Being Church together: children and young people in the Bible

Life in Old and New Testament times, which extended over a millennium, was quite different from ours. Even so, biblical principles of protecting children and young people, nurturing them, and expecting that they will play a full part in faith communities remain  relevant and are a reminder that all ages belong together in vibrant worshipping, serving and flourishing churches.

Faith was a family activity in Old Testament times. Children were to be taught Israel’s history (Deuteronomy 4.9) and God’s law (Deuteronomy 6.7) so that, knowing their heritage, they might live faithfully obedient lives (1Kings 8.25).

The Passover liturgy, worship which took place within a family setting, requires children to ask what the meal means (Exodus 12.26, 13.14) in a celebration which identifies all those present as the people whom God has freed from captivity.

This emphasis both on nurture for faithful adult life and present membership of a faith community means young people are seen neither as property to be exploited, nor only as potential future contributors. Children themselves are inherently valuable, a divine blessing (Proverbs 17:6). Abusive treatment, such as other nations’ practice of making children ‘pass through fire’ (perhaps a form of child sacrifice, as mentioned in Ezekiel 20.25, Jeremiah 19.5) is consistently condemned. God’s people have a duty to safeguard the vulnerable. This always includes children.

However, as members of God’s people, children and young people have responsibilities. The Fifth Commandment demands they honour their parents (Exodus 20:12). Children are involved not only learning, but practising, faith. As children have early, and continuing, active involvement among God’s people, so they grow. Amos points to children being raised to become prophets (Amos 2.11), with no suggestion they will only prophesy as adults. Joel’s description (Joel 2:28), endorsed at Pentecost, has ‘young men’ seeing visions from God, with daughters and sons prophesying. Prophets anticipate that young people, as the norm and not the exception, bear God’s message to God’s whole people. Samuel hears and serves God (unlike the aged Eli) when he is still young (1Samuel 3) and continues that faithful service throughout his life.

Children’s full and broad participation is underlined in Zechariah 8, an idealised vision of a renewed Jerusalem where people of great age sit safely in their doorways while children play in the street. The Hebrew words used suggest this all happens in the city’s commercial and civic centre, not in some forgotten back-alley. Children, young people, and all ages belong together in God’s purposes.

This vision of participation runs through the New Testament. There, children are found among early groups of Jesus-followers. These include household units which, if Timothy’s example (2Timothy 3.15) is normal, consciously develop children’s faith. Such nurture, combined with a call to children to be obedient, is found in the repetition and development of the Fifth Commandment in Ephesians 6.1-4 and Colossians 3.20-21, expanded to include paternal responsibility. An almost-passing snapshot of the early church in Tyre (Acts 21.5) includes children and wives amongst the (presumably adult male) church members who wave Paul off. Children are nurtured in faith and are not excluded from significant, even  emotional, events in the fellowship’s life.

The Gospels offer extended reflection on Jesus’ teaching and practice and are a high point of Christian understanding of the place of younger generations in the church. The young Jesus shows by example that religious institutions are proper places for young people to grow by searching, questioning – and being welcomed – as he calls the Temple his ‘Father’s house’, engaging with scholars and priests, and being encouraged to do so (Luke 2.49).

In his adult ministry Jesus reserves severe condemnation for those who cause ‘little ones to stumble’ (Luke 17.2), reminding us of an ongoing duty to safeguard all those who are vulnerable. He criticises those who keep parents from bringing their children to him, by no means only babies, for blessing (Matthew 19.13); and he places a child literally centre-stage amongst his disciples as an illustration of what it means to ‘receive the kingdom of God’ (Mark 10.15).  Jesus does not advocate childishness but compels a radical re-imagining both of God’s kingdom and the place of children and young people within Christian faith communities.

The world has changed much since these texts were written, but key principles endure. There is an absolute duty to protect and safeguard. There is the obligation on older generations to nurture those who are young to enable them to flourish now and in the future as committed disciples, something which goes far beyond entertaining, or amusing, and certainly precludes marginalising them. Quite the reverse: churches should enable children and young people to hear God’s call to them to recognise their valued and valuable place in God’s care for all, and to respond to God by playing their full part as young members of Christ’s body.

This participation is itself valuable: young people help us understand how to perceive God’s kingdom; their absence from fellowships impoverishes all. Such involvement also enables them to mature into adult disciples with different, and no less valuable contributions to make to God’s purposes for the world and the Church. In the Bible we read of God’s call to the whole Christian community to affirm God’s image in children, to recognise their place within Christian fellowships and to enable them to flourish through active engagement with all generations. Only by being people of all ages together will we flourish fully as Christ’s church.

Questions

What difference does it make to your thinking that young people are not only to be nurtured, but have important parts to play within church whilst they are young? What might some of these roles be?

How do we make church a proper place for children and young people to learn, explore, question and grow – and to be welcomed as they do all this?

In what ways do we expect to hear God’s message for the church today through the voices of those who are young?

Do we see church as impoverished if any age-groups or generations are missing? What challenges might younger generations make to long-held views and ways of worshipping and working?

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