The following is a transcript of a talk I gave March 14, 2015 at the Colorado Anglican Conference in Denver, CO. The theme of the conference was “The Baptized Life” and, because of my dissertation research, I was asked to address how the practice of baptism impacts the work of children’s ministry. My blog readers should know that this talk assumes the validity of infant baptism as Christian practice. If you’re looking for a defense of infant baptism, you won’t find it here because it is settled Anglican doctrine. If you would like to read a good, concise explanation of the subject, I would suggest Peter Leithart’s book The Baptized Body.
Hello, everyone. My name is Emily McGowin. I am currently finishing up my Ph.D. in theology at the University of Dayton. Broadly speaking, my dissertation deals with theologies of the family, which includes a lot of reflection on children, and that’s why I was invited to speak today. I am married to Ron McGowin, who is here today. He’s in the midst of the ordination process with the diocese of Churches for the Sake of Others (C4SO). We are currently attending Holy Trinity in Broomfield, but next year we will be planting an Anglican church in Olde Town Arvada: The Church of the Resurrection.
What I want to offer this morning is some reflection on how the practice of baptism transforms two common ways of perceiving children. First is the child as adult-in-the-making. Second is the child as the private property of parents. There are a number of other ways of imagining children that we could have considered: the child as blessing, the child as innocent, the child as sinner, and more. But, these two are, I think, the most in need of correction and have the most immediate impact on ministry to children in the local church.
Because of my training, and the fact that I’ve spent the past six years in the university setting, I can’t help but speak to you more from the theology side of things. That’s just my bread and butter these days. I will offer some of my own practical suggestions for how the theology applies in our churches. But, I hope that collectively we can come up with some other applications, as well. In this kind of setting, I am confident that I have as much to learn from you as you do from me. I hope that this workshop can be a way for us to think together and help each other.
The Child as Adult-in-the-Making
Now, let’s think critically about our imaginings about children. One very common way to envision children is that they are simply adults-in-the-making. This means that children are not-yet-fully-formed-humans and childhood is a temporary phase that serves mostly to provide a training ground for adulthood. This perspective is actually assumed in one of the most common questions we ask children: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” This question assumes several things: that the child will not “be” anything until he or she is “grown up”, that being “grown up” is the primary goal, and that discerning what you will do when you grow up is one of the main points of childhood. We also see this in the way that we use a comparison to children as a form of insult. “He’s acting like a child.” “That was a really childish decision.” “She just needs to grow up.” And, my personal favorite: “It’s time to put on your big boy pants.” All of these comments assume that adulthood (as we understand it) is the goal of human life and childhood is something that must be left behind in adulthood. Not to do so is, simply, to be a stunted human.
Now, this way of thinking isn’t entirely new. In the Christian tradition, probably the most important figure to think this way about children was Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, the full use of reason is the vital sign of adulthood. Speaking of infants and small children, he says, “So long as he has not the use of reason he is like a non-rational animal.” Once the child grows into the use of reason and right worship of God, the child grows into full personhood and accountability for sin. For Thomas, “Childhood…is not an abiding reality, but a state that adults leave behind.” In this way, children (and anyone who cannot demonstrate the full capacity for reason) are not fully functioning human persons. They will become fully rational and fully human upon reaching adulthood. Children are valued mostly for who they will become and childhood is something to be discarded as quickly as possible. Childhood is a state that will be molded into something more mature. Childhood is a kind of foil for the life of mature discipleship and not celebrated for its own sake.
Now, what does baptism have to contribute to this conversation? I want to suggest that the baptism of infants seriously undermines the idea that children are merely adults-in-the-making. In fact, the practice of baptizing children should transform our view of both childhood and adulthood. Let’s think about this for a moment. Through the waters of baptism, children are adopted by God and marked as members of Christ’s body, the Church, and inheritors of the Kingdom of God. Through baptism, we believe the child is united with Christ in his death and resurrection, birthed into God’s family, forgiveness of sins, and new life in the Holy Spirit. Of course, when infants are baptized their promises are made for them by parents and sponsors, who guarantee that the infant will be brought up within the Church, to know Christ and to follow him. All of this means that children, by virtue of their baptism, are not, in fact, adults-in-the-making, but fully human, fully graced, fully adopted, fully functioning disciples of Jesus Christ—just as they are.
Now, this is not to say that there aren’t important developmental distinctions to be made between adults and children. Anyone who works with children knows that there are differences in comprehension and learning at different ages. These distinctions are particularly important in discussions of educational methods and establishing age appropriate responsibilities and consequences. I am not denying these things or the need to consider these things. But, I am suggesting that we may need to re-think some of our practices. When the church chooses to baptize children—what Dallas Willard calls submerging them in the Triune reality—she is declaring that these children, just as they are, are full members of Christ’s body. They, like us, will continue to grow in the love and knowledge of God. They, like us, will certainly fail and require repentance, confession, and forgiveness. They, like us, will always require God’s grace to persevere in the Christian journey. There is simply no room here for considering the child a kind of second-class disciple in the body of Christ.
