As we go through the Lenten season trying to understand who God is calling us to be and how God is calling us to act, I think about the role of everyone in the congregation. A few years ago, I took a class at the United Nations on children and the church. I think this is one of the great struggles that the church has, because connecting with children and youth is foundational for a lifelong relationship with God. But this is a very difficult discussion, because we really do not have a very developed theology of the child. This is actually a remarkable aspect of our tradition that we have not really systematically dealt with a theology of the child. In fact, within the faith traditions, there is still a debate as to the definition of the terms child and childhood. Though more sociological than theological, the definition of the child often holds us back in understanding the role of the child in the church and may complicate our perception of the theology of the child.
On the most basic level, defining the demarcation between adult and child is very difficult. For some, childhood ends with a physiological change; for others it has to do with age; still others use acquired knowledge and wisdom. All three make good arguments, but still fall short in being helpful to discern the parameters of childhood.
The United Nations, through its Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is now over 28 years old, places an end to childhood at 18. This seems to be a clear demarcation. However, 18 years of age is not a clear demarcation here in the United States. In this country, the last legal demarcation between children and adults is 21. What this has created is a confusing dichotomy, since children as young as 12 are often treated as adults in legal matters. However, in some social spheres, childhood has extended into the mid-20s. Thus, the fluidity of childhood makes it difficult to dive into a theology of the child because once again we are called to look at a different set of parameters.
As a denomination, this is made even more difficult because we really do not have a coming-of-age ceremony. Unfortunately, we are relegated to using confirmation, which is not really a good substitute since it is about making a public profession of faith more than transitioning between child and adult. This often creates an awkward time for youth in the church where they are no longer little kids, yet not fully connected with the adult activities of the church. This frequently makes it hard to dive into the complexity of the child and may very well contribute to some of the difficulty that churches have with ministering to high school and college-age youth. But that is a different article altogether.
Sadly, when we do discuss childhood and youth, often the church dwells upon the social side over the spiritual side. Buying into the social understandings of the child frees the church and theologians from having to come up with a deep understanding of the child from a theological standpoint. In the introduction to one of our texts, Marcia Bunge points out that “ … the absence of well-developed and historically and biblically informed teachings about children in contemporary theology helps explain why many churches often struggle to create and to sustain strong programs in religious education and in child-advocacy ministry (Bunge 4).”
Churches often find themselves reacting to the needs of the child as issues and problems arise—usually cutting out the child from the process. Seeing the child as a vital part of the planning and ministry means that when we are working with children, we must include them in the process. When we discovered this, the response from one member of the class was, “But that takes a lot of time,” and it does. To really dive into the process of working with children, we have to open up and listen to them. We must look below the surface. It means that we may have to be uncomfortable by trying something new or abandon things we hold dear that serve no purpose for the child.
At the root of any good ministry is a clear theology directing us to action. Expressing that theology is quite difficult because we have so many different views of the child. This was evident in the UN class as each faith-based speaker came before us. They all seemed to have different perspectives and ideas. If I were to have one complaint about the class, it is that these thoughts tended to veer toward the social end rather than theological end. I am going to venture out and make my own theological claim about children. Let me know what you think:
As we come to understand the child from a theological point of view, the basis of our understanding is rooted biblically in the fact that we are all created in God’s image. Therefore, children are a vital part of the church and body of Christ. Children are human and thus prone to selfish want and desire. Thus, children, like adults, are imperfect. The child is growing physically, mentally, and spiritually, and it is the role of the church to empower the child to have a relationship with God.
This recognizes two issues: the relationship of the child to God, and the fact that children are neither superhuman nor less human than adults. In fact, a child’s life is as complicated as an adult’s, though in different ways. Starting at that point, this theology calls us to approach children and their needs, recognizing that they may have vital knowledge about their own needs that we may not see, but need to hear. More than anything else as a church, we are called to empower the powerless. Often the ones with the least power are the children.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen