For the sake of the generations to come, who is the church called to be? And what might a refreshed theological vision that answered that question look like? KAREN WARNER considers these questions and offers a catalyst for further discussion.
It is my job to listen to the needs of our churches, especially with regard to children and families. In doing that I started hearing about churches that said they had no children. While that may not be a problem for one or two niche churches surrounded by retirement homes, I’m confident the future of the church does depend on having new and future generations!
I think we have all suspected our movement is ageing, but I went looking for some accurate evidence. In 2017 Lynne Taylor, our statistician, reported to me the numbers of adults, teens and children in our churches today, compared with ten years ago. This is what the statistics showed:
- We have thirteen per cent fewer adults in our churches now.
- We have twenty-two per cent fewer teens.
- We have twenty-six per cent fewer children.
- Thirty per cent of our churches have fewer than ten children.
I know this is an average, and some of you may think your church is OK, but I encourage you to think more about the bigger picture.
I believe God highlights problems to point out where change is needed and the new directions in which he is calling us. With that in mind, what is God saying to us and where should we look for some ways forward?
A theological vision
It’s in thinking about this question that I believe Tim Keller’s concept of a theological vision becomes helpful.
In Keller’s book Center Church, he suggests that between your doctrinal beliefs and your ministry practices should be a well-conceived vision for how to bring the gospel to bear in a way that fits the time and place in which you are ministering.1 This is your theological vision—your understanding of who you are called to be as Kiwi Baptist Church, and why.
Keller suggests using theology, doctrine, culture and context as a filter or grid through which to develop the theological vision. As belief drives vision, we need to start by understanding what God believes about children.
What God believes about children
When it comes to theology and doctrine, little has been written about children from a Baptist perspective, and almost all of it comes from the UK. In his book ‘To Such as These’: The Child in Baptist Thought, Andrew Goodliff, a UK pastor, poses that, from Scripture and Baptist belief, we should have a view of the child that:
- Sees them as gift—not possessions, or as a right, or as consumers;
- Sees that [sic] as full persons made in the image of God and so endowed with human dignity and value;
- And as agents in the world and in the church, who need nurture and teaching, but who can also nurture and teach us...2
Goodliff has based these views on the words of Jesus:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:3-5).
But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; 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” (Mark 10:14-15).
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 belong” (Luke 18:16-17).
Carey Baptist College lecturer Andrew Picard affirms Goodliff’s views, saying he believes that Jesus drew children into the centre of his new community to be active participants in the kingdom of God, rather than props that Jesus uses to remind adults of their need for childlikeness.
He adds, “l think for us as a church there needs to be something of a shift in which we begin to realise children are...active agents in our midst who God uses for the sake of the gospel.”3
Culture and context
So what about the other fields that Keller refers to—those of culture and context?
Perhaps we can learn something from the Presbyterian Churches of Aotearoa New Zealand about understanding context. It was in response to research that showed Presbyterian churches were, in Jill Kayser’s words, “missing the boat as far as children and families were going”, that Jill launched what has since become the Presbyterian national children’s ministry, Kids Friendly.
She describes Kids Friendly as an ethos and congregational core value, not as a programme. However she says it can only be embraced as such when the culture of an organisation changes, and that can only happen when churches at a local level have some sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo—what Jill refers to, in a biblical sense, as ‘lament’.
When we look at our current New Zealand context there is plenty to lament; children in this nation are under fire physically, emotionally and spiritually:
- On average, one New Zealand child dies every five weeks as a result of violence.4
- According to UNICEF almost twenty per cent of New Zealand children live in poverty.5
- There have been recent legal challenges aimed at removing religious instruction from New Zealand state primary schools.
- Parents are increasingly finding that sport is being played on Sundays, keeping even Christian families away from church.
Culture is also undergoing rapid change. Children have more knowledge at their iPad fingertips than teachers could ever hope to impart, and they are being shaped by the digital world they inhabit. When you put this alongside our growing ethnic diversity and the rise in secular humanism, I don’t think it was an overstatement when Pope Francis recently claimed, “We are not living in an era of change, but a change of era.”6
Catalyst for further discussion
We’ve looked at the threads of theology, doctrine, culture and context that now need to be woven together into a vision. Based on this, and in the spirit of Luther the reformer, I’d like to metaphorically nail an idea to the Baptist church door—an idea that is meant as a catalyst for further discussion.
Understanding the challenges of our times, and knowing we have twenty-six per cent fewer children in our churches today, for the sake of the generations to come I believe God is calling us to be missional churches with children at the centre. This doesn’t mean they go on a pedestal or that everything is about them. Rather, by having them at the centre, we ensure that who we are and what we do reaches, grows and disciples our children, our taonga.
This will mean several things:
- Mission with children is central to what we do. Many of our churches began as Sunday Schools. It was the church growth strategy of the day.
- We are prepared to challenge the status quo and be innovative. This is relevant to our ministry and mission with children, but extends much further as well.
- We are open to new ways of doing church—ways that will change the things that we do and the priorities that we have.
- We are open to being integrated and interdependent, celebrating and leveraging being intergenerational. It will require us working together and seeking collaboration, both within the church and the local community.
- We make it a priority to pray for children.
Our theological vision needs to include the way God sees children and the way he wants us to see and value children. This is where we are in step with society, because the families in your community want the best for their children.
When they see that this is also what you want, and more importantly, what God wants, how much more could our relationships with one another and God be?
Story: Karen Warner
Karen Warner is National Team Leader of Children & Family Ministries for the Baptist Churches of New Zealand
This article was based on a presentation Karen Warner gave at the Baptist Hui 2016. This can be viewed at youtu.be/YjS-WGxa8aQ. You can carry on this conversation with Karen by emailing her or Ph 09 526 7958.
- Tim Keller, Center Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 17.
- Andrew J. Goodliff, ‘To Such as These’: The Child in Baptist Thought (Oxford: Regent’s Park College, 2012), 25.
- “Baptist Hui 2016 Main Session 7: Grace Shared”, Karen Warner: Baptist Children & Family Ministries. youtu.be/YjS-WGxa8aQ.
- “Keeping Kiwi Kids Safe”, UNICEF New Zealand. preview.unicef.org.nz/in-new-zealand/child-abuse.
- “Child Poverty in NZ”, UNICEF New Zealand. preview.unicef.org.nz/in-newzealand/child-poverty.
- “Pope Francis Outlines His Visionfor the Church”, Anthony D’Arco: National Federation of Priests’ Council. nfpc.org/homepage-news/popefrancis-outlines-his-vision-for-church.
Photo: Tracey Scollon/lightstock.com