What Restless Children and Church Decline Have in Common
Updated: Dec 2, 2021
This may not come as a surprise to you, but being a parent of three kids under 4 years old comes with many challenges. The ceaseless questions, cries for snacks, and skinned knees require constant attention! One challenge we are currently facing is our son's out-of-whack sleep schedule. He doesn’t have a problem with going to bed. He’s actually a pro at falling asleep quickly and on time. The main issue is that he likes to wake up REALLY early. No matter what time we put him down for bed, he is up the next morning before everyone else, screaming for mommy and daddy to come get him.
After several mornings of waking up before the sun, I started researching sleeping patterns to uncover the reason for my son’s early wake-up routine... and you know how searching for answers on the internet goes. I got dragged down the rabbit hole of endless medical articles that led me to discover some interesting facts about the human body's smallest organ: the pineal gland.
This tiny organ (measuring at less than ¼ of an inch) has a big job, and that job is to produce melatonin, the hormone that helps us sleep. Without the help of this little organ, we would be restless, drowsy, and struggle to adapt to the changing seasons. These random facts led to a profound insight... not about my son’s sleeping habits... but about the future of the church.
In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the human body as an analogy of the church. Just as the body is made of different parts, so too, is the church made of different people with different gifts. Paul uses this analogy to confront lies that had crept into the church at Corinth. Many of these members saw themselves as more important than others, because they had greater social status or spiritual gifting that was deemed more significant and valuable. Paul corrects this misunderstanding through his comparison of the church and the body. Every single part of the human body is needed for it to thrive, no matter how small a part might be. The brain and heart are major players no doubt, but if they are detached from the other members, there isn’t much they can do. Thus, every member of the body is needed, even ones as small as ¼ of an inch.
The church is beautifully unique in the same way. It is made up of different people with different gifts, abilities, personalities, and skills. This diversity is by design. God has placed specific members within specific churches to fill specific needs at specific times in specific communities. This means that every member in a local church is indispensable, because they fulfill a particular role that no one else can. By the Spirit, each member is equipped with spiritual gifts to build up the church and empowered by His presence to proclaim Christ to the world. If members are refused opportunities to serve the church, it not only creates division but it can also lead to decline. After all, if an organ stopped functioning, it would lead the body to shut down. In the same way, if members of Christ’s body aren’t given space to function as God designed, then the church is causing itself to shut down.
As a person whose work focuses on child discipleship, I am led to wonder how this truth might change the way we view children in the church. If every person who puts their faith in Christ is indwelt by the Spirit, equipped with spiritual gifts, and empowered to proclaim the gospel, then why are children often treated as exceptions to these truths? Paul makes it clear that every member of the body of Christ drinks from and lives out of the same Spirit. This means that every member, no matter how small, has the same calling to build up the church and advance the gospel.
If members of Christ’s body aren’t given space to function as God designed, then the church is causing itself to shut down.
With that being said, let me ask you, “Do the children in your church serve the body in meaningful ways?” Oftentimes, children are seen as people to watch, teach and control, but if they are believers in your church, then they are much more than babies to be sat. They are fellow members that God has placed in your church to fill specific needs at this specific time. If they are refused opportunities to serve due to their age, size, or ability, then a portion of the body isn’t functioning in the way it was designed to serve, which can lead to decline.
This may sound intense, but think back to the pineal gland I mentioned earlier. It’s the smallest organ in the body but, despite its size, is invaluable to the function of the body. Without it, we would be restless, have disrupted memory, and suffer damaged vision.
When it comes to the body of Christ, I wonder how many churches find themselves restless, because they have denied the service of their smallest members. I wonder how many have disrupted memories of Christ’s faithfulness, because they have forgotten the important place children hold in their congregation. I wonder how many have damaged the vision of their church, because their littlest members aren’t seen as co-laborers in the gospel.
I know these are heavy questions, but if we take Paul’s words seriously, then we need to consider how we can encourage the entire body to serve in meaningful ways. This doesn’t mean that every member needs to teach, preach, or sing, but it does mean that every member should be given opportunities to serve within their specific gifting. How can you know which service opportunities best match a person’s gifting? Well, it starts by getting to know them. Discovering their passions, interests, and talents and connecting these things to the needs within your church. Do you have a child that is a people person? Let him be a greeter. Do you have a boy who is talkative? Have him give announcements. Do you have a girl that loves to read? Let her read an opening prayer at the start of the service. Do you have children that are crafty? Encourage them to use their craftiness to make gifts for the shut-ins at your church.
The list could go on and on, but here’s the point: thriving churches call every member of the body to serve regularly. This may seem difficult with your church’s current structure, but don’t be discouraged. Slight changes in the layout and times of a church service can make all the difference in creating space for others to serve. I know the word “change” can be scary, but little changes often lead the body (both the human body and the body of Christ) to growth and wellness. When we see the church as a body to serve rather than a service to attend, we will make the changes needed to function in healthy ways for the glory of God.
Thriving churches call every member of the body to serve regularly.
While I may not have found a remedy for my son’s sleeping issues, I think I may have gained an insight into the decline taking place within the church of America. With 6,000-10,000 churches closing a year and 50-60% of youth departing the church after graduation, I think we can all agree that there's a problem. We could contribute the decline taking place to a variety of issues such as the pandemic, cultural changes, or persecution, but Jesus promised that hell's weapons wouldn't prevail against His church. If that is the case, then maybe much of the struggle and decline being experienced isn't due to anything happening outside the church but within it. This isn't to say pandemic and persecution aren't contributing factors, but if the Lord of Lords is the head of the church, then it can't be defeated... unless the body itself fails to represent its King.
Again, I'm not saying that churches haven't had it unusually hard in the past few years, and I'm not saying there aren't any churches who haven't sought to be faithful during this time. What I am saying is that one of biggest helps to the church might be found within its smallest members. Because serving children and allowing them to serve not only leads to a healthy church today, but it builds strong bones for the body of Christ in the future. What if the way for churches to grow up is to look down, and what if the way forward requires stepping back in humility to see God work through unlikely people in extraordinary ways? If an organ that is a 1/3 of an inch long can make such a drastic difference in our bodies, then maybe a child, 1/3 the size of an adult, can make a difference in the body of Christ.
Like I said, I don't know why my son keeps waking up early, and I may never discover the reason. One thing I do know for sure is that God has used waking children in the past to accomplish some pretty powerful things. What if God is using children today to wake up His church? It would be a shame to keep sleeping and miss it.
A follow up article has been written for this post entitled, "Monsters and Mission: How God's View of Children Shapes the Ministries of the Church."