Stooping to Greatness: Ministering to Children in Jesus' Name
Hymn number 559 in Trinity Hymnal ("Father, I Know That All My Life") is a favorite of mine. The blend of lyrics and melody is wonderful. Verses 2 and 3 are as follows:
I would not have the restless will
That hurries to and fro,
Seeking for some great thing to do,
Or secret thing to know;
I would be treated as a child,
And guided where I go.
I ask thee for the daily strength,
To none that ask denied,
A mind to blend with outward life,
While keeping at thy side,
Content to fill a little space,
If thou be glorified.
In these verses, the author is not praying for mediocrity ("content to fill a little space"). Instead, the author recognizes that greatness in God's kingdom is often achieved by being faithful in the little things that God gives us to do daily. The main point of the hymn is this: Lord, as long as you are glorified, I will do any deeds, big or small. Now, that's greatness!
Let's be honest: all of us desire greatness in life. As children, we dream of hitting a home run in the ninth inning to win the World Series. We dream of flying to Mars. None of us prays, "Lord, make me a milk-toast, slouchy Christian filled with dullness." We want to be great. God made us that way. The question is, What is greatness according to God's Word? Jesus makes it very clear to us (Mark 9-10) that those who minister to children in Jesus' name achieve greatness in the kingdom of God. Do you aspire to greatness in God's kingdom? Then heed the words of Jesus.
Greatness. We find Jesus' disciples discussing this topic in Mark 9. "But they kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest" (vs. 34). Oops! Instead of seeking greatness in God's kingdom, they were seeking greatness for themselves. Like nine-year-old boys who bark at each other, "I'm the best Nintendo player!" the disciples were probably muttering things like, "I'm better than youso there!" No wonder they were silent when Jesus asked them about their topic of discussion! Jesus rebuked them and then demonstrated true greatness before them: "And He said to them, 'If anyone desires to be first, he shall be ... servant of all.' Then He took a little child and set him in the midst of them. And when He had taken him in His arms, He said to them, 'Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me' " (vss. 35-37).
Picture the situation. Grown men are thumping their chests and grunting, "Me good, you bad!" Jesus calmly sits in the midst of them. He rebukes them for their selfishness and tells them to gather around him in a circle. Jesus then takes a child in his arms and embraces him. Looking at the disciples, Jesus tells them, "Whoever receives one of these little ones in my name receives me." Hopefully the disciples took notes or nodded approvingly. The main point is crystal clear: greatness means ministering the gospel of Christ to children. Please don't miss this. Jesus is not merely giving an example of what greatness is like; he is telling us that this is what great Christians do!
Immediately after giving this lesson, Jesus took his disciples to the other side of the Jordan (Mark 10:1), where some Pharisees engaged him in a discussion about divorce. The audience at this informal debate was mixed. Pharisees, apostles, and children, among others, were present (vs. 13).
Divorce is a painful topic of discussionespecially for children. God has blessed me with parents who are committed to each other for life, yet I still remember a frightening dream I had when I was twelve years old. I dreamed that my parents were getting a divorce. The thought was so painful to me that I ran into the living room and hurled myself through a large window out onto the lawn in hopes that that would take away the pain within. At that point I awoke with a racing heart. Phew! I was glad it was just a dream.
You can imagine the fear and bewilderment of the children in Mark 10 as they heard the Pharisees grill Jesus about divorce. Yet these children did not leave. They wanted to be near Jesus. So when the discussion ended, people "brought young children to Him, that He might touch them" (vs. 13).
Here was an opportunity for the apostles to achieve greatness! They could have been the first ones to usher those children into the presence of Jesus. And while the children were waiting to talk with Jesus, the apostles could have stooped down and talked with them personally. Sadly, however, the Scriptures record the following: "They brought young children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them" (vs. 13).
The disciples not only missed a great opportunity for service in God's kingdom, but actually hindered the cause of Christ by trying to keep the children away! Why? How could they have done that? Easily. Jesus had better things to do than talk to kidsor so they thought. He had just finished an important discussion of the Law! Sadly, the disciples, like many people today, tended to think that Jesus had better things to do than minister to children. Children and their spiritual needs often take a back seat to adults and their needs.
Indignant, the Lord Jesus instructed the disciples to "let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God" (v. 14). Jesus removed the disciples' blockade and took the children into his arms and blessed them.
Greatness in God's kingdom means ministering to children in Jesus name. Are you stirred by the seriousness of this truth? We are faced with opportunities daily to perform great deeds for Christ, yet we don't perceive them as great deeds. We see them as mundane, or even bothersome tasks.
