Yesterday as we were travelling from The Great Lakes thru to Muswellbrook I was discussing with Danelle Steve’s post about where children fit in regards to membership in Baptist churches.
Sunday morning service included the welcoming of 6 new members at church. This included a family of 5 from the Philippines and made for an exciting service.
On the way home my children floored me. “Dad, are we church members? We listened to what you said (by way of introduction). You talked about membership as belonging, and membership as participation. So we can be members. Right?”
As baptists, we have a number of rites of “theological” passage: membership, baptism and communion. Historically, they are not generally reserved for children. But looking at my kids, I’m suddenly not actually saw why not. If my kids participate and feel they belong, why can’t they be members?
The post prompted some interesting conversation and I thought I’d flesh it out a little here. Having been a long term ‘baptist’ (small ‘b’ intentional) I am interested in this subject and more broadly how we organise ourselves as the church.
My bottom line statement on this issue would be that if we don’t engage children in our churches in every way that is reasonably possible then we lose the contribution of one part of the body and we suffer because of that.
Of course that statement does have the ‘reasonably possible’ caveat attached and that is where we start to enter grey areas.
Steve mentioned participation and belonging as key elements of membership and I would agree strongly here, but would also add ‘responsibility’. My favourite biblical metaphor for the church is that of extended family where every person is valued and has a role to play. In the family (in its best sense) there is a sense of feeling connected, a willingness to get involved and a recognition that we have certain responsibilities and even obligations.
I am in favour of children:
– taking communion when they declare that they know and love God
– being baptised when they are ready and can articulate (however simply) their faith journey.
– becoming members of the church in some way
The last one is more nuanced than the first two, partly because there are legal obligations involved with membership. We also need to pay attention to the child’s stages of faith, social and cognitive development. The question Steve asks is an important one. How do we engage kids in the life and decision making of the church in a way that both values them and protects them?
If we don’t have their input we are poorer for it – but kids also see the world thru a very small lens so we need to guide them.
As we have travelled we have made most of our decisions as a family, however there have been times when as parents we have simply had to make decisions for our children as they would not have the necessary cognitive development to do so competently. Ellie wanted to fly across to the US… so we could go to Disneyland… She didn’t get all of our adult reasoning, but she knows we think that is a really bad reason to spend $12K!
Kids will ‘get’ some of what we discuss as churches, but much of what happens in church meetings will be over their heads or completely irrelevant to who they are.
So, do we adjust the way we do meetings and decision making to include them?…
One of the challenges of our Baptist system has been described well here by Neo-Baptist. The implicitly adversarial approach of our meeting procedure is highlighted and the question is asked ‘how do we do things better?’
I think Neo-baptist’s point is that we need to allow people room to think, discuss and discern without the ‘vote’ hanging over them. To arrive at a meeting to vote is quite naturally to ask people to take a side before entering and then to allow debate to ensue. This can bring out the worst in church meetings as people fight for their position (and some don’t fight clean).
This is an environment where kids would not be safe and no one where they would want to be. In fact lets face it – very few adults would feel safe or want to be there!
As I write this I am wondering if the best way for issues to be considered is by family groups within the church. We as a family can discuss and consider an issue and then come to a meeting to offer what we believe is the best way forward and to listen to the conclusions that other families have reached as they have had similar discussions.
I don’t see that we can ever avoid ‘meetings’ per se, but we can frame them differently so that they become more in line with what the original Baptists intended – a collective discerning of the will of God rather than a system of political maneuvering and ultimately voting.
Even as I write this I am aware that some of it is quite idealistic and that the real world is more messy. We have had some difficult situations recently where the only solution has been to use the political process to win the day. While I hold my ideals, I am also pragmatic enough to know that sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do… cause if you don’t the consequences will be worse. But my thinking is that if we start with our best ideals in mind then we may at least do a reasonable job. If we start from the point of believing that all hope is lost then that will affect the process too.
So I would like to see us completely revisit how we listen to God as a church and how we make decisions. There will come times when it is necessary to have ‘a vote’ and that is ok, but there is much that will already be decided long before a meeting and a vote will simply be a legal requirement of a constituted body.
So… getting back to the question… can kids be members?
I would say absolutely, but as churches we need to ‘parent’ our little ones as we would our own children and involve them where possible and protect them where necessary. They don’t need to know all that goes on (good or bad) but they do need to be nurtured and valued in the community. They need to know that they can contribute and that they will be listened to. They need to know that sometimes their parents will not agree with them and they will choose not to run with their ideas. They need to know that sometimes their parents will get it right and sometimes they will mess it up.
In fact just giving thought to the place of kids in our midst actually challenges us to reframe some of how we do things and that is a good thing I reckon.
Of course we haven’t touched on the issues of ‘listening to leadership’ and running with their recommendations, or on how church size affects this process, because it does… I know from my varied experience of church community that there are many ways to make decisions and no-one has the mortgage on the best way.
Does this actually do anything to change our missional impetus in the world?… Well… It might… as we re-imagine ourselves not as a collection of power brokers but as an alternative community who listen to the voices of all – not just the influential – and who allow them a voice.