“Become like one of these little ones” – towards a vision for child-centred ministry

A wise friend recently asked me whether I see my calling to ministry as being exclusively focused on children. I hesitated. I am at heart a children’s minister. I believe that’s what God has called me to and equipped me for. But to focus exclusively on children? That didn’t sound quite right (the word “exclusively” never should in the church).

“No,” I replied, “I see it as child-centred. I mean really, truly centred on children. Intergenerational, but putting children first.”

Because let’s face it, the church, even in really “good”, “child-friendly” churches, is adult-centred. We all, however much we try not to, have a bias towards the needs of people a bit like us. And, for the leaders of churches, that means adults. So, intentionally or not, children are treated as second-best.

I don’t mean people are intentionally marginalising children in our churches (although that does happen in too many places). It’s the unconscious bias that plans the adult worship first and then fits in children around the edges, either figuratively or literally. It’s the assumption that “proper” worship must involve words and reading, that all decision-makers in the church must be adults, that furniture should be the right size to be comfortable for adults, that notice boards should be at adult head-height.

Some of these might seem like trivial things (some of them definitely aren’t) but they combine to give the impression of a church which puts adults at the centre. Even the phrase “we are inclusive of children” isn’t as great as it sounds. It’s setting up two distinct groups – “we” and “children” – and the power to include (or otherwise) clearly lies with the “we”.

Of course, when I talk about my ministry being “child-centred”, the person I really want at the centre of my ministry is Jesus. So, what does a “Jesus-centred” ministry have to say about the place of children?

“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)

Pretty clear really, isn’t it? And that’s before you even get to the dire warnings about stumbling blocks and millstones.

Notice that word “change”. “Unless you change…” says Jesus. Shifting from adult-centred ministry to child-centred ministry requires a seismic change in world view – shifting the focus from the centre to the margins always does.. The whole of our culture says “adults matter more”. It takes guts to say “No” to that, and keep on saying it. But then, nobody said this would be easy. And isn’t the Jesus-centred option so often the one that flies in the face of received wisdom?

So what would a child-centred church look like? I don’t know, but I want to find out. I suspect it would be more honest, more messy, more lively, more chaotic than even I might be comfortable with. But that’s a step outside my comfort zone that I long to take.

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