TO A FRIEND - Part 2 - Children in Church life - TO A FRIEND
Updated: Sep 18
This is the second in a series of posts / open letters to a friend who writes about a journey to / back into Eastern Orthodoxy. At this moment I am not posting the original blog post link to allow reasonable distance for those not connected to this matter. I may in the future if needed.
I think some valid observations are made about separation of children from gatherings and the "life of the Church". Something we need to actively wrestle with.
In fact, when we came to the nation within which we now live and serve,
we left a church in part, because they asked our children to be left at home instead of coming to "family dinner". This is actually a matter which has my soul and my attention because I have four children, because I too was raised in the Lord in a family that continues to serve him. It has been said I care and speak about three things with passion, my faith, my family and the footy. When it comes to children and their place in community, this matters to me. The key difference? I actually have spent decades as a leader and father reaching out to parents and children seeing them come to Christ, discipled and included in faith community. I am going to speak as an authority and strongly in this matter because I have significant experience and track record in this matter. I know the struggle of parents, of communities, of leadership teams, of children's leaders who want nothing more then children to thrive in faith and community.
These are matters I think we all should ponder but I find most people only ponder, post and vacillate. They do not do anything about it, least of all help families, children and churches navigate real life challenges. I find most people willing to talk about it but rarely willing to open their homes and lives to facilitate the mess that multi-generational faith community requires. We often want formal gatherings to change their shape but not our own lives. In our case, our children sit around our table participating in communion and sharing in the word, worship and mission with adults with little distinction. That naturally can’t always be the case and I don’t think we always observe this in scripture either, given Paul preached sometimes through the entire night. Men, women and children were also often separated culturally to one degree or another.
I don't think I entirely know the answer, I don’t even think there is ‘an answer’ but I do know, at least in my time in the city I live in my children have a greater voice and expression than any tradition I have observed (including Protestant / Pentecostal, Catholic and Orthodox).
Faith is birthed and cultivated in families in community not in special buildings and not even in special ceremonies. It is even for this Timothy’s mother and grandmother are praised (2 Tim 1:5) There is also a massive load of subjectivity in discussions about the place of children in the life of the Church. At no point in my life did I sense that faith was for my parents and kids were entertained or simply put in a side-room. I was, like so many others not simply told 'bible stories' but discipled. In actual fact, as in all communal culture, these people that did so were effectively aunties and uncles helping foster faith. They continue to strive each week to support parents and families in broadening a child's experiences and inputs. Let me be clear, at not a single point in my childhood, teens or young adult years did I feel or sense that Church was for others. I think I have seen such from afar but that is not in any way my experience. I think it a beautiful moment to observe a child light a candle with their father, a moment of inclusion, of participation. I would not for a moment think to negate the power of that, however, that observation is a moment and cannot be used to pejoratively negate other people’s positive experience in other traditions.
Such experiences can all be rich, be inclusive without having any bearing on whether or how another tradition includes children in the life of the Church.
My earliest memories were of walking side by side with my parents as we served the Lord. I evidently did not understand everything, I could not have always articulated the Gospel, and evidently as a baby could not ‘seek first the kingdom’, especially given Jesus is not speaking to infants but to those practicing their works for acclaim (Matt 6)
Children are blessed in scripture, follow in the footsteps of their parents, are to be taught the word by their parents (Deut 6). As they grow in stature and knowledge, they grow in accountability. These are firstly matters of the household and I don’t believe have a great deal to do with formal Church structures at all.