We in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church ought to be keenly aware of Christ's command to minister to children. The distinctiveness of the Reformed faith is not just the sovereignty of God in salvation. The distinctiveness of the Reformed faith is the doctrine of the covenant. God's covenant with us is that he will be a God to us and to our children (Gen. 17:1-8; Acts 2:39). How do you perceive the children in your church? Sure, they're pizza-consuming bundles of energy. But they're also much more. They are covenant partners alongside us in Christ's community. Granted, they're short covenant partners, but they're partners nonetheless.
Unfortunately, men sometimes think that ministering to these particular covenant partners is, well, not very manly. Like proud frontiersmen, we men (elders and deacons included) occasionally glance at children with a condescending nod: "Wees menfolk have important thangs to do lak huntin' bears and choppin' wood. The little 'uns? Ah, wees leave 'em for the wimmen and seminary interns to tend."
Remember, when Christ stated that greatness means ministering to children, he was speaking to a group of men! When is the last time that you as an adult ministered to a child in the name of Jesus Christ? When is the last time your conversation with a child on the Lord's day was something other than "Don't spill that juice!" or "I think your brother has a dirty diaper"? Do you know the names of the children in your church? Have you ever asked them how you can pray for them? Have you ever asked them how their Sunday school lesson went?
As covenant partners, children have a responsibility to join their taller counterparts in the worship of King Jesus. Many churches in America dismiss their children to Sunday school or children's church or a finger puppet rally during the sermon. This trend of removing children from the sermon is not a good practice, in my humble opinion. As members of Christ's church, children have the right to hear Jesus proclaimed to them in his Word.
Most of you will probably agree that children ought to be present during the entire worship service. However, this is just the beginning of our responsibility, not the end. Worship is a time of joy and feasting on God's Word, not a painful necessity like going to the dentist for a filling. Some children think of going to worship on the Lord's day like going to the dentist because their parents present worship to them in a negative way: "You're gonna sit there and be quiet. Ten years from now you'll thank me!"
How to Minister to Children
We can do better, and we must do better. There are many ways that we can better minister to children in our churches. To get you thinking, let me offer the following suggestions. And please note that these are just suggestions. If these ideas are not helpful to you, they should at least stimulate you to develop your own strategies.
1. Pastors and other elders: labor to make the complex truths of the Bible plain. We must feed the sheep, and sheep come in different sizes. D. M. Lloyd-Jones, in his excellent book Preachers and Preaching (p. 127), notes that his greatest compliment as a preacher came from a twelve-year-old girl who wrote to him to tell him that she missed him and was praying for him to recover from his illness because "you are the only preacher we can understand." Good preaching speaks to everyone. It speaks to engineers, lawyers, moms, and children. God's Word is profound and clear, and we must preach it as such. Also, when you apply the truths of God's Word during a sermon, mention to children how it applies to them. I am not saying that we must dumb down the Bible or become like Mr. Rogers in the pulpit ("Can you say justification? Sure you can!"). Rather, I am saying that we must include children when we exhort the church in the proclamation of the Word because God regards them as part of his covenant people.
2. Encourage men to teach Sunday school classes to young children. (A team-teaching approach is best.) This is particularly helpful for children who live without their father. A godly male teacher can be an important connection for such a child.
3. Support Sunday school! It's not an afterthought. It's vital. Sessions ought prayerfully to consider the character and abilities of those who teach, and should honor their work. Also, consider implementing programs in addition to Sunday school that minister the gospel to covenant children. A Pioneer Club program or a Calvinette and/or Cadet program could be an effective ministry in your church.
4. Converse with the children in the church about spiritual truths. Minister to them in Jesus name. Learn their names and take an interest in their lives. Ask them how you can pray for them, or simply encourage them by telling them that they are beloved in the Lord!
I hope these suggestions are helpful. Years ago, while I was an intern at Garden Grove OPC (now Westminster OPC) in California, one particular three-year-old boy loved to sit up front with his family during the worship service. If he knew the hymn being sung, his voice was loud and strong. After the closing hymn, Pastor Warren would offer the benediction. As he raised his right hand, extending God's blessing to us, this boy would reach out his hand toward Pastor Warren. As God blessed his people, this young child enthusiastically reached out with his hand as if to grab that blessing. He did that, Sunday after Sunday. God be praised! This little boy knew that he had access to Jesus. May God grant that all of our covenant children have that freedom. May God also grant that you and I stoop to greatness by ministering to children in Christ's name.
Mr. Ban is the pastor of Delta Oaks Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Antioch, Calif. He quotes the NKJV. Reprinted from New Horizons, January 1999.