Oct 2nd, Mission Possible: Family & Children’s Ministry, with Becca Ellis
Oct 2nd: Mission Possible: Family & Children’s Ministry, with Becca Ellis.
Today we continue our sermon series on our newly crafted mission statement living the spacious and radical love of Jesus so that all may flourish. This morning we’re going to look at at this through the lens of children’s ministry. So I’m going to begin by just sharing a snippet of my own experiences. Because our childhood informs so much of who we are today, which is exactly the reason why how we reach out and support families of young children is vital to the spiritual health of our communities today and for years to come. Now, as a child, I was what you could call maybe attuned or just very interested in the spiritual or invisible world.
Nothing super crazy or out of the ordinary. But it was a difference, I felt, between myself and my peers. I was also a very quiet, observant child. I watched everything around me and especially in spaces outside of our home or people I didn’t know well. This was really driven by a fear and a pretty intense social anxiety to not mess up.
I did not want to be perceived as too much or maybe too little like the people I was around. I also spent a lot of time in church. My parents were very involved in every church we attended. We were there sometimes multiple times a week. It was almost like a second home.
And so in this environment, though, I noticed a lot of things from a young age that never sit quite right with me. I noticed how adults would sometimes say one thing and then act in very different ways. Like when they would say, all are welcome in the church and God’s love is for everyone. But then someone would walk through the doors who didn’t look, dressed, talk or act in the ways that they really thought was necessary to receive that love fully. I noticed how my questions as a child would often be answered with very rigid black and white answers that didn’t always fit my experiences of the world or God.
I learned from a young age that there seemed to be a set of rules that I needed to follow, these boxes I needed to check in order to be considered good. And somehow and all of that, it led to this belief that if I didn’t get it right, I could end up suffering and separated from God and the people I loved most for all of eternity. And that felt pretty high stakes to me as a child. So my experience of faith and religion and spirituality growing up was really entangled in this idea of fear, in this idea that I needed to conform to a certain way and image in order to be loved, that I had to earn love. And I wonder what it could have been like if instead I had adults who were looking at me and encouraging my wonders, who saw my questions as a good thing, who reminded me how fiercely loved.
I was just as I was. And that there was nothing I had to do to earn that. To ever doubt my worth. Because I carried all of that weight and anxiety into my adulthood. And it took me years and years to be able to honestly look at myself and go.
I am loved as I am. And I don’t have to do anything to become worthy of that love. How could it have been different?
And what does that have to do with how we approach children’s ministry today in the Gospels, we see a few times where Jesus speaks directly about children. We know that he values them and that he sees they have this important place, this role to play in the Kingdom of Heaven, right? This way of living where everyone has a chance to thrive that Jesus preached about and spoke about and invited us into. And I think even from the little we know about Jesus childhood, we can assume that he experienced having insight and wisdom to share on the Scriptures and God. We see this when we find him in the temple as a young boy, surrounded by religious leaders who are listening in awe at the depth of his understanding.
But I want to focus on a passage in Matthew 18 where it begins. We see the disciples are having a conversation about who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, and Jesus is there. He calls over a child who’s around and has the child stand there and does a little object lesson. And he says, Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
And whoever welcomes one such child in my name, welcomes me. If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. I kind of wonder if at this point, the disciples were thinking, whoa, okay. That escalated really fast. But I think there are some really important things for us to learn in this passage about what it means to show up and bring the Kingdom of Heaven, this radical way of living that works toward the flourishing of all to Earth and our call and moral obligation to stand with and serve the least of these or the little ones, as it’s translated here.
Because I don’t think Jesus is only talking about children. We see this language, little ones, the least of these, and other areas where he isn’t speaking directly about children, but about those with the least influence and power and status in society. Because when we look in the Gospels and at Jesus life, we see that he was interested in flipping that power pyramid, right, and saying the most vulnerable, the most marginalized the ones that have the least way in society or lowest rank. We need to be raising them up. Not only is he saying here that children and those who have the lowest status influence in society have a vital and important role to play in the Kingdom of Heaven, he’s also positioning them as teachers for us to learn from, to strive to be like in some very important ways.
