Friday, May 16, 2014

The case for child-centred church services

Being a father of young children causes me to look at "church" differently. Before my marriage, as a single man I was able to serve in offices and participate in pretty much any of the church's ministries. This changed even more so when I became a father. Just imagine getting ready for church and having to be late because you have to wait on the baby to awake on time. Then having to get up during the "service" to take your child outside, because the child cannot sit still and keep quiet during the sermon. Not to mention the mommies who have to breast feed or even bottle feed the child (which is informally and unofficially forbidden in the "sanctuary"). As such, being a parent, for the first time forces you to contend with how unfriendly "church" is to young parents and their children. [ Disclaimer: this does not apply to the home church where I raised in with my mother and father. Home churches always treat their grandchildren who they've not seen for a while with a grand homecoming welcome and spoil them of course.]

But that's not all. Your eyes begin to open up to the fact that the church in the 21st century is quintessentially structured for adult believers as the major constituency. [Maybe it is because this group is the major contributors of voluntary services (free labour) and tithes and offerings]. However, even with a church offering children services and programmes, you realise that these are the non-essential or fringe services of the church. Children services and programmes are merely outreach, and not the core of what the church is about. [Perhaps a way of reaching out to parents more than the children].

But when I look at the scriptures, I get a different image. Several verses and memory texts tell me of the importance of raising children in the faith from the womb or birth, teaching them while in their youth or infancy. Psalm 22:9-10 for example says:
Yet you brought me out of the womb; you made me trust in you, even at my mother's breast. From birth I was cast on you; from my mother's womb you have been my God. (NKJV)
From the child is sucking teats, the child is to be learning about God.

Another verse, 2 Timothy 3:15 says [breaking into the thought]:

from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
Hence, children should be learning God's ways from infancy, not as teens or young adults.

A final example of scripture that tells me that the emphasis of teaching children about God is Psalm 71:17, which says:

Since my youth, God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds.
This is in addition to that proverb that says "train up a child in the way that they should go and when they are old, they will not depart from it".

But my point is that churches cannot be teaching children doctrines when they are teens or young adults. Doctrines must be taught when they are children. Further, church services cannot afford to cater to adult members and be centred around adult member programming. On the contrary, church has got to be vested in teaching, equipping and educating children for the work of Christian ministry. By this, I don't mean just investing in church schools, Sunday/Sabbath schools and one-off children programmes like Vacation Bible Schools. These are important, but even "traditional" worship services should be ceremonies for initiating children into the faith.

I personally find that church traditions like "communion service" in Protestant, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches fail to incorporate children unless they are baptized. Further, these churches generally baptize a child only when they are confident that the child has reached the age of "understanding" or consent. While church "worship services' are supposedly design to get me focused on God, there is no way that I can focus on God if my children are not engaged in what's going on. The structure of "church" has to be such that children can either participate or observe what is going on so that they can grow in either their understanding of the faith. This means providing opportunities for answer their questions about what is taking place as opposed to shushing them.

For me, an advanced believer with over 20 years of indoctrination (from both school and church), I don't really need the "worship services" as much. My spiritual needs lie in the discussion fora and the Bible studies. Those spaces and opportunities where I get to ask questions and share information. No need to be preached at (though I appreciate the storytelling, interpretations and retelling of familiar Bible stories). However, my concerns are now how to live out my faith in contemporary times. How to answer the questions of contemporary skeptics? Have we misunderstood anything that we now believe? Is there any more truth out of the scriptures that I need to comprehend? Did church founders miss knowledge that we now have access to?

Mark you, I am not saying that we need to do away with regular church worship service structure. Far from it, as this regular structure is still good for the newbies to the faith. It is new believers and children who need to hear sermons and instructions on morality and the purpose or meaning of life. The same group needs to be familiar with Bible stories and the themes of the Christian faith. The regular worship services should tell the grand narratives of Christianity's theme of salvation and redemption. However, we must ensure that children can meaningfully participate in such collective storytelling. (Didn't apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 admonish that we must make our services such that unbelievers can understand it and provide interpreters for those who have difficulties?) Hence regular church services should facilitate children participate in the telling and in meeting the introductory/orientation needs of newbies, while Bible classes/studies serve as the "extra-lessons" for the advanced believers.

After all, there is nowhere in Matthew's commission (Matthew 28:19) where I see a prescription for our current order of services. There is no prescription that we must collect offerings and listen to a sermon from one speaker. Jesus did not command those things and even in his sermons, there was space for interaction and the asking of questions. Rather, Matthew's great commission is for us to baptize, teach and make disciples. Hence, believers should be in the business of converting others to their viewpoint and worldview, instructing these new converts and mentoring them to take over the conversion business. And what better way to convert people to a particular worldview than when they are children with minds open for teaching and learning.