6:9) that young children were present as Jesus taught his disciples, but also showing how he was prepared to involve them in illustrating his teaching. I find it ironic that, whereas we tend to assume all-age services are geared to children and non-believers, in the only places where the presence of children is emphasised when Jesus is teaching, he is teaching adults, and disciples at that.

All this suggests Jesus’ general teaching method communicated well to all ages. What were the main characteristics of his teaching style? Matthew’s tendency to collect Jesus’ sayings into apparent monologues (e.g. the ‘Sermon’ on the Mount) can mask the interactive nature of his teaching. He frequently asks or answers questions. He tells stories and illustrates his teaching with visual aids from the world around. We are used to this style in a ‘children’s address’; Jesus does it with adults!

The value of having children with us, as we seek to follow Jesus together, is that we can learn from them how to be learners. Children like asking questions. Christ as a child is our model here, ‘sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions’ (Luke 2:47). This brings us back to Christ’s interactive style of preaching. He so often teaches by asking or answering questions. This is good educational practice. Our young people will be used to it in school. Yet so often the church service is a performance.

Children as models for discipleship also remind us that we all need to grow. Even though he was so precocious at his first visit to the Temple (after infancy), Jesus still ‘grew in wisdom and stature’ (Luke 2:52). How much more do we all need to grow spiritually! Because we often see an all-age service as an evangelistic opportunity (as I confess I have tended to do), we can concentrate on getting people from ‘unsaved’ to ‘saved’. If we understand the church as ‘a band of people, all on a shared journey’, should we not see each service as an opportunity for each of us to travel a little further after Christ?

So what now?

Since my sabbatical, everyone seems pleased with the morning service, so something must have improved, though I am unsure what. Development along the lines suggested above has been tentative. I try to ask questions and usually get a response, although I have always found our predominantly Afro-Caribbean morning congregation very responsive anyway. I have experimented with helping people to think themselves into roles in the Bible stories. Two golden moments. First, when I asked, ‘What would you have done?’ and a visiting lad put up his hand and answered and we had a dialogue that helped reinforce the point I was making. Second, when a visiting speaker invited questions and actually got one.

But we have some way to go. Although I try to involve a number of people in the service, the planning and organisation still falls entirely on me, even though in other respects our church has a team leadership. If a team to lead the all-age service develops in future, its members are likely to come from the young peoples’ Bible study group (mentioned above). Two of them have already requested baptism and membership, and one has completed his preparation for this, so ‘tweenagers’, at any rate, will officially be ‘part of the church today’.

Bob Allaway is pastor of Eldon Road Baptist Church in Wood Green, North London.

Notes

1. Paul Martin, ‘Towards a Baptist ecclesiology inclusive of children’, Theology in Context, 1 (2000), 47-59.

2. Keith White, ‘A little child will lead them’, report to Cutting Edge III conference (2001).

3. See the second Core Conviction of the Anabaptist Network on the inside back cover.

4. See Peter Brierley, Reaching and Keeping Tweenagers (London: Christian Research, 2002). Our service is not totally ‘all-age’ as the under-sevens still go out.

5. In Stuart Murray and Anne Wilkinson Hayes, Hope from the Margins (Cambridge: Grove, 2000).

6. I am happy to pass my observations on to anyone wanting to plan such services: contact me at 9 Forfar Road, London N22 5QE or < r.allaway(at symbol here)bigfoot.com>.

7. Note in the following that the references in bold type are only in Matthew, or lack the reference to children/little ones in parallels in other Gospels: Matthew 2:16-18; 7:9-11; 10:42; 11:16,17,25; 14:21; 15:38; 17:14-18; 18:1-5,6: 18:10,14; 19:13-15; 21:15,16.

Editors' note: We invite readers to respond to Bob Allaway's comments about children in an Anabaptist church in the the Children and Anabaptism forum.