Raising Samuel – Releasing Children to Discover Godʼs Purpose

I do not believe that valuing children as a strategic means to church growth and as missionary targets fully embraces a biblical, ethical or respectful value of children in the Kingdom or the Church.

BY SUSAN GREENER

Introduction
A mother bound by the One Child Policy hopes for a son. In disappointment she aborts the girl child she carries so that she may try again for a boy-child to bring her status in the community and security in her old age. A father in another part of the world celebrates the birth of a son, who he has already determined will take over the family business. A couple in the West uses every technological advance available to allow the woman to conceive her own biological child because it gives her a sense of accomplishment. A mother who cannot carry a child pays a surrogate to carry her and her husband’s biological baby so that the child they receive is truly ‘theirs.’

And in a poorer part of the world, a family celebrates as the mother bears her sixth baby, grateful for extra hands to help with household chores and farming responsibilities. It would be difficult to make the case that children are not valued by societies. Depending on the culture or the historical time period, children may fulfill differing needs.

Children may serve material needs or confer status to a family or meet emotional needs for companionship – or even a sense of fulfillment or affirmation of parental skill or provision. And, children may fulfill a strategic purpose for evangelism and the future of the church. After all, children are more open to the gospel and there are so many of them in the world, particularly in areas where the gospel needs to be shared. Yet, I do not believe that valuing children as a strategic means to church growth and as missionary targets fully embraces a biblical, ethical or respectful value of children in the Kingdom or the Church.

We must look to scripture for touchstone stories that may illuminate a proper and godly posture toward children and their place in God’s greater narrative. The raising of Samuel is such a story. In the first chapter of Samuel 1, we encounter a childless woman, despairing and miserable. Hannah is tormented by her husband’s other wife who has born him many children and does not hesitate to remind Hannah of her inadequacy as a wife until Hannah is crying and unable to eat. Year after year she goes with Elkanah, her husband, and the extended family to the temple, visibly distressed even though her husband expresses his love for her.

She may wish to have a child to gain status in her household, please her husband and get Peninnah to stop antagonizing her. We do not know all of her reasons why she values a son. But we do know that she voices her prayer through weeping and anguished cries, saying “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life” (1 Samuel 1:11, NIV). She is so distraught that Eli thinks her drunk. “Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”

Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” She said, “May your servant find favor in your eyes.” Then she went her way and ate something, and her face was no longer downcast. (1 Samuel 1:15-18, NIV). Her prayer is answered and she fulfills her vow to God, returning her very young son to that very same temple so that he may spend his whole life (1 Samuel 1:28) in worship to the Lord – as an agent of transformation and mission for Israel. The first three chapters of Samuel 1 tell the story of Hannah’s anguish, the gift of a son, and Samuel’s early years at home and in the temple. After dedicating Samuel to the Lord and leaving him with Eli, Hannah offers a canticle of praise to God as the sovereign deliverer who lifts up the lowly, such as herself, a formerly barren woman.

Samuel ministers in the temple and grows in all facets of human development through his childhood and is called by God as a child. The story is a rich one of imperfect people used by God as actors in a much greater redemption story that is especially relevant for releasing children to discover God’s purpose. I wish to explore this narrative further to discover how God works in the life of Samuel; how Samuel discovers God’s purposes for his own life; and how adults rightly value and nurture him as an agent of transformation.

We glean five key principles through Samuel’s story:

  • Children are to be holistically nurtured throughout childhood;
  • Children are to be active participants in worship and service to God;
  • Children can be called by God and hear his voice;
  • God uses whom he will, including those on the margins of life; and
  • The supreme story of history and life is God’s and we are to envision and empower children as participants in that greater Story.

Children Are to Be Holistically Nurtured Throughout Childhood
For those of us who work in Christian NGOs promoting holistic ministry with children, Luke 2:52 is a fundamental supporting scripture verse. It reads, “And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (emphasis mine, NIV). This brief sentence covers all of the areas of human development: intellectual, physical, spiritual, and psycho-social. We know very little about Jesus’s childhood, yet from this verse we can infer that his development was well-rounded and that he grew in all ways, just as any healthy child should grow. Holistic ministry is grounded in the foundational truth of the incarnation as proclaimed in the ancient creeds of the church. Most theological statements tend to concentrate on the incarnation of Jesus as a human, but are less likely to explore the implications of Jesus’ development over time [and through childhood]. Jesus not only came in human form, but in the same manner and timing of all of humanity.

