Let’s take a look here in Matthew, the 18 th chapter and verse 1.
Mt. 18:1 – It says here, At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And then Jesus called a little child to Him, and sat him in the midst of them, and said, Assuredly, I say unto you…. What does that word assuredly mean? It means don’t doubt it. This is absolutely true. Assuredly, I say unto you, unless you are converted and become as a little child, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Isn’t that interesting? There’s so much that we can learn from this section of scripture. There were little children around Jesus. That’s interesting in itself, isn’t it? Most people don’t think much about that, do they? He didn’t have to go far to grab one, even though all the adults were there too. And we can learn that the disciples weren’t paying any attention to them. Interesting, isn’t it? They had more important things to think about, like control, and one-upmanship, and who’s going to be in charge, and things like that. What do little kids think about? Well, they think about carpet fuzz. They think about cookies and milk, cats, dogs and turtles, playing, cuddling, molding. That’s what little kids think about. That’s what the disciples were thinking about. They were thinking about who’s going to be the “big cheese” in the kingdom of heaven. That is interesting, isn’t it?
V-4 – Notice what Jesus says here in verse 4. Therefore, whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Now what would that mean? As this little child…. Well, I think it means to think about the same things that little kids think about – reestablish our priorities. Cookies and milk, cats, dogs and turtles – that kind of thing. Cuddling. That would be good for a lot of people I know that are so involved in political things at church – people who always have to be in control are not humble people. And they need to get their minds off of that and start thinking about the things that are really important – like children! Now, Jesus said this here to a bunch of guys that didn’t think much about kids. And He said, “You better study to become like them. And if you receive them, I will receive you.”
V-5 – Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me. But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Because little children are not at the same developmental level as adults, a lot of adults make a very serious mistake in thinking that children don’t have faith and that they don’t believe in God. Just because they can’t talk to us about the nature of God, and they don’t understand about the Holy Spirit perfectly – just because they don’t understand those things – doesn’t mean that they can’t believe in God. And here Jesus confirmed that. …one of these little ones who believe Me! Powerful statement. And Jesus said that if we receive them, He’s going to receive us. Now the implication there is, that if don’t receive them, we’re not going to be received.
Now why is Jesus saying this to these men? Well, it was interesting at Lexington – at the Congress – to hear the young people talk about their concerns for the Church. And most of them seemed to think that the biggest faith buster for the ones that they know that don’t come anymore is church politics – control issues. So what is Jesus saying to these men? Well, he’s saying that we need to get off that stuff and start thinking about what’s really important. And what I want to know is how long are we going to ignore this warning? Passover after Passover we miss the point. We blow by it in our self-examination. We go about like the disciples, who were completely clueless about what’s really important.
V-7 – Notice what He says next. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes! If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. That’s pretty strong talk, isn’t it? How serious is Jesus about getting rid of the attitude that ignores kids, and thinks they don’t count, and walks by them without a good word? Well, what He’s saying here is, that if that attitude were your foot, you’d be wise to cut it off. I know, I’m just an extremist. Nobody takes me seriously. But then I didn’t say these things, did I?
So today we’re going to study about how to include and spiritually nurture children between the ages of six through twelve – that’s the middle school age – not that they go to middle school – all of them – but they’re in the middle of school age – so that we can enjoy them as equals in the kingdom of God later. I know that some people don’t think that this is important, but if you want to gamble, just wait and you’ll see.
Let’s take a look at something we can learn from a textbook. We always start with the developmental tasks of each age group. But before we go there, let’s notice that this stage – between six and twelve – lasts longer than the previous stages. Each of those three stages lasted two years each. And what’s happening here is, that as kids start to develop – and their brains start to wire – they’re capable of a lot more. And so it takes longer to accomplish all of these things that they can now accomplish at this age group. Children at this age are working on many more tasks than they were previously. It’s a time of immense change – breathtaking change – and the changes become increasingly subtle and complex. So there’s a lot to talk about here.
Let’s think about this first one that we can look at: friendship – friendship for children between the ages of six through twelve. The older you get in this stage, the more important it becomes. I watched a movie years ago. It was about a famous author who was reflecting back on his childhood. And the whole movie was about an adventure that he and his other ten and twelve year old friends had. They heard about a dead body that was buried somewhere way off from where they were – some kid got killed by a train, I think. And the whole movie was about their journey to go try to find this dead body. It was kind of gruesome, but that’s what little boys that age sometimes do. And at the end of the movie he was reflecting about that time in his life when he was 10 to 12, and he wrote, “I never had friends like that later.” And then he paused and said, “Does anybody?” You think back about the friendships that you have during that time. For me, it was Eddy. Eddy lived down the street just a little ways from us – maybe three houses down – and I remember that Eddy and I built this fort in my backyard. And it had a secret tunnel that we dug as an escape route from our evil brothers. Well, that was a big deal to us back then. But then you have your own memories of that time of life, don’t you?
