Embracing and Engaging Children at Risk (an excerpt)

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Lausanne Occasional Paper 66:  Mission with Children at Risk which was published in connection with the 2014 Lausanne Consultation on Children at Risk.

We have asserted that the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached inherently affirmed the roles of children in church and mission, and we have urged all churches to reflect carefully on the ways their adult-centrism marginalizes children. In this section we take that argument further. By considering children at risk we can more clearly see how adult-centrism contributes to the risks children face, and also prevents churches from benefiting from children at risk as partners in the mission of God. Furthermore, we believe that through considering mission ‘with’ children at risk God can reveal new dimensions of mission ‘to’ and ‘for’ them.

Responding to children at risk biblically

If it is true that the gospel of the Kingdom Jesus taught prioritized care and concern for the marginalized, then children at risk deserve special concern on multiple counts. They are marginalized due to their poverty or other identity markers (gender, race, or class). They are marginalized based on their experiences (ie sleeping in public places, refugee camps, or squatter settlements; or children being treated as social outcasts due to what others have done to them, as in the case of conscripted child combatants being rejected by their former communities, or sexually exploited children being shunned). And on top of these, they are marginalized simply because they are children.

As a result, there is clear biblical justification for concern and response. We argued, consistent with the Cape Town Commitment, that this means responding to the needs of children at risk as part of our understanding of the missio Dei. The Quito Call to Action extends this commitment by conceptualizing child-focused mission in terms of mission ‘to, for, and with’ children at risk. The following section explores how these dimensions of mission are derived biblically and theologically.

Mission to children at risk

The dimension of mission ‘to’ children at risk is the most direct approach to addressing the problems of children: when adults use their power or influence to directly intervene and provide for the needs of children. Some examples include a concerned Sunday School teacher feeding children a larger snack due to fears that they are going hungry at home, a planned outreach to homeless youths in the local park, or a carefully-organized intervention to rescue children forced to beg for money on the streets.

The most commonly-cited text for mission to children at risk is found in James 1:27, where James urges churches everywhere to care for widows and orphans as a genuine expression of their faith. However, the Scriptures are laced with examples of and exhortations to care for orphans and other children on the margins. God’s concern for Ishmael after he and his mother were cast out by Abraham (Gen 21) is a clear example, as well as the strident assurance in Exodus 22:22–24 that God would personally execute anyone who exploited a widow or orphan. In fact, Psalm 68 identifies God as Father to the fatherless, and says that God puts the lonely in families. By implication, it would seem that those who follow God should do the same.

Appropriately, in the story of Mephibosheth we see King David showing mercy to a boy with a disability that might have made a competing claim to Israel’s throne. However, David’s deep bond with the boy’s father outweighed any fears of accession, and motivated the King to show extravagant generosity to the child instead (2 Sam 9). Another notable story is that of the Shunammite woman and Elisha (2 Kings 4). Here, God not only provides a son to this woman and her husband as thanks to their kindness to the prophet, but through Elisha God also brings the same boy back from the dead after an unexpected fatal illness. This last miracle is mirrored by Jesus himself in the Gospels with the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5; Luke 8).

Mission for children at risk

We engage in mission ‘for’ children at risk when we speak or act on their behalf. At the simplest level adults engage in this kind of advocacy when they intervene in family or school conflicts, lending their support to a child or group of children. However, it can also involve churches or coalitions of organizations and individuals who are determined to address problems in any society that make children’s lives harder than they should be. This kind of advocacy is sometimes overlooked by churches for fear that it is too political, and, consequently, does not belong within the domain of mission.

However, we must remember that the Bible makes frequent mention of standing up on behalf of others, including children. Psalm 82:5 uses legal language to remind us to uphold justice for orphans and those who are poor, oppressed, or needy. Children at risk often represent all four of these descriptors. Indeed, the vision of shalom presented in the Torahrequires that all people are living just lives, and contrasts this with those who try to exploit others for their own gain (See Ps 7, 10, 12, 14, 15, etc.). In order for this justice to be done, all people must be willing to identify and speak out when injustice is taking place.

Jesus simplifies this interpersonal commitment, by framing it in terms of loving one another (John 13:34–35). Western evangelicals have sometimes struggled with seeing the implications of this interpersonal dimension of the gospel beyond the intimacy of individual and largely invisible emotional transactions. This is something with which evangelical strains of liberation theology in Latin America can help. Liberation theologians have always seen texts such as the words in the Magnificat (Luke 1:46–55) or Jesus’ actions with the money changers in the Temple (Matt 21, John 2) as radical statements and acts with political significance. Contemporary theologians, such as Joyce Ann Mercer, hold that the true themes of Mark’s gospel cannot be understood without appreciating the sociopolitical context of the time, and the pivotal roles that several key child figures play in his rendering of Jesus’ ministry. Therefore, a broader understanding of what loving one another means must include attending to the injustices that exists in the contexts where children are forced to live.

