We who identify with Anabaptist theology are committed to the concept of church as a voluntary association of believers. Few of us, perhaps, have grappled fully with how children fit into this understanding. Many of our congregations continue the tradition of Sunday School, even if it is disguised under a variety of more attractive names.
The problem with Sunday School is that it often is not a voluntary association of believers! There are at least four categories of children who attend: 1) those who believe and want to he there, 2) those who believe but do not want to be there, 3) those who do not believe but want to be there, 4) those who do not believe and do not want to be there. Many preachers would struggle to address these four different audiences at the same time in the worship service. Yet week after week, we expect our children’s workers to cope with this scenario.
Children who want to be part of the church
A few years ago, after a move of the Holy Spirit upon our primary school age children, they refused to go out to Sunday School on communion Sundays: they wanted to be part of the church! There was nothing particularly attractive for the kids in our traditional Baptist communion service; I can’t imagine a sip of blackcurrant juice and a tiny cube of bread being sufficient to entice them to remain. I believe there was a spiritual desire within them; something was telling them they are part of the body of Christ.
Some house churches have jettisoned separate Sunday children’s classes, and insist on all being together for “family worship”. This rarely works, and I have visited only one church where children, teens, and adults flowed together comfortably in worship. It is more common for the meeting to be disrupted by screaming babies, distracted by uncontrolled toddlers, and disturbed by negative vibes emanating from switched-out teens.
Should we force children to attend church at all? We cannot avoid the biblical expectation that parents are responsible for disciplining and discipling their children (Eph. 6:4); success in this is a requirement for church leadership (1 Tim. 3:4-5,12; Tit: l:6). But can we apply to church a mandate that addresses family without succumbing to the spirit behind the Conventicle Act of 1664 (which fined those who refused to attend state-controlled worship)?
I am not arguing for a division of children into “saved” and “unsaved”, since that can place tremendous emotional pressure on them. It also can leave those who grow gradually into faith with a feeling of rejection because they have not experienced a “crisis conversion”. Whatever the exact meaning of a believer’s children being “holy” (1 Cor. 7:14), at least it gives biblical warrant for accepting children into the church family (without needing to go all the way down the road of covenant theology and ending up with infant baptism).
Room for children to grow and learn
I see need in the church for voluntary meetings of both children and teens where they can learn radical discipleship. In my experience, we have experimented with children in house groups in addition to a traditional Sunday School programme and evangelistic meetings. Teaching discipleship works well when all the children present are motivated to learn and want to grow spiritually. Parents who simply “send” their kids along to such meetings will kill the effort.
Instead of constantly pressing children for a “decision”, we need to teach those who clearly are committed what it means to follow Jesus in today’s world – including the concept of laying down one’s life for others, sharing our faith and material resources. When God speaks to a church on a given issue – giving, evangelism, or anything else – then it often is essential to communicate that concern to the believing children. We may need to find a time and place when we can adapt the message to their age and experience, but we can pass on the essence of the challenge.
Faith is something caught, not taught. Are we nurturing our children so they know God and trust him? Do they live in expectation of his provision and intervention in their lives? If not, is it any wonder that many children in our churches, who genuinely profess conversion, appear to be bored with being Christians after a few months? Could it just be that we have expected nothing of them?
Children ministering to a congregation
In the Revival of 1859 in Scotland, a three year-old girl in Eyemouth gave her mother assurance of salvation by quoting the text she heard the minister preach on the preceding day. An eight year-old boy preached in Findochty, when “more were convicted and converted than on any other occasion”. A ten year-old boy prayed publicly in Hopeman for an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and revival broke out. In Portessie an elder of the Scot’s Free Kirk was horrified one night to arrive home and find his fourteen year-old daughter preaching to a house full of people listening intently. Even C. H. Spurgeon (no friend of the Anabaptists, methinks!) concluded, “We have never developed the capabilities of youth as we should have done.”
Successful growth in any area of life depends on the right combination of intake and output. Constant eating with no exercise is a recipe for disaster. If all we do is spoon feed teaching into our young people and provide no outlet for service, let us not be surprised if they die off spiritually. After the 1989 Lausanne Congress in Manila, Phil Bogosian believed God was saying to him, “Since you do not teach your young people to give their lives to reach the world, they will be taken from you by the world. They will be useless to me and a great grief to you.” Let us who seek to be on the forefront of the radical tradition today beware lest we fail to pass on our heritage to the next generation.
Harry Sprange was a Baptist minister in Edinburgh and a children’s pastor in Leith. When he wrote this article he was director of Kingdom Kids Scotland. He is the author of Children in the Revival: 300 Years of God’s Work in Scotland.
Editors’ note: We invite readers to respond to Harry Sprange’s concerns about children in an Anabaptist church in the the Children and Anabaptism forum. What have you found works for children in your congregation?