Now, if we think about it some more, we will realize that not only does baptizing children transform our view of childhood, it also changes the way we view adulthood. We see that there are some things about childhood that remain with us no matter our age. We might call this enduring quality of childhood “childness”. I’m borrowing this weird term “childness” from Herbert Anderson and Susan B. W. Johnson, who have a lovely little book called Regarding Children. “[I]n becoming adults, we do not lose childhood,” they say, “[C]hildhood is an inevitable dimension of being human.” Certainly, changes occur in a person as they grow and mature from childhood into adulthood, emotionally, physically, mentally, and otherwise. But, there are enduring elements of childhood—“childness”—that remain with every human being regardless of their age. The sooner we recognize these things, the sooner we will be able to better minister to the children in our midst.
What does childness entail? A few things come to mind. First, childness includes vulnerability in relationship to others and the world. Of course, to be vulnerable is to be open to harm. Children are vulnerable primarily due to their dependence upon others. Infants, especially, are profoundly dependent upon others for food, safety, and comfort. But, if we consider carefully the nature of human existence, we realize that “we never outgrow the vulnerability of childhood, even when we are no longer obviously small, weak, and needful.” There is an inevitable “vulnerability-in-relationship” that every human being experiences as part and parcel of human life in God’s world. No one outgrows vulnerability-in-relationship, even if we do develop various ways of avoiding or mitigating this vulnerability.
Another aspect of childness is the fact of being chosen by God. As bearers of the imago Dei, children are beloved by God regardless of their perceived worth. As David Jensen says, “[C]hildren are worthy because God chooses them as subjects of divine love; the primary value of children is not found primarily in some aspect of the creature but in the gracious initiative of the Creator." The New Testament employs the language of adoption to describe this divine chosen-ness and this is a truth we enact through baptism. Infants are marked as God’s own at God’s initiative and by God’s grace. For Christian parents, God’s eternal choice to love their child precedes even their own love for the child. This aspect of divine chosen-ness does not cease once adulthood is reached. The imago Dei, the love of God, and God’s choice of us endures.
Finally, childness includes an “infinite openness” to God and creation. This is a claim that originates with Catholic theologian Karl Rahner. He argues that within the Christian tradition being human is about becoming a child in an ever-increasing degree. This claim is rooted, of course, in the teaching of Jesus: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3). For Rahner, the child’s infinite openness is “already an expression of mature religious existence.” He says that the “mature childhood of the adult” is an attitude where we “bravely and trustfully maintain an infinite openness in all circumstances…despite the experiences of life [that] invite us to close ourselves.” In truth, this infinite openness that we often see in children is not the mark of immature discipleship, but mature discipleship. Robert Coles describes this infinite openness in terms of being a “pilgrim” who is “oriented God-ward and toward the present.” Through their attentiveness to the present, Coles says, children call us “to become who we really are: children of God, attentive to the surprise and mystery of creation.”
Of course, if we were honest, we’d have to admit that most of us are not in that place. We are not infinitely open to God and his grace in all circumstances. Most of us, regrettably, possess less childness that the children we serve. In that case, we must, in a real sense, repent and be converted. We are already children of God, possessing within us an enduring childhood. We need to repent and become what we already are.
With all this in mind, we can not only suggest that childness is an enduring part of what it means to be human, but also that childhood is more than a temporary phase. Childhood is an enduring part of the advanced Christian life. To be a mature Christian is, in a real sense, to lean in to the most important parts of childhood: our vulnerability in relationship with others, our status as God’s chosen ones, and our radical openness to God and God’s world. If the goal of the Christian life is a kind of mature, redeemed childhood, then we must resist the tendency to view children as merely adults-in-the-making and childhood as stage to be dispensed with as quickly as possible. Far from having all the answers, adult members of Christ’s Church have as much to learn from children as children do from adults. This is not a romanticization of children, but an exhortation to recognize within children a vital key to what it means to be human. Children are fully human persons and religious pilgrims in their own right.
The Child as the Private Property of Parents
Another common way of imagining children today is that they are the private property of their parents. Of course, very few people would actually use the term “property” to refer to their children. But, I think this is the most straightforward way to name the prevalent point of view that it is parents in the private family home who are solely responsible for their children’s welfare and training. When I ask parents whether the church has any responsibility for the care and nurturance of their children, most respond with puzzlement. For some, it simply doesn’t occur to them that other people would have any interest in their children’s upbringing. For others, they want to acknowledge the Church’s role in the care of their children, but they don’t know how to imagine that. They don’t know what it would look like. This is understandable in an American society that has so thoroughly privatized the home and family. Our culture sees children as a private choice and private concern that rarely, if ever, involves the input of others. But, the Christian tradition gives us a much more communal vision for human life.
