Our conviction that children and youth can be agents of God’s Mission and Transformational action in God’s world is based on the teaching of Jesus concerning the place of children in the Kingdom of God.
Judith Gundry-Volf in her excellent study “To such belongs the Reign of God – Jesus and Children” (Theology Today 2000) concludes “The Gospels teach the reign of God as a children’s world where children are the measure, rather than do not measure up to adults, where the small are great and the great must become small, that is, the Gospel teaching calls the adult world radically into question” (p.480)
In this paper I will seek to establish the biblical and theological basis for the claim that children and youth are agents of the mission of the Kingdom of God and identify their particular contribution to the mission of God’s kingdom.
1. The Kingdom of God
Dr N.T.Wright titles his inaugural lecture at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrew’s (26 Oct 2011) as “Imagining the Kingdom: Mission and Theology in early Christianity”. His main contention is that the Gospels as the story of Jesus are the story of how Israel’s God became King of the whole world. He shows how Matthew and Mark draw heavily on Daniel 7 where God confronts and overthrows the kingdoms of the world. He asserts that the royal announcement of the Kingdom of God was at the heart of Paul’s evangelistic and church planting activity against the backdrop of the royal authority and rule of the Roman Emperor.
In relation to the teaching of the Kingdom of God in the Gospel, we can identify two clear dimensions. The Kingdom is the fulfillment of the promise of God to rule the world. This has arrived in the person and work of Jesus and so is a continuation of God’s rule of Israel. The Kingdom is also the entry into human order of an entirely different, even an inverted order of reality with values and understandings that are radically different like the child at the centre, rather than the periphery of society.
The Kingdom of God in the Gospels is integrally tied to the Great Commission of God to his people (Matt. 28: 18-20) and to the Great Commandment to love one another (John 13:14). The Kingdom begins a new creation (Eph.2: 11-22) reconciling the world to God, hostile human communities to each other, and begins with a community of mutual love and a mission to proclaim the kingdom and invite all people to be part of it.
The transcendental order that the Kingdom brings is made possible in human society by the death and resurrection of Jesus and by the pouring out of His Holy Spirit. The Kingdom order of life, its way of organizing relationships, its way of valuing life and activity, its way of explaining and organizing reality is the order that the resurrection of Christ confirms and makes possible. The affirmation of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross by “God raising him up from the dead” gives confidence to the church to engage in a transforming mission to enable the order of the kingdom to become the order of our society and communities.
The Gospels also identify aspects of the connection of the two orders of reality, the Kingdom and the world as the Kingdom arrives in Jesus. It is ‘yet and not yet’. The future is in the present but does not displace it. The possibilities of the future can be experienced in some measure in the present. The future is not just anticipated, hoped for, but can be grasped and worked at.
The kingdom in the present operates primarily at the periphery rather than the centre of the world. It uses people, provisions, structures and systems that have their home in the periphery and so brings transformation from the periphery overwhelming, displacing and transforming the centers created, inhabited and ruled by the forces of the world.
The Kingdom of God in the present accepts the penultimate aspects of its presence while it moves history to the ultimate. Jesus teaches that some ultimate judgments must be withheld and penultimate judgments made about the identity of those who may ultimately never be part of God’s kingdom. This was not pragmatism. The ultimate is still the standard of judgment. The penultimate nature of the Kingdom is the recognition of the nature of the process of moving the present to God’s ordained future as shaped by humility and grace.
Pauline teaching does not use the term “Kingdom” but reflects its foundation in the Kingdom teaching in the key themes that Paul develops. The work of Christ as bringing the new creation, fulfilling the messianic promise (Isaiah 65: 17-25; John 13:34; Lk. 5:39; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor.5: 17f; Gal.6: 15;Eph.4: 24:Col.3: 10), reconciling all things to God, to establish his rule (Col.1: 20) and transforming persons and creation (2 Cor.5: 17) all reflect the nature of the Kingdom of God in the world.
2. The Child and the Kingdom
Jesus’ teaching about God’s kingdom places the child at the centre of the Kingdom (Matt.10: 13-16; 19:13-15; Lk 18:15-17). Biblical scholars like Judith Gundry-Volf, Dawn DeVries, Robin Maas, Jurgen Moltmann, Margaret MacDonald, and Peter Spitaler agree that Jesus continues in the Old Testament tradition that sees children as God’s gifts and signs of his promise and blessing. Further, Jesus presents a child as first, the model of entry into the Kingdom of God and second a model of greatness in the Kingdom.
