Jesus commanded his followers to pay careful attention to the child in our midst; to raise children in a way that allows for the healthy expression of their faith; to fully affirm their innate spirituality and to welcome them with the same scandalously generous acceptance that he consistently lived out.
Jesus cautioned his disciples never to hinder children in the development of their faith; rather, to have the promotion of their well-being as an important function of his community of followers. Jesus came to give us life: the best life ever! One of the tasks of a healthy church is to raise spiritually nourished children and young people, who live out their Christian faith in healthy, whole-life affirming ways.
Twenty years or so ago, Scripture Union England and Wales ran a national prayer campaign around the theme 'Another Kind of Famine'. It encouraged churches to consider the needs of a nation of children and young people that were spiritually 'hungry' and essentially 'starving' for the kind of connection that only life within a community that has faith in Jesus can provide.
Two decades on, we are still faced with a nation of children who are 'nutritionally' impoverished when it comes to a transforming spiritual encounter of God and an experience of the Church as a place where their deepest needs for a living relationship with God and God's people can be met. And we are also still wrestling with the thorny issue of how we can 'integrate' children and young people into the church.
In her book From the Ground Up, Kathryn Copsey (former editor of SU's SALT Programme) draws our attention to a series of basic human 'hungers', the fulfilment of which have been identified as being crucial for healthy growth and development. These 'hungers' reflect our deep need for connection, for beauty, for worship, for answers to the really big questions about life's meaning and purpose.
The first is the need to be recognised and accepted as a person of worth and value. Second is the need for contact with people of all ages within the context of healthy, trusting relationships. Then there is the hunger for stimulation, for our curiosity and imagination to be excited; for our senses to be engaged; for our thinking to be inspired beyond this world.
We hunger for a pattern and structure that gives meaning and direction to our daily life. We hunger for events and incidents that we can look forward to and that mark important milestones to reflect on and to appreciate. We hunger for respectful, loving relationships where we can give healthy expression to our sexuality.
These deep hungers cannot be satisfied if we merely think about children and young people in isolation from the rest of the community of the church. It takes the whole family of God to raise faith-filled children of God. It does not happen apart from a spiritually nourishing relationship with them. So much of our thinking about children and young people is about supporting them in their separate programmes or in their lives outside the church, at the expense of actually forming a friendship with them through which these hungers can be met.
It seems to me that this kind of thinking is a bit like trying to 'solve the problem' of the hungry homeless person by simply putting some change in their hands and directing them to the nearest McDonalds. It is too easy to do our disengaged little bit in the short term, but think that we can leave the long-term solution to the experts in food provision.
What children and young people need more than anything is to belong to us. They need to be 'brought home' and to be well fed, through loving acceptance and inclusion into a Christian community of all ages. What is the Church's role and responsibility in providing a healthy spiritual diet for its neighbourhood children? We need to reflect on what real children are really like and on what real children really need. Then we need to think about how we can provide that through simple, ordinary, everyday, sustaining friendships.
What kind of environment and approach will nurture children who are well nourished in every dimension of their spirituality? It's about much more than debating the kind of food that we can help someone dish out to them. It's about much more than lending our support to a 'kids' food aid' programme. It's much more about becoming the kind of Kingdom community that physically invites, embraces, includes, sits down with, spends time with, relates with, enjoys a really great meal with children and young people as an integral part of our life together as God's people.
Let's pray about how we can do that. Let's ask God to lead each of us into a friendship with one other family where there are parents, children and young people who need filling up with the real Bread of Life. Let's be the people who offer the best life ever to those that are hungry and who are telling us they need food.
Julie Wilson, Bigstuff, 2006. Julie is Director of Bigstuff Enterprises Ltd, a company that enables creative and playful adventures in learning. She also directs the 'Raising Spiritually Nourished Children' programme for schools and churches.