Now, I need to say from the start that I fully affirm that it is the primary responsibility of parents to care for and educate their children in the Christian faith. Those are the vows parents make at their baptism! The intentional cultivation of Christian identity in children is an important—if not the most important—task for Christian families. But, others take vows in the baptismal rite, as well. The child usually has sponsors—what many call godparents—who share in the vows of the child’s parents. And then the church as a whole takes vows, too.
So, to whom do children belong? Of course, ultimately children belong to God. And, yes, children belong to their parents. But, by virtue of their baptism, children also belong to the Church. Certainly, the family and the role of parents are not dissolved in the waters of baptism, but I think they are relativized somewhat. What I mean by this is that, for the baptized child, from a theological point of view, the Church is her primary family and household. God has placed her within a family with parents as her main teachers. And, yes, in much of a child’s daily life (not to mention civil society), parents are her main caregivers. But, it is also true that the child’s allegiance to Christ and the household of God comes before all other allegiances. Jesus has told us, “Whoever does God’s will is my mother and sister and brother” (Mark 3:34). Also, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). Clearly, the call of God to join his family is a call that ultimately trumps all other calls. As one of my professors, Jana Bennett, has argued, water—the water of baptism—is actually thicker than blood.
Now, this assertion flies in the face of the way most of us think about the nuclear family. Most of us imagine the family as a private and autonomous or self-ruling unit. We imagine the family as this thing separate from the rest of society and the church, closed up in the walls of the single family home. Certainly, the family participates in communal activities, but we don’t see these things affecting in any way the boundaries of the nuclear family. Also, most of us are concerned to preserve the rights of parents within the autonomous, private family. We don’t anyone, especially the government, telling us how to raise our children. And, believe me, I sympathize. This concern isn’t without some merit! But, I want to push back against an overly insulated and isolated view of the family. I think the practice of baptism encourages us bring the modern nuclear family back into relationship with the broader family of God. The private household needs to be situated within the context of God’s household.
What does this mean? Well, if the nuclear family is situated within the family of God, then we need to see that autonomy or independence is not, in fact, the virtue we make it out to be. Certainly, it is good and right for families to be able to support themselves financially and provide proper care and security for their members. These things are a matter of human dignity and we should seek for all families to be able to do these things. But, the Christian faith does not allow for any family to be entirely self-sufficient or autonomous. As every member of the family is adopted through the waters of baptism into the household of God, the family voluntarily takes upon itself the vulnerability-in-relationship that comes with being part of God’s family. The family is joining itself to the covenant people of God and agreeing to be transformed by the Holy Spirit. There is, therefore, no parental authority apart from Christ’s authority, no discipleship apart from the community of disciples, and no family practices apart from church practices. In a real sense, the family finds its ultimate meaning and end in the church, which will endure beyond the return of Christ into eternity.
So, at the very least, the baptism of children means that they are not, in fact, the private property of parents. Yes, we must equip, encourage, and empower parents as they disciple their children and bring them up to know Christ. But, we do these things not just because children belong to their parents but also because they belong to US, Christ’s church. When a child is baptized, the church makes a vow “to do all in [our] power to support [the child] in her life in Christ.” We make this promise to God and to the child, agreeing together that this new life is, in fact, one of us. Ultimately, the responsibility of Christian parents for a child is a trust that depends in large part upon the grace and power of the Church.
Implications for Children’s Ministry
I have offered some theological reflection on two common ways of imagining children and found them wanting. In light of the practice of baptism, I don’t think we can continue to see children simply as adults-in-the-making or as the private responsibility of their parents. I have provided some thoughts on deeper and fuller ways of imagining children in relation to the church. But more needs to be said. The rubber needs to meet the road, so to speak. The time has come to ask: So what? What are some of the practical implications for this perspective on children and childhood? Very briefly, I’m going to suggest some things and then I’m going to ask you for your thoughts.
First, at the simplest level, we need to encourage families in our churches to baptize their children and welcome them to the Lord’s Table. This is especially true of the evangelicals who are coming into our churches. Some of these folks may have difficulty understanding both infant baptism and children receiving the Eucharist. At one time, my husband and I were these people! But, these things are settled Anglican practice. We need to be intentional about teaching our people and helping them understand the tradition on this subject.
Second, we need to recognize that children, like adults, have their own calling or vocation within the church. Through the waters of baptism and the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, our children are already Christians. We need to treat them that way. We need to stop communicating to them that the Christian life begins once you’re a “grown-up.”
