September 27, 2016 Katherine Swygard

The Bigger Church

“I want you to behave back here while we are in big church,” I hear a mother say to her eight-year-old daughter. It’s Sunday morning, and I am greeting parents and children during check-in per my usual routine before I suit up in costume to tell the weekly Bible story. “Ms. Kaf, Ms. Kaf, I mermemerized it! Wisten, wisten, let me say you the verse!” one of my six-year-old students exclaims as he jumps up and down, ready to recite the monthly memory verse. “Buddy, tell her later; she’s busy right now. Just go in the class; c’mon, Buddy, don’t make me get Daddy,” his mother urges her son, hurrying him along so she can get going herself. Another parent leans over in agreement: “I feel ya. We don’t even try to go over the verse with our sons—we have school and so much going on.” Both parents let out a sigh indicating their annoyance and exhaustion. I return their sigh with equal emotions for the opposite reason.

My students file in, sometimes in an orderly fashion but mostly in a manner more closely related to their well-known comparison—monkeys in a zoo. The truth is, I want my students to behave just as much as their parents do. But I don’t want them to behave in “little” church while the adults go to big church. I want them to be excited to share that they are learning the memory verses, and I want their exhilaration reciprocated. I love that parents are joining together to empathize with one another, but not if it’s to belittle their child’s capability to learn that God loves them.

This is a typical Sunday morning, but I can’t help to wonder why it is so typical. We all know how Christ felt about children being part of the church (Matt 19:14). Yet, many of our church members apparently believe children get in the way of adults worshipping and engaging within the church’s Christian community. To be fair, Sunday morning church structures often communicate they don’t anticipate children being a part of the community, as evident in their service models. The adult service is structured to be the heart of the church, whereas the children must go off into a back classroom somewhere so that they will not be a “distraction” during service.

But when children aren’t included in the sum for the community group, it implicitly expresses their lack of importance.

We know that Jesus welcomes kids, as they are valuable to God. In 2 Timothy 3:14-15, Paul reminds Timothy that he was taught the Scriptures, and gained the wisdom to trust Jesus during his childhood. Matthew 21:15-16 relays that the children praised Jesus, but the leaders did not recognize him as God. Psalm 8:2 boasts that it is God who teaches children and infants. In Matthew 18:2-6, Jesus says that those who become like children are the greatest in the kingdom, and anyone who welcomes a little child is welcoming Jesus. The Bible provides even more examples of children being included in the community of faith.

When my niece was in first grade, we would have “I love you more” battles on our drive back home from church. We would start off small: “I love you from here to the end of the street;” that escalated to, “I love you from my house to Lakeland.” Eventually, I would end with the cliché, “I love you to the moon and back.” One day my niece was determined to beat me at our game. She stopped, and turned to me with her eyes beaming with a huge I-just-beat-ya smirk. She countered my finale with, “I love you to God and back.” I was heartbroken. Although we were both members of the Church where God dwells in the midst of two or three, the Church showed her that the furthest thing in the universe from her—even further than the moon—was God. She had no idea that the Holy Spirit dwelled inside her heart. We should have taught her that the Holy Spirit is her first teacher, before her parents and her Sunday school teacher, as Michelle Anthony reminds us in her book Dreaming of More for the Next Generation. We should have taught her that

the same Holy Spirit that dwells inside of the adults in the service, the pastor, and the teachers, is the same Holy Spirit who dwells inside of the children.

How else could she know, then, without us teaching her? Nearly every week she was reminded that she was not a part of “big” church. Since that time, I have become a children’s pastor and have seen how this language imparts the notion that kids aren’t a part of the church to my niece and all children.

Children are ministers of the Gospel; children proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven. By empowering and seeing them as ministers, we are appropriating children as members of the church in their rightful place. In doing so, we affirm their equal value along with the adults in the body of Christ. Only then are we truly participating in our community of faith, along with our entire household.

Thus, a church community should embrace the view that children must be included and seen as valuable members of the Church. We must include children in the count because the “big” God is in the midst of two or three gathered, even though they are not sitting in the “big” service.

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About the Author

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Katherine Swygard Kaf Swygard is a children’s pastor at Oasis Community Church, an academic adviser at Southeastern University, and a twin. She is currently pursuing her Master of Divinity. She enjoys throwing parties for kids and teens, and teaching them about how much God loves them.