He, too, was conceived (albeit uniquely), born as an infant, grew throughout childhood and adolescence into adulthood. The incarnation is far reaching, even to the redemption of all of creation, including the whole of human development through the lifespan. As stated by Ireanaeus, “He was made an infant for infants, sanctifying infancy; a child among children, sanctifying childhood . . . a young man among young men, becoming an example to them, and sanctifying them to the Lord”. The Luke passage is not the only one to draw attention to the growth of the whole child. 1 Samuel 2:26 parallels this description of Jesus’s childhood: “And the boy Samuel continued to grow in stature and in favor with the Lord and with people” (NIV). Healthy growth requires awareness and nurture of all aspects of the child’s development.

And the passage is placed in juxtaposition to the wickedness of Eli’s sons, the young priests of Shiloh. Research confirms that programs that combine interventions to address children’s needs holistically are more effective than programs that address an isolated area of development.4 Such care needs to begin early, ideally prenatally, and continue with consistency and emotional warmth for many years. Samuel continued to grow, emphasizing the process and continuation of development throughout childhood. Although parents, programs, and specific ministries can be mindful of holistic ministry, we learn from Samuel’s story that the outcome of nurture is the work of the Holy Spirit and not dependent on adult perfection or biological relationship. In gratitude Hannah gives her young son over to the temple to be raised by a father with significant shortcomings who had failed miserably in the rearing of his own biological sons.

Yet God uses this imperfect man to care for young Samuel. As stated in 1 Samuel 3:19, “the Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground” (NIV). Brueggemann notes that “Samuel’s growth has been nurtured by Eli. It has been governed from the beginning, however, by Yahweh. … Eli himself is inept but not evil.” Yet God used Eli to journey alongside Samuel as a nurturer, model, teacher, and support. Thus, a tension arises in holistic ministry with children. Adults are to be mindful of children as whole and fully-human persons and have a responsibility to ensure quality and holistic childcare. If ministry efforts are targeted on only one or two areas of development (most typically, the spiritual and/or physical areas), some caring adult must maintain responsibility and advocacy for complementary care so that children’s growth and development are holistically addressed (e.g., in the intellectual and psycho-social areas as well).

This may require not only investing in biological parents but casting vision for the Church to see all of her children as a community responsibility. We do not need to be perfect and when successful, we are not to take inordinate pride in the outcomes of holistic childcare; rather, we must recognize that positive outcomes are the work of the Holy Spirit. The holistic nurture of children is not done solely for the sake of healthy development but to allow children to be in a place of discovery of God’s purposes for their lives. And part of that purpose is to worship and serve God (Psalm 8, Matthew 21:15-16).

Children Are to Actively Participate in Service and Worship to God
Once weaned, Samuel was taken to the temple at Shiloh by his parents to be apprenticed as a priest by Eli, likely when he was little more than 3 years of age (the approximate age of weaning and when a boy’s name was entered into the genealogical records, 2 Chronicles 31:16). Other than his parents’ desire to return him to God in gratitude for the gift that Samuel was to them, there is no indication that young Samuel had any particular gifts for the priest hood. Yet, in 1 Samuel, chapter two, we are told that “the boy ministered before the Lord under Eli the priest” (v. 11), that he [Samuel] “was ministering before the Lord – a boy wearing a linen ephod” (v. 18) and that “the boy Samuel grew up in the presence of the Lord” (v. 21). 1 Samuel 3:3 repeats that “the boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli.”

The author is making clear to the reader that Samuel is not a passive receptacle of adult input, but an active participant in worship and service to God under the supervision of Eli the priest. I do wish to say this carefully, but feel it is important to ask questions about children’s participation in worship in our churches. In many traditions, the greatest segregating demographic characteristic in the church is age. Children are in their own Sunday school, their own worship service, their own youth groups and may have little to no intergenerational interaction except as a cute, sentimental presence for a Christmas program or to sing a choral selection for a special occasion. For example, when a church congregation grows too large for worship space, often the first way to adapt to this reality is to remove the children from the sanctuary to give adequate space to adults.

A few questions are offered for reflection on our own churches and ministries. How are children’s gifts of praise and worship recognized and nurtured? Are girl children, as well as boy children, viewed as bearers of God’s image in such a way that they can be seen as full recipients of gifts from God and participants in the life of the church? Are children considered to be full participants in the church or passive receptacles of adult ministry efforts? Do generations within the church have opportunity to engage and learn with and from each other? Is it surprising that recent U.S. research indicates that a number of teens and young adults leave the church because they have not been fully integrated into the intergenerational body of believers?

