Dr Reuben van Rensburg
I have become convinced that the church simply HAS to rethink its stance on children. This article is a heartfelt plea for us to give serious attention to something that I believe has largely been overlooked by the church for 2000 years.
Let’s begin with
The plight of our children
There are nearly two billion children in the world today – one third of the world’s population. In many developing countries children make up nearly half the population. An additional 26 per cent are young people aged 15-29. And all of these children, according to Dr Dan Brewster,1 could be said to be ‘at risk’. Very many, of course, are at risk because of poverty — in danger of suffering, exploitation, neglect, and death. Key statistics reveal the critical nature of this problem:
- 8.8 million children die before their fifth birthday – an average of more than 24,000 per day – from diseases that could easily have been prevented or treated.
- More than 37 per cent of children around the world live in absolute poverty – a total of 674 million children.
- More than 91 million children under the age of 5 suffer from debilitating hunger.
- 15 million children are orphaned as a result of AIDS.
- 265 million children have not been immunized against any disease.
- Children living in severe deprivation struggle with a lack of income and productive resources to ensure sustainable livelihoods.
- About 30 per cent of the children under the age of five around the world suffer from severe or moderate malnutrition.
- In the last decade about two million children have been killed and more than six million injured or disabled in armed conflicts.
- Over one-third of children have to live in dwellings with more than five people per room.
- 134 million children have no access to any school whatsoever.
- Over half a billion children have no toilet facilities whatsoever.
- Almost half a billion children lack access to published information of any kind.
- 376 million children have more than a 15-minute walk to water and/or are using unsafe water sources.
Of special concern are the millions of orphans. The overwhelming lack of one-on-one holistic care for orphans makes them one of the most neglected groups. In South Africa alone there are 2,500,000 orphans! Orphaned girls are easy targets for sexual exploitation, while boys within the 4/14 Window (children aged between 4 and 14 years old) often turn to crime, drugs, and are prone to become abusive in adult relationships. In many nations they are easy prey for evil men who bully them into forced labour or recruit them for participation in rebel armies. At least 300,000 children, many as young as 10 years of age, are currently participating as ‘child soldiers’ in armed conflicts around the world.
Millions are at risk from poverty, but millions are also at risk from prosperity! As Brewster so aptly puts it, “many children and young people today have everything to live with, but nothing to live for.”
What is the church doing about the plight of the children?
Children and conversion
Most people who will ever make a decision to follow Christ will do so before their 15th birthday. In the USA, nearly 85% of those who make a decision for Christ do so between the ages of 4 and 14. Why then does the church spend so much money on programmes aimed at adults and so little on children, where it has the greatest chance of success? George Barna’s research confirms that a person’s lifelong behaviours and beliefs are generally developed during childhood and early adolescence. In the overwhelming majority, most of the moral and spiritual foundations are in place by age nine. Fundamental perspectives on truth, integrity, meaning, justice, morality, and ethics are formed at this early stage of life. By the age of 13, one’s spiritual identity is largely set in place. So if we can reach children and youth and disciple them when their life perspectives and worldviews are being shaped, we will set them on a rock that cannot be easily moved.
Luis Bush says, “These statistics reveal a vast spiritual harvest waiting to be reaped. For too long, the ministries of most churches, Christian organizations and mission agencies have focused primarily on adults, with fewer personnel, minimal funds, and limited creativity devoted to young people and to children. In no way should we abandon the outreach to any age group, but the call of the 4/14 initiative is clear: We must prioritize our efforts to reach the world’s largest, most receptive and most mouldable group—the 4- to 14-year-olds.”2
Yes our churches have their Sunday Schools and Youth Groups, but these are largely focused on the children within their walls – scant attention is paid to the children outside of the walls of the church.
Children in the Bible
When I have asked the average Christian to quote a verse in the Bible about children, the most I have ever got was four. People are staggered to hear that there are more than 1500!
In both the Old and the New Testaments there are numerous accounts of God using children and young people to transform their world. They include the following:
- Samuel. He was the child through whom God delivered a difficult message to the high priest, Eli. (1 Samuel 3).
- David . His own father didn’t even consider him as possibly the next king, simply because he was the youngest of the eight brothers. While still a teenager, David slew the giant Goliath and inspired his nation to rout the dreaded Philistines. (1 Sam 17).
