Commentary: Where are the children?

By Judith Christian

Will Our Children Have Faith? is the title of a book written in 1976 by John Westerhoff, a well-known author and lecturer on topics pertaining to the church’s educational mission and ministry.  Today, 30 years later, the title appears to be optimistic, since Westerhoff assumed the presence of children in the church. 

Where ARE the Children? may be a more fitting title for a work written in 2006 as we look at current statistics pertaining to children’s ministry in our church body.

LCMS statistical reports reflect a rapid and continuing decline in the number of children ministered to by our congregations.  This is despite the fact that a total of 49.6 million children attended public and private schools in 2003, beating the previous high mark of 48.7 million set in 1970 (U.S. Census Bureau as reported by the Chicago Tribune, 2005).

Baptism statistics show that LCMS congregations baptized 24,000 fewer children in 2003 than in 1973.  Statistics for the number of congregations sponsoring Sunday school classes (5,330 congregations in 2003, compared with 5,920 in 1973), vacation Bible schools (3,991 congregations in 2003, 4,170 in 1973), and midweek programs (4,243 congregations in 2003, 5,302 in 1973) show significant declines.

Is it not time to be alarmed?  Should not this issue — the numerical decline of children in the church — be at the center of our discussions at every level — among individuals, congregations, and within district and national offices?  Ought we not be engaged in passionate discussions that focus on the spiritual welfare of children and their important place in our congregations?

Scripture includes children — even places them central — in the spiritual warfare in which the Church is engaged (Ps. 8:2).  There are among us numerous reports of children so passionately communicating what they have learned about the saving grace of Jesus that their parents were compelled to hear more about this Jesus themselves.  We read in Mark 10:14 that Jesus invites children to come into His presence and defends their right to be there.  We need our children among us.  They teach us how we are to come into the presence of Jesus — as little, and last, and lost, and least (Matt. 18:3-4).

It must be noted that in the midst of a general decline, there is one area of children’s ministry that continues to grow.  LCMS early-childhood programs serve more than 145,500 young children and their families (LCMS School Statistics, 2004-05 school year).  Among these families, 20 percent claim no church affiliation and 52 percent are reported to be non-Lutheran.  It is estimated that among the non-Lutheran group, approximately half are not active in their reported churches.

The mission field is on our doorsteps, and in our buildings.  Do congregations embrace these schools as a significant ministry of the congregation?  We have been given the opportunity to exercise our God-given responsibility to provide positive firsthand experiences that by the power of the Holy Spirit nurture the faith of young children and their families.  Are we prepared?

Pollster George Barna notes: “Every year hundreds of thousands of unchurched people explore Christian churches in their search for a spiritual anchor.  Among those who have children in tow, the largest share who get involved in congregational life select their church because of the quality of children’s ministry” (Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions, 2003).

Where are the children in your neighborhoods and communities?  Are they standing with you at the foot of the cross?  Can you accept that even one child is missing?  How effectively are our congregations connecting with children in their neighborhoods and communities?  Do our facilities and the people within them convey the message to children, “Jesus loves you.  You belong here.”  Would a child in your church feel openly welcomed and clearly planned for?  Are congregations establishing ministry goals for children and making informed and intentional program and activity choices that support the mission of the congregation and achieve the overall goal for children — nurturing them to be workers in God’s kingdom?  Are those responsible for instruction trained and well-prepared?  Do all generations seek to enliven and enrich one another’s faith?

Children, along with adults, must be exposed to the Word and ways of the people of God, experiencing the evidences of faith in others.  They need to be included in the worship and service life of our congregations in order to grow in the faith.

While we never discount the power of the Holy Spirit to work at any time and in any place, an undeniable body of evidence points to the development of lifelong attitudes and patterns of behavior in childhood.

The Barna Group’s research notes something we have known intrinsically and intuitively for a long time: “Attitudes about the viability and value of church participation form early in life.  Habits related to the practice of one’s faith develop when one is young and change surprisingly little over time” (Transforming Children Into Spiritual Champions, 2003).

When a child is baptized into the family of God, that child has a meaningful place in what the family does as a group.  At each child’s baptism, the liturgy for Holy Baptism has the congregation embracing the child with these words: “We welcome you into the Lord’s family.  We receive you as a fellow member of the body of Christ, a child of the same heavenly Father, to work with us in His kingdom” (Lutheran Worship, p. 204).

Do we really mean what we say in the liturgy?  If so, we must attend to sponsoring the formation of our children’s spiritual lives and be sure our actions are an expression of our faith.  Guiding children to spiritual maturity is not an option.  It is a directive by God (Deuteronomy 4, 6, 11).  We are compelled to make children our priority.  Baptism makes a child a full-fledged member of the body of Christ; we do not have the option of waiting for some age of discernment to include them in the church’s mission and ministry.

The issues we face are many and complex but not insurmountable.  There are those among us who demonstrate a deep understanding of the critical need for reaching out to children with the message of the Gospel, and have taken God’s directives to heart.  These individuals must be supported, their number greatly expanded at all levels!

Too few of us are engaged in serious conversation regarding the future, nature, and purpose of ministry with children. &n

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