Let the Children Come: Kids Coming to Church Without Parents

April 18th, 2013
This article is featured in the Families in the Family of God (May/June/July 2013) issue of Circuit Rider

“Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.” (Matt. 19:13-15 NRSV) 

In a congregation I recently pastored, I remember a youth named Shawn. The community we served was in a “food desert,” meaning the underprivileged community did not have access to fresh produce within a five mile radius. One summer our congregation offered a weekly, free farmer’s market to the community, providing those who came with free fresh fruits and vegetables.

One week as we were setting up, 12-year-old Shawn showed up and asked if he could help. We allowed Shawn to assist and he worked very hard setting up the produce and clearing out boxes. After we completed the set-up and prepared to receive the community, Shawn asked if he could also receive some of the produce for his grandmother. He told us his grandmother was unable to come herself because she was unable to walk. We allowed him, to and he was overjoyed! For the next several weeks, Shawn was there to assist in the set-up and then took a bag of produce home for his grandmother.

Very soon Shawn began showing up to Sunday school and worship, and brought his younger sisters with him. Some in the congregation became concerned about the children’s circumstances and home life, and wanted to make sure the children’s parents or guardians knew the children were coming to the church. One of our members took the children home after service and met the grandmother. We discovered the grandmother was the guardian. The children’s mother had tragically passed away, and their father was not in the picture. We also discovered that the grandmother was living with multiple sclerosis (MS), and it had reached a debilitating state, in which she was unable to walk. It became apparent that Shawn, this 12-year-old, was assuming a lot of responsibility to assist his grandmother and look out for his sisters.

Shawn and his sisters began coming to church on a regular basis, and the congregation began to nurture these children. Shawn is a talented drummer and began playing drums for the worship service. He and his sisters became active in the various ministries for the children and youth of the church. The women’s ministry adopted the family and helped make sure the family’s basic needs were met. The following summer, the women’s ministry partnered with another congregation that was hosting a summer camp to make it possible for Shawn and his sisters to attend camp.

Seven Spiritual Yearnings

The ministry of the free farmer’s market definitely drew Shawn to the church, providing an opportunity to obtain some needed food for the family. What I also believe drew Shawn to start coming to church on Sunday was a yearning for more. Kids have spiritual yearnings just like adults:

  • Identity: A yearning to understand who they are; to answer the question, Who Am I? or Whose Am I? A yearning to understand what it means to be made in the image of God. Who am I in God’s Greater Story?
  • Purpose: A yearning to understand their reason for being; to be able to answer Why am I here? What role do I play in God’s Greater Story?
  • Intimacy: A yearning to be loved unconditionally by God, church, family, and society.
  • Healing: A yearning to be whole again after experiencing various levels of brokenness.
  • Mentoring: A yearning for a caring leader/spiritual director interested enough to help them navigate the waters between adolescence and adulthood.
  • Nurture: A yearning to be encouraged and empowered in the midst of their faith development.
  • Courage: A yearning for strength to live the Christian life when it is mostly counter-cultural to popular culture.

(Read more about the Seven Spiritual Yearnings.)

The church provided Shawn a place to belong, to try out and share gifts and talents, to be cared for, to be nurtured, mentored, but most importantly a place to experience healing. The church provided Shawn and his sisters a place to be loved and to heal as they continued to make sense, as best they could of the death of their mother and the debilitating illness of their grandmother. There are many children in our communities who come to our churches yearning to experience the love of Jesus that cares, that nurtures, that loves, that heals.

Keeping Covenant

In the Baptismal Covenant of the United Methodist Church for children and others unable to answer for themselves, there is a vow made by the congregation during the Renunciation of Sin and Profession of Faith:

Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons now before you in your care?

With God's help we will proclaim the good news and live according to the example of Christ.

We will surround these persons with a community of love and forgiveness that they may grow in their service to others. We will pray for them, that they may be true disciples who walk in the way that leads to life.

I believe this is a vow the household of faith should keep with all children and youth God entrusts to her care; not only those who come with their parents but also with those who don’t.

If we let the children come, the faith community has the opportunity to proclaim in their presence that they are beloved children of God. The congregation also has the wonderful opportunity to practice discipleship as they offer an example before the young people of what it means to be more like Christ. The community has the opportunity to provide young people a sanctuary; a safe place; a refuge of love, forgiveness, and healing. The community also has the opportunity to continually lay hands of blessing and offer prayers of intercession for the lives of all the young people entrusted to their care. The faith community should foster opportunities for young people to grow in their service to others and to grow into becoming true disciples. The congregation should claim responsibility for the covenant made with God and these children at baptism to increase their faith, confirm their hope, and perfect them in love,  and extend that love to all young people who come through their doors and who are a part of their surrounding neighborhood community as well.

Our congregation kept covenant with Shawn and his sisters; and with permission from their grandmother, they were baptized into the household of faith with the entire congregation standing as their sponsors.

If the faith community keeps its covenant with its young people, including those who come without their parents or guardians, they have a wonderful opportunity to reach the unchurched adults in these children’s lives as well. When the faith community shows genuine love and care for the children, the adults in their lives will want to know more about the community that is sharing it. As the children become actively engaged in the life of the congregation, the opportunity is there to invite unchurched parents to witness their children’s engagement. Chances are, the same spiritual yearnings the young people experience are the ones the adults in their lives experience as well. Let the children come, satisfy their yearnings, and watch the adults in their lives come as well!

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