It is challenging to see how children can be agents of transformation and mission if they are sequestered in certain parts of the church building and from much of Church life. I assert that releasing children to discover God’s purpose and allowing them to grow as transformational agents of God’s mission requires that their gifts and callings be nurtured and affirmed as they are encouraged to fully participate in worship and service to God within the Church, just as Samuel did. Children’s spirituality is dependent upon their “relationships with a human community of significance and care, with non-human creation and with sources of transcendence and/or the sacred”. Fostering deep spiritual development requires full and deep integration into the intergenerational family of God.

Children Can Be Called by God and Hear His Voice Now
Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.” Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy (1 Samuel 3:7-8, NIV). This part of the story is perhaps the most familiar to us. Samuel has been asleep and believes that he has heard Eli call for him in the darkness. Three times he rises to attend to what he believes to be Eli’s voice and by the third time, Eli, perhaps exasperated with the interruptions of his rest, realizes that Samuel has indeed heard a voice – not Eli’s, but God’s call. Although Samuel is young Eli does not doubt that God can speak to the boy and gently instructs Samuel to return to his bed and if he hears God’s call again to respond, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9).

As one biblical scholar asserts, “This story is about vocation or calling” Samuel journeys forward into the calling God has for his life by hearing God’s voice, truly listening, and responding. Yet, he needs a nurturing adult at this time to help him discern God’s voice. Without Eli’s caring counsel, Samuel would likely remain only confused by a voice in the night that may be no more than a waking dream. It is crucial to recognize and affirm the interdependence of Eli and Samuel, one that should be reflected among generations in the household of God. “Samuel is available for this communication from God and perfectly responsive (v. 10). Moreover he is fully supported by Eli, who is now dependent upon him (v 18). . . . Patient, caring Eli instructs Samuel in his response to God (vv. 9-10) . . . . Young Samuel is completely dependent on knowing Eli”.  Samuel and Eli need each other for God’s voice to be heard. Eli requires great humility to allow Samuel to be the bearer of God’s word. Not only is a child that bearer, not one of Eli’s own biological sons, but one adopted into his household.

Eli must live in a new reality that acknowledges that God can speak through this boy and the words that Samuel has to give may not be good news for Eli or his descendants. Like Eli, wise adults believe that God can speak to children and are willing to heed children’s voices, even when their words create discomfort. “‘What was it he [God] said to you?’” Eli asked. ‘Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.’ So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, ‘He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes’” (I Sam 3:17 –18). Eli believed that what Samuel heard was from God and that it was a confirmation of the earlier prophecy of the downfall of the house of Eli.

I wonder how often children do have something to share that needs to be heard, yet it is minimized, ignored or seen as too naïve for consideration. In a guileless way, children and youth can see injustice and pain and often call out the obvious, the sinfulness, and the hypocrisy of the world when adult hearts have become hardened or overwhelmed by great need and the sheer complexity of problems. In a recent interview with a veteran pastor who was raised in a tradition that does not give much credence to dreams and visions, I was told of his call to ministry at the age of 8. In the middle of the night, he saw a child-sized angel standing by his bed. It did not speak, but held an open bible in its outstretched hands with a burning candle standing upon the book, illuminating the pages. The pastor said that he knew that somehow his calling was to bring light to God’s word and that his life would be a light for God’s people. He said, “Even as a child, I knew the difference between having a dream and being awake and I was awake, not dreaming.”

That calling was affirmed over the years by adults in his life, but not because he told them of his vision, which he saw as too sacred to share with anyone at that time, some 45 years ago. Even now, he has only told that story to a select few and has found it easier to tell to African colleagues, who do not find a child experiencing a call from God in the form of a vision to be too difficult to believe. Again, some questions for reflection are needed. Do we believe that children can hear from God? Are we available to nurture their hearts and help them discern when God is calling to them? Do we really want to listen to what they are hearing from the Lord? Are we willing to listen if the words mean relinquishing control of ministries that we have come to see as “ours”?

The posture of humility, recognizing that the greater story is one of God’s redemption and not about personal success, requires the attitude of stewardship of ministries, missions, and children’s lives, holding lightly to what is God’s so that the greater story is primary.

