How should we think of children in the context of the church ?
There can be no doubt that children were present in the meetings of the early congregations. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians contain many instructions of vital importance for the proper functioning of the church. Among the things taught, some aspects have particular application to children – and therefore children are addressed in these two epistles. Many of the other things communicated in these letters are equally relevant and applicatory to children e.g. the prayer of Paul in Eph. 1:15ff and 4:17ff where he reminds us to be “living as children of the light…”
Remember also that these letters were not only read in Colossae and Ephesus – they were general epistles – to be read in all the congregations – see for instance Col. 4:16, where Paul instructs that the Colossian letter should also to be read to the church in Laodicea. It was likely then that such letters were read to congregations in places such as Smyrna, Thyatira, and Philadelphia etc. These letters are read in every Christian congregation around the world today! They should be read and expounded today in every congregation where children are present to hear everything the letter contains.
There is no doubt that children were the same then as they are now. They were fidgety, restless and often they would not be able to understand what “uncle apostle Paul” was talking about . If see 2 Peter 3:16 is true , then many adults would have been equally challenged.
The question now arises: If children are in attendance of the services of the church - and if they are part and parcel of what we do here, then…
· Can they be members?
· How do we know that they are ready for membership?
· How do we incorporate them into the life of the Church?
- CAN CHILDREN BE MEMBERS OF THE CHURCH?
We have already established that Jesus received little children to Himself (Matt 19:14; Mark 10:13-16). Children, by virtue of them being children (young, inexperienced, ignorant etc.) are not on account of that excluded from the kingdom of God. The Scripture says that God wants all men to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth. (1Tim 2:4). That little word , “all” includes children.
Children are invited by Jesus to become members of the kingdom of God. We have seen that that this text does not teach, that children are automatically members of the kingdom . They too are invited to repent and to submit themselves to God , just like everyone else. Remember, there is only one gospel and only one way to become members of that kingdom. In fact, we have no reason to believe that children are less advantaged or qualified to come to Jesus. They are probably better suited for coming to Christ, because they come with less ‘baggage’ and with the right attitude - “as little children - the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these…” whereas adults, ‘have to become like little children.”’
Now let us take a step further from there: If believing children are in the kingdom, then this means that they are also in the church!  When Paul wrote to the Colossians and the Ephesian congregations he regarded such believing children as being part of the church. It is evident from the language, which he uses. In Col. 3:20 he says: ”Children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the LORD”. He is assuming that these children want to please the Lord. They have responded to His invitation to come to Him, and they are thankful that He died for them, and they want to show their love for Him by ‘pleasing Him’. Is that not the attitude that a true Christian shows?
Children, do you want to please the Lord Jesus? Well then the best way to show this is by obeying your parents. That is the main thing Jesus wants you to do; it is the main way in which you show your love for God while you are children: “children obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.”
Are such children then not eligible for baptism and church membership? Are they not permitted to take part in the Lord’s Supper? Should such children, who have professed the Lord Jesus, and who have shown it in the way they submit to and respect their parents not be recognised as believers? And if their parents are part of the church – all the more reason!
This brings us to the second issue:
- HOW CAN WE KNOW THAT OUR CHILDREN HAVE TRULY COME TO CHRIST?
Remember, what we have said earlier? There is no special gospel for children. The way into God’s kingdom for adult and child alike is the same: “You must be born again!” (John 3:1-8). This new birth must be evidenced by a voluntary, public confession of personal faith in Christ. Fruit in keeping with repentance should also accompany this profession of faith.
Public acknowledgement is necessary. If children and adults do not confess the Lord Jesus Christ before men (i.e. in public) then it is meaningless to talk about conversion. Conversion is no small thing! It is nothing less than a resurrection from death to life! The Holy Spiritis a powerful agent for change! Children too must expect to be changed by the power of the indwelling Spirit and it shows mainly in the way they relate to their parents!
However, in the case of children, there is one problem. Children don’t like to ‘feel out’. They are keenly competitive and ambitious. It means much to them to give correct answers. They (like adults) don’t like to be wrong . They are just a whole lot more honest about it!
So, if you would ask a child in our church “have you come to Jesus and have you trusted Him for full and free salvation, and does your heart belong to Him now?” , very few children will say: “No!” Therefore to baptise, receive into membership and allow them access to the Lord’s Table on ground of such a profession alone would be wrong. Where this is done we are sure to produce a nominal church membership, which has disastrous results for generations to come.
