Is time spent with children exclusively about their formation and discipleship? Is it possible that God is doing a greater work in us as we practice presence with children? The Rev. Seth Richardson of St. Andrew’s Little Rock addresses these compelling questions for those in ministry to children and beyond. 

In Matthew 18 the disciples come to Jesus and baldly inquire, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus responds, like he often does, with an analogy that challenges their assumptions, reveals their misplaced desires, and invites them into a new posture of faithfulness. “You must humble yourself and become like a child,” Jesus says, “and those who welcome children actually welcome me.”

Participation in God’s kingdom, Jesus announces, does not look like seeking status. It looks like humble presence with those regarded as the least. In fact, Jesus emphasizes that he is with us as we welcome children.

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This is difficult to receive in a world where children are often a source of anxiety: made into our vicarious means of self-fulfillment or into objects that keep us from being or doing what we want. Indeed, this anxiety does not escape the church. Most pastors, especially church planters, viscerally know the weight of the question, “So, what do we do about the kids?”

This question is not unreasonable in itself. It logically follows from the desire to gather together, worship, and study Scripture well. But it might come from the assumption that God’s work in our midst begins after we’ve got the kid thing figured out, or that time spent with children is exclusively about their formation and discipleship.

The good news, however, is God’s work in our lives does not begin after the tension is resolved or in isolation from children. Rather, Jesus invites us to experience his presence and be formed more into his image by adopting a posture of humble presence with children. This means our anxiety around children is not a problem to be solved or ignored but the place where God wants most to speak to us.

Being with children is a fundamental practice of discipleship. Jesus is at work in our own lives as we are with children. In other words, if the goal of discipleship is transformation into the image of Jesus, then spending time with children is a concrete practice in which this transformation occurs. When we spend time with children, we are cultivating an environment in which both children and adults learn to encounter Christ.

As we see in Matthew 18, spending time with children grows in us a posture of humility and trust. In this posture we learn to loosen our grip on the need to seek status, which makes room for recognizing Christ’s presence with us. We learn that the way of Jesus is a descent in humility rather than an ascent in power.

Moreover, we learn to care for each other as the extended family of God, which stretches us outside comfortable pockets of affinity. This type of care-in-community is an expression of what the New Testament calls fellowship – an outworking of the Spirit’s presence among those who confess Jesus is Lord.

The implication of this reality for leaders is that when we ask others in our body to spend time with children, we are not merely recruiting volunteers in order to keep the programs running smoothly. We are, rather, inviting each other to experience God’s transformative grace through humble presence with the “least of these.” This means we do not need to leverage guilt around how important it is to serve the body (lest someone miss their “call” to serve in the nursery!). Instead, we are casting vision for concrete ways we can surrender our lives unto God’s formation in Christ – always trusting that God will make available all that we need.

It is understandable that this might all seem overwhelming. For those who spend most of their time with children already, it might be hard to imagine how such a mundane and sometimes stressful place could produce anything resembling transformation. Or for those whose time with children is limited, this place might seem wild and unpredictable – the lack of familiarity might lead to trepidation and avoidance.

Can we trust that God works new life in us as we humble ourselves with children? Can we submit our frustrations and fears and enter the place where Jesus promises to be present with us? What might change about our gatherings – large or small group – if we intentionally created space for practicing this posture with children?

Being with children is often difficult for me, but it is also a place of joy and transformation. Because I am not in control, it reveals parts of me I can usually ignore and overlook. It empties me of self-importance and makes me sensitive to God’s gracious activity. This lowly place is holy ground where I’m learning better to follow and trust Jesus.

The Rev. Seth Richardson lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with his wife, Caralisa, and is a presbyter at St. Andrew’s Little Rock. Seth most often thinks and writes about spiritual formation, theology and place. He probably drinks too much coffee. Contact Seth