Otherwise he’s saying, you guys, you’re arguing about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. You’re missing it completely unless you become like these little ones. He says that welcoming a child in our midst is equivalent to welcoming Jesus, and that anyone who causes one of them to stumble, which I wonder if at the very base is leading them to forget that they hold the very image of the divine within them, that they are not alone and they are so loved as they are, it’s too high a price to pay. And let’s talk about that cost for a moment. Let’s talk about the increase in anxiety and depression in children ages three to 17, just from the years 2016 to 2020, 24% and 27% increase, respectively.
And this has only been compounded by the effects of 2020 and beyond. And this demographic, there has been no increase in actually accessing mental health services. This tells us something about the earth of our young people. Let’s talk about what happens when a child does not have a stable home environment. Let’s talk about the very tangible cost we end up paying on the other end down the road when we are trying to treat or put bandaids on anxiety, depression, mental illness and other disorders, or put young people through rehabilitation, all of which are more likely to happen when we do not invest in early childhood support.
Let’s talk about the struggles parents of young children are facing today. Parenting has always been hard, no doubt, but parents today seem to be facing an endless stream of hurdles and stressors in their life. Whether it’s finances, job uncertainty, food scarcity, lack of affordable childcare and housing, the list goes on. All of the things that we are being told we must make sure we do for the health of our child. And then you add in the effects of the pandemic when parents were then isolated at home with their children, taking on more roles than humanly possible for one person to work from home and parent and support virtual schooling and somehow maintain their mental health and well being as well as their children’s.
I remember an article coming out sometime in the past two years and the title simply said that Parents are not okay. And I never felt so seen as in that moment. There was a study that came out of the pediatrics department at the Children’s Hospital in Richmond, Virginia, and it reads that parents stress increased substantially during COVID-19 and has not returned to pre COVID-19 levels suggesting the need for enhanced mental health resources and supports. The parents are not okay. And from what we know about childhood development, if the parents are struggling, kids are struggling too.
Because we know how critical those earliest years are for human development, especially before the age of seven. And did you know that before the age of three, children are forming 1 million neural connections every minute? These links or connections become the brain’s mapping system. I’ve heard it explained as the roots of a tree from which everything else grows. This foundation that we’re setting early in life and these links are formed through a mixture of nature and nurture.
And most often we see this in the serve and Return, we call it when a child makes a bid for the attention of their adult caretaker or parents. Kind of like serving a ball if you want to get into the imagery of playing a tennis match and then the parent is there to return. This is what you see when maybe you engage with a child in peekaboo or they cry and then their need is responded to. But what we know is that if a parent is so stressed, if life is so tumultuous and uncertain, they do not have the bandwidth to respond in present in consistent ways. And we know that if a child continually serves, makes this bid for attention and there’s no one there to return the ball, if it becomes an ongoing pattern, it actually changes their brain’s architecture and it impairs their ability to develop skills and behaviors.
It impairs their health even. We know that parents are the biggest influence on their child even if they aren’t the most actively involved. Research has pointed to above media, friends and teachers parents are the greatest influence on their child’s life. So it would make sense that if we come alongside, support and empower parents, we will make the biggest impact on the health of our young people today. As we step into this next season with fresh focus after these past two years and all that it’s held, we know there is so much more to do.
The pandemic has exasperated and brought to the surface just how many gaps there truly are in supporting parents and the wellbeing of their families and children. Steven recently said that Children’s Ministry and Youth Ministry isn’t just an urgency, it’s an emergency. And I don’t think that’s to say that other age groups and areas of outreach and support and ministry aren’t also critical and important. But when I think about how when we do better for our very youngest, we are breaking cycles of brokenness for generations to come, it makes me think of the author and poet Cleo Wade when she wrote tell me something if the old saying is true and hurt people hurt people? What do healed people do?
I can’t be sure, but I bet they heal people. I’m ready. Are you? I don’t have all the answers. And I know so much has changed.
We don’t really know what we’re walking into right now. And there are so many factors involved in the struggles our children and young people are facing today. So many areas contributing to them, doubting their worth, wondering what more they need to do to earn love. And we might not be able to fix it all, but we can do what we can. And children’s ministry doesn’t look the same as it used to.
I don’t think it can. It can’t any longer be about just trying to get people in the door, but rather connecting with them where they are in tangible, meaningful ways that support their lives, that help them thrive and flourish. It’s not so much about wrote Bible verse memorization or learning these tiny Bible stories that will give you all the right answers in life. Rather, it’s about inviting children to have their own theological wonderings space to experience connection with the divine and themselves with one another. It’s instilling perspective taking and compassion for themselves and others.
