The Scriptures only teach us to make disciples. The followers of Jesus are only described as disciples. The Lord Jesus commands us to go into the world and make disciples. Indeed, those who are not really disciples are condemned in one way or another, as being those who set off on the journey but keep looking backwards, or being those who are lukewarm and without the intensity, the burning spiritual flame, of the indwelling Holy Spirit. In every Christian community it is possible to be those who grow up only following external observances, a certain religious culture, and yet never having experienced a personal encounter with God. Our own Orthodox community shares exactly the same dangerous potential. It is possible to grow up being fluent in all the hymns, knowing the correct performance of the services and rites of the Church, even having a good knowledge of Bible stories, and being able to share them with others. But this is not the same as being a disciple.
A student is someone who is following a curriculum, and learning a body of facts. But this is not essentially what a Christian is. Of course there is value in learning all manner of things, necessary things. But an atheist can learn all of the hymns, can learn the rites, can learn and share Bible stories. Discipleship means sharing a life and an experience. This is what our children require of us more than anything, though they need many things. If we are sharing our own life in Christ with them then all these others things fall into place and enrich, colour and give structure to the personal and increasing experience of union with God. But without the sharing of life we cannot make disciples, and if we are not making disciples then nothing we do around our children or youth in the Church will have any lasting effect.
We make a mistake when we imagine that discipleship is something for older people, or for those who want to take Christianity seriously. It is the only expression of Christianity. Therefore even the youngest children, those in their youth, and young adults, must already be disciples of Christ, and our ministry to them must be one of discipleship before it is one of education. Of course we will use the complete substance of our Orthodox Tradition, but it must be at the service of discipleship, not simply of education. It must be used to communicate the experience of life in Christ and with Christ, not simply knowledge about life at second hand.
There are several passages from Scripture which should inform our thinking about child disciples. The first gives us the words of our Lord Jesus, recorded in three of the Gospels, who says…
They brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.
The children are to be brought to Jesus himself, and we must not stand in their way. He wishes to take each one up in his own arms, and hold them in the closest possible embrace, so that they might be blessed by this experience of union with him. When the disciples tried to prevent the children coming to Jesus he was greatly displeased. Do not forbid them coming to me, he commands us. What does this mean? It is surely that everything we do must have the intention of helping our children, leading our children, encouraging our children, to actually have a lasting and sustaining experience of the presence of God in the own young lives, so that they know themselves embraced by God. When we do anything that prevents this experience, whether intentionally or unintentionally, our Lord Jesus is greatly displeased. It is his desire that from the earliest years each child who belongs to him is brought to union with him.
Again, the Lord Jesus says…
Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. “But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
The Lord Jesus calls the little child to him, and he calls all of our children to himself. It is not his intention that they should see him from far off, but that they should be placed in the centre of the community of Christ, as those who have most to teach us. It is the humble simplicity of the child that makes them able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and to be present to God. The children are already prepared to come into the presence and the experience of life with Christ. They already have the quality of heart that we so often lose as we grow older and more concerned with everything other than the spiritual life.
How do we serve the children of Christ so that we do not become a stumbling block to them. Of course there are many practical things we must do, because our failure to put these into practice will place an obstacle in the way of children meeting Christ for themselves and becoming disciples.
I. We need to make sure that the life of the Church is accessible to them all. This requires appropriate language and comprehensibility. At the very least we must provide opportunities for children to worship and offer prayers and praises to God in their own language. But more than this, we need to be making sure that at an age-appropriate level, every child understands what we are doing and what is happening in our services, and especially the Eucharist. Too many children attend services in the Church, even serve in the altar, but do not understand what is happening, and have no experience at all of God descending upon the altar, transforming bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, heavenly food for salvation and remission of sins. The homily in the Eucharist should be short and directed at children, as much as adults.
II. We need to make sure that our children are welcomed in the life of the Church. There is nothing more precious to me than greeting little children in Church, and especially offering them the divine and life-giving Mysteries. When I give a small child communion in the Mysteries I always smile at them, and I say “good boy”, or “good girl”, as they receive the life and power of God into themselves quietly and reverently. I want them to have a blessed experience of communion. I want nothing I say or do to become a stumbling block to them. Depending on the physical circumstances I will often bring myself down to their level to give them communion, rather than requiring them to be lifted up. But it is not only the time of communion where we must welcome our children in the name of Christ, as he himself commands. It is well known that I object to the presence of crying rooms in our churches, and more especially to the fact that children are often spending all of their early years separated from the experience of God’s presence in the family of the Church. When we send the children out, because we find their ordinary noise disturbing, (not the sound of a really upset child), then we are acting exactly as the Disciples of our Lord Jesus did when they tried to send the children away, and he was very displeased.