God Uses Whom He Will, Including Those on the Margins of Life
The story of Samuel encourages the reader to embrace the notion that all children are to be regarded as gifts from God. We know Samuel’s story because of who he became – the leader of a nation. Yet, when she prays for a child, Hannah does not know that her son will be anyone of importance: the anointer of Saul and David as kings, the first of the prophets (Acts 3:24) and the last of the judges (Acts 13:20). Nor does she know that she will ever bear other children. Yet she freely gave her gift-child back to God to be nurtured by Eli. Her gratitude for the gift of Samuel is expressed in her song of thanksgiving (1 Samuel 2:2-11), which mirrors Mary’s canticle of praise after the angel tells her she will bear the Messiah. Hannah’s prayer is not focused on the baby or herself, but on the attributes of her powerful God: deliverer, all-knowing, holy one, provider, and one who sets the foundations of the earth.

Her song reminds the reader that it is God who raises up and brings low as he wills: “It is not by strength that one prevails; those who oppose the Lord will be broken. The Most High will thunder from heaven; the Lord will judge the ends of the earth” (1 Samuel 2:9b-10b, NIV). The song of praise celebrates that only God can feed the hungry, give children to the barren, make alive, exalt the lowly, raise the poor from the dust, and lift the needy from the ash heap (vs. 5-8). Hannah is celebrating that God can use a barren woman, one of little value in Old Testament culture, a woman on the margin of society. Although her husband, Elkanah, is of the tribe of Levi (the priestly line), he has no future with a barren wife and Hannah is reminded of her situation constantly by the mocking of Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife. Her song is a witness to Yahweh, who can transform “barrenness to birth, vexation to praise, isolation to worship.

Hannah’s song is an exhortation that it is only the Lord’s favour that empowers anyone. If we look only to the powerful, the rich, and the connected, we are proud and arrogant (1 Samuel 2:3). The implication is that all people, including children, have potential to be actors in God’s covenant story and that a proper attitude toward them focuses ultimately on this sacred role as the one giving value. Societies have long held to differing views of children and childhood, which are reflected in Christian theology and in the social sciences. “One of the more colorful taxonomies is in the area of childhood anthropology, where Lancy alliterates concepts of children as ‘cherubs, chattel, and changelings’, noting how societies often simultaneously see children as innocents, little devils, and commodities that either contribute to or drain financial resources of families”.

Theologian Marcia Bunge has long argued for complex views and theologies of childhood, allowing children to be multifaceted, fully human beings. Bunge asserts that views of children need to be held in tension: as gifts of God and sources of joy; as sinful creatures and moral agents; as developing beings who need instruction and guidance; as fully human and made in the image of God; as models of faith and sources of revelation; and as orphans, neighbours, and strangers in need of justice and compassion. The landmark cross-cultural surveys on the value of children completed in 1984 and 200716 indicate that there are three main reasons that parents choose to have children with prioritization of these reasons varying somewhat by culture. The first reason is economic or utilitarian, which focuses on the material benefits of having children, whether that is contribution to the household economy and completion of chores or ensuring financial security in old age.

The second reason is psychological or emotional, indicating that parents have children for joy, fun, companionship, pride, and to give parents a sense of accomplishment. The third reason is social or normative, meaning that parents gain social acceptance and social status by having children. Although none of these reasons is inherently negative, the focus of the child’s value is as a means of gratification of parental desires and adult needs. Many of us are parents and may see our biological children as categorically different than other children who may be the beneficiaries of our ministry efforts. Few of us would be willing to relinquish our child to be raised by another. And I am in no way suggesting that it is preferable that a parent give his or her child to others to be raised. For participants in this conference, myself included, there is typically great investment in our own children and we often expect stellar academic performance and entry into the right colleges and prestigious careers so that we may have pride in their accomplishments, which confirms our performance as parents. Some concerning trends for middle class families around the world include: Greater investment of financial resources, time, and emotional energy in children by many parents… with more monitoring and ‘over-supervision’ of children… [and] increased pressure on adolescents’ school performance.

Fewer siblings and cousins mean fewer opportunities to acquire spiritual concepts and skills through these relationships, including empathy and spiritual nurturance. In addition, family mobility, dissolution, and reconstitution may impair spiritual socialization. Our investment does not necessarily result in the outcomes we desire. Spiritual connectedness and discovery of calling in God’s greater story may be lost in the competition with other parental agendas. It is all too easy for adults to be swept up by societal and cultural pressures and for priorities to be lost. The question God asks of Eli could be asked of any of us: “‘Why do you honor your sons more than me?’” (1 Samuel 2:29). In contrast, we have Hannah, the biological mother, acknowledging that the story of her life and that of her gift-son are ultimately God’s story and we have Eli who has no biological connection to the boy.