This means that churches should ensure that governments fulfil their legal obligations to children, and that they should see this work as an expression of God’s mission. Similarly, Christians everywhere should stand up for the rights of children who have been separated from their parents and advocate for effective laws to protect all children from obvious dangers.

Mission with children at risk

This third dimension, mission ‘with’ children at risk, is the most progressive but also the most intriguing. The biblical foundation begins with observing the various children at risk in the Bible who are obvious participants in God’s mission. The servant girl to Naaman’s wife (2 Kings 5) is a particularly good example, since she was a prisoner of war whose family was probably killed when her new master pillaged her city. Yet, despite this, when Naaman contracts leprosy she is willing to share about Elisha, which sets him on a path not just to a miraculous healing but also to spiritual transformation. As a result, Naaman abandons his Aramean gods in favor of YHWH.

The young Samuel (1 Sam 1–3), though less at-risk than Naaman’s servant-girl, is still in a difficult situation. He was dedicated to the temple once he had been weaned, leaving him outside of the protection of his family. Perhaps more importantly, this leaves him in the care of the aging priest Eli, whose parenting credentials are highly suspect. Yet, despite these conditions, God calls to Samuel while he is still a child and gives him prophetic messages that he faithfully delivers.

However, the most prominent child participant in God’s mission as revealed in the Bible is Jesus himself. As revealed in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, Jesus’ birth was surrounded with tenuous and risky circumstances. As we saw in the introduction section of this paper, Jesus himself was in many ways a ‘child-at-risk’. He was the child of a teenage mother, an adopted child (by Joseph), temporarily homeless at his birth, and later became a refugee child for a time. Once again we marvel at the fact that the God of the universe became a child-at-risk in order to fulfil the missio Dei, and this same God desires that all children participate in this mission.

Furthermore, Luke’s narrative of the boy Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:41–50) shows us that his teaching ministry did not wait to begin until he was grown. Rather, the text recounts that the adults around him were amazed by his insights and understandings even at a young age.

In each of these cases we see children who were more than machinery in the mission of God. Each of these young people were exercising their own choices in response to God’s call in their lives, even as young people, and each made a profound contribution to that mission as a result. Furthermore, each one shows that God can and does call children, even those on the margins of life, to serve God’s purposes.

Fundamental objections to mission ‘with’ children at risk

This may ultimately be a difficult lesson for some Christian adults to fully accept, even if they are open to it. This is because the prevailing mindset is that children at risk are fundamentally unsuited to the lofty task of Christian mission. There may be many reasons for this, but the primary ones are that 1) children are not yet developed, and 2) children at risk need protection.

Those who might argue that children are not yet developed might say, ‘the incomplete maturing process of a young human being means that their primary role in mission will not be discovered until they are much older. Instead, we feel we should wait until they are mature Christians to encourage their participation in mission.’

In response, we must remind ourselves that the scriptural examples of children in active mission observed above each show that God chooses to work with any person precisely at the point in their development when God wishes. No adult should second-guess God’s timing. More than this, the examples above show that there are unique roles that children can play in mission that they cannot play when they are older. Eli would perhaps not have been as open to Samuel’s innocent questions if he had been older. Jesus’ questions and the answers in the temple might have been seen as adolescent arrogance coming from an older boy, rather than the astonishing insights of a child. Therefore, we should be listening to and watching children carefully at every age and finding ways to magnify their contributions to mission.

Those who believe that children at risk need protection might assume that thrusting them into the complexity of mission seems counter-intuitive. They may have injuries—whether physical, emotional, or spiritual—that need time to heal. As a result, in some cases, mission ‘to’ and mission ‘with’ children at risk seem to be at odds. Perhaps this is a case where it will be more helpful to talk about specific kinds of risk and certain kinds of mission. Certainly, children should not be forced to confront sources of abuse, exploitation, or addiction as initial steps in their participation in mission, if ever. Nor should a child who has been rescued from an abusive caregiver, be urged to confront them.

Similarly, a teen struggling with alcohol abuse should not be encouraged to return to local bars to share their testimony with strangers. This is not surprising, since we would hardly encourage an adult to do the same without considerable accountability and support, and only if that person felt a strong call to ministry in that way. Henri Nouwen’s idea of the wounded healer can surely inform this concern. Just as adults often find that they are able to minister to those whose wounds they understand best, we can expect that children and young people might do the same, but only after appropriate healing has taken place.

More importantly, this points to some of the biggest outstanding questions that remain. Surely, we do not want to assume that the forms of mission most appropriate to children at risk are the same ones that work for adults. For example, while some adults find street evangelism to be a comfortable mode of ministry, it seems inappropriate to force children into the same practices. Rather, more listening and observation is needed to understand how children at risk already participate in mission. Vinay Samuel has provocatively reminded us that many children’s natural openness, excitement about their faith, and genuine pleasure in helping others may suggest that rather than thinking about preparing or empowering children at risk for mission, perhaps we need only to release them to it.