Mark Arnold urges churches to include all children in their work
It’s one of the best-known stories in the Bible, and one which is, rightly, often used to show how much Jesus cares for all children. But if we take a step back from this much-loved story, from the pictures of Jesus surrounded by children, maybe with one on his knee, there are other players in this particular scene as well. Let’s read it again, and then explore it some more to see how it challenges us:
Little children are brought to Jesus
Matthew 19:13-15 New International Readers Version (NIrV)
(13) Some people brought little children to Jesus. They wanted him to place his hands on the children and pray for them. But the disciples told them not to do it.
(14) Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t keep them away. The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like them.” (15) Jesus placed his hands on them to bless them. Then he went on from there.
In this passage we see four people, or groups of people: Jesus himself, the children, but we also see the people, presumably family members, who brought the children to Jesus, as well as the disciples that tried to stop them.
So, what is going on here, why are the disciples acting this way and what does it help us to shine a light on today? Culturally, in first century Israel, frankly in first century anywhere, children weren’t considered very important. They had little to no status, they had no rights, in short, they didn’t really count for anything until they were adults, and even then they only really counted if they were male. Jesus has been teaching and preaching, and along comes this troop of children and their families. The disciples clearly didn’t want them to ‘bother’ Jesus, didn’t see that they were important to him too. They missed the point that Jesus, always counter-cultural, put children at the centre of things quite a bit… He talked about them, he healed them, he raised them from the dead, he used their lunch to feed thousands; children mattered to Jesus, and he taught us a lot through the things he did with them. And it is interesting to note that when Jesus rebuked the disciples and said “Let the little children come to me. Don’t keep them away. The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like them.” he didn’t add “…except that one, the one that runs around and makes noises, or that one, the one who can’t walk, or the one over there who can’t see, don’t let them come…”. He didn’t say anything like that, he invited them all. Do we follow his example? What about the children with additional needs that we meet? When it comes to it, the question for us all is, who are we in this story… – The parents, wanting to bring the children to Jesus? – Or the disciples, putting barriers in their way?
We all know stories of children turned away by church leaders, children’s workers, members of the congregation; sadly, these stories are all too common. Like the twins who were at church with their mum, one was invited and welcomed to come into Sunday School, the other wasn’t. Or the Autistic boy who was told, by his Sunday School leader, not to come back anymore. Or the mum who was told that “This isn’t a ‘special needs’ church, maybe you should try somewhere else” as she tried to bring her children to church. Or even the mum told “He might be a health and safety risk to the other children” when she tried to bring her Autistic son with ADHD to the children’s club.
So, why do people react that way? There is no ‘good’ reason for rejecting and excluding children in this way, although there are perhaps different levels of ‘bad’ reasoning. Sometimes people feel a little awkward around children with additional needs, they are not sure what to do. They are worried about getting it wrong, saying or doing the wrong thing. Their heart is in the right place, but they lack confidence and knowledge; they need tips and ideas that they can use. They might say they haven’t got enough time, or enough help, to include everyone, but we can all make the simple changes that can ensure that accessibility and inclusion is enjoyed by everyone, that all children can belong, and it needn’t be costly in time or resources.
There are, however, some people whose view of children’s work is different to this. A view of children’s work where children sit and listen attentively, are polite, do as they are told, and are no trouble. Where they are ‘seen and not heard’. Where no children with additional needs, or with behavioural issues, or any other differences, are welcome. Where nothing that disturbs the peace and idyllic calm that they have developed and propagated is tolerated. An out-of-date, unrealistic, impractical view born more out of a desire for their role to be easy than a desire to meet the needs of 21st century children. Out of this heart comes the sad stories mentioned above. But even these hearts can be reached. Jesus’ love for all children is clear as is his love for people with additional needs and disabilities. If only we can all look to his example, how he reached out and included all, then even the hardest of hearts can be softened and broken to include all children, to welcome all children, and to show Jesus’ love to all children. As Jesus himself said, “Let the little children come to me. Don’t keep them away. The kingdom of heaven belongs to people like them.” And he might have added… “All of them.” Come back next month, when we’ll be looking at more ways to help your children’s and youth work to be ‘All Inclusive’!