III. We need to make sure that our Sunday School classes and other activities are interesting and stimulating to the children. It is not enough to reproduce what we learned as children. It is not enough to use methods that suit ourselves as adults and teachers. It is really not enough to imagine that we fulfill our responsibility to the children of Christ by teaching them only about Christ, only teaching them the content of Bible stories, even teaching them a religion of moralism. Our Sunday School classes and lessons must have a clear and explicit ambition of helping every child, however young, to truly and personally experience life with Christ, life in union with Christ, by the indwelling Holy Spirit. This means that everything we teach must be spiritual and practical, it must be practical spirituality. It must be something that will immediately change the life of those who are learning, and it must be the fruit of our own spiritual experience. This is what discipleship means.
IV. We need to develop better ways of sharing our authentic Orthodox spiritual tradition with children. This means that we need to treat every child as a spiritual person, as our Lord Jesus Christ did, and as he commanded us. The purpose of the Christian life is not to live a moral life. It is not to know the Bible well. It is not to be regular in attendance at Church services. It is not even to have a service ourselves in the Church. The purpose of the Christian life is to be united with God, and to live a life of prayer in every moment, so that all of life, even for the smallest child, is experienced increasingly as life in the presence of God. When we assume that this is not possible for a child or a youth, then we are putting a stumbling block in the way of their union with God.
I would love to see us teaching the children very practical ways of living always in the presence of God, as he desires. Here are a few reflections that challenge me.
A. Discipleship means that we must share what we have already experienced. If we want to teach our children how to experience the unceasing presence of God, as life and light and peace and joy, then we must experience this ourselves. It is not enough for us to be occasionally spiritual, praying in the morning and evening, but we must be seeking to experience the unceasing presence of God at every moment through unceasing prayer. As we give ourselves to seeking the divine presence at every moment, we also find ourselves filled with the same Holy Spirit who indwells our children. As we discover the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our own lives, so we are able to guide our children to experience the same fruit in their own spiritual life, at whatever age they are. There is no age limit for discipleship.
B. Children learn from seeing how we act much more than what we teach in lessons. Part of their discipleship requires us to act in a way that manifests the life of the Holy Spirit before them at every moment. How we speak to them, at home, and at Church, is part of our teaching them what life in Christ, real spiritual experience, looks like. But it also matters how we act with other people and how we speak to them and about them. If we are rude and dismissive of others then our children see this, and this is the real lesson they learn about the Christian life. If we complain about others and about the Church, then this is the real lesson our children learn about the Christian life. Every word matters when we are with children, Every little act matters when we are with children. It is possible to undermine everything we teach in Sunday School as a theoretical Christianity, if our children see us actually living in a completely different way. They will grow to consider us hypocrites, or to have practical evidence that Christianity does not make any positive difference to life.
C. Children do love to copy adults, and are programmed for discipleship. If they see us praying always, and if they see us always grateful to God, always humble in our dealings with others, always showing sacrificial love to others, then they will not find it difficult to follow in the life that we demonstrate. But this requires that all of us in the Church who come into contact with children act in such a way. A child might be happy to experience the Christian life in its fulness at home, but if the leaders in Sunday School do not act in the same way then a child might become resistant, not because they are not seeking in their own way to experience God, but because their experience of Sunday School does not reproduce the spiritual experience of home. Or it might be the other way around. Perhaps Sunday School leaders do provide an experience of discipleship, of shared Christian experience and life, but at home this experience is not encouraged or sustained.
