Andy Bathgate spoke about nurturing children at the 'Children in the Church Community' Conferences in 2010. Here you can read the message he shared...

Reading the Bible

I want to begin with a word of affirmation. As workers with children and young people you are committed to ministering God's love and communicating the truth of the gospel. But your work easily goes unnoticed. You go out from the service with the children on a Sunday and your time with the children is out of the limelight. Sometimes your work is minimised, with the expectation that you will graduate from working with children to adult ministry.

The word I want to share with you comes from 1 Corinthians 15:58 'Your know that everything you do for the Lord is worthwhile' or in another translation; 'nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless'. Be affirmed in your ministry with children. You are pleasing the Lord in what you do. I want us to think about nurturing children in faith and growing with children in faith. First I want to speak about our responsibility toward children and then to look at the expectations we should have of children in following Jesus.

1. Our responsibilities toward children

As adults we have responsibilities toward children. Let me note three.

a. Children are valued by God; so we must express that value in our work

The ultimate source of value for each of us is that we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27,28). Children bear that image, whatever their background or behaviour. If we want to know what that means we need only look at Jesus. He displays in his actions that God wants children to know acceptance (Matt 19:13-15). In Matthew 19, Jesus places a hand of blessing on children. Touch was extremely significant in Jesus ministry (although we can be dissuaded from it in our culture and of course we need to take great care). Jesus touches a leper to heal him when he could easily have healed without physical contact. But touch signifies and demonstrates identification and acceptance. The response of the disciples is not totally unexpected: 'don't bother him'. They struggled with the time and tenderness which Jesus gave to children. His statement in v14 should characterise all our work: 'Let the children come'. This extends to all children, without exception. Two images come to mind:

  • Our daughter Karyn's Special Needs mean she does not follow social conventions. If she is frustrated or bored she will shout out or scream no matter the circumstances. It happens in church. I apologised to the Minister on one occasion and his response taught me a lot: 'She is part of the church... I just need to be more engaging'. That is a clear application of 'let the children come'.
  • Another church, another attitude - the Sunday School teacher from this church told me of the sighing and even the covering of ears which she witnessed when she brought a very slightly unruly group of children into church for the closing part of a service; the children's frustration having been built up by having to wait 15 minutes more than planned to get back into the service. This is more like: 'don't bother him (us)'.

This valuing of children by God expresses itself in one final way: God wants to hear children's praise (Psalm 8:2). Jesus affirms the teaching of Psalm 8 in Matthew 21:16. He wants to hear them and even uses the praises of children for his glory in a special way. 'The mighty God whose glory is displayed across the face of the heavens appoints the praise of children to silence the dark powers arrayed against Him' (Ps 8:2 NIV Study Bible)

How do we demonstrate that value in our work? How can we ensure children's contributions are heard and that they are blessed?

b. Children are vulnerable and need protection

Great care must be taken in how 'little ones' are treated (Matt 18:5,6). In guarding children there are many dangers to avoid and Child Protection legislation enshrines much of what we would want to say, especially about not despising their vulnerability and simplicity (Matt 18:10). But the great danger highlighted here that we must counter is, causing them to lose faith (v6). How might we cause them to lose faith? Is this something about integrity? We cannot teach things that are contradicted by behaviour (18:21-35). That confuses children. If we talk about love but they don't witness it in relationships in our teams and in our attitudes to them, then we are failing them. They will treat the faith at best as merely an interesting theoretical concept unless they witness its reality around them. Is it also something about faithfulness? We dare not present a caricature of God to children. We dare not simply present our ideas; although sometimes it comes from the best motives, in a desire not to confuse children or alarm them.

c. Children are inexperienced and need to be taught

We will talk later about learning together and the insights we can receive from children but that does not contradict the clear biblical responsibility to teach, to make disciples (including amongst children and young people). And making disciples involves teaching them to obey everything Jesus commands. Notice a couple of things about teaching. In Deuteronomy 4:9; 6:4-8; 11:19 the context is primarily family. We must call parents to their responsibility. But the family operate in the wider community environment. So, we must support, encourage and equip parents to play their role in spiritual nurture. And how is that teaching done? Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:19 emphasise that teaching is done both formally and informally. Every context is to be utilised (6:7-9) - at home, out on a journey, lying down and getting up - presumably something like: 'Pray as you go to sleep, pray with thanksgiving for a new day'. Every context is used because teaching includes modelling and practice, not just instruction. Think of Jesus and how he nurtured his disciples. Learning, it is recognised, takes place when all 3 things are present: instruction, modelling and practice.

This is where the Sunday school model or construct can break down. The approach can be built on an education model, emphasising teaching without modelling, education but not in the context of worship, formal teaching but not discipling. Ivy Beckwith in her book Post Modern Children's Ministry talks about faith being built on experience. That faith grows in children as they imitate. They need practical, concrete examples to follow. That forms the basis for whole families to understand their identity as the people of God in the Old Testament. They experience the Passover together; they refer back to it constantly and repeat the festival to reinforce it. It makes us ask about the place of children in relation to Communion in our churches.

To summarise this section - Nurturing children in faith is about sharing ourselves and sharing experiences together, not just our knowledge.

