Yesterday, I wrote about how the church has ignored or misunderstood the centrality of caring for orphans to the Gospel, but I don't think that this is the only root cause of the church's apathy. I believe there are two other factors which are at play. The one I will discuss today is the church's prevailing attitude towards children.
The trouble with being in the world is that more often than not we start looking more like the world rather than the opposite. It is hard to go against cultural norms. No one likes to feel as though everyone else thinks they're nuts or, even worse, ignorant. Instead of gladly looking and acting very different from the world, we choose to blend in. This phenomenon is very apparent when it comes to the church's general attitudes about children. These attitudes tend to very much mirror those of the society around them.
And what does society think about children? Pretty much that they are nice in limited doses, but don't have too many lest you ruin your chances for a 'good life', or ruin the two children you were 'supposed' to have, or ruin the environment. Children are seen in terms of their cost, and in society's eyes, they are very, very costly. And these limited children are really only welcome under certain conditions... they must be wanted and planned for and they must be healthy.
This idea of children being of questionable positive value is in direct opposition to what the Bible teaches us about how God views children. God, without question, considers children a blessing. Whenever God wished to bless someone, more often than not, that person was given or promised children. Children were seen as a blessing which would bring joy to the parent. Psalm 114:9 says, "He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!" Children are meant to bring joy. Psalm 127:3 says, "Behold children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward." Not a punishment, not problem to be solved, not something to offer condolences over, but a reward. Children are a gift from a gracious God.
Not that this means that raising children is easy. God knows the time and effort it takes to raise and train children. In Genesis 33:12-14, Jacob tells his brother to go on ahead, that he [Jacob] will lead his family slowly, at the pace of the children. In Isaiah 40:10 we are told that the Lord God leads his flock like a shepherd and gently leads those that are with young. God knows that parents raising children need an extra measure of time and grace and He promises us this. Life will move differently if we have children with us. Once again, different is not bad.
Not only is it not bad, but God uses it to teach us some big lessons about how we are to relate to Him. We must become like little children if we wish to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:2-6). Ephesians 5:1 tells us to "be imitators of God, as beloved children." We have something to learn by watching children and their parents that we need to know for our own relationship with God.
I would venture to say that most of the people in the church would agree with all of this and many may be wondering what I'm kvetching about. But we all know that stated beliefs can be different from how these beliefs are or are not played out in real life. I'm friends with quite a few mothers of large families (I know you're surprised by that), and sometimes when we chat together we share some of the more outrageous things that have been said to us. Sadly, the number of negative comments is no different from within the church (who should know the value of children and rejoice over them) than from those outside of the church (who cannot be expected to know the value God places on children). And it doesn't have to be the really horrible blatant negative comments either, which demonstrate an unhealthy attitude towards children. How many people have uttered the phrase, "I can't wait until they all ___________ (fill in the blank: go to school, go off to college, move out, etc.) so that I can have my life back." Or the "better you than me" type comments when someone finds out another person is expecting. As if having children is something to be avoided. Or the '"we're going to wait to have children" comments which imply that there are other things which are better.
The other way the church demonstrates its core, true beliefs about children is how children are integrated into the life of the church. Do we want to add them into the corporate life of the church, or are they seen as a nuisance and better relegated to their own programs where they are out of the way? How much contact do the pastors, elders, or other 'important' people in the church have with the children? If they are truly important, these older leaders will take the time to get to know them and lead them as well as the adults. Are church programs and activities planned with the needs of families in mind or are they thinking only of the adults, unencumbered by children? It can even be seen in the small things. Are there high chairs available for families who bring children to church functions? Are the rooms which the children use cared for with as much thought and expense as 'public' rooms or the rooms the adults use? Do activities get out on time, making it easier for parents to plan and to prepare their children? Are parents with a fussy baby in the worship service glared at or smiled at? How many babies have been born in the church recently?
If the answers to these questions show an underlying assumption that children are basically bothers and that the real work of the church begins when these children are older (if those same children are still bothering to show up), then is it any wonder that orphaned children either on the other side of the city or the other side of the world, don't even appear on the radar? In order to develop a heart for orphans within the congregation, a heart for children must first be developed. That would mean embracing children as the blessings and gifts they really are. In doing so, it will be the first step in making ourselves different from the world around us. Following Jesus means that others are going to think we're different, weird, stupid, crazy. And loving children... all of them... even the ones society has deemed not worth the bother... is a great way to start learning to be different.