Children at this age are learning how to make friends. And I want to point out that at this age also family and parents are naturally paramount. But they’re starting to prepare themselves – even at this age – to take their place in the adult world where they have to make friendships with other people. And so they’re very busy learning how to do that.
At my school most days I’ll usually find somebody off in a corner crying. And what’s the issue? Well, so-and-so was mean to me. We talk a little more and we find out why. Somebody doesn’t have the skills yet to relate well to other people. And so we have to work through that.
But how critical is it to be able to make friends in the world and to hold on to them?
The next thing that the books tell us that kids do at this age is, that they develop the ability for concrete operational thought. Now what is that? Well, it’s a new stage of intellectual development that they haven’t had up to that point. And I’m not going to go into it. You can read about it if you want to. Google has it. Google has everything. And it is fascinating to think about, but we’d never get out of here if you got me off on that one. So suffice it to say, all the things children do at this age they do because their minds have taken a giant leap forward. And now they’re able to learn a lot of new things that they couldn’t learn before. They can categorize things. They can classify things. They have the ability to hold things in their mind and manipulate them without actually having to manipulate them in person. So that’s part of what concrete operational thought is like.
One of the things that I do with kids at school every day to see where they are, is to talk to them about time. And you’ll notice about the first or second grade, most kids, when you ask them when is recess, they don’t get this incredible question mark on their face, because they understand what that means. They’ve finally moved into concrete operational thought, where they can understand what it means – time. Try a kindergartner and ask him things like, When do you go to lunch? They just don’t understand that yet. They’re just not ready for it. Now we’re laughing, but I can’t read Steven Hawkings book past chapter two and get it, so there’s always more to understand, right? And the reason I can’t is because my brain isn’t developed. There isn’t enough hard wiring there to understand the universe. So we can laugh at little kids because we’re way above that. But there are other people that are way above all of us, right?
Okay, the next thing to think about is skill learning. They just learn so much – how to do so many things at this age. They learn how to tell time, how to read, how to write, how to develop coordination. The PE teacher at our school has taught half the kids in our school how to juggle three balls. I can’t do that. I can’t do it. And they love to come in and bounce them all around my office and show me what they can do. They learn things like that easily. They can pick that stuff up so fast when they’re that age, where I’m still looking at the second ball when the first one hits the floor. I’m past the time when I can learn to do that easily like those kids can.
I have this Food for Kids program that I do every week at my school. I get backpacks and snack food from the food bank each week, and pack it in backpacks for kids that don’t have enough to eat. Kids that are hungry don’t learn. So that’s one of the things we do to try to help them be able to learn. And it’s kind of complicated because the servings are counted out according to how many siblings are in each family. So you have some backpacks that have just a certain number of servings, and more in another backpack, and more yet in another one. So they don’t all get the same thing. So it becomes a little bit complicated when you have fifteen different food items divided up into servings, and apportioned according to how many kids are in each family. So each week I ask a child to come help me. Actually, they ask me if they can come help. And this little girl came into help me this past week. And she’s a very well brought up kid. She never gets in trouble. Good student. And she loves to help. And I was noticing how pleased she was that she was able to quickly figure out how to pack these packs – at least that’s what it seemed like was going on to me. And she told me while we were walking around my round table, putting all these portions in there, “I like to come here and help you.” And so I’m thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, she likes to do this.” And I said, “I notice how good you are at this, and it makes you feel good to do such good work.” And she smiled, and she looked slightly self-conscious, and she said, “Well, I like that, but I like to come here because you are so nice. You’re not like some of the teachers.” I don’t have to play the same role some of the teachers have to play. My job is to let them do whatever they want in my office and to make friends with them. So it’s easier for me to be liked. But she didn’t have skill building on her mind. I was wrong about that. My assessment of what was going on there was incorrect. But that’s okay, because she explained it to me. She was thinking about her relationship with me. So I said, “Well, being nice to you is easy because you’re so nice. I guess that means that we’re friends, doesn’t it?” And she smiled. And I said, “Friends help each other just like you’re helping me. And so if there’s ever any way that I can help you, I will do what I can to help you. And so I opened the door to be a counselor to her if anything ever comes up later. That’s why we try to make friends with the kids in the school, so that if problems develop, there’s somebody that they know already that they can talk to.