Although biological parents have a greater responsibility for their children (1 Timothy 3:5; Ephesians 6:4), a singular attitude toward children as primarily gifts of God and players in God’s redemption story has a biblical foundation. New Testament themes of adoption into the household of faith and unity through doing the will of God indicate that non-biological connections are now primary indicators of belonging. All believers are now part of one’s family and merit the same value and treatment as a biological child. As Chukwu asserts, “The new family of God (Church) embraces the whole human race without any iota of discrimination on the basis of race, sex, gender, culture, language or class”, and might I add that age is not a factor that enhances or diminishes one’s value within the family of God.

Given this new family relationship, the adults in the family of God must be cautious to make decisions that do not harm our spiritual children by favoring our biological daughters and sons. Further, they must make decisions that honor spiritual children as an integral part of God’s community Valuing children as gifts from God and vessels of divine purpose cultivates a relationship where the caregiver is the temporary custodian or steward of the life of a young person who is discovering God’s purpose for his or her life. The word ‘steward’ must be carefully defined, so as to minimize perceptions of adults as managers of children and children as possessions or human capital. It may be helpful to borrow from the theology of environmental stewardship to ensure that God is paramount in our understanding. “The main point of the term, in Christian usage, is the steward’s responsibility to God”. Christian stewards recognize that they, too, are created beings and that God has continual involvement with creation. Thus, “humans should care for creation within the context of God’s own caring for it, not in place of God’s caring for creation”.

A faithful steward functions in community with fellow creatures and God, and must act in harmony with God’s justice, compassion, and mercy. The attitudes of both Hannah and Eli toward Samuel are instructive of proper posture as stewards of the life of a child, recognizing that the sovereign God gives adults the opportunity to participate in children’s lives as a gift and blessing, not as a right. Children are not possessions, consuming units or programming targets to enhance adult egos. Adults, who act as stewards, recognize that children are gifts from God and full members of God’s community. As in the parable of the faithful servant, a steward of children is mindful that God, the true owner, could return at any time and it is the joyful duty of the steward to be worthy of the responsibility entrusted to her (Matthew 24:42-51; Mark 13:32-37; and Luke 12:35-48).

What might it look like if adults saw their nurturing role with children as one of stewardship? And as a mandate not only for biological children but any child that God brings into their sphere of influence, affirming that all children can be adopted into the household of God as full heirs of the eternal promise? Nurturing a child then becomes an opportunity because we do not know who could be a Samuel (or Miriam or Mary, the Mother of Jesus). The  surprise of God’s choosing whomever He will to lift up and to be called by the power of the Holy Spirit, frees us to look beyond our own biological connections, our own networks, ethnicity, social class, church body or any other boundary to recognize that the possibility of calling and transformational participation in Kingdom work lies in every child. Stewardship implies not only valuing children as transformational participants, but also recognizing their vulnerability and protecting them from undue risk, harm, pressure or coercion. Adults already control many aspects of participation: resources, agenda, topics under discussion, process, and often selection of who gets to participate.

For this reason, non-governmental organizations have developed guidelines for protection for participating children that are expressed in the form of rights that may be worth reflection: Children have rights to be listened to, to freely express their views on all matters that affect them, to freedom of expression, thought and association, and of access to information; Participation should promote the best interests of children and enhance their personal development; All children have equal rights to participation, without discrimination; All children have the right to be protected from manipulation, violence, abuse and exploitation. The Church may frame these concerns in different language – that of love, care, concern and advocacy – yet the goals remain similar: inviting children and youth, including those on the margins of society, to participate in matters that concern them. For Christian children, the goals are expanded to theological and missiological concerns, recognizing that God includes children as full members of the family of God and invites them to participate in the life of the Church and the Missio Dei.

The Supreme Story of History and Life is God’s and We Are to Envision and Empower Children as Participants in that Greater Story
The story of Samuel involves many players and all are “creatures of God’s sovereignty and agents of God’s intended future”.24 The greater story is one of redemption and those who are called by God play a part, big or small, in that narrative. In humility, we must remember that “Yahweh is the one who has the power to transform and the willingness to intervene (emphasis is Bruggemann’s) on behalf of the powerless. Both qualities are required. Power to transform without willingness to intervene ends in haughty transcendence. Willingness to intervene without power to transform ends in a pitiful sentimentality”. If adults believe that either we or the organizations that we create or our churches have the power to transform, we are guilty of pride. If we intervene in children’s lives, especially those at risk, without introducing them to God’s power, we offer little but pity.

