This week we’re celebrating 500 years since the Reformation in Europe – a time when big changes occurred in the church in order to get vernacular Bibles into the hands of people who’d never understood the Bible before. They’d been going to church all their lives without understanding a word of what was said, and they’d hoped they were good enough because they’d tried to follow the rules the church had set out for them, and they’d picked up on some Bible themes from the stained glass windows. Their actions gave them a Christian appearance, regardless of any understanding of the gospel. This is a very brief and inadequate description but this isn’t actually a post about the Reformation.
I’ve been thinking about children’s work in churches (although most of what I will write also applies to teaching our children at home). I’ve noticed that sometimes the way children’s work is done bears some resemblance to this pre-Reformation religion. Sometimes children’s work is done more for appearances than for any actual spiritual benefit. Children hear a story and/or do an activity, and probably come away with tangible evidence, e.g. a craft. But this is mostly done to show others that the children are participating in the church service, and they’re learning Christian stuff.
These children come out of creche or Sunday school with a lovely craft, but with no relationship with God. They have learnt some Christian morals, but they have no knowledge of the Word of God. They have been shown role models, but they haven’t encountered the gracious God of the Bible. (I think the role model topic might be another blog post in itself.)
Why does this happen? Maybe it’s because it’s the easy option. But I can also think of two beliefs behind this way of doing things:
- Christian children are nice and well behaved. Therefore, it’s good if children come to church every week, because we all want nice and well behaved children in our community, don’t we?
- Children can’t really get to know the living God who’s revealed himself to us through his Word. After all, they’re only little. They can’t even tie their shoelaces! How can they be expected to understand doctrine? Let’s be realistic.
I guess there are many ways I could argue against these two points. As usual, I’ll come back to Deuteronomy 6. You need to read the whole chapter really but here’s one extract:
4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.
The Lord has always commanded his people to teach their children about him, so that they’ll know who they are and what the Lord has done for his people. For us New Covenant believers, we don’t just need to teach them about a rescue from slavery in Egypt, but also (and ultimately) about our rescue from slavery to sin, through our Saviour Jesus Christ. And a Saviour is what we all need:
“And if we are careful to obey all this law before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.” (Deut 6 v25)
Like the Israelites, we are unable to keep the law, and so we need a righteousness from God that is by faith from first to last. (Romans 1:17). We desperately need Christ’s righteousness, and to stop trying to rely on our own good behaviour. So why on earth would we think that what children really need most is to be well behaved?
And why would we think that they can’t have a relationship with the Lord? In order to think that, you need to ignore all of the commands God gives to teach children his word (e.g. Psalm 74:5-6) plus what Jesus commanded about letting children come to him, plus just common sense. Does a child know his/her mum and dad? Do they know their siblings, their grandma, their neighbour? Do they know their Sunday school teacher? So why can’t they know Jesus? Is he not real? Knowing the Lord is what they were made for. Of course I know that their understanding of things will be different to ours (although don’t forget Jesus told us to learn from them (Matthew 18:3), but teach a group of children for a period of time and you’ll see some of them relating to their God. Hopefully this relationship will lead to good behaviour (that’s certainly what I’m praying for my children!), but good behaviour without a changed heart is just a veneer. Let our creche not be a Pharisee factory, because I’m quite sure Jesus wasn’t impressed by the Pharisees.
If you’re teaching creche or Sunday School, your responsibility is not to churn out well-mannered children who can tell you who Moses and Jonah are: it’s to faithfully teach God’s word to them, and to pray for their souls. Don’t underestimate that responsibility. These people are made in God’s image, and their precious. If we fear God, we should teach his word with reverence to him. And if your church isn’t doing this, then I would urge you to remedy that, even if it means you have to take charge of it (I know, as if you haven’t got enough to do).
Can I just say that I help run the creche in my church, and we do want the children to behave well, plus they do crafts, so I hope it’s clear that I’m not saying those things aren’t good. But they’re really not the point of us all being there. If we really believe in the power of God to speak to us by his Spirit through His word, regarding his Son our Saviour, then we’ll believe that for our children, too. I hope you can see how this links to what I wrote at the top about the Reformation. Let’s do children’s work the great Reformers would be pleased to see. We have the Bible in their language, so let’s not just show the kids some pictures and send them away thinking that all they need to do is try their best to be good.
And if you read this and feel encouraged that the children’s work in your church is good, maybe you could encourage the leaders this week, and thank them for faithfully doing the Lord’s work.
This reminds me of a post I wrote a long time ago called Hearts Not Garments.