Back in March, I outlined six possible views of the status of children before God. I ended with this:
I will outline a seventh possible answer, and the one which governs my vision, my mission, my role to educate parents and fellow kids team workers, makes sense, encourages me and motivates me to be both evangelistic and nurturing towards children. I will set this view in the context of Westerhoff's stages of faith development. Come back soon!
Answer 7: All children begin with God, but will drift from that position unless an effective nurturing or evangelistic influence operates in their lives.
Key to this is that the child’s belongingness to God may become rebellion. There is no assumption that the belonging WILL become rebellion. This answer takes account of humanity’s rebellion against God and the child’s potential to be part of that. But it holds that potential in tension with Jesus’ own teaching about children and the Kingdom. Taking that teaching seriously, it holds that all children begin with God, but that they will drift from that safe position unless the drift is halted and reversed. So we need to have a VISION to cater for this; both within the Christian family and amongst the children's team.
The answer also makes sense of the fact that the faith of many adults began with Christian nurture in the home and grew into mature Christian discipleship. Some adult Christians have never doubted that they belong to God. They have been nurtured in that sense of belonging; they have agreed with it; they have grown in it.
They have never consciously said “no” to Jesus………
I sometimes feel that we inadvertantly devalue the testimonies of people who grew up knowing Jesus, unable to put an exact time and date on when they were converted to Christ. In guest services and in evangelistic events we favour the dramatic and sudden turnaround conversion stories. I must stress that these are great stories to hear and real faith-builders! But I have now come to a point where I celebrate amongst the children I work with the fact that they love Jesus. They cite their earliest memories of being "Jesus' friend". I encourage them to continue on in that, encouraging them to "keep saying yes to Jesus".
This makes sense of Westerhoff's theory of faith development. A child begins their faith journey on an experiential basis - if they experience the love of God from kind and caring adults who nurture them, then they will accept Jesus at that level. (so put your best child care workers in the creche!) The next stage; the affiliative stage is where a child will take on their faith because of who they are affiliated to i.e. who are their friends and what do they believe in? This leads to the searching faith period - where a child/young adult asks questions; tests us to see if what we talk about is true in our own lives; wrestles with big issues perhaps; looks for reality in what they see in the church around them. As an aside, many adults have not left this stage! The final stage is owned faith - where the individual makes their faith their own; to the point of being willing to lay themselves down for their faith.
And so I hold that children are on a journey that starts with God but may not end with him. They are part of fallen humanity and will revert to that default position - hellbound and lost without God - without a twin strategy of nurture and evangelism. Incidentally - and for another post I throw this controversial comment out - many church-going parents may not be fulfilling their God given role of nurturing their children in their faith (see Barna's important research on this topic in the USA; where the USA go, we usually follow......)