Every Christian tradition has a rite of passage whereby children born and raised in the church are confirmed into full church membership.
In my church that step is immersion baptism that generally takes place during the teen years. A child born and raised in the church family makes a decision for Christ and the church, and is formally taught, baptized, and accepted into membership, with its attendant privileges and responsibilities.
Yet even before children formally confirm their membership in the community, most Christian traditions expect that children practice the faith as though they were church members. There is no halfway covenant for the young. With few exceptions (Amish children, for example, don't have to strictly adopt the religio-cultural restrictions of the community before joining the church in their late teens or early twenties) we do not permit them to act or think like anything but church members, even if they aren't officially on the congregational roster.
The question, then, is: Since we expect our children to behave as church members, do we pastor them as church members?
This is not to imply that children are neglected in our churches. They are surrounded by adults. In their early years they have their mothers who teach and lead them. As they get older, fathers be come involved, Sabbath School teachers take time to teach, and in larger churches a youth minister takes charge of nurturing. And with that we content ourselves that we have ministered to our children.
Is the pastor accessible to the children?
But are children cared for by the senior pastor? Frequently there is one figure at the helm, and that is the figure children see most often in the pulpit. Often the pastor may seem to remain aloof. He may be reachable by adults but inaccessible to children.
I remember feeling that way in my childhood. In the little country church where I grew up, where everyone knew everyone else, most of the pastors I re member were images rather than people. They were men in dark suits, with deep voices, who said things from the pulpit I rarely understood, who shook my father's hand while exiting the sanctuary, and perhaps my mother's. If they noticed me at all, it was generally, "So how are you, young man?" Or if my name was attempted, it came out as frequently my brother's as mine. I don't remember ever seeing a pastor in the church basement where children gathered for Sabbath School classes.
Yet one of the gripping images of my childhood is a visiting speaker who actually leaned down and talked to me. He asked my name and remembered it. He let me ask him a question about his sermon and gave me every indication that it was significant to him. He looked me in the eye and did his best to answer it. It was a small thing, and yet it was one of the building blocks of my own decision to become a minister— to become like that man who just for a moment ministered to me. Another was a pastor who answered my question about archaeology by loaning me a simple book on the topic, and then discussing it briefly with me.
Neither of these men were unusually skillful with the young. They possessed only the typical gifts of the pastors of their day. Neither spent much time with me. But they did, in some small way, minister to me as if I were a real member of the church. And that made all the difference.
I am empathetic with ministers who are not very gifted with children. C. S. Lewis, a gifted writer for children, once admitted that he didn't enjoy their companionship. My storytelling skills are not well developed, and I have some of the inherent stuffiness of the middle-aged professional. I do not easily cut loose and play with childlike abandon, which is a helpful thing when relating to children.
In recent years I have discovered the value of ministering to my church's children as though they are church members. Which, in spirit, if not in formal fact, they are. Let me suggest three reasonable goals, achievable even by those who feel themselves not skilled in meeting the spiritual needs of children.
Show affection for your church's children
Address them by name. Listen to them. Ask simple questions. Add a gentle touch on the shoulder, or a quick, affectionate hug. (When it comes to any touching, use good judgment.) Don't be partial in your appreciation. Nothing causes resentment among parents as much as the feeling that the pastor is partial to some children over theirs.
Know the names of the children in your church
Statistics say that most of us still pastor churches small enough that that's not impossible. It means a lot to be called by your own name—rather than your brother's.
Spend a little time in each children's Sabbath School every week
Rarely is more required than to slip in the door, smile and greet the kids. Of course, if you volunteer to tell a story, you wouldn't be turned down. For me, visiting the kids is perhaps more important than teaching an adult class of my own, as stimulating and enjoyable as I find that. It has other added benefits: I get to see how children's divisions are functioning, and it gives me the chance to meet parents who bring their children to Sabbath School but don't stay for church.
If we pastors expect children to live the lives of church members, then we must minister to them as church members. To do otherwise is to take risks with their salvation that conflict with our goal of winning the world to Christ.