Now, what a child is able to do in the church depends on their stage of development. I think a case can be made from scripture that, at first, especially in their early years, the primary calling of the child is to learn. To be a child is to be a learner. Now, if we say this, then we have to admit that children require adult assistance for this vocation to be fulfilled. This is what makes caring for young children so challenging. Children really need adults—and not just their parents—if they are to fulfill their vocation to learn. I would say that learning consists of three things: initiation, absorption, and socialization. Through baptism and the ongoing worship life of the church, children are initiated and socialized into Christian faith and life. The goal is that eventually the child is able to plant her feet firmly within the Christian tradition and live it out in her own way. Obviously, in order for children to fulfill their vocation to learn, adults in the church must fulfill their vocations to embrace, accompany, and teach the children in their midst. This applies first to parents and then to all other caregivers and church members.
An important part of this learning process includes participating in worship and service within the Church. One of the beautiful things about the Anglican liturgy is the way that it includes the congregation. It’s very hard to just be a spectator in an Anglican worship service. But, not everything in our worship services is accessible to children and many churches don’t have any age appropriate ways for children to contribute. So, as we seek to help children fulfill their learning vocation, we need to think about all the ways that we can include them in worship. A children’s sermon is well and good, but I’m thinking especially about ways for children to give of themselves to others—to see themselves as people who can do things in God’s family. The Montessori method of education has a rule that I think is helpful: “Don’t do for a child what they can do for themselves.” I think it would be fruitful for us to think of children and worship in this way.
Also, because children belong jointly to God, parents, and the church, another implication is that children’s ministry may be as much about training parents as it is about training children. Not all Christian parents feel properly equipped to be the teachers they need to be in their daily lives. It’s possible that most don’t feel equipped. Perhaps one of the main concerns of our children’s ministries should be to help train and support parents and other caregivers where they feel ill equipped.
A fourth implication of the theology I’ve spelled out is that the church must take seriously her role to 1) make church a safe space for children and 2) intervene in instances of abuse or neglect. Because of their status as God’s children, because of their inherent vulnerability, and because of their calling to learn, the church must do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its children. Children’s ministry leaders and volunteers need to be trained in practices that prioritize the bodily, emotional, and mental safety of children. There are a number of ways that this training can take place. I know Holy Trinity has used an older program called Safeguarding God’s Children. It is offered by the Episcopal Church and has since been updated to include both online and workshop versions. Perhaps some of those here today can offer other recommendations. But, the safety of children must be a top priority in our churches.
A final implication of what I’ve said so far is that churches with children—and that’s most of them—need to put their money and their manpower where their mouth is. You simply cannot say that you value families and children and then commit little to nothing toward their education and inclusion in the church.
Now, before I stop talking and let you talk back, let me close with one more thought. By virtue of their baptism, children are fully human, fully graced, fully called disciples of Christ, and members of Christ’s body. Children are part of the church just as they are. We have much to learn from them, just as they need to learn from us. Mature Christian discipleship includes, in many ways, the most enduring aspects of childhood: vulnerability-in-relationship, radical openness to God’s world, and a profound sense of being chosen and beloved by God. In the end, this view of childhood does not allow us to cordon off one aspect of the church and designate that as the space to minister to children, as if to say, “Here is where ministry to children takes place.” The truth is, the church’s ministry should always seek to be inclusive of children. In this sense, all ministry is “children’s ministry”—or at least it should be.
But, don’t worry, I’m not advocating that we abandon this specific thing we call “children’s ministry.” Quite the opposite! Due to the real differences between the aptitudes and skills of children and adults, it is right and good to have a specific ministry that includes children in the church in a more intentional and age-appropriate way. I think it is vitally important to cultivate teachers who can focus specifically on the training and incorporation of children into the worship life of the church. What I would like to do, though, is to encourage us to think carefully about how we are doing that. Is what we are doing for our children a reflection of their status as disciples of Jesus? Are we treating them as second-class believers or including them as valuable, contributing members of God’s family?
- St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II.10.12.
- David H. Jensen, Graced Vulnerability: A Theology of Childhood (Pilgrim Press, 2005).
- Herbert Anderson and Susan B. W. Johnson, Regarding Children: A New Respect for Childhood and Families (Family Living in Pastoral Perspective Series; Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1994).
- Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations 8 (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), 48-49.
- Mary Ann Hinsdale, “Infinite Openness to the Infinite: Karl Rahner’s Contribution to Modern Catholic Thought on Children,” in The Child in Christian Thought, 419.
- Jana Bennett, Water is Thicker Than Blood (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
- Elmer John Thiessen, “The Vocation of the Child as a Learner,” in The Vocation of the Child, Ed. Patrick McKinley Brennan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).