3. Model of Entry into the Kingdom
In Matthew, Jesus teaches that the kingdom belongs to the poor (Matt. 5: 3-12). It is clear that children share with the poor the state of being socially marginalized, even excluded from God’s favor. At best they occupy a peripheral position in human kingdoms.
Jesus reverses this view and makes the Kingdom belong to children and the poor. Further, the child is described as the model for entry into the Kingdom. The stress is not the entry of the child into the Kingdom but the reception of God’s reign by the child.
Judith Gundry-Volf discusses Eggers’ work that suggests that neither obedience nor obligation to the Law is a requirement for entry into the Kingdom. Neither is required of the child, who will receive the Kingdom as God’s gift, a favor he joyfully accepts (p. 473).
4. The Child and Greatness
In Matthew 18: 1-5 Jesus teaches that the humility that the child personifies is the quality of greatness in God’s kingdom. Childhood itself is seen by Jesus as a state of humility. It is not what the child does but what the child is. The adult must revert to childhood status or childlikeness as a disposition, a quality of mind.
The status of childhood is a status of utter dependence on the other. To trust the other, receive the other’s favors without question and joyfully is the disposition of the child.
This is contrasted in Jesus’ teaching by the preoccupation with high status by those who seek greatness, even in God’s Kingdom. Such pre-occupation with one’s status creates barriers for the child and others of low or no status and invites God’s severe judgment (Matt.18: 6).
One’s ability to serve the children and the lowly for the sake of the Kingdom is undermined by a desire for status and enhanced by an attitude of childlike humility.
5. The Child as the Sign of the Kingdom
The identification of the presence of Jesus with the presence of the welcomed child in the midst of God’s people affirms that the child is the sign of God’s reign. When two or three gather in Jesus’ name he is present. He is present when a child is welcomed and placed at the centre in the life of the community of God’s people.
The church has a continuing tradition of the Christ Child. Irenaeus wrote that Jesus became a child to sanctify childhood. Jesus went through all ages of life to sanctify them.
In Jesus the Child we understand our relationship with our Father in Heaven. Childhood is therefore not a stage to grow out of but a status to keep at the centre of our journey with God. The human child becomes, in the teaching of Christ, the sign of Christ’s real presence – a sacrament of the Kingdom of God.
The child in his finitude can represent the infinitude of God as he stands before God and just receives from him.
In Isaiah 7:14 the virgin bearing a child is a messianic promise and a sign of hope. The virgin’s child is a sign of the future that God promises and fulfils. Even at the consummation of the new creation the child is central (Isaiah 4: 6-9). So every human child also, when welcomed and treasured reveals the presence of the Christ child and the mission of the Christ child (Lk. 2: 34-38).
6. Child and Spiritual Threat
In Matt. 18:5-6 Jesus teaches that a child can be subject to spiritual danger. The child who intuitively, freely and joyfully receives God’s reign can have obstacles placed in her path, preventing her from receiving God’s reign. The sin that human society creates and nurtures places children in mortal peril. Christ will protect his little ones but will also deal most harshly with those who cause children to sin.
Some contemporary cultures corrupt children using the language of freedom, rights and empowerment that adults have designed for their world. It is increasingly clear to me that such cultures are the playground of the Evil One who targets children as the way to corrupting and destroying a culture. Christ’s exceptional judgment on people who are behind the corruption of children should be understood in the light of such activity does to the whole of society.
7. The Child as Agent of the Kingdom
a. Personhood and the Child
Human persons are agents through their presence, through their testimony/witness and through their action on behalf of themselves or others. Human personhood is complex and mysterious and cannot be reduced to concepts and propositions. Mystery always surrounds personhood. The mysteriousness of human personhood is particularly evident in the mystery that surrounds a child. We may use ‘potential’ quite often to describe a child but ‘mystery’ reflects our feelings and sense better. Mystery calls for reverence. So in Jesus’ teaching where the child reflects the reality, the wonder and the mystery of the Kingdom, Jesus is reverencing the child (cf. R.Williams in “The Theos Lecture, 1 Oct 2012, p.2.).
The child’s world is a relational world. A child is always in a relationship, understands and lives out life as a set of relationships not just actions. The child as a part of the Kingdom advances the Kingdom as a set of relationships with the Lord of the Kingdom. Kingdom advancement is not primarily a strategy or a system but a personal agency, building on and developing relationships. This requires that the personhood of the agent is central. This helps to understand why Jesus privileged a child as the model and representative of the Kingdom.
