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‘The Child Exodus and how to stop it’ – seeing children as disciples

March 12, 2012

I have been thinking a lot about children and faith. I recently led a discussion group on nurturing children at our church. I have been asked this week about whether I would baptise children who have come to faith. Finally I read the following article in the latest E.A. magazine ‘Idea’ entitled as above. (see  I am planning to write something for my church but need help in reflecting on this issue. To help link up my thinking and theology I thought I would write a blog. Please feel free to challenge me as I explore this topic.

The three verses that most influence my thinking on children are

‘Train a child in the way that they should go and when they are old they will not depart from it’ Proverbs 22v6

‘Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Matt 28:19

‘Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ……The promise is for you and your children and for all…’ Acts 2v38

What these verses draw me to is that we are called to make disciples of our children, not just to teach them but to train them, disciple them and cause them to repent, by which I mean turn the direction of our life around to follow and proclaim Jesus as Lord. This is our ‘great commission’ for all people, including children. In our evangelism we are not called to get people to affirm certain belief’s or facts but for them to be so ‘cut to the heart’  that they cry out ‘what should we do?’ Acts 2:37 and there life is set on a different path, with different desires, ambitions and activities (see Acts 2:42-47).

For us as Baptists our response to this work of God in our lives is to be baptised as a public proclamation and prayer to live this kind of life. Our understanding of scripture is that this means believers baptism (for others it means confirmation of their baptism), in that this proclamation is for those who have accepted this life of discipleship, this taking up of our cross. For those on that day of pentecost they  knew that they were responding to the gospel in baptism and this would mean radical discipleship, a change of life, an ejection from temple and community life and a way of persecution. For many in our secular society as they are ‘cut to the heart’ they know that discipleship for them is a complete change of direction and radical call to discipleship.

When I reflect on our children my question is are they aware of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? Does the way we teach and disciple them allow them to understand the radical nature of discipleship? And more fundamentally can young children reach this point?  There has been a lot of good work on how children come to faith and distinguish stages of faith (one example that  find helpful  is from 0-5 an experienced faith is known, from 5-12 a belonging faith and from 13+ a searching faith which hopefully moves on to an owned faith). This aligns with my experience of working with teenagers and seeing some of them receive Christ into their lives with much joy, only for their joy to be dissipated when their parents respond to the news with ‘oh, I thought you did that when you were 8’. There seems to be a need to find Christ afresh at each stage. The ‘affiliative faith’ of childhood, which is formed through close identification with parents needs to grow into an owned faith.

This causes me to state with Nigel Wright that we must not only distance ourselves from infant baptism but ‘infantile’ baptism, ‘baptism which is neither fully grasped by the recipient nor truly persuasive to those who witness it…..this does imply some degree of ‘adult’ understanding about the demands of baptism and the life of discipleship….Baptism is not about cheap grace but about following after the Crucified. The age at which people grasp this will vary, but the tendency of this emphasis is to encourage a delay in baptism into and beyond the age of accountability.’ (Nigel Wright ‘Free church, free state – the positive baptist vision pg 153).

This ‘age of accountability’ that Wright raises is the pastoral issue of when are children accountable before God for their lives and their salvation. And this concept allows us not to be hasty in baptizing all infants, whatever the cost. We believe that salvation is all of grace through faith (which is a gift of God) which shows that baptism is not what saves anyway but is the prayer of obedience of those who have received. Salvation is therefore orchestrated by God as he pleases but scripture does indicate an age of accountability when a child becomes spiritually responsible – the age of this can be interpreted fairly broadly from the age of 20 (Numbers 14: 29-31) down to age of knowing your left from your right (Jonah 4:11). My prefered option is to see the age of 12/13 as significant – the age a Jewish boy/girl enters spiritual manhood/womanhood which is the age when ceremonial cleansing was needed as the body was maturing for parenting.

So what is our responsibility to our children. I believe it is to see them as the ‘catechumate’ – those who are seeking with intent. ‘These are within the community of faith and moving to a personal confession of it not as a merely cultural rite of passage, but a sign that they too had embraced the way of discipleship.’ (Nigel Wright). So it is to teach them discipleship and help them experience and demonstrate discipleship both peer and intergenerational. For them to experience discipleship as worship, prayer, bible study, fellowship, caring, evangelism and doing good. For them to be held and embraced by the church and in a real way to belong to the church as they believe and behave and part of that belonging is to be working towards a personal confession and acceptance of the way of the cross. So we need to make it clear this is what we are looking for. Do we need to state an age when we think baptism is appropriate. Yes – in that we need to decide when baptism is not infantile and a young person becomes accountable (i.e. 13) and give parents ways to help children reflect on this  but No as any baptism in faith is a true baptism, and ultimately a person whatever age is baptised because Jesus asks them to be, but it is appropriate to not make it easy for those who may still have an affiliative faith.

The final issue I want to explore is that of communion, our fellowship meal. If we are saying that children regarded as catechumate are part of the fellowship can they be excluded from the fellowship meal. A traditional understanding is that communion is for those who have been baptised, who are on this path of discipleship (see Acts 2:37-42). However as English Baptists we practice open membership and leave it to the individual to decide if they are ready to proclaim Christ and declare their fellowship to the local body of Christ. Therefore it seems, unless we want to return to closed communion, that on occasion we should give children with their parents and opportunity to explore if they have come to faith to proclaim Christ and be strengthened in their faith as part of their discipleship – this should  be restricted to those children who have accepted Christ and who know their left from their right (Jonah 4:11) . This can be done in such a way as to include everyone with a blessing (or other affirmation e.g. sticker for young children). This may be a way to encourage the discipleship of our children – I found it helpful as a child to  attend evening communion services as part of my commitment and radical discipleship.

There are many further issues of seeing our church children as catechumate particularly in what we are doing at Sunday school and all age services, as well as seeing other opportunities for them in discipleship, but that can wait a further blog.

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