- Josiah was a boy-king through whom God reformed the religious and social state of his country (2 Kings 22).
- Esther, an orphan girl, likely in her early teens, who became a queen whom God used to save the Jewish people from annihilation. (Esther 2).
- Jeremiah was chosen by God, though he was “only a child” (Jeremiah 1).
- Naaman’s servant girl. Naaman, a pagan army commander, suffered from leprosy, at that time an incurable disease. An unnamed young Israelite girl who served Naaman’s wife, told her mistress about Elisha, who could help in a situation that seemed hopeless (2 Kings 5:2). The wife told Naaman, who went to Elisha and was miraculously cured.
Bush says, “Today, as in ages past, children and young people are vessels in God’s hands, pointing the way to faith when adults have become corrupt, distracted or deaf to His calling.”
There were many incidents involving children in the life of Jesus—the boy who offered Jesus the loaves and fish (John 6), the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17), the daughter of the Canaanite woman (Matthew 1:5), to list but a few. In Matt 18 and 19, when Jesus placed a child “in the midst” of the disciples and told them “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, it should have been a wake-up call for the church, but sadly the church has failed to grasp the full significance of that incident.
Children as missionaries
Bush says that we need to understand that God can and does use children—their prayers, their insights, their hands and their feet—in changing the hearts of mankind. The 4/14ers have great capacity to understand the faith, and great courage and effectiveness as they share their faith. He notes that “4/14ers are capable of engaging in spiritual warfare. He can anoint children with the Holy Spirit just as He empowered the apostle Paul and the disciples. Children are sensitive to the Holy Spirit’s leading because they have not yet developed the spiritual barriers that many adults have erected over the course of their lives.”
4/14 and Holistic Child Development
But this is about much more than children’s ministry; it is about holistic child development (HCD), in other words in what it does, the church needs to develop the mental, physical, social and spiritual aspects of children. This is based on Luke 2:52, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature and in favour with God and men.” These four components – wisdom, stature, favour with God, and favour with man – neatly encompass all aspects of the whole person.
How can the church contribute?
Dr Keith White3, lists five basic needs of a child, which, if not met, will impair the capacity of the child to experience and express love: creativity, community, boundaries, significance and security . So the church needs to create a climate where these 5 elements can be fostered. White says it needs to:
- teach them the Word of God
- make disciples of children
- regularly support them in prayer
- create opportunities for children to participate in ministry
- offer child-friendly church facilities
- provide qualified children’s teachers, age-graded classes and curricula
- engage in family equipping and preparation
- protect children from harmful traditions
- conduct worship services that are meaningful to children
- conduct elders’ meetings and annual church programmes, the agendas of which include matters relating to children and how to improve the church’s ministry to children
- formulate budgets which provide funds for significant child ministries
- emphasize rituals – Christmas, Easter, other special church days, birthdays, Sunday school events – and make them a big deal for the children. Also, the church should have designated days and times to bless children in its annual programme
- encourage the pastor to be a regular visitor to the children’s ministry and to know many of the children by name
- insist on purity among leaders
- look at children’s potential (not just their current behaviour)
- support the child’s family
- have regular family-together activities
- train the staff in child protection
- seek to have trained people to help children that have been abused, mistreated or “on the streets.”
I am absolutely convinced that somewhere in the history of the church, it lost the emphasis that the Bible places on children. Thankfully, God is raising up a new group of people who will give due attention to this critical aspect once again. I firmly believe that if the church refocuses on the children, without abandoning its focus on the adults, the Kingdom will advance at a much more rapid rate and the future of the world’s children will be a lot rosier than it is today.
- 1Dan Brewster is an expert in the field of Holistic Child Development and coined the phrase, “the 4 to 14 Window”. His book “Future Impact” provides much of the data reflected in this article.
- 2From his very useful introductory book on this subject “Raising Up a New Generation from the 4-14 Window to Transform the World”, which is freely downloadable at 4to14window.com
- 3Founder of the Child Theology Movement www.childtheology.org
Dr. Keith White is writing a series of short articles (The ABC of Child Theology) that are designed to introduce the subject of Child Theology to pastors and church leaders to whom it is a completely new idea. These articles will appear on the SATS website and may be accessed from the link below or from The ABC of Child Theology link under “Free courses” on the Home page.
Click here to to see the The ABC of Child Theology. page.