Monday, March 28, 2011

Next Generation: They're ALL Our Children

The Next Generation: They’re ALL Our Children

“[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. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” Mark 10:14-16

When it comes to words, the smallest ones are often the most important—prepositions and pronouns especially. In the Next Generation vision it’s critical that we define “our” very carefully. Just who, exactly are “our” children?

Let’s resist our natural tendency to narrow the definition of “our.” “Our” children must be more than the kids in “our” homes or “our” congregations. What if we considered all members of the next generation with whom we have any relationship whatsoever “our” children? What if we accepted radical responsibility for all of these children? What if we drew the circle as big as we might imagine it to be?

Starting with the Inner Circle

To talk this way is not to deny our responsibility for the children in our innermost circles of kinship and relationship. Surely we will think of the children we have birthed or adopted as “our” children. When a child comes into our lives the whole world changes for us. As followers of Jesus we will avoid spiritual child abuse or neglect; we will assume a profound responsibility to “help [our] children grow in the Christian faith and life.” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, p. 228)

But such “inner circle” responsibility cannot be borne alone by parents. For good reason the entire Christian community faces the baptismal font, everyone promising “to support [the baptized ones] and pray for them in their new life in Christ.” (ELW, p. 228) In Holy Baptism, all children—whether they are carried to the font or walk on their own two feet—become God’s children and “our” children. Several years ago, during a presidential election, folks asked: “Which does it take to raise a child—a family or a village?” What a silly question! It takes both a family and a village (or congregation) to raise a child in Christian faith and life. They’re all our children!

This has profound implications for our priorities. The older generation has always borne a special responsibility for the next generation. We undertake sacrifices, commit resources, and make huge investments in all our children. We do this together, cognizant of the fact that all Christian adults are also Christian parents. Our care for the children in our homes and churches is foundational for all the ways we tend the other children whom God entrusts to us.

And for how long do we bear such radical responsibility for all our children? When do Christian parents get to “retire?” Several years ago, on a Confirmation Sunday, I did something rather mean. I preached my sermon primarily to the parents of the confirmands. Recalling the promises they made when their kids were baptized, I asked them when they would be finished fulfilling those promises? (I’m guessing most of them thought they were finished that day—it was Confirmation Sunday, after all!)

Here’s the mean thing I did. I quoted the words from the liturgy of Baptism in the Lutheran Book of Worship, including these words: “As they grow in years, you should…provide for their instruction in the Christian faith, that, living in the covenant of their Baptism and in communion with the Church, they may lead godly lives until the day of Jesus Christ.” There’s the end date for our Christian parenting: when Jesus returns to usher in God’s New Creation. We’re not finished with our responsibilities to the next generation until then! Even if you have adult children, your calling to help form Jesus Christ in them (Galatians 4:19) is not finished until the Day of Resurrection.

The Next Generation in Our Communities

But is it enough for us to look after all our children in the inner circles of our homes and congregations? What about all the other kids in our “mission field?” Are they not, also in some sense, “our” children?

A pastor who used to serve in our synod loved to walk her dog through the small town where she served—attracting children who loved to pet the dog. The pastor’s dog helped open up ways to express love and care for all the children of her town.

Aren’t we always stumbling across such opportunities in our callings to be salt and light (Matthew 5:13-14) in our communities? The next generation all around us—in our communities—they are also “our” children. And we tend to under-estimate how many of them are out there.

Question: in the 21 counties that make up our synod, who do we have more of—children and youth under the age of 18, or senior adults age 65 and older? Which of these cohorts in our region’s population is larger?

When I have posed this question in congregations up and down western Minnesota, almost always I have heard this answer: “Oh goodness, we have lots more old folks than youth in our community!” And almost always this answer is dead wrong! Here’s what we discover in the latest demographic data regarding the territory covered by our synod:

Age category            Numbers of such persons                Percentage of such persons

Under age 18           93,566                                            23.5%

Age 65+                  67,603                                             17%

Nearly one-quarter of the almost 400,000 residents of our synod’s 21 counties are under the age of 18. This holds true in 17 of the 21 counties of the synod. Truly, the next generation is all around us! And they are, in a sense, all “our” children: children to treasure, know by name, pray for, and invite into the Christian life.

What if our synod became known as “the church that cares passionately for all God’s children?” What if we bent over backwards to invite the children, youth and their families to all the good things God is doing in our congregations?

What if, when issues of public policy were being discussed, we Lutherans became identified as those who consistently stand on the side of what’s best for the next generation? Part of our callings in Christ entails our citizenship. Periodically we are faced with stark choices about our common life today and the kind of future that we can anticipate.

School referendum elections determine whether our education system will remain strong and vital—but often these turn into battlegrounds that divide communities. Empty-nesters and other older adults say things like: “I don’t have any kids in the schools” or “my kids have graduated—we’ve paid our dues.” But, my dear friends in Christ, are not all the kids in our communities “our” children, regardless of our own age or circumstances?

In an article that recently appeared in Newsweek magazine, Fareed Zakaria wrote: “American politics is now hyperresponsive to constituents’ interests. And all those interests are dedicated to preserving the past rather than investing for the future….There are no special-interest groups for our children’s economic well-being, only for people who get government benefits right now….That is why the federal government spends $4 on elderly people for every $1 it spends on those under 18. And when the time comes to make cuts, guess whose programs are first on the chopping board. That is a terrible sign of society’s priorities and outlook.”

Once we start asking who are “our” children, the circle just keeps expanding. It becomes only natural for us to claim as “ours”

• All the children and grandchildren of our homes and congregations who may have moved to other locales but who are still tied to us by bonds of kinship and care;

• All the children of Minnesota and the United States;

• All the children of God’s world, including the amazing youth of our companion synod, the Andhra Evangelical Lutheran Church in southern India.

Before I close this article, I need to address a question you may be wondering about. Does all this attention to the next generation mean that we no longer care about the “elders” in our homes, churches and communities? Far from it! One of my seminary professors liked to say: “Preach to the eighth graders, and everyone else will listen.” When we undertake the great generational task of raising up our children, when we make our young ones our priority—lo and behold, all of society and all of the church is blessed. It’s about those of us who have walked long in faith leaving the best legacy for the ones who will replace us in serving God’s mission.

Your Brother in Christ,

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

For reflection and discussion:

1. How do you and the disciples in your congregation keep the promises you make every time you participate in a Baptism? What more might God be calling you to do for the baptized?

2. What are some implications of the notion that Christian parents/adults never really “retire” from their responsibilities to the next generation?

3. Why do we tend to under-estimate the number of children and youth in our communities?

4. Besides school referendum elections, what are some other public policy issues that have a direct effect on the next generation?

This is the fourth in a series of columns on Bishop Wohlrabe’s “Next Generation” vision (available at'S%20PAGE.htm) for the NW MN Synod. These columns are designed to equip the disciples and leadership groups such as church councils, for faithful and fruitful ministry. Feel free to use the column for personal reflection or group discussion, e.g. church council meeting devotions/discussion.

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