Empathy. It’s space to be quiet and reflect when so many children don’t have that margin built into their busy, over scheduled lives. It’s building a foundation of knowing how very loved they are and cared for this anchor to keep them steady when hardships and bumps in their own life and journey come up. It’s about recognizing that just because we might not have kids or our kids have already grown or out of the house, that doesn’t remove us from the moral obligation to welcome support, come alongside and engage with the next generation. And there’s so much hope, even in some of the ministries that you support.
Here at the church like Revillage, where I’ve watched parents have access to affordable childcare for the first time, suddenly they’re able to work and know that their child is in a safe, caring environment. They suddenly have more bandwidth to be present to their child. And as they spend time in the classroom, they’re creating this network of care and community while adding skills to their parenting toolbox so they can respond in developmentally appropriate ways to their child. I see it when moms take time out of their busy week to come together and gather through our Mama Connect Ministries. Where they share their struggles.
Their joys. Where they contemplate and reflect on what it means to be present in a world that celebrates the hustle instead of the slow. And how to become intentional about tending to their own spiritual wellbeing so they can pass that on to their children in their homes. I watch as parents jazz learning and hearing that they aren’t alone, that no one has to get this all perfect, suddenly find grace for themselves and the energy to keep going. And we are able to continue to increase our capacity for collective care, making sure no one slips through the cracks unnoticed or feeling unloved.
When parents do hit their limit because no one is meant to do this alone. Their kids have other loving, caring adults in their life to stand in that gap. Maybe adopted grandparents or uncles or aunts, maybe you. And none of this is done through just programming. It’s really about changing the narrative that we’re telling about children and their place in our faith community.
It’s being willing to step outside of our comfort zone, talk to parents, learn what they are really going through, ask them what support looks like and actually show up when it’s tough. It’s not just looking at that mom in the checkout lane trying to buy eggs and milk while her toddler has a meltdown and saying, boy, your hands are sure full, but instead going, hey, my hands are free right now. What can I hold for you? My question for us to think about today goes back to the words of Jesus we read earlier and ask what is it that’s causing children to stumble today in another place? Jesus says, let the little children come to me and do not stop them, for it is such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.
What part are we playing? What barriers are we perhaps putting up, maybe unintentionally or unknowingly, that is contributing to young people forgetting, not realizing their wholeness, their belovedness, that they don’t need to do anything to earn love? What is contributing to the mental health crisis we are seeing today in our young people? And how will we respond? Are the parents okay?
And do we want children visible here on Sunday mornings just so that we can feel good about ourselves? Or do we want to see them as active participants who are flourishing in life and contributing in beautiful and meaningful ways because they know they are so seen and loved and valued here? One final note is that our traditions and rituals are important touchstones in our lives, and children often bring a beautiful, raw perspective of wonder and awe and delight to them. So please hear that I’m not saying to throw everything out or to drastically change it just to be relevant to young people. But I know that I’m not as interested in seeing a generation raise up that just gets things right or accumulates a lot of knowledge about what spirituality and religion looks like.
So much as I’m interested in a world where children are respected and honored as full humans. Who have their own theological thoughts and wonderings affirmed. Who are co teachers in our spiritual journey. That we have so much to learn from. That we have so much to learn how to become like from where we as Jesus followers.
Decide to stand in solidarity with the least of these. With the little ones that making space for those on the margins to rise. To share their voice. To be seen. Has everything to do with this radical way of living.
We’ve been called to even when it makes us uncomfortable. Because I don’t believe for one moment that the call and ministry we have received through Christ think of his words that you would love others the way that I have loved you, with a ministry of comfort. It was never going to be easy. But it has everything to do with this radical, spacious, inclusive love that says you belong, you matter, and nothing will change that. And you will know this, not because of what we say, but because of what we do.
How we choose to embody and live out this love, not only here, not only on Sunday mornings in our church building, but every single day in the places that we inhabit.
How do you speak of the young people in our world? How do you speak of our children? Because I guarantee they’re listening. We need to change the narrative. We need to affirm our children.
We need to let them know, at every chance we can, how loved and valued they are. And they need to see that through our words and our actions.
How will we repattern our world in a way that looks like true flourishing for all? How will you care for the least of these peace friends?