This sermon is part of the sermon series "From Generation to Generation". See series.
They say God has no grandchildren. What they mean is that it isn't enough to be born into a believing home or a believing church. Every child has to choose to follow Christ. They say that Christianity is always one generation away from extinction. What they mean is that unless we intentionally pass the faith on to our children, it could be lost.
And so for the past couple of weeks, we've been thinking together about passing faith on from generation to generation. Two weeks ago, we looked at Psalm 78 and learned that the entire believing community shares the responsibility for raising up children in the faith. And last week we learned some practical principles for passing the baton of faith to those who come after us.
But right about now some of you may be asking why we're spending three weeks talking about this one topic? Why focus on this one demographic slice when, in fact, we are a very diverse congregation with so many single people and older adults? Some of you are saying to yourselves: "Bryan's usually so balanced in his teaching. Why is he all worked up about kids?"
It's great to have so many children and young people among us every Sunday, but let's not forget that we also have nearly 3,000 adults with us. What about their needs, and their potential? After all, adults are the ones who lead and serve and support the church. Adults are the ones who have influence in the world; they're the movers and shakers. Who says children's ministry should be one of our church's top priorities?
I'm glad you asked those questions, because this morning we're going to discover why ministry to children and young people is so important, and why we're spending three weeks on this subject. Let's go to Matthew 18:1-19, as we consider the words of Jesus on this subject. We're going to discover three reasons why children are so important to God, and to us.
A dumb question
You gotta wonder about these disciples sometimes. Again and again, they just don't seem to get it. This time they come to Jesus and ask, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" What were they thinking? Talk about dumb questions. This is like asking a Red Sox fan, "Who do you like better—A-Rod or Sheffield?" Where have they been for the past two years? Did they really think that was the kind of question Jesus would appreciate? What they wanted to hear, of course, is that they were the greatest—that they were the most important people in the kingdom.
Adults are always asking that question: who's important? Think about magazine covers: The 100 most-powerful people in Boston. Hollywood's hottest couples. The fastest-growing companies. The most-eligible bachelor. Adults always want to know: Who matters? Who's important?
But Jesus pulls a fast one on them. He grabs a kid from out of the crowd and says: See this little child—he's important. In fact, he's so important that unless you become like him, you're not even getting into my kingdom!
That wasn't the answer they were looking for, and it caught them by surprise. Children weren't very important in that culture. They had no rights, no status, and no economic value until they could work. Sometimes parents would leave an unwanted newborn out in the elements to die; it wasn't a crime. While boys could be educated, girls never were. Distinguished rabbis wouldn't think of wasting time teaching children. That's why on another occasion, when mothers brought children to Jesus, the disciples turned them away. Jesus was an important person. He couldn't be wasting his time with children when there were so many adults waiting to see him.
But on that occasion and this one, Jesus changes the rules. Both times, he brought those children to the front of the line. Both times, he said: These are the most important people in the crowd, and unless you become like one of them, you will not enter my kingdom.
First, children are most likely to become fully devoted followers of Christ.
Now, why is that? What is it about children that makes them so great in God's eyes—makes them most likely to enter the kingdom? Is it their innocence? Anybody who knows kids knows they aren't innocent. Is it their obedience? Even the most compliant kid isn't always obedient. Is it their enthusiasm? Their naiveté? Jesus tells us what it is: "Whoever humbles himself like this little child …."
Kids are dependent. They're smaller and younger than everyone else around them. They know they need help, and they aren't afraid to ask. "Grandma, can you make me some lunch?" "Teacher, how do you spell civilization?" "Uncle Bob, can you fix my bike?" "Ma, I need a ride to the mall!" Those requests just roll off their tongue. But so do these: "Lord, help me not to be afraid." "God, please heal my friend." "Jesus, will you forgive my sins?"
Kids know their needs. They recognize their limitations. They're honest about their requests for help. And so of all people, Jesus says, they are most likely to turn to God in repentance and faith. And that's the first reason children are so important, because they are most likely to become fully-devoted followers of Christ.
They tell us that 4/5 young people say they want a close relationship with God. They tell us that something like 3/4 of adult believers became Christ-followers before the age of 18. Psychologists tell us that moral and spiritual development begins at about age 2; that by the age of 9, many of the foundations of faith have been laid in a child's life; and that most of what a child believes at 13 she will believe for the rest of her life. And so church leaders are now beginning to talk about the 4-14 window, referring to the age span when people are most likely to come to faith in Christ. They're suggesting strategic focus on reaching that most-responsive age group.
Several years ago, a psychologist named David Heller set out to study children's attitudes toward God. He interviewed hundreds of 4 to 12-year-olds, asking them to draw pictures and write letters and answer questions about God. Some of them were a bit off-the-wall. Like the 12-year-old who wrote a letter to God saying: "Dear God, how is it up there in heaven? How is it being the Big Cheese?"
