The image of childlike faith has long been attractive to Christians. My fear is that it has become an excuse for lazy thinking. I’ve known Christians who have boasted that they don’t have to confront the hard questions because they have a childlike faith. They even have a passage to prove it.
I have shared before that I came to Christianity out of a number of years as an atheist. I had a skeptical nature then and I have one now. I arrived at church with plenty of questions and more than a few doubts. I really never felt that there was room in the church for a Christian like me. My friends would just accept whatever a preacher would say from the pulpit, while I would comment on errors in either logic or biblical interpretation or both. I even had people try to cast out a spirit of doubt from me. What no one ever did was give me freedom to ask questions or to point me toward the writings of thoughtful Christians. Even in those pre-internet days, there were plenty of quality resources.
We will look closer at this passage, but I will say that there is nothing in this that is meant to shut down conversation or to silence hard questions. In fact, I will argue, it does the exact opposite.
That is not to say that this passage is only about those with an interest in the intellectual side of Christianity. There is a warning here that affects all of us. We may see ourselves in this story as the children who deserve to be with Jesus, but we may in fact be the disciples who are trying to prevent the children from getting too close. Let’s take a look.
Children and Jesus
Try to imagine what it must have been like to travel around with Jesus. At this point, we are well into Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has become well known based on both his preaching and his miracles. I would imagine that there were four types of people that would be coming to see Jesus. There would be those who were seeking the truth and who couldn’t get enough of Jesus’ teachings, his interpretation of the Scriptures and his clear explanations of what God expected. There would also be those who were sick or afflicted and who were desperate to experience a healing. There would also be those who were healthy, but who were drawn by the excitement and were eager to see one of these marvellous wonders. Finally, there would be his critics, who were there hoping to catch Jesus in some error and demonstrate that he was actually a fake.
Imagine the stress it would be, not just for Jesus, but for the disciples. Crowds of people everywhere, never a moment of peace. There would always be someone wanting something. As an introvert, just thinking about this gets my heart racing.
In the midst of this type of schedule, the disciples spot some people bringing children to Jesus. The disciples would not have seen this as a great new ministry opportunity. This would have been a distraction from “real ministry.” There were important things to be done and these little children were getting in the way. The disciples weren’t being bad people. Yes, they would have been shaped by cultural concepts of children not being very valuable. But more than that, they thought they knew where Jesus’ ministry was going and having a crowd of children would not only not advance that goal, it might even hinder it.
The disciples demonstrated real leadership by speaking up and attempting to prevent the children from coming to Jesus. They were showing some rare assertiveness, unfortunately they were doing the wrong thing. Jesus didn’t see the children as being a distraction from real ministry, he saw this as real ministry. And Jesus didn’t just tolerate the presence of children, he held them up as the example for all other followers. We are to have a childlike faith.
Let me briefly clarify what this means. A childlike faith is not a childish faith. Too many Christians have argued that this means we shouldn’t ask questions. The truth is that children ask far more questions than adults. A childlike faith is more about a trust and dependance on Jesus, the way a child relies on their parents. Children are vulnerable, and their lives were especially fragile in that world. The kingdom of God is not about coming from a position of strength but from a position of weakness.
But what I want to focus on is not so much how we can be like children, but on how Jesus’ warning to the disciples applies to us.
Let the Children Come
When we look to find the principles in this passage, we need to ask about who the children are in our context. First of all, the children include actual children. Children have an important place in the church. They should be valued by us because they are greatly valued by Jesus. But I would suggest that there is a wider application than just children’s ministry. Often in the Bible terms such as widows and orphans mean more than just their dictionary definition. The same is true of children. Children can represent all those who are vulnerable. It could mean those with disabilities or those who struggle with mental illness. It could be the poor or homeless. It could be people who struggle in any way.
The next question we need to ask is about who we are in this story. Are we the people who are bringing children to Jesus or are we the disciples who are trying to prevent them? You might not think that anyone in a church would stop people from coming to Jesus but it happens all the time. Like the disciples, it is not done from evil motives. No one is saying, “I don’t want certain people from coming to Jesus.” It is much more subtle than that.
Let me give you an example from real life. I know a parent of a special needs child. She was called by one of the pastors and asked to not bring her child with a disability to church anymore because the sounds he made during the service could prevent the work of the Holy Spirit. The first problem here is that this includes a weak doctrine of the Spirit. Secondly, to goes against what the Bible teaches. But these pastors, like the disciples, were not trying to be anti-children, they were trying to be pro-ministry. But they wanted to be pro-ministry on their own terms, pro-ministry in a way so that they were in control. But the passage we are looking at points to a messier ministry, one with lots of chaos but lots of love.
How can we as modern disciples be preventing people from coming to Jesus? It can be quite subtle such as giving dirty looks when people, adults or children, make a sound in church. It could be by giving the cold shoulder to those we consider disruptive to the way we want worship or ministry. It could be like those who shut down hard questions that make us feel uncomfortable. It be by actively excluding certain people to keep things the way that makes us comfortable.
Instead of preventing people from coming to Jesus, we should be actively working toward bringing them to Jesus. We were at a church once and our son with autism was making noise during the sermon. The pastor stopped, not to ask us to keep in quiet, but to say to the church, “Isn’t great that everyone is welcome here?” That moment will stay with us forever. We have a good number of children connected to this church, what are each of us doing to bring them to Jesus? It’s not just the Sunday school teacher’s job. What about other people who are the vulnerable or who are struggling in some way? Are we open to some messiness in church or do we want everything carefully controlled? What is the cost to taking control? Who will miss out on Jesus?
I remember an experience that took place just over ten years ago at another church. I was leading the service and I will admit that I like things under control. It is not that I’m against spontaneity. it is just that I prefer spontaneous events to be preplanned and carefully scheduled. I had just said the welcome and was beginning to go through the specific announcements when a lady with a developmental disability came running down the aisle waving a kleenex and shouting, “Pastor Steve, Pastor Steve.” On the kleenex were the details about the baby born to one of her family members. She insisted that it all be announced right then. To be honest, I was quiet annoyed and perhaps even a little angry. I was trying to lead a carefully crafted worship service and she was ruining it with all her exuberant joy. God spoke to me as clearly as I have ever heard that the problem was with me. Although there is nothing wrong with a nice worship service, it should not be at the cost of hindering the people that are have a special place in God’s heart. I was the disciple who wanted to keep the children away of Jesus.
I still like order and experience discomfort when the unexpected takes place. But I hope that my heart has been softened. I want children here banging on the piano and drums. I want people with disabilities making their sounds during the service. I want homeless people and people struggling with addictions. I want skeptics and atheists who will ask difficult questions. It will make me uncomfortable at times but church wouldn’t be the same without them.