Last week we considered what our Goal was for our children in church. If I could summarise, I would say that we are trying on "on board" our children to the life of the church so that they are enabled to grow in the LORD alongside all the beleivers.
It is clear to me that there is no magic age at which one is either able or unable to participate in the formal part of our church gathering, but each person, young or old, has to grow into it over time. The person who comes to church for the first time can observe all that is happening, but full participation will take time. Same goes for children, but with them we are starting "further back" as it were. We want our children to be able to participate as early as possible, but at the latest we want to see them fully participating before they leave our care.
I think its a good rule of thumb to try to get the discipleship ball around worship rolling when kids are younger, so that as they enter young adulthood (i.e. teenage years), we only need to work on slight course corrections, and they are already benefiting from the steady access to the Means of Grace. They should be practicing taking up their responsibilities of faith from as early as possible so that they are well equiped for their whole life, come what may.
Think of lives like trees or vines. It is much easier to direct growth and change the shape of a tree when it is youngest and most flexible. In fact, as the world shows us, you can form a child into almost any shape you want, from child body-builders to child climate activists, to child "preachers" it seems that there are plenty of folks who are willing to mould their children after their own likeness from their earliest days. We should endeavour to mould our Children after Christ from their earliest days. God in his mercy does change hard old stubborn oaks, but the stats and experience bear out the fact that the best time to shape outlook, attitudes and practice are when children are younger, before we become set in our ways. Most beleivers came to faith as children or young adults, and the spiritual state of their parents and their connection to their local church has an huge impact on the likelihood that they will remain in the faith. God is ultimately responsible for capturing hearts, yet he can use our ordinary efforts to bring about his plans.
That means starting as young as possible. Some people think that we should basically just let our children grow like wild brambles and then come along part way through to start shaping and directing. Some will say that it is mean to start teaching our kids early, I can't for the life of me understand why! There is no stage of childhood that is a neutral platform to start constructing life foundations. From the womb children are learning from and responding to their environment, and that includes in the gathering of the saints.
"Folly is bound up in the heart of a child..." Pr 22:15a
"But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus." 2 Ti 3:14–15.
It is better to start late than not at all, but if the option is open to us, start earlier. Don't fret about the wasted opportunities, but resolve to take hold of them from now on. Get them planted in good soil, provide the appropriate structure that acts as a support to growth.
For integrating a child into church life I reckon there are 4 responsible parties at work.
The First is God. He is the one who saves children, filling them with His Spirit and uniting them to Christ Jesus. We trust him with the outcome, and labour for that end as slaves in His household accomplishing the bidding of the Master. The LORD sets the boundaries, instructs us on what he wants us to do, protects us along the way, and exceeds our inadequacy to ensure His will is accomplished in the hearts of His children.
The second is the local Church. The Church is of course the collective body of Christ on earth, manifested in local groups. The New Testamen lays out the way that the church is meant to function and it includes the responsibility to ensure gatherings are "decent and in good order", that the word is preached rightly and that threats to the church's health are removed. I think it is fair to say that the church should be welcoming children into as many of their gatherings as possible; the corporate gathering is for all of God's people, including the youngest ones! Older beleivers should be helping and teaching the younger, as well as setting a good example for the younger to follow.
Thirdly, children have responsibility, but theirs is a growing responsibility. Initially children are incapable of taking up responsibility and need to grow into it. As each person matures, they must take responsibility for their actions. The responsibilities change as we enter different stages of life, but there is one that never goes away once donned: self control. Self control is still hard for us as adults, but we do well to help our children take up this responsibility as they are able so that they are better equipped to follow the Lord.
As they take on faith for themselves, children will take up a discipleship burden from God. It's not a cumbersome burden, but it is a load none-the-less. When I submit to God and His ways, there is stuff that I am called to do in love and loyalty, whether I be 6, 13 or 57. While a child's responsibility in church will be appropriately child sized, there is still things that rest on them, from joining in the singing where they can, greeting their spiritual family, listening to God's word in-so-far as they are able, participating in Lord's Supper properly and so on. If kids know what Christians do in church, they are better equiped to take up the task of pursuing God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength and fulfilling the call of God to his Church from a young age.
Fourthly and finally there are parents. Parents are the primary carers, in a physical and spiritual sense, of their children. We do acknowledge that children ultimately are God's image bearers, and belong to Him, but like everything else in the world they can be assigned to our care for us to protect and prosper for a time. God charges parents, and particularly fathers, with the responsibility to pass on the faith, teach them about worship and train them in righteousness. That is going to include preparing our kids for the regular gatherings of the church to participate in our corporate life together.
There may be things that impede our ability to discharge that responsibility, including: our own weaknesses, absent/non-Christian parent, environmental aspects outside our control, genetic traits, disability, chronic illness, and so on.
Yet here is a crucial thing for the modern parent to know: While there's heap of things that can limit or affect our parenting, we must not fall into the trap of looking to the things outside our control and using them as an excuse not to try.
Let me say it another way, imagine God give you a field and tells you to plough the ground He gave you. You can acknowledge that this ground is stony, or sandy or muddy or whatever. You can develop strategies that suit your soil type better. You can talk to God about why your task is harder than your neighbours, or empathise with your neighbour who has it harder than you. But what you should never do is respond to the providential limitations by not ploughing the soil.
How does this work out? We have parents who acknowledge the challenges of parenting, identify traits in their children that impede discipleship, or even pray about the difficulty they face, but not actually put the hand to the plough and lead their child forward in faith. Yes some people will have it easier, some will have it harder, but the hardness of the task ahead of us does not excuse us from labouring for the LORD. God has placed you where you are, how are you going to be faitthful with what you have?
It's easy to excuse our lack of progress with our children's discipleship, and hard to acknowledge we are likley the problem. But if we have been lax, we should practice the Gospel way - 'fess up to God and those people we have failed (including our children), then try to make things right. Receive forgiveness and walk in the Light.
If you take up the weighty responsibility of discipling your kids both in the gathering and apart, you will be like the farmer who plants a field in anticipation of harvest. It will be hard going now, and you may not see fruit for some time, but if you never plant, you never harvest. If you plant but a little, you harvest a little. I submit that we should do all in our power to help our children become spiritually fruitful, not only because it is our duty, but because it is our joy to lead others to flourish in Christ.
"The sluggard does not plough in the autumn;
he will seek at harvest and have nothing." Pr 20:4.
(Gen. 18:19; Deut. 4:9; 6:7; 11:19; Ps. 78:4-6; Prov. 19:18; 22:6; 29:17; 2 Tim. 3:15)
Next time on Children in Church, we will start looking at practical consideratrions.