But he found a common thread running through them all. See if you can pick it up. A 7-year-old drew a picture of himself sitting on the floor with God playing a board game. When Heller asked him what game they were playing, the kid said, without blinking, "Life." A 9-year-old girl said: "I love God so much it's hard to put in words. I'd like to be in a palace with him in heaven—but not yet." As the children got older, they got a little more sophisticated, but still honest. A 12-year-old wrote: "Dear God, I had exams this week and I'm nervous about what I got on them. I know you can't help me since they're all done, or could you? Tell Mary I said hi. I'll talk to you later."
As varied as those responses were from child to child and age to age, the common thread was the children's readiness to relate to God on a personal basis—to include him in their daily life and experience. My favorite came from an 8-year-old boy who said, "I don't know if this is what you're asking, but I feel closest to God when I'm rounding second base after hitting a double." Pollsters and strategists are only now discovering what Jesus told us a long time ago. Of all people, children are most likely to enter into a personal relationship with God.
But notice that Jesus didn't just say that children were most likely to enter the kingdom. He said they were most likely to be great in the kingdom—most likely to follow him with all their hearts, most likely to advance his work in the world. Children are eager to grow in their faith, eager to learn and to serve. And recent studies have revealed that children are the most effective evangelists in the church. They share their faith freely and easily with others, and are most likely to invite their friends and family to church.
When Karen and I were in India recently, she had an opportunity to speak at one of the plenary sessions on the subject of friendship evangelism. As part of her talk, she told her story of how she had grown up in religious home, but didn't have a relationship with God, even though she desperately wanted one. In the 6th grade, she met a girl in school who really seemed to know God. Over the course of a couple of years, as their friendship grew, that girl lived and shared Christ with her, eventually inviting her to a Christian camp where Karen made her decision to receive Christ as her savior and follow him.
As I sat there listening to Karen speak, it dawned on me that here was Karen, now a pastor's wife, traveling halfway around the world to train leaders who will reach North India with the good news, and the whole thing started with an 11-year-old girl who freely followed Christ and shared her faith with a friend.
That's why children are great in the kingdom of heaven. That's why they are so important to God and to us—because they are most likely not only to follow Christ, but to become fully devoted followers who make a difference in their world, even while they're young.
Second, when you open your heart to a child, you open your heart to Christ.
Secondly, children are important because Jesus says in verse 5, "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me." Again, we ask, what does Jesus mean by this? It's a curious expression. Does it mean that Jesus is somehow physically present in the life of each child? I don't think so; nothing in Scripture suggests that.
That word "welcome" could also be translated "receive." It's a hospitality word, describing a person opening their home to strangers and visitors and receiving them. I believe Jesus is saying that children are so near to his heart, so important to his work in this world, that when we make room in our hearts for children, we are also making room for him.
Have you ever invited someone to your house for dinner, and when you open the door you discover they have a friend with them, too? That's how it works with kids. When we open the door of our home or church to a child, Jesus is standing on the doorstep, too. He enters, along with the child, and brings blessing and fullness to our lives.
It's true on a personal level, and it's true for churches, too. George Barna has been studying churches for over 20 years, learning what makes them effective. But he confesses that it wasn't until recently that he finally made the connection that the most effective churches he studied almost always were the most intentional about reaching and discipling children. And it wasn't just because when you serve children well you get the rest of their families. I believe there's a spiritual principle at work—that when a church makes room for children, who are so important to God, that church is also making room for God to move in fresh and powerful ways.
I'm thinking again of our visit to India. It happens that north India is a very difficult region of the world to reach with the message of Christ. The majority religions are very resistant to claims of Christ. When people become Christ-followers, they will often be rejected by their families, harassed, and persecuted. There are many remote towns and villages in the mountains that are hard to reach and suspicious of outsiders. Progress is very slow. Good News for India has discovered that one of the ways they can establish themselves in a village is by starting an English-speaking school, since the people are so desperate for their children to be educated. They teach reading and writing and arithmetic, and also a class in morality in which they are able to introduce Bible stories and songs.
One day, we drove two hours up into the mountains on winding roads to visit one of these schools. We stepped into one of the classrooms, no bigger than a foyer in some of our homes. It was crammed with kids, who stood and welcomed us by singing, "This is the day that the Lord has made"—they're smiling faces lighting up the windowless room. In that moment, I realized how north India could be reached—through the children.
Each day, when they return home, those children bring the joy of the Lord with them to their families and neighborhoods. By the time they graduate, foundations of faith will be laid in their lives, and many will make decisions to follow Christ. They will go on from there to the university or the marketplace carrying that faith with them. How much easier will it be 10 or 20 years from now to share Christ and raise leaders when the next generation has been raised in the love and truth of Christ? The schools were originally begun as a means of gaining access to the adults, but I believe that in the providence of God, they will become the primary means of reaching the nation. By welcoming the children, they are welcoming Christ into north India.
I've discovered that, when a church is committed to reaching children and teenagers, it breathes life and vitality throughout the whole church. You know why? If you're going to reach kids, you have to be relevant, because they're not going to stick around if you're out of touch. If you're going to reach kids, you have to be honest, because they can smell a phony a mile away. If you're going to reach kids, you've got to be friendly, because kids won't hang around when they're not wanted. If you're going to reach kids, you've got to relax, because they're going to knock over the furniture once in a while.
