Homer Simpson speaks the words when applying to work as a guard at a juvenile prison, and they make us smile: “I believe that children are our future—unless we stop them now.” The statement “Children are the future of the church” is comparably mistaken.
Children, like every other generation in our churches, are the present. If we think otherwise, we run the risk of projecting all our theological understanding and ecclesiological practice toward the future while merely parking the kids in Sunday school. If, on the other hand, we see our children as an integral part of today’s church, how do we include them in the life of God’s people?
When we started a small church plant in rural northern Italy, we asked ourselves this question from the beginning. Our core foundation group, composed mainly of singles and couples, had one courageous family who were raising the church’s only children for several years.
Avoiding Two Risks
We saw two risks to avoid:
1. Treating them as innocent when they are not.
As sweet and cute as all children are, especially when they sleep, they too fall into the “all have sinned” of Romans 5:12. “There is none righteous, not even one,” Paul writes earlier in Romans 3:10, and in the following verses he speaks of corrupted throats, tongues, lips, and mouths. I have never met parents who had to teach their children to tell lies, but how much effort it takes to show them the way of truth! Adults and children have the same need to receive Christ, and to live in light of gospel grace.
2. Not sharing the gospel because they “aren’t not yet able to understand.”
This is definitely not the teaching we find in the Word of God. We see how the growth of Samuel’s understanding of the Word of God and his service to the Lord go hand in hand with Samuel’s growth (1 Sam. 3). John the Baptist was filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb (Luke 1:15), and Jesus encouraged children to come to him (Matt. 19:13–15).
Applying Two Principles
We applied two principles:
1. Everyone will know me, from the least to the greatest.
When God foretells the days of the new covenant (Jer. 31:31–34), he says that he will put his law “within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. . . . And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.’” God saves the least in the same way that he saves the greatest: through his sovereign and effective grace, and through the revelation and application of his Word in the depths of the heart.
As the Lord added new families to our church, including families in which the parents were newly converted, we began to create a teaching program for the children based on the same text as the preaching. This program was accompanied with “homework” tasks to do together as a family during the week.
In this way, parents were equipped with the preached Word and supported by the church in teaching the gospel to their children. Chapter-by-chapter expository preaching has allowed the whole church, young and old, to grow together.
We often tell ourselves that the children are the responsibility of the whole church. We have modeled this by encouraging the teaching of children with the presence of both a male and female figure, and involving practically everyone in the church: grandparents, parents, young people, and singles. In this way, unexpected gifts have sometimes emerged.
2. In Christ they will all be made alive.
Peter shows that the promise of belonging to the covenant community is fulfilled through repentance and redemption in Christ (1 Cor. 15:21–22).
In our experience, recognizing the centrality of the preached and lived Word has led us to encourage an expectation in the little ones of being part of the church family. We set ourselves an initial goal that from the last year of primary school, the children would participate in the whole service together with the adults. This required a commitment from the preacher to preach Christ in a way that is both understandable to the younger and challenging to the older, with illustrations and applications for each generation.
We set ourselves an initial goal that from the last year of primary school, the children would participate in the whole service together with the adults.
It required a commitment from the whole church to live out the gospel in a way that is true and practical for any age. What a joy it was, therefore, to see how the first girl passed naturally from Sunday school to the “service for grown-ups.” Not only did she already know the narrative of Exodus, which we were studying at that time, but from the first Sunday she was able to participate in the service’s interactive questions and applications.
We’ve all grown together in the Word amid difficulties and discomforts, but have helped other without leaving anyone behind or at home. The blessing we have received in these months is seeing how the younger children have naturally begun to listen to the sermon. Two have asked to start using the teenagers’ sheet for taking notes. Even the younger children are starting to interact appropriately with God’s Word and are responding to the exegetical and application questions that are put to the church.
Believers and nonbelievers, and adults and children alike need to receive the same gospel, to experience the same salvation by grace, to be transformed by Christ to live for his glory.