At the heart of the biblical understanding of human personhood is not the rights of a person but the sacredness and mystery of persons. The child’s intuitive recognition of the sacred and openness to the sacred makes her the obvious representative and agent of the Kingdom. The immediate acceptance by the child of an invitation to pray to God reflects the openness to the sacred in all cultures.
Again, a child often steps out in faith when someone he trusts gives the invitation. Stepping out in faith is easier and more natural to a child. She does not need the security of knowledge with every I dotted and every t crossed and the security of material possessions to step into a world of faith. The child’s dependence on the other that he trusts with little sight or evidence is what makes the child in Jesus’ teaching the model of how to enter into God’s Kingdom.
b. The Child and God’s Rule
Jesus’ teaching of the Kingdom questions, relativizes and even replaces the powers that dominate nations and societies. The Kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of our Lord and King. In his monumental work, “Religion in Human Evolution, from the Paleolithic to the Axial Age” (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Robert Bellah charts the emergence of what are termed “Axial Religions”. These are religions like the Old Testament Religion, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism that develop ethical frameworks that balance the power of the state or its embodiment the King.
In announcing the arrival of God’s Kingdom, Jesus announces the direct rule of God on earth but places a vulnerable and powerless child at the centre of such rule. The Kingdom of God in and through Jesus sees the child as the agent of God’s reign and power in the world. The principle of value reversal is presented here, the first is the last and the last first, the master is the servant and the servant is really the master, and the child represents the mystery and agency of power in God’s kingdom. It would not be an extreme statement to assert that we can better understand the nature of power in God’s kingdom through the eyes, experience and agency of the child.
The King of the Kingdom marches in chains to his death, seemingly powerless in the presence of Imperial human power. He embraces vulnerability and powerlessness. He allows himself to suffer like a child meekly taking his punishment. How can a child not represent this King?
c. Welcoming the Kingdom and the Child.
In Jesus’ teaching “and whoever welcomes a little child in my name welcomes me” (Matt.18: 5), the child is also the welcomer of the Kingdom. The child’s humility, his utter dependence on God’s favor, the child’s immediate acceptance of the Kingdom as the eternal that is now and is present due to the presence of the King, the openness of the child to others with the material need to trust others to provide as I earlier noted all affirm the child’s station at the entrance to the Kingdom of God as its welcomer.
The child’s agency in God’s Kingdom is compatible with the vision of wholeness in the teaching of Jesus. Schleiermacher wrote, “The insights of childhood are not illusions that must be replaced with the cold hard facts of adult reality”. Jesus taught that God “…has hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children” (Matt.11: 25). The child’s vision of the Kingdom can receive and grasp its nature as at once in heaven and on earth, here now and yet to come, a foretaste and a fulfillment in the future. The child accepts the Kingdom’s own experience of the future.
d. The Child and the Holy Spirit
The prophecy of Joel (2:28) that the Spirit will be poured on “all people” asserts that the previously excluded groups, women excluded by gender, youth and children excluded by age are now included in the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament has several passages where children lead in praise to God suggesting their praise comes from God. The speech of praise is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Adults are often tempted to construct even God’s speech for the world. Children are content to receive it and voice it. This is the gift of the Spirit.
The Joel prophecy speaks of the gift of dreams, seen in prophecy as a legitimate form of revelation. Children and youth are not excluded from this gift of direct revelation. A missiological thrust of announcing to the nation and calling them to God is evident in the prophecy. A new speech and truth is granted through the pouring out of the Sprit as part of the promise of God of a new relationship and covenant with God in the new creation. It links with the prophecy in Jeremiah 31:33 where an immediate knowledge of God is given to those in the new covenant, a knowledge not mediated by the Torah but by the Spirit. Sons and daughters, old men and young men, those usually excluded, those considered weak, powerless and hopeless, the underprivileged people, get anointed with the Spirit and become witnesses to and agents of God’s transforming mission. Joel predicted the future and Peter saw that the future had arrived at the first Pentecost.
