People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:15–17)
Jesus sits in a warm beam of light, surrounded by smiling children. A child sits on his lap. Jesus’ posture is relaxed and welcoming; his face is kind. I’ve seen the picture countless times and all the versions I’ve seen are basically the same. The picture is deeply familiar and comforting … maybe a little cheesy. It’s nice.
But Jesus wasn’t being nice when he blessed the children. Jesus was turning the world upside down. He was making a point about the power of God being made perfect in weakness. He was elevating the most vulnerable members of his society and saying that they were the most important and the most precious to God.
Jesus’ welcoming words are surely comforting, but they should also make us feel uncomfortable. Children in our time and place are vulnerable, too. They are affected disproportionately by poverty, hunger, war, disasters, and domestic abuse. It’s jarring to compare that iconic image of Jesus welcoming and blessing the children with the harsh realities that children face every day.
Many of us read these verses and leap to an idealization of “child-like faith,” which we tend to think of as easier and less complicated than adult faith. Our Bible study takes us in a different direction: “Recall your own childhood experiences that gave you a sense of trust in God.” (back to top)
Focusing on trust helps break through some of the clichés and get into the nitty-gritty of this text: trust in God is not simple or easy. Even young children may have life experiences that shake their trust in institutions, authority, adults, and God. But if our childhood experiences build our trust in God and give us a sense of God’s love and grace, then we can draw on those resources for the rest of our lives. These early experiences can bring hope when we’re feeling hopeless and reassurance when life and faith get difficult.
From my perspective as a pastor, a mom, and a person whose childhood was formed by a wonderful congregation and people of faith, the key to instilling trust in children is this: Trust children. Parents, godparents, mentors, pastors, and congregations are called to trust children to actively participate and increasingly lead during worship, education, and service to the community. When we trust children, we create opportunities for them to build their trust in God.
Trusting Children in Worship
I’ll never forget the first time I spoke in church. I was 8 years old; my family had recently moved and we were new members of St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Park Ridge, Ill. Sister Noreen knew, somehow, that I could be trusted with a speaking part in the children’s program. After worship, many of the older women in the congregation came up to me and said, “You have a nice loud voice and you enunciated very well.” And they also said, “You could be a pastor someday.”
After that, I sought out other ways to take part in leading worship, like singing in the choir and serving as an acolyte. My parents and I served as greeters and in the altar guild. I joined the regular rotation of lectors and assisting ministers, crafting intercessory prayers and assisting with communion. I preached for the first time the Sunday I was confirmed … and they let me do it again! And when I became a pastor, they were proud and not at all surprised. I was the girl with the nice loud voice they’d been cheering on every step of the way. (back to top)
This encouragement didn’t just boost my confidence—it taught me to trust my congregation, to have faith that the body of Christ would support me and make it possible for me to take risks and be bold in faith. It gave me a sense of responsibility that got me out of bed on mornings when I would have preferred to sleep in. Because I was trusted to lead worship, I came to worship. Because I came to worship, I got to meet God in the music, the word, the meal, and through my brothers and sisters in Christ. Because my congregation trusted me, I learned to trust God.
Trusting children in worship means finding ways for children of all ages and abilities to take on meaningful roles. At Redeemer, the congregation I serve as pastor, very young children pass buckets to collect a special offering for ELCA World Hunger every Sunday. Children in our congregation regularly share their gifts through singing, dancing, and playing musical instruments. Youth often approach me with ideas for sermons they want to preach, worship elements they learned at camp, and prayers they want to share and lead. We trust them with all parts of worship; they trust us to prepare them well and set them up for success, to encourage them when they stumble over the words, and to challenge them to risk embracing new roles as they get older.
Worship is important to our Christian life. Trusting children to do something important empowers them and enlightens the whole congregation. It creates opportunities for them to be affirmed by the congregation and to make connections with mentors in faith across generations. (back to top)
Trusting Children to Teach
Two of us preached on Confirmation Sunday: my classmate Katherine and me. As we prepared for the big day we talked about how we weren’t going to stop coming to church after we were confirmed; we were going to stay involved. We decided to sign up to be assisting ministers, and we also decided to teach Sunday school together.
It worked. Katherine and I stayed involved in church all through high school. I remember being exhausted after performing in the high school musical and dragging myself out of bed for church, thinking, “I am doing this for the kids.” Being trusted with the responsibility of teaching other children deepened and strengthened my trust in God. It’s true that teaching is the best way to learn, and I learned that people of all ages can be teachers.
