“Disruptive” is not a good label is it? How many of us have brought home school reports saying “X is a disruptive influence?” It’s not intended as a compliment.
One of the most common complaints I hear in my role as a Children’s Minister is that the children in church are disruptive. “I love having the children in church but I don’t like the noise/mess/running around. It disrupts my worship. Can’t you do something about it?”
And probably I could “do something about it” but I’m not convinced I should. To answer that question in its own terms is to accept the premise, which is this: disruption is something to be avoided. And actually, I don’t accept that.
It is also to accept that a (perhaps the) principal purpose of church is to go on providing a comfortable “worship experience” for those who already feel comfortable. And actually, I don’t accept that either.
It’s not that I don’t believe children can be disruptive in church. I absolutely do – I’ve seen it! It’s that I don’t see that disruption as the problem in this scenario. I think the problem is rather the church’s deep-seated reluctance to be disrupted.
Look at the biblical narrative. It’s full of disruption. God disrupts lives and communities and even landscapes. God sends people to disrupt and disturb others. God speaks outrageously disruptive words through the prophets. God disrupts the whole sweep of human history by the scandal of God incarnate, human, crucified, and risen.
Pentecost is perhaps the ultimate godly disruption. The disciples, filled with the Holy Spirit, become so disruptive that bystanders can only assume that they’re drunk. And the early church goes on being so disruptive and threatening to the established order that successive Roman Emperors are driven to persecute Christians until they can no longer contain the disruptive influence of the gospel, and the whole world order changes.
Throughout Christian history there have been pockets of disruptive thinkers, often condemned as disgraceful at the time, only to be celebrated and even canonised when the impact of their disruptive influence was finally recognised.
But what of the disruption of children in church? Back to the bible again: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18.3) The first thing to notice is that becoming like little children, and thereby entering the kingdom of heaven, involves change. Disruptive change, I would suggest.
What does it mean to become like little children? To be sweet, innocent, loving, joyful, trusting? That’s how the church has traditionally read that verse, and yes, that’s a start. But anyone who has spent any time with children will tell you that’s not the half of it! What about curious, vulnerable, impulsive, exuberant, emotional, excited, loud, quick, careless messy and, yes, disruptive? Jesus doesn’t say “become like a sanitised, illustrated-bible version of a child”, he says “become like children” with everything that entails.
And how does Jesus choose to teach his disciples this lesson, this hard lesson which we are still struggling to grasp two thousand years later? He places a child among them. Here’s how to do it, he says, become like this.
So what should we be learning from the children God has called to our churches? Many things, I’d say. How to love vulnerably, how to approach God in heartfelt awe and wonder, how to worship with excitement, exuberance and honest joy.
And also how to be disruptive. How to stop taking ourselves too seriously. How to let go of our preconceptions and habits and step out of our comfort zones, out of the boat. The church is very prone to slipping into unhealthy complacency, the cosiness of a club where everyone is “one of us”, to the detrement of anyone who isn’t. And when it does, the Spirit finds a way of disrupting that. In this case, through the very people Jesus holds up as a paradigm for the kingdom of God: children.
So next time someone tells me the children are disruptive, I might agree, but I won’t apologise. Instead I’ll be looking to see what God is saying through that wonderful, holy disruption. I’ll be looking to see how I, and the church, can become more like these disruptive little ones. I’ll be praying for the courage and discernment to disrupt what needs to be disrupted, in the world and in the church, in order for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven.
And I won’t be ashamed or afraid to be called, along with the children, a disruptive influence.