In a journal article entitled “Involving Children in Health and Social Research” the authors present an interesting question: Are children to be perceived as “human becomings or active beings” (Balen et al. 2006, 1)? It is argued that children should be recognized as social actors, rather than as “objects to be studied.”
I would suggest that as we approach missional engagement (including evangelistic activities) with children we recognize their human dignity and place as actors in society. As children who have been created as unique people with dignity we will want to recognize the idea that they have been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26) and thus have an active part to play in this world. Given this theological insight, the opinions and actions of children matter.
What I am not suggesting is that children are mature persons able to participate on equal standings as adults in every circumstance. But given their place in their own developmental process, I suggest that we consider the possibility that children, as actors in society, be perceived as people who are given ample opportunity to develop their faith in a responsible way that is coherent with their developmental process. In acknowledging their place as subjects, rather than objects of missional engagement or evangelism, we are declaring that children also have something to teach us as adults as well. It was Jesus who recognized the important role that children play in the kingdom as he looked to the book of Psalms (8:2) to support the sporadic declaration by children that he was indeed the Messiah (Matthew 21:15). If Jesus permitted the participation of children, why don’t we?
To include children as participants means to recognize and respect their voice. Some have concluded within medical ethics that children aged 14 and up are in a position to give informed consent as to whether or not they agree to become subjected to research. Children aged 7 and up are believed to be developmentally capable of giving assent (which is, in a non-legal sense, the agreement of a child to participate in the research process) (Balen et al. 2006, 34).
In thinking through missional engagement with children, I would suggest guidelines that are in the same spirit as that of social and medical research. Children should be approached and informed as to the purpose of a meeting. Given that parents (or guardians) play an essential role in the lives of children, I believe that they too should be notified and given a reason for an activity and invited to participate where possible. Children below the age of seven should be given access to spiritual resources as well, but in a way that is in accordance with their developmental process. Manipulation should be avoided at all costs and if children do make a spiritual decision, proper discipleship with parental acknowledgement should be engaged. Coercive activities are contrary to the nature of spirituality and the ways of Christ. As children progress in their faith development, they should be given the opportunity to not only receive spiritual support but give as well. It’s when we recognize their place in the faith community and provide them with the opportunity to help in fulfilling God’s mission that they will become active participants in the extension of God’s kingdom.
Scripture is clear – we fall short of God’s purposes and standards and desperately need to be reconciled with our Creator. Giving children and parents alike access to spiritual resources is an important task of the Church, but let’s keep in mind that children might just have something to teach us in the process! Their active participation in consenting to be part of a Church or religious activity is critical to recognizing their human rights and dignity.
Balen, Rachel, Eric Blyth, Helen Calabretto, Claire Fraser, Christine Horrocks, and Martin Manby. 2006. Involving Children in Health and Social Research. Childhood 13 (1):29-48.