Ben Underwood is an Associate Minister at St Matthew’s, Shenton Park, WA
At St Matthew’s Shenton Park, they run tailored programmes for younger children concurrent with the main service, instead of expecting children to stay in church with parents. Why?
Why do we have children’s and youth ministries here at St Matt’s in the way we do?? Why do we run tailored programmes for younger children concurrent with the main service, instead of expecting children to stay in church with parents? The short answer is that we are convinced that the Bible teaches that we should minister the word of God directly to all who come to church in the most intelligible manner possible. And we are convinced that programmes of gospel ministry tailored to children according to their capacity are the best way to minister the word of God directly to children in an intelligible manner.
1) The Bible teaches that we should minister the word of God directly to all who come to church in the most intelligible manner possible.
In building up this conviction, we need first to see that the business of church is building faith to maturity. There are a number of key passages that suggest that the business of church is to build up the faith of those who gather into maturity. One such passage is Ephesians 4:11-13, which says that Christ has given his church ‘the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature’. Compare also 1 Cor 14:26 or Hebrews 10:24-25.
A second step in establishing the conviction is to see that ‘Faith comes from hearing the word’ (Romans 10:17). There is a principle, embedded deep in scripture, that it is God’s word that calls out and grows our faith. This is why Paul valued the gift of prophecy so highly, because, as he puts it, ‘the one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort. Anyone who speaks in a tongue edifies themselves, but the one who prophesies edifies the church. I would like every one of you to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy.’ (1 Cor 14:3) Paul valued prophecy because it was the ministry of God’s word, capable of building faith, and therefore serving a central purpose of church.
A third step in establishing the conviction is to see that the more intelligible the word is, the better. If faith is to come there must be hearing, and if hearing is to come there must be intelligibility. That is, we must seek to share the word so it can be understood by the hearer. Paul says to the Corinthians in 1 Cor 14 regarding their conduct in church, ‘Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying? You will just be speaking into the air. […] If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and the speaker is a foreigner to me.’ To Paul’s mind church could only serve its purpose well if the words spoken there were intelligible instruction for others. He says, ‘in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.’ Speaking in tongues may set an example to those around of the speaker’s passion for God, and indeed speaking in tongues may be a real act of worship by the speaker, but, for Paul, seeing others have a worshipful engagement with God is not helpful if it is not intelligible to the one looking on. Being surrounded by a warm community, or being swept up in the spiritual experience of those around you, will not edify you in Christian faith if the message that gives rise to that community and that spiritual experience is not made intelligible to you. As Paul says,
‘So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and enquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind? 24 But if an unbeliever or an enquirer comes in while everyone is prophesying, they are convicted of sin and are brought under judgment by all, 25 as the secrets of their hearts are laid bare. So they will fall down and worship God, exclaiming, ‘God is really among you!’ (1 Cor 14:23-25)
So, we do not want the word to be unintelligible to the children who come to church. We want them to understand, as well as possible, the word of God that is being shared, so that they feel it is addressed to them. We do not want the children just to be onlookers – amongst people who understand the word, but not really understanding it themselves as it is being presented. Our goal is to minister the word of God to the children and youth who come in the way that makes it most intelligible to them. This is the conviction that lies behind our practice of St Matt’s children’s ministry.
2) Churches should seek to minister directly to the children in their midst, and also equip parents to minister the gospel to their children.
Should churches minister directly to the children who come, or minister mostly indirectly to children, by helping parents to minister to their children? In Ephesians 6:1-4 we read,
‘Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2 ‘Honour your father and mother’– which is the first commandment with a promise – 3 ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ 4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
In Colossians 3:20-21 we read,
‘20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.’
From these passages we may observe two things. First, the fact that Paul addresses children directly indicates that Paul felt it right to minister directly to the children of the congregation. He did not content himself to minister to the parents of the congregation and leave them to minister to their children. He established a line of communication of Christian instruction directly to children (see also 1 Peter 5:5). On the assumption that this is the pattern of ministry he passed on to those who followed after him, it is good and right for those charged with the oversight of churches to establish ministry directly and specifically to the children of the congregation. Our goal at St Matthew’s is to minister directly to the children and youth of the congregation.
Secondly, the fact that fathers are addressed as fathers indicates that Paul was concerned with what children experienced in their families. His first priority seems to have been to restrain fathers from exasperating and embittering their children! On a more encouraging note (for fathers!), Paul did give fathers a charge to bring their children up ‘in the training and instruction of the Lord’, indicating that Paul thought it good and right that fathers play a role in the spiritual instruction of their children. Fathers may discharge this responsibility both by directly training and instructing their children themselves, and, presumably, also by bringing their children to hear other teachers of the faith, and have their children profit from having more than one channel of training and instruction.
Hence, at St Matthew’s our goals regarding parents are: to equip parents to instruct their children in their families, and to encourage them to bring their children to church, where they might be instructed by others. And our goal regarding children is: to minister the word of God directly to the children of the congregation on Sundays and at other times, in the manner most intelligible to children as children, in order to promote faith and Christian maturity. And we are convinced that programmes of gospel ministry tailored to children according to their capacity are the best way to minister the word of God directly to children in an intelligible manner.