(Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost)
Images of Jesus embracing cherub-faced children have been irresistible throughout the centuries. Sentimental art within the last hundred years or so has given us the “sweet Victorian Nanny Jesus” (Philip Yancey’s memorable description), patting boys and girls on the head, admonishing them, one supposes, to eat all their vegetables and be nice to mummy.
It’s hard to set aside such treacly visuals when we hear Mark say, “Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms . . . “ It’s hard not to wax a little sentimental about Jesus, children, the church, and Christianity itself.
The observant preacher, however, will recognize that this week’s passage from Mark’s gospel is not really about children. It’s about misidentified power; it’s about an upside-down kingdom; it’s about the scandal of the cross and the way of discipleship.
But it is worth reflecting for a moment on how we understand the discipleship of children in the church and what it means to introduce them to the habit and lifelong practice of Christian worship.
Children, as we know, have a great capacity for imaginative engagement with the world around them. They readily enter the world created by a good story (and they usually know a good story from a not-so-good one).
Children need to hear the Bible’s stories in worship—not because they will understand them better there, but because that is where the stories do their formative work, shaping a people week after week, season after season, year after year. When we use the Bible’s stories to impart pious moralisms to children (“be good,” “be helpful,” be nice to your brother”) we minimize Scripture’s real purpose and power, and we fail to communicate to our children that in worship—in the hearing of the Word, the preaching of it, the performance of it through gestures, postures, and holy sign-acts—they (along with us) enter that world and have the hope of being transformed through time—God’s time—by its vision and power.
And since repetition is the key to effective pedagogy, we should regularly communicate to children (and their parents) that they are integral to the whole worshiping body; that their presence is not merely tolerated but happily anticipated. When we “dismiss” children from the worshiping body (for children’s church, say), no matter how well-intentioned our efforts at teaching them about worship may be, we convey to them and to everyone else that dividing the worshiping body is an acceptable norm.
But it is also important that worship not cater to children. Worship that seeks above all else to enact God’s story of redemption and to imagine God’s politics of peace invites and expects the participation of the whole household of faith—young and old, rich and poor, the able and the infirm—with the understanding that, in regard to young children especially, there are privileges reserved for their maturity, mysteries and riches of the worshiping life that reveal themselves as rewards for years of practice and perseverance.
Finally, we engage in the work of introducing children to worship—and overseeing their ongoing participation in it—not in an effort to make them good but that they might know who they are. And we do this with the hope that worship which is attentive to the gospel’s grand story will do its transforming work in their lives (and ours), will feed their imaginations and not their egos, and will help them (and us) learn to order our lives by the gift of God’s time.