Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Life Overflowing: The Next Generation

Life Overflowing: The Next Generation

“Don't you see that children are God's best gift? the fruit of the womb his generous legacy?” Psalm 127:3 (The Message)

“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Deuteronomy 6:6-9

[Jesus said] “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Mark 10:14

September puts the spotlight on our children, as they head back to school and return to our Sunday Schools and confirmation ministries. “Free range” kids who’ve been on the loose over summer are falling into line once again, shaped up by their wonderful teachers (our heroes!)

By virtue of their Baptism into Christ our children, of whatever age, are the church of today—along with all the rest of us “gray-hairs.” We resist the notion that children and youth are merely “the church of tomorrow.” Amen!

And yet, these young ones are the next generation of God’s church on earth, too. In particular, today’s youth are the leaders of tomorrow’s church. Watch out! They mean to take over from us! We thank God for an abundance of children to treasure today, to be formed into Christ, and to be prepared to serve God’s mission.

Birth Dearth?

But wait, do we really have an abundance of children in our midst? Folks in rural synods like ours often lament the loss of our children and young people. We look with longing at faded, yellowed pictures depicting the good old days when Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams. Nowadays it seems like we face a disheartening “birth dearth.”

But is that really the case? For years I’ve been playing a mean trick on call committees in congregations up and down western Minnesota. While discerning the congregation’s potential for mission and ministry, I pose this question: “In your local zip code area, which segment of the population is larger—the number of senior adults over the age of 65, or the number of children and youth age 18 or younger?”

Almost always, this answer is, “senior adults over age 65.” And almost always that answer is wrong! When I share the latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau (available to every congregation on the ELCA website at http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Research-and-Evaluation/ZIP-Code-Report.aspx) call committee members often refuse to believe me. “On Sunday mornings it’s mainly older adults in worship—our youth have disappeared!”

But that depends upon who we’re counting as “our” youth? Surely we’re responsible for more than the children who worship regularly in our congregations. What about the other young ones who have been baptized in our congregations, whom we list on our membership rolls and responsibility lists? What about all the young ones in our local “mission field,” many of them unchurched? Just who are “our” children, anyway?

They’re All Our Kids!

More and more I’ve come to believe that they’re all our kids. If children and youth live within the mission field of our congregations, they are in some sense “ours.” Ours to serve. Ours to invite. Ours to know by name. Ours to love and care for and uphold in prayer. What if—especially in our smaller rural communities—we cultivated a radical sense of responsibility for all the children and youth who walk among us? What if we insisted that “they’re all our kids?” Hmmmm. If we followed that idea to its logical conclusion, we might take more seriously (i.e. support with our offerings and our tax dollars) both the religious education and the public school education of “our kids!”

They’re all our kids because, first and foremost, they’re all God’s kids. The God of the scriptures—the God we know in Jesus Christ—gives children infinite worth. In the words of the psalmist, they are “God’s best gift” to us in our earthly lives. Children, as Jesus reminds us, have an inside track on the kingdom of God—they “get it” in ways we adults can only envy.

Saturation Education

So what is more central in our Christian discipleship than making good on the promises we utter whenever a child is baptized—to “faithfully bring them to the serves of God’s house, and teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the Ten Commandments….[to] place in their hands the Holy Scriptures and provide for their instruction in the Christian faith?” (LBW, p. 121; cf. ELW p. 228)

When we take responsibility for the newly-baptized, we commit ourselves to a “saturation education” that surrounds each child with the life of the Lord Jesus, “until Christ is formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Taking our cues from great texts like Deuteronomy 6:6-9, we regard the home as the critical location where this happens—which is why increasingly our congregational Christian education efforts are aiming at equipping parents and other adult family members and friends to be the primary nurturers of Christian faith. That’s why our synod continues to seek out ways to partner with dynamic faith-formation agencies like Vibrant Faith Ministries (http://www.youthandfamilyinstitute.org/).

While traveling in India last November, we learned how precious children are in our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC). Everywhere we traveled, in every congregation we visited, we encountered some of the most beautiful and outgoing kids on the face of the earth. Education—including parochial schools—as been and continues to be a signature ministry of the AELC.

Every Church Can Do This

Sometimes small-membership churches under-estimate their capacity to minister meaningfully among children and youth. “We could have a dynamic youth ministry if we just had more members and more dollars.” But the best things we can offer our young ones don’t cost much. In fact, I’m always tickled to observe how some of the smallest congregations in our synod “shine” in the ways they treasure their children. Here’s some ways we all can nurture the youth among us:

• Learn their names and call them by name.

• Call forth their best gifts. Don’t just give youth “grunt work” in the church. Let them shine as musicians, teachers of younger children, friendly visitors to the lonely, mission trip adventurers, etc.

• Listen to them. Bend over backwards to draw them into congregational discussions about where God is leading you in mission. Remember, they’re going to take over some day—so why wait to hear what’s on their minds?

• Do as much ministry inter-generationally as you can. Finagle ways to bring your youngest and oldest generations together.

• Mentor them in faith and in life, give them space to spread their wings, be open to their wild ideas, and above all stand with them—don’t give up on them.

• Tend the children and youth you actually have, rather than lamenting the absence of other youth.

• Be genuine. Kids can smell phoniness a mile away.

• Give them Jesus—first, last and always. And look for Jesus’ face in their faces.

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe
Northwestern Minnesota Synod
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
God’s work. Our hands.

For reflection and discussion:

1. How is your congregation preparing youth to take over the leadership of the church?

2. Go to the ELCA website and figure out how many kids, ages 18 and younger, reside in your zip code area. How many do you see in worship in your congregation? How many of them are on your church’s membership list? How many are unchurched? Pray about and talk with others about how your congregation could treasure all the children in your mission field.

3. What might be different in your congregation’s ministry if more members believed and acted as though “they’re all our children?”

This is the eighth in a series of articles on the theme Life Overflowing—an ongoing exercise in missional theology for the disciples and congregations of the Northwestern Minnesota Synod during the year 2010. These articles may be used for personal reflection; they may also serve as background study or a devotional resource for congregation councils and other parish leadership groups.


  1. Well written, Larry!

  2. Larry,

    Thanks for these wise words!

    I would love to hear some stories from congregations that are taking the simple, practical step of saying something like this, "For the next five years, every decision we make as a congregation and as individuals will include asking what is best for the children of our community. That's our vocation together."

    I think paying attention to children locally will also inevitably push us to pay attention to God's whole world.

    Stan Olson, ELCA Vocation and Education Unit