One slightly unhinged pastor’s attempt to love (and laugh with) a slightly unhinged church, from the inside out.
Our fear is muzzling our children
Choosing love over fear for the good of all Jesus’ disciples
by Joshua Bower
Do we actually want children in the church? Sometimes I wonder.
I was about seven years old when I first asked that question. I was sitting with a friend in the back of the sanctuary during a Sunday worship service. An older woman was in the pew directly in front of us. I don’t remember exactly what we were doing, but during prayer time it was clear it was not acceptable in church. As the preacher prayed, the woman in front of us spun around in her pew, looked directly at us, and hissed, “Be still!”
As a kid, I could’ve sworn that woman had little horns showing through her hair. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that she was a good person with a heart for Christ. The more I’m involved with the church, the more I notice kids being silenced by otherwise good folks.
Over the course of my life, I’ve worshiped regularly in seven different churches. In only one were children encouraged to stay in the sanctuary for all of worship. Each had a “children’s sermon,” but that usually ended up being a carefully choreographed theater designed to entertain the adults, not grow the children in Christ. The kids sat there cutely and were asked to speak only when the answer was obviously “God” or “Jesus.” Then, at the end of this time, the leader prayed for the children.
‘In the end, choosing love over fear is about unleashing the spiritual vitality of an entire group of young disciples and in the process crushing the anxiety that threatens to cripple all of our souls.’
Then there’s the way I’ve done it for the past 10 years, which isn’t much better. I ask the children to repeat after me: “Dear God . . . .” (Seriously, always “Dear God”! I’m teaching our kids that God is their pen pal.)
Never do the children pray directly to God themselves, at least not publicly. And afterwards, they’re herded out to “children’s church” so the adults can focus on the rest of worship.
I was taught in seminary to always celebrate the sacraments after the sermon. But that means children in most of these churches never see a profession of faith or baptism and never take Communion until they’re “old enough,” adult enough, to sit through worship quietly. Does any of this sound familiar to you?
Now, I don’t believe for a moment that any of us are shushing kids with malevolent purpose. We just don’t want to be disturbed in our worship. But in the process, we are silencing our children, making them feel unwelcome, and crippling their personal expressions of faith. In his book Contemplative Youth Ministry, Mark Yaconelli suggests a deeper motivation for us shushers: fear. Although he writes about youth ministry, his ideas can be applied to all young folks in the church: “Look behind most youth ministry programs and you’ll find pastors and church boards nervous about declining memberships. . . . They want young people to listen, to behave, to be still, to stop talking, to soothe adult fears, to fulfill mission statements, and to support programs.”
Can this be it? I know I’m personally dead afraid about the future of the church. I’m afraid my children will make bad decisions with consequences they can’t undo. Honestly, I’m afraid my kids will end up like me. And somewhere deep down below the surface, I’m afraid they’ll give their lives to Jesus. That might sound odd, but Jesus said that, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). Following Jesus can cost you your life, and losing my precious children is the thing I fear most of all. So add it all up, and you have churches full of adults who are full of fear and anxiety. In our fear we seek control, and that leads us to silence our children, their vibrant witness to the joy of Christ muted by our adult phobias.
How do we move past this? The answer, I think, is simple: love. 1 John 4:18 says, “Perfect love drives out fear.” Again, Yaconelli writes, “I’m convinced that many of us are Christians today because some person or group of people listened to us, saw us, received and delighted in us. This is the kind of presence our youth long for. This is the kind of presence Jesus embodied. This is the kind of presence we seek to incarnate in order to love young people into the faith.”
The answer is simple, but not at all easy. What it means to “listen, see, receive, and delight in” young people will differ church to church. But I know that I will never overtly silence a child as I was silenced in my home church.
This Sunday I’m going to ask the children in my church if any of them would like to say the prayer after the children’s sermon. I’ll do baptisms only when the children are in the sanctuary and encourage all parents to bring their kids back in for the Lord’s Supper.
What will you do? How can you work to change the culture of your faith community so that children are not merely tolerated, but listened to, seen, received, and delighted in? It’s not just about treating our kids right, either. The same fears that force us to separate children from God separate us from fully embracing Jesus’ life for ourselves, too. When we’re able to welcome children, we’re able to welcome God. So in the end, choosing love over fear is about unleashing the spiritual vitality of an entire group of young disciples and in the process crushing the anxiety that threatens to cripple all of our souls. It’s time to let young people’s witness flourish—and the church’s collective witness flourish with it!
Joshua Bower is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Albany, Georgia. His passions include laughing (especially in church), Starbucks Italian Roast, the Buffalo Bills, trying new things in old churches, empowering those in poverty, and being half of a clergy couple raising two kids who touch his soul and try his patience daily. Josh is on Facebook at facebook.com/jleebower.