The praise of God is the witness to God’s faithfulness and promise and is a missional activity. The inclusion of the child as part of the covenant community is evident in the Old Testament. What is highlighted in Joel’s prophecy is that children are included in the covenant acts of witness of God’s covenantal faithfulness to the world. They are endowed with the Holy Spirit to be such witnesses and perform primarily by their praises. The praise of God recognizes who God is and also recounts how God acts. The Spirit’s enabling of the child to praise God is enabling the child in her mission. In Matt.21: 14-16 God prepares praise for himself out of the mouths of infants and babies. This is asserted against the background of the blindness and refusal of the chief priests and scribes to recognize who Jesus is. The Holy Spirit enables the child to praise Jesus as the Spirit also enables him to recognize Jesus and identify him as Lord.
e. The Particular Mission Witness of Children and Youth
Earlier we reflected on the child as the model of entry into the Kingdom and the child as the model of greatness in God’s Kingdom.
In the teaching of Jesus, a child defines humility that is part of God’s kingdom. (Mk (: 33-37). The humility that is necessary to receive the gifts of God of salvation and entry into his Kingdom requires a sense of total dependence on the grace of God. The child finds this is a natural inclination; the adult needs to unlearn much and relearn such dependency.
f. Wonder and the Miraculous
The humility of the child is intensely linked with the child’s sense of wonder. This sense of wonder enables the child to focus on the person of Christ rather than his actions. In my experience of sharing with children the Gospel stories of the miracles of Jesus, I am amazed that the child does not get pre-occupied with the details of the miraculous but the person of Jesus who can do such wonderful things. The child’s faith is deepened by the miracle. The adult looks for confirmation of his faith through the miraculous.
g. Text and Truth
There is also a particularity in the way a child owns and interprets the biblical narrative and text.
Adult focus on propositional truth means we cannot see a child presenting truth propositionally. We see a child’s narration of a biblical truth as primarily personal and experiential and so possibly not stable or reliable. This is one reason why there appears to be resistance to seeing a child as an agent of God’s mission as some recent discussion among evangelical mission activists and scholars suggests. “However, narrative truth is no more secure than any form of truth and it can be stable, reliable and profound” (Bellah, Religion in Human Evolution).
Conceptual representation of truth may be more definite but in real life conceptual representations are continually interspersed with other forms of representation.
It was Hobbes who identified truth solely with proposition. “ Now these words, true, truth and true propositions are equivalent to one another, for truth consists in speech, not in the thing spoken of, and though true be sometimes opposed to apparent or feigned, yet it is always to be referred to the truth of the proposition”. “Hobbes would banish the language of poetry, theology and traditional moral philosophy” – quoted in Bellah.
The child’s exploration of the biblical text is a necessary resource to the community of God’s people in modeling an approach that joins humility with wonder. It would be naïve to assume that the contemporary managerial, market based and consumption oriented culture does not influence our handling of the biblical text and particularly for mission. The child’s approach to scripture may well serve as a corrective and even healing of the way biblical text is used in mission.
h. Mission and Power
Mission and power is a major theme and significant reflection and study has been done in the area. In my own work, this area has figured prominently in the recent past. Adults are as concerned about the ownership of power as its use in mission. Empowerment language privileges the possession of power. The child in my view does not need empowerment for mission but release. Whether it is mission as proclamation or mission as transformation, empowerment language continues to be significant in Christian mission. I believe we need to further explore a child’s experience and understanding of empowerment. It is difficult to be just bearers of God’s power in mission without acting as owners or exclusive possessors. Much of the scandal and dysfunction in Christian mission can be traced to problems in the area of power.
The child as model of greatness in the teaching of Jesus places a very different narrative at the centre of our understanding of power. The child as the one who naturally serves, who is unimpressed by status or standing is the model of greatness and so the model of power in the Kingdom.
We are called to learn from the child how to be a bearer of the power God gifts us for servant hood and mission.
i. The Presence of Christ
Another area of contribution of child’s agency of the Kingdom is the recovery of understanding of the Kingdom of God as the Presence of Christ, Jesus teaches that the child herself represents his presence in our midst where children are experiencing the transforming mission of the Kingdom, where children are servants of such mission, we can assume the presence of Christ without doubting. Children are the definitive signs of Christ’s presence in our midst. This should shape the way we design and execute our transformational mission.
While we value the potential of children for spiritual life and maturity, we must also recognize that in the teaching of Jesus the child is not an object but a subject on the Kingdom of God with all the qualities of a person. The child not only has capacity but agency and the Gospel account of the child in the context of the Kingdom is the the child’s agency in both defining, clarifying and advancing God’s Kingdom