I remember one day as a teenager, my buddies and I wanted to play street hockey, but it was pouring rain outside. So we headed over to the church and snuck into the fellowship hall, and pretty soon had a pretty rowdy game of hockey going. All of a sudden, the senior pastor walked into the room. We were sure we were in trouble and that he was going to kick us out of there. He walked over to us, asked to see one of our sticks, and started flipping wrist shots against the wall. Turned out our short, bald, paunchy pastor grew up in Canada, where he played hockey for the first 20 years of his life. He gave us a few pointers, told us to have fun, and headed back to his office.
Is it any wonder that every Sunday morning, the first three or four rows of pews were filled with kids? Is it any wonder that church was the largest, most vibrant church in the whole Hudson Valley? Is it any wonder that, 30 years later, I'm challenging the church I serve to make children and youth a top priority? When we open our church to kids, we open our church to the life-changing presence of Christ.
But you know, there is also a warning here in verse 6: "But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." That's one of the most frightening statements Jesus ever makes. You can hear the edge to his voice. Those who put stumbling blocks in the paths of children—those who make it harder for them to know and follow Christ—put themselves as well as their children in spiritual peril.
There's a warning here to the church, certainly, not to neglect our responsibility to nurture the faith of children. There's also a warning to society at large, to ensure the physical, emotional, and spiritual welfare of children. And so we're concerned that children are being hurried into adulthood, driven to fulfill mom and dad's unfulfilled fantasies. We're concerned about children being turned into conspicuous consumers who just have to have the new iPod or X-box. We're concerned about movies and TV shows that exploit kid's curiosity about sexuality, violence, and horror. We're concerned that the disintegration of the family has taken a toll on the emotional well-being of children.
We're concerned that a Lexington father spent the night in jail simply because he wanted to be notified when moral and sexual content was being introduced to his kindergartner. We're concerned about the confusing messages and inappropriate material children are being exposed to in their schools and communities each day.
Jesus is reminding us here that children are the most vulnerable members of society, and that when we fail to nurture them, to protect them, and to lead them toward God, we are failing in the worst possible way. We're endangering both their souls and ours. That's why the church must be a place where children are welcome.
So children are important because they are most likely to become fully-devoted followers of Christ, and because when we open our hearts to children, we open our hearts to Christ.
Third, reaching lost people, including children, is God's highest priority.
Third, Jesus concludes this teaching with a parable—a short story he's told before, but this time he tells it with a twist. It's the story of a shepherd who leaves his 99 sheep to go off and search for one sheep that's wandered away. It's a story that communicates God's love for lost people, people who don't know him, and his readiness to go to any length necessary to rescue them, even to the point of sending his own Son to seek and save them at the cost of his own life.
For the past 20 years, that parable has been preached all over the country and the world to challenge churches to do whatever it takes to reach people who are far from God. It's the passage that launched the seeker-church movement.
But this time Jesus adds a twist at the end of the story. "In the same way, your Father in heaven is not willing that of these little ones should be lost." Jesus is passionate about seeking and saving lost people, but he's especially passionate about seeking and saving lost children. Why? Perhaps because children are the most vulnerable members of society—the most likely to be neglected, exploited, or overlooked. Perhaps because children are the most receptive of all people—the most likely to admit their need and receive God's love and leadership in their lives. Perhaps it's because God just loves kids. Whatever the reasons, this story suggests that our heart for reaching lost people is tested by our heart for reaching children.
In a couple of months, we'll be holding our Vacation Bible School, which will provide hundreds of children with an opportunity to learn about God's love and to begin a personal relationship with him. It's a wonderful ministry, and a great way to try out children's ministry and see if it's something God is calling you to. As you can imagine, it takes a great investment of time, money, and volunteer hours to pull off an event like that for a week.
I remember some years ago, in a former church, one of the adults in the church asked me how many new families came to the church as a result of VBS. I said I didn't really know—maybe one or two each summer. "Oh, that's too bad," he said, as if it was a failure. Now, I know what he was getting at. After all, with all that effort and expense, it would be nice to have some new people in the church. You know, real people—adults who can give and serve and lead. And that's a natural way to think. But it's not the way God thinks. I had to remind him, and myself, that we don't run VBS in order to get more adults into the church. We run VBS to get more children into the kingdom.
If Grace Chapel is going to be passionate about reaching people who are far from God and developing them into lifelong followers of Christ, we have to be passionate about reaching and developing children. That's the reason for this three-week series. We want to put a stake in the ground on this one. That's why we're devoting 2/3 of that new building to children and youth. That's why we are casting a new vision for reaching and developing children next year. That's why we're committing three full-time staff positions to children's ministry. That's why we're committed to raising up so many volunteers that you'll have to get on a waiting list if you want to serve in children's ministry. That's why we're creating opportunities for families to worship and grow together in community. Because reaching lost people, including children, is God's top priority. How can it be anything less for us?
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.