So, we come back to the same point as before: The best way to deal with children is to adopt the same procedure as with adults. Have them understand the terms of the gospel  and have them respond (without coercion) spontaneously to confess their faith in Christ. This does not necessarily mean that they necessarily must give a testimony before the whole church . Some children may be able to do that and that is fine . The point however is this: the parents, Sunday School teacher, pastor etc. should hear such a confession. And if a child is able to respond to such questions as may be asked of them about their personal encounter with Jesus, we have much reason to be encouraged.
Of course there is no ultimate guarantee that a child’s confession of faith is genuine. But can the same not also be said of an adult? Therefore we should receive the confession of faith of a child with the same seriousness as we do with an adult.
The basic principle is this: Let us receive those who Christ has received. And if we have some favourable evidence of this fact, let us not withhold baptism, membership and communion from the children on that account.
- HOW SHALL WE INCORPORATE OUR CHILDREN INTO THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH?
It is a fundamental conviction that children should be part of what we represent here – the body of Christ, and its most complete expression, that is, the assembled church.
The main obstacles to the attendance of children in the public worship services of the church are most often not children, but their parents! It has been said that when mothers feel cold, they tell their child to put on a jersey! Modern parents often feel (!) that their children cannot cope with sitting through a worship service, let alone a sermon! Yes, it is true that a few children may be disruptive and they may have to be removed for a while, and be taught to sit still .
Of course, the worship service cannot compete with the TV or free play! Naturally a child will choose that before sitting through a worship service. But sitting through a worship service must never be compared with TV or other entertainment! It is a discipline and no discipline comes naturally to anyone of us – not even adults! You should see how fidgety adults can be even in our own congregation!
It is on the ground of such mistaken perceptions about the church, and especially the worship service ( which are not based on thorough theological reflection) that churches have developed separate activities for children, while the adults go to the worship service. But this simply reinforces the idea that the worship service is for adults only!
Now, the fact that some of the language of the sermon may be above the heads of the children is not a serious problem! This is only a temporary problem. The discipline of participating in worship ultimately pays dividends! The children grow in knowledge and soon they will understand if they are encouraged to persevere , and their presence in the worship service is all preparatory and much more important than parents will at first perceive.
We believe that attendance of the worship services fosters the child’s spiritual development. They too must learn from young that the worship services of the church are the one assembly that the Lord loves and blesses. It is the most complete expression of the unity of the church. Children need to see that! They need to be integrated into that. They need to be prepared to participate in that body. They need to be exposed to difficult theological terms, and even if they don’t understand ‘atonement’ and ‘justification’ etc. yet, with time they will.
The other important aspect about the child experiencing the worship service of the church is that here they see people coming to faith, testifying, being baptised etc. Children should be present at the Lord’s Supper. Some of them may not yet participate if they have not confessed Christ. But they should see what happens and they should express their desire to participate , whereupon a wonderful opportunity for sharing the gospel with them arises!
We have emphasised the place of the worship service in the spiritual formation of the child, because it is so misunderstood and neglected. We do not thereby de-emphasize the small groups (i.e. Sunday School, children’s groups) which all contribute to the spiritual growth of the child.
Yet another reason for integrating our children fully into the church is the social aspect. At church they will come into contact with other Christians and their families. The local church made up of these families is a wonderful fellowship for kids, and it is a support system and a large family that holds much spiritual gain in the long term. In a gathered church context, the children learn to interact with people of all kinds. A child growing up in this atmosphere will be well protected against the social evils that are tearing so many families apart. In the church context the child will be nurtured and protected by the stable environment, and the likelihood that this child will set up a good stable home in due time is so much better.
So we say that it is better if parents can persevere and endure hardship for a little while. Please support your children positively, and we the church leaders will do our best to help our children to feel welcome in the church and especially in our worship services.
IN A NUTSHELL :
- Can children become members of the church? Yes of course – provided that they are born again!
- How can we know that our children have come to Christ? By observing their genuine repentance!
- How shall we incorporate our children into the church? “Incorporating” is the word. We must make them feel part of the church. They must be allowed to grow (being children) into responsibilities. We will not expect children to be ‘little adults’, but we will entrust them with more and more responsibility as they grow. May we see MANY mature young people take their seats of leadership in God’s church! May we see another Charles Haddon Spurgeon, who pastored his first church at the tender age of 18!