Katherine and I taught in a traditional Sunday school model with kids split into grade levels; trusting children to teach, though, works even better where people of different generations learn and teach together. This model of faith formation is not new but it is gaining new ground as congregations with shrinking Sunday school enrollment look for different ways to educate children in the faith. In a Facebook group called “Killing Sunday School/Birthing Cross+Gen Worship” the Rev. Richard Melheim (founder of Faith Inkubators) and church leaders from around the country share ideas for getting all generations together for faith formation, trusting the very young and the very old and everyone in between to teach and learn from each other. (back to top)
Trusting Children to Serve
When I was in high school the ELCA Youth Gathering took place in New Orleans. The music was great. The crowd at the dome was huge. But the best part, hands down, was the service project. It was over 100 degrees and humid, and we spent the day clearing a field so kids in the neighborhood could use it to play soccer. What made the day so special was that we worked alongside adult chaperones, other kids from E LCA churches, and folks who lived in the neighborhood. We were being trusted not only with the task at hand, but with the larger task of building relationships across differences.
Trusting children to serve God and others is a profound way to introduce them to God and to give them opportunities to meet Jesus in the people all around them. Children who grow up with the idea of accompaniment—that we are ministering with others, rather than ministering to them—will understand intuitively that there is no “us” and “them.” We are all God’s children and the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. (back to top)
Trusting Children with the Gospel
In Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean uses results from the National Study of Youth and Religion to examine what we’re teaching (and not teaching) our children. What we’re not teaching them is actual Christianity. What we are teaching them is something Dean calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism: a feel-good religion where God is benign, irrelevant, and only involved to occasionally grant wishes if you’re good. In this religion, going to church is a nice thing that good people do, but it’s not important or life-changing.
We can do better than that. We can trust our children with the gospel: the truth that Jesus was born homeless, lived in exile and poverty, ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, died like a criminal, and—most scandalous of all—rose from the dead, turning the whole world and all our reasonable human expectations upside down. I’ve found that even very young children grasp the meaning and importance of these challenging truths. They understand Holy Communion in a real and powerful way, even the paradox of the bread being bread (and also body) and the wine being wine (and also blood.) My son started receiving communion when he asked for it shortly after turning 2, and communion in our congregation is open to all ages. When to start is up to parents and kids to figure out together. When we trust children with the full and beautiful mysteries of our faith, we welcome them into a tangible experience of God. (back to top)
Being Trustworthy Adults
Children need mentors: trustworthy adults who are interested in them and involved in their lives. Being a mentor in faith to a child may seem intimidating. The key to doing it well is this: show up. Being there—consistently, faithfully—is crucial for building trust with kids. It also requires a certain amount of perspective and persistence. When my son went through the terrible 2s, he’d hide from friendly faces at church and refused to talk to anyone. The congregation respected his need for personal space, didn’t push him into conversations he didn’t want to have, and very patiently hung in there and built up appropriate relationships of trust. I pray that my kids always have adults in their lives who greet them warmly, ask them questions, genuinely listen to them, share their real faith experiences with them in actions and words, and who don’t give up on my kids when they’re having a bad day.
On a recent Wednesday night at my congregation, I asked the assembly to split themselves into intergenerational groups. Kurt, a middle-aged man, was immediately mobbed by six 7- to 12-year-old boys. The boys were all excited to talk to him and share their ideas with him during the interactive sermon. They knew him and trusted him because he’s there. They’ve seen him singing in worship, standing up to make announcements about service opportunities, and sharing his experiences as a chaperone for youth mission trips. (back to top)
Kurt is one of their mentors in faith. I watched the boys as they talked, voices overlapping with excitement and joy. I watched Kurt listen carefully to each of them, asking questions to draw them deeper into the conversation. And I realized I have a new image to think of when I imagine Jesus blessing the children. It’s not just the nice-but-cheesy drawing anymore. It’s an image that makes it clear that the children blessed Jesus, too.
The Rev. Anne Edison-Albright is the pastor at Redeemer Lutheran Church in Stevens Point, Wis. She’s a contributor to “Ask a Pastor” on LivingLutheran.com, Sundays and Seasons, and Whirl lectionary Sunday school. She’s also wife to Sean, mom to Walter and Sally, and friend to Hank the dog. (back to top)
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