D. Children need to be the responsibility of everyone in Church. It is not enough for parents to be doing their best to share their experience of a transforming life in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is not enough that Sunday School leaders do their best to teach a practical experience of the spiritual life. Everyone our children meet at Church or at activities associated with the Church must be aware that they also have a precious responsibility to always treat every child as a spiritual person of great worth. Children must be treated kindly, gently, respectfully. We must be aware that even though adults might enjoy having a long chat with friends at the Agape after the Liturgy, time passes differently for children, and the experience of feeling lost in a vast crowd, often speaking in a language that the child does not understand, can also be daunting and lead to children not wanting to attend Church. It matters that everyone welcomes every child, and is very careful, even in the way that discipline is exercised to keep youthful exuberance under control. One hard and harsh word can become a stumbling block to a child, even if we are not parents, even if we are not Sunday School leaders.
E. Children need to be taught the power of prayer. I wish that small children and school children everywhere were being taught the Jesus Prayer, and how to use it at all times. It should be their Marching Prayer when they are going to and from school. It should be the prayer they have been taught to turn to when they feel afraid, or anxious, or lonely. We must teach our children a practical spirituality that works and that makes a difference. We should be able to say – when you feel angry or annoyed then say this prayer! When you feel sad or upset then say this prayer! When you feel tired then pray this prayer! And our children should experience for themselves the power of experiencing God’s presence for themselves. I have been blessed to serve children in receiving their confessions before God, and they are filled with anxieties and with relationship difficulties that we also experience as adults, but which prayer, constant prayer, would help to overcome in them as in our own spiritual lives. We should not prevent children experiencing the comfort of God’s presence in such a way. I would love to see small children sitting down in a circle with their teachers for a few moments and practicing the Jesus Prayer.
F. Children need to be taught how to read and hear the Bible. Not just the content of the Bible, which is useful and necessary of course. And not just moral lessons from the Bible, because authentic Christianity is not moralism. But they need to learn how to hear God speak to them, in their own circumstances, even as children, because he will speak and does speak, even to children, and especially to children. They need to be guided by our own living experience of hearing God speak to us through and in the Scriptures. This does mean that we need to use age appropriate translations of the Scriptures with children, even if there are different issues with every translation into English. The Bible must be and become a book in which God is found and not only described.
G. Children need to be helped to discover God’s presence in the Eucharist, and to receive the Mysteries as something divine, and life-giving, and powerful. We need to turn to the Fathers and discover the various pictures and images and analogies they use so that our children come to understand and reverence and desire God himself in the Eucharist. We need to show this understanding and reverence and desire ourselves, in the way we speak of the Eucharist. Special food. Food from Heaven. Medicine to give us God’s life. The power of God. We need to help our children understand that God descends among us on the altar because he loves us so much and gives us the gift of himself in the Bread and Wine that become his Body and Blood. It is not enough to teach our children to bow down, if they do not know why they are to bow down. It is not enough to teach the children to be careful in consuming the Mysteries if they do not know why they are to be careful. But we need to communicate the experience of receiving the life of God by the Holy Spirit in the Mysteries, not just knowledge about this life. We need to communicate the hope and expectation and faith with which we ourselves receive the gift of God.
H. Children need to be encouraged to develop spiritual habits no less than adults need them. Habits are the structure and building blocks of the spiritual experience with God. But discipleship, the sharing of life and experience, requires that we have these habits if we wish to share them with any sort of authority with children. We must not make it seem that we have to do things to please God, or to please others. There are so many analogies that can help us to explain what the spiritual effort of the life with Christ means. It is like how we have to practice to learn the piano if we want to make beautiful music. It is like how we have to follow a fitness programme if we want to become someone who wins a race or scores lots of goals or points in different sports. The spiritual habits we need to encourage in our children are the activities that will help them grow closer and closer to God so that they feel him with them and looking after them at every moment.
How I wish every child was a disciple of Christ, and had a living experience of union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit. It is only this, developing from the earliest years, that will have the hope of preserving our children and youth, not as those who merely attend Church services and activities, but who are truly and personally engaged with God, and have a living experience of his presence with them and in them. We must not prevent our children experiencing this union, this warm embrace of Christ. We must not put any obstacles in their way, whether our own words and deeds, or our own lack of spiritual experience, or our lack of faith and expectation for our children’s spiritual experience. God has so much to give to our children, his own children, and we must not forbid them coming to him. More than that, we must lead them, show them the way, share our own experience of the life and love of God. This is what discipleship means, and even the youngest child is called to be and become a disciple of Christ, who loves each one, and placing his hand upon them, blesses them with his presence.