So she’s learning how to make friends with adults. She’s learning how to do complicated sorting and counting activities. And she’s enjoying both of those things very much. And those things are learned so easily at that age. It’s a lot harder for us as adults to make friends than it is when we’re kids. I was mentioning to my brother that I’d just made a new friend that was my age. And he said, “Wow! That doesn’t happen to us much any more, does it?” That made me appreciate that relationship a lot more than I had previously. But that’s true.
So children that age can learn friendship. They can learn skills quickly and easily. And the next thing they talk about in the book is self-evaluation. We shouldn’t take too much time here, but we should note that the ability to assess the self accurately plays a big part in how we think of ourselves. And it also plays a big part in our spirituality as well – self-examination at Passover – something that’s core to being a Christian. So it’s a cornerstone of spiritual growth. And kids do start to become more self-conscious during this time, because they’re becoming more aware of themselves – the things that they can do, they compare themselves to other kids and to other adults. And they form opinions about themselves and how well they’re doing.
We have a little kindergartner in our school who I’ve been using my wristwatch to clock how long he can focus on something when he’s in my office. And he has yet to focus on anything for longer than twenty seconds. He’s like a jumping bean around that office. He cannot play a game. He can’t play in the sand. He can’t tell me a story. He’s one of the most impaired children I’ve ever worked with when it comes to attention deficit issues. He has no clue that he’s like that, because he does not yet have the ability to compare himself to the other kids in his class. He might start to get a clue to that if they start belittling him. He’ll know something is wrong. But on his own, left to himself, he doesn’t have the skill yet to do that. Whereas, the kids that are six through twelve are really starting to build the ability to do that – to think about what they’re doing and how it compares to other people.
It also plays in with us as parents, because kids compare themselves to us. We had a discussion the other day in a class full of fifth graders about drugs. And we were telling the kids that the most important people in their life, when it comes to problems and to talking to things that are possibly dangerous, or hurtful, is to talk to our parents. And there’s this one little kid there whose dad smokes weed all the time, and you can just see the wheels turning in his little mind as we’re delivering this message. He’s learning something and it’s not good. He’s thinking about his family – what it’s like compared to others, and what he’s going to be like and who knows which way he’s going to take that.
The final thing that I wanted talk about, that is a big skill building thing at this age, is team play. For some, that sounds like unimportant fun and games, but if I were to mention the words interdependence , then that would take on a whole new cast for us, wouldn’t it? God expects interdependence of us with others, doesn’t He? We have to work together if we want to be in God’s Church. That’s why I like Jim O’Brien’s new leadership newsletter that he’s putting out – cooperation without control – the ability to work together, even though we don’t always just believe exactly the same thing, but to pull together and to learn to work as a team to do things together. Of course, the disciples didn’t get that one at all at first either, did they? I mean that was their problem. They all wanted to rule supreme. And they had to be divested of that value before they could be apostles and lead the Church.
Looking at these five developmental tasks, what can we do to encourage kids of this age to make them feel a part of the family and a part of the congregation? Remember that these things – friendship, skill learning, self-evaluation, team play – these things are things that they learn easily at this age. If you give them a chance, it just goes in. You just have to make things right and it will just go in. Using these skills helps them feel fulfilled and a part of things, because they just naturally want to learn those things. Some people don’t see what this has to do with spiritual development. But spirituality is something that is learned from person to person. You can’t program it. Spirituality is learned through human connection. We told people, “Study the booklets, take the correspondence course, etc. And that’s how you learn.” Well, all that’s good, and we do learn that way, but it’s only a part of the picture. You read your Bible and see how the faith was spread in the scriptures – Old and New Testaments – and it’s person to person. That’s how it happens. So what can we do to help kids at this age?
One of the things I think about is to provide opportunities for them to make friends of all ages. Now we sometimes provide opportunities for them to make friends of their own age group, but in our culture, we’re used to segregating people by ages, and we don’t include them altogether very much. So we’ve got to get over that bad habit. If we want our kids to feel a part of the group, they have to have time with the group ! So how would we do that? We should have intergenerational activities, where we plan to put people of different ages together and get them to work on things together side by side. Working with somebody in a joint effort takes the pressure off the relationship and puts it on the project. That’s what I do when I invite somebody in to help me with my backpack program. We’re not sitting there across a table from each other, staring each other in the face, feeling embarrassed because we don’t know what to say. We’re busy working on accomplishing something together, and the relationship just happens automatically when you put people together in that situation. So that relationship happens in a pressure-free environment when we do that. Our society tends to isolate people by age group. We put people with peers, but we need to sit down and think about how we can change that in the Church.