Let me give two examples:

  • Libby Lobban works for J12 in the East End of Glasgow amongst some very disadvantaged young people. She has worked with a group of them for a period of 9 or 10 years, seeing them grow as followers of Jesus. But that has meant her sharing her life with these young people. She has discipled them and that has meant having them to her flat for meals and parties, taking them away on regular trips, arranging residential events for them and a host of other things. It has been disruptive to her life and involved many frustrations, with seeming progress followed by backward steps. This is disciple making
  • The other example comes from the Chelsea and England midfielder, Frank Lampard! He started out with West Ham United as a youngster but he also trained with Arsenal. He liked the Arsenal set-up better although he came from a West Ham family. Why was that? It was not the money or the superior facilities. It was largely because of Steve Rowley. He was the Arsenal Chief Scout. He identified Frank; took him for sausages and chips (!) after games, talked with him about what he had done well and what he might improve. He would take Frank home and go into the house to talk with Frank's mum and dad. 'He had a way about him that was caring', says Frank. And he did it with a lot of kids. That contains the principles of disciple-making.

What contexts are available to us to teach & nurture children? How can we model what we teach?

'Children, you belong to the Lord and you do the right thing when you obey your parents.' (Eph 6:1 CEV)

2. Expectations on children to follow Jesus

There is an expectation on children built on their ability to hear and respond to God and his word. The passage in Ephesians 6 about children obeying their parents (6:1) has certain assumptions underlying it. When the letter to the Ephesian church was read aloud to the congregation the children were present with the rest of the community and they were addressed directly and expected to respond and to obey. In fact, the story of Samuel would suggest that children can be more sensitive than adults to the voice of God (1 Samuel 3) and that would be reinforced by Jesus response in Matthew 21: 15,16, where he quotes Psalm 8:2.

Children are expected to listen to God and to respond to his voice. They should be called to trust and follow Jesus. They should be helped to recognise the need for forgiveness. Something as basic as the Lord's Prayer includes the dimension of seeking forgiveness and expressing forgiveness to others. Of course great care has to be taken. I was brought up in the kind of evangelical background where many inappropriate things were said and undue pressure was placed on children to 'make a decision'. I recall a children's meeting at which many of my primary school classmates were present, where the leader pointed us to the clock on the wall and said, in hushed tones that 'every time the minute hand moves on, another soul enters eternity'.

Some of these lads would probably never look at a clock in quite the same way again! But there is a place for helping appropriate response to the Lord Jesus and building that into our work. And there is, as we noted a moment ago, an openness in children. There is a mentality of wonder, there is a imaginativeness which does dull with growing cynicism and contempt bred from familiarity. We need to be alert to their wonder; their questions; their softness of heart. It is a softness of heart which is clearly reflected in the role children have played in times of spiritual awakening in Scotland. You can check that out in Harry Sprange's 'Children in Revival'. Or take this quote from David Robertson's biography of Robert Murray McCheyne (pg 120):

Children are fellow-disciples with us. It has become a bit of a clique but it remains true: children are not the church of tomorrow but the church of today. We need to be alert to the role children play now. They have gifts and ministries to bring, now. And we have things to learn from them. One of the ways in which this is happening in some churches is through all-age prayer times. Prayer times in which there is mutuality; children praying for adults as well as vice-versa.

The gifts may be raw and undeveloped but they must be helped to recognise them and develop them. They also have insights to contribute, now. Their softness of heart may enable them to bring understanding to the Bible that we have perhaps lost through familiarity. The ability of children to use their imagination is well illustrated when they are asked the question of a Bible story: 'how would you finish the story?' allowing them then to compare their story ending with God's ending. Some churches have discovered that all-age house groups have added a whole new dimension to their appreciation of God's word. But this is wider than insights into the Bible. Although not dictated to my every childish whim we do need to create space for children to express their views about how things are done and how they feel about how they are done.

It is important that we don't over-protect children in regard to the Bible, shielding them from parts we think might cause them difficulty. In one Sunday School the teachers chose to make a late change to their programme, choosing not to deal with the story of Jesus and the raising of Jairus' daughter because a girl from the local school had sadly died. Was that over-protective? Certainly I have seen young people fascinated and engaged when dealing with Jesus cursing the fig tree; a passage that we might like to gloss over because of its seeming complications.

How can we help children discern and respond to the voice of God? What have I learned from children?

Children also have service to give. In SU we have encouraged churches to hold 'Back to School with God' services. The thinking behind these services is that children and young people who follow Jesus need to be encouraged and supported in following Jesus in school. The services are meant to say:' you are serving the Lord Jesus in your school; we will pray, you will go'. If it is true that most people make a commitment to follow Jesus Christ before they are 20 then we need to be taking seriously the role of peer evangelists and peer disciplers. The service children and young people can bring is of course wide-ranging. They need to be given opportunity to serve the poor and to support the weak; to learn what it is to count others better than ourselves.

Our responsibility: working with children as we grow together

Expectations on children: have we limited the role and ministry of our children?

In what ways could we enable children to play their full part as fellow-disciples in our setting? Think about the areas of prayer, Bible, worship and service Andy Bathgate, Children in the Church Community Conference 2010

Andy Bathgate

Andy has been CEO of SU Scotland since 2001. When he's not busy with us, you'll find him playing with his grandsons or in an art gallery with his wife.