There is evidently room for growth in Church gathering expressions but as a person with a positive experience in very different environments, who has raised four children who are flourishing in the Lord, I think these matters are distractions from the lack of ownership within believing families. Chrysostom said “the home is the little Church” (Homilies on Ephesians XX) Children should have place, they should be active, they should be taught to serve and learn but how that looks can be radically different. When we think of a single limited weekly gathering as the life of the Church, whatever our tradition, we are all poorer for it. Just recently, I watched a friend, Jason Mendis, noting his eyes welling up, post pictures of his 10 year old daughter sharing a short word from scripture on his socials to a church of hundreds, a possible first step in teaching the word to the church with authority in the future with growth and maturity. Another, Roy Marcellus posts endless photos of kids worshipping (on and off stage), serving and loving Jesus together in community. To keep in mind, especially for young women, these continuing roles are not possible in many Church traditions. My four children, in more formal gatherings sung and danced, stood on stage with their little guitars, asked awkward questions about everything and felt like it was their home. I have watched them bow before the King of Kings in deep moments and raising their hands with the wider community in adoration. They also benefited from age and knowledge appropriate teaching. I presently prefer our present environment, which is highly home-based, discussion-based and highly communal for all but I also understand it lacks in other ways. I recently baptised my two boys, immersed in the waters of Baptism, after years of training and faith consideration upon the confession of their faith. You could say, using traditional language, they have been thoroughly catechised. My girls are not far behind. I know children who feel part of the family of God, who serve and feel included. They are my own.
I have seen my kids also thrive for different reasons in different environments. If I were to be asked what I thought ‘welcomed children’ into the community the most, it would not be ANY public corporate expression of Church at all whether Orthodox, Roman or Protestant but the Church, adults and children alike around the table. This expression can be found in ALL Christian traditions and communities. The subjectivity of experience leads some in ALL THE DIFFERENT ENVIRONMENTS to feel like ‘Church was for the adults’ or ‘for someone else’. I have heard this in Pentecostal Churches, I have heard it from those in Roman Catholic Churches and have heard it from those from Orthodox Church backgrounds. My friend Jimmy, Greek Orthodox specifically speaks of his disconnect from everything except the food after Easter. My primary point is I am very wary of using personal experience to project and promote a specific corporate expression. For that reason, many are confused, and I believe consumeristic, in looking for something outside of Jesus himself that will satisfy them. It is arrogant and ignorant to think my observations or experiences can be used to negate those of others. You can celebrate them but that is about it. Children approaching Jesus and community in any environment, across all the traditions and expressions in the bride of Christ is a beautiful thing. For this reason, we speak of ‘family on mission’. What Ange and I have chosen in terms of focus and life is our children’s and we do it together, until they are able to choose differently. This binds us in both celebration and suffering as we walk together in following the Lord. All these things are true, and without a belief that Infant baptism makes them spiritually part of the Church (something I don’t believe is true scripturally, in early Church history for that matter or see any evidence for practically). They are born naturally into our family, and in their own repentance, are born again into the kingdom of God spiritually. You say, “The way my church treats children is, I think, a pure demonstration of the Gospel in action.” It may well be pure, it may well be a demonstration of the Gospel but it is not unique. Such exists in every family of the Church across the many traditions, cultures and expressions of the bride of Christ, expressed in many ways. Jesus expressed the kingdom to children when they came to him, he took them in his arms and “he touched and blessed them” (Luke 18:15; also Mark 10:13 – 16) Jesus did not dignify children through ceremony, he dignified them through drawing them close. This is something I have experienced as a child, witnessed in other families and known as a father of four Jesus loving children. He did not baptise them, he did not light a candle with them, he embraced them, drawing them to himself. I have seen this countless times across the body of Christ. I make no claim of uniqueness in my little corner of Jesus’ bride. Lastly, may I also call strongly for a little humility, you have no children, and no experience in raising kids in the Lord or even the discipling of children in the wider believing community. I also believe you have little to no experience of growing up as a Child in a Protestant Church. You have only sat on the sidelines whilst others in all other traditions have been on the field itself. Theory is easy, observation is easy, doing is a different issue entirely. One day, when you have raised Jesus loving children who love his bride and mission, then your experience and wisdom in the real struggles ALL PARENTS have IN ALL traditions will carry more weight and I expect a more matured perspective. On that day, I will celebrate with you as they follow Christ, whatever the Church tradition they are actively apart of. Next blog: Claims in regard to history, the early Church and Infant Baptism