46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest.” (Luke 9:46-48)
This is one of the passages in Scripture that fires up those who work in children’s ministry. After all, Jesus Himself took the time to bless children, and then welcome them into the Kingdom of God. What good news for our children, and what an essential mandate for adults! Children are to be welcomed and received into the community of faith, and enjoy the benefits of body life in Christ. So even though there are those who see ministry to children in the church as little more than glorified babysitting, Jesus has a vastly higher view.
But what exactly does our Lord means by “welcoming children?” Certainly it is more than making the church “kid-friendly.” or just pleasant for our little ones as they wait for their parents to pick them up. And, it must be more than just making the church a safe place for children. So how can adults really fulfill Christ”s command to welcome children and thereby welcome Him and the Father who sent Him?
To best answer that question, let’s put Christ’s words in context. The disciples were selfishly arguing about who among them would be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus changes the paradigm by teaching that greatness is first about being the “least.” To the disciples, and many in our church today, it seems as though serving children is one of those “jobs” that is on the low end of the totem pole. So in essence, Jesus was demonstrating that welcoming children involves first humbling yourself to the point of serving the “least” in the church–like infants and children. Thus, one aspect of welcoming children is to make them a ministry priority!
Then, by extension, welcoming children means to enfold them into the entire life of the church. We must always take care not to fully segregate children to their own programs and even wings of the church that have little connection to the rest of church life. They are to worship with adults, they are to sing praises with adults, they are to pray with adults, they are to hear God’s Word proclaimed with adults, and they are to serve alongside adults. Certainly, there are times for children to be set apart to be taught and trained, but this is done in the context of warm, welcoming relationships within the church! In other words, children’s ministry is not just another program, it is a mindset of prioritizing the welcoming of children and thereby welcoming Jesus.
Another aspect of welcoming children is to become personal and relational with them. Let me be specific: Adults should work just as hard to learn the names of children in the church as they do with other adults. They should be just as interested to greet children by name as they are to greet adult members of the church. This may seem to be a small thing, but I have seen firsthand what it means to children when they are greeted by adults (other than the children’s ministry workers). Many years ago, an elder taught me this truth by example. He learned nearly all of the names of the children of our church. When he saw a family walking down the hall, he would stoop low, shake a child’s hand warmly, and greet him or her by name. After that, he would stand and greet the parents! Often, he would humorously greet the parents by calling them “Amy’s dad” or “Johnny’s mom.” The children felt welcomed by this elder with just this simple act. Unfortunately, many adults in the church look right past children and youth when they meet them in the hallways, only greeting other adults.
Finally, and most importantly, we welcome children by opening the door wide to the kingdom of God. How do we do that? For starters, we ensure that they are being taught the full counsel of God. We reject the practice of teaching the Bible moralistically or simply as disconnected stories that highlight the human characters rather than God. We make sure they see Jesus in all of Scripture and fully hear the gospel of grace. After all, what good is it to welcome children into the church if we are not really pointing them to Christ through our example and our teaching? To welcome children in this way is to invite them to learn ALL of God’s Word with ALL of the family of God so they can grow to love God with ALL their heart, mind, soul, and strength!