It is in introducing them to God’s Story and helping them discern their calling in that story, that we allow them to shift from objects of pity to people of promise (emphasis is mine) who play a role in kingdom transformation. The biblical narrative repeatedly and consistently involves children as agents of transformation and mission. In a thorough review by White, numerous key child characters are present throughout the biblical redemption story. To name just a few: Joseph (a teenaged dreamer), Benjamin (an agent of reconciliation), Miriam (the clever girl who saved her baby brother from death and engineered her mother to be his caregiver), Moses (adopted into a place of power and then able to use those gifts and connections to free Israel), David (boy slayer of a giant), Namaan’s servant girl (a bold messenger to a general), Josiah (the boy king), Jeremiah (chosen by God as a child) and of course, Jesus.

In the story of Samuel, we are reminded that a child can be the designated agent of mission for a nation. The people hear and understand that “Yahweh is already at work providing for new, godly leadership for his people”. Overlooking the possibility of children and youth having a role in the redemption story is not only short-sighted; it does not reflect the biblical pattern of God using children to achieve his purposes. As in the case of Samuel, when adults fail, God can and will speak to and through a child.

Contemporary Applications
The story of Samuel in many ways mirrors the principles and cautions of youth participation initiatives. Children are vulnerable and need stewards in their lives who protect them. Yet vulnerability lies in tension with children as gifts. Secular non-governmental organizations have actively sought child and youth participation, consulting them on issues that affect their well-being and rights. It is good and right to allow children and youth to speak into solutions for global problems that have been created by prior generations. Decisions made for immediate gratification and profit rarely consider the long-term effects and the burden that is passed to the young. Although progress has been made in addressing some global problems, such as infant mortality and access to primary education, much remains to be done.

The global community recognizes that “building the capacity of and creating sustained partnerships with young people are crucial strategies to achieving the Millennium Development goals that have not been fully realized by the international community”. However, such participation strategies require much more than a token presence at high profile events. Battaini-Dragoni, in sharing lessons learned from the European experience at the 2010 World Youth Conference, reminds us that investing in youth is a long-term process and that they need to be equipped through social and nonformal learning opportunities. They must be involvement from the beginning in setting policies rather than expecting them to support what adults have already decided.

At times the temptation can be to ask the opinion of youth without adequate equipping and context and then to be disappointed with the response, resulting in a dismissal of the ideas of the young as ineffectual. It is true that adults have more education and experience, yet they risk becoming cynical or trapped in outmoded thought patterns, professional jargon and solution gridlock. Although children and youth lack the education and experience, they may bring a renewed zeal and idealism, and a fresh look at longstanding problems. The Church could be ahead of secular non-governmental organizations in the area of child participation. With the rich biblical tradition of child participation, Jesus’ exhortations to see children as Kingdom models, and recent scholarly work in child theology, the Church has strong foundations for including children in mission.

Most importantly, their presence affirms that the larger story is God’s and that we are not to limit who He may use to speak; rather, we are to create opportunities to cultivate spirituality and leadership from the cradle. Conclusion The most significant task of each human is discovering one’s small, personal story and how it fits into the great narrative of God’s  mission. Not all stories are noteworthy like Samuel’s story, but then only Samuel was called to Samuel’s story. Each child’s small story is interwoven into the greater God story in a way that adults may not know or see. In human essence and as agents of transformation, children are not that different from grown-ups. Yet, the difference of being older creates a responsibility for adults toward and with children for their holistic nurture, preparation, empowerment and protection. And that responsibility requires that children be present, active, included and truly heard. For this reason, I am reluctant to suggest specific ways for children and youth to engage in God’s mission.

That conversation requires children and youth to be present from the beginning, and we need them to help extrapolate from research findings and to join with us in engaging with Scripture. Releasing children to discover God’s purpose is a millstone responsibility. Fully recognizing the dignity and humanity of children who are stamped with God’s image requires that a child be more than a member of a missiological target group to bolster conversion statistics or a human resource to be manipulated to achieve adult agendas. May we look forward to intergenerational conversations on mission and transformation with delight and anticipation. And may we find the strength and courage to name and nourish children’s gifts, steward their stories with compassion, and be willing and able to see their place and hear their voice in the Missio Dei.

This chapter first appeared in Children and Youth as Partners in Mission: A Compendium of Papers. It has a full Bibliography and Footnotes here. 

You might also like


The Journal is updated every month. Use our New Issue E Mail Alert Sign Up to stay informed.