The second thing I want to talk about is mentoring, because that’s the way you change this. You know, when I’m teaching this little fifth grader how to pack these backpacks, I’m mentoring her. I’m teaching her how to help people in the community and how to do this kind of work. And I’m also helping her learn how to connect to an adult. You know how hard it is to connect to somebody of another age? I mean, I have no clue what these kids do all the time at recess, and at home, and what TV they watch and all of that. And they don’t have a clue what I’m doing either. So there really isn’t a lot to talk about unless we have something that we can both work on together. And then we can talk about that. And that gives us a chance to get to know each other and learn more about one another, and then there’s other things to talk about.
So mentoring…. All of these things that we’re going to talk about really just fit together hand in glove. Kids this age are hard-wired for friendship and for learning new things. So when you have an adult that knows how to do something – teach him how – there’s connection that’s built there. Mentoring becomes immensely helpful at this age. I went to a benefit breakfast for the Big Brother/Big Sister Program here in Albuquerque a while back. And a young man told his story about how somebody he met when he was ten changed his whole life. They’re still friends – and he’s now, I think, in the third year of a job he got after he got out of college. And he and this mentor that he had have stayed connected up until he’s now an adult – and he has an adult friend. There’s no way really to detail a plan in this venue for that, but I’m certainly available to talk to people about that one on one, or as a group. There are things that can be done.
I’d like to also mention people who are teenagers and people who are college age can realize that they have an obligation to those who are younger as well. And some of us, who are approaching sixty, are just too tired. We need some help from those of you who have energy. And people, hopefully, were helpful to you as you got older, and now it’s time to make a contribution to others. I have a friend who told me that when he was sixteen years old, a man in the church walked up to him, and said, “You should get into digital electronics.” And so he did! And the last time I talked to him – well, not the last time – but several years ago, he was making six figures working for Hewlett Packard in digital electronics. He’s an engineer. And he says that the thing that spurred him toward that successful career was that comment made by a Hewlett Packard engineer in his congregation twenty years ago.
What else can we think about here? Well, we can teach children this age how to serve. We can teach them new skills. And then we can provide them opportunities in the church for service if we’re not too afraid that they’re going to take over and we’re going to lose control. You can’t be a controller and help the children in your congregation. There are some healthy people in congregations that have understood and have employed this principle, but for most of us, we start way too late with these kids. We start when they’re teenagers, and they’re ready when they’re six and seven and eight years old. We need to increase what they do as they get older. But we need to start earlier with them. We need to provide lots of opportunities for little ones. And we can’t worry that they’re going to spill the coffee, or not put enough in, or make some kind of mistake like that. That stuff is nothing compared to the benefit that’s gained from them participating.
We know that Jesus followed this principle, because He sent out seventy neophytes to preach the gospel – brand new people. Now I’m sure He could have done a better job Himself, but He was willing to let them learn. He was willing to let them make their mistakes and learn their lessons. And that’s how we need to think about our children.
What else can we think about here? We can think about Bible education. Children this age soak up knowledge like a sponge. They’re naturally interested in the natural world and in spirituality. So this age is a great time to help them learn about the Bible – to understand it and become acquainted with it, and to learn how to use Bible helps and things like that. You know, when they’re six or seven – and even earlier than that – we start with stories, right? Bible stories, and then we move to principles, and then specific scriptures as they get older. And then as they get into teenage, they can work together to analyze what those things mean to them and how to apply them in daily life. And when we start young with them, it gives them a sense of mastery over this great big, intimidating book.
Very interesting thing happened this past fall at the CEM feast site. The songleader mentioned that this was their eighth year of graduations. So now the kids who were finally graduating from this program at the highest level were the first ones who started at the beginning and had gone all the way through. See, for the last eight or nine years, they very carefully laid a plan. And they’ve been working that plan consistently every year. They mentioned that in the beginning it was hard to get the teens to come to the lessons, but, as the kids had started out when they were six and five and four, matriculated up through the program, they just naturally took to it. And as they got older, they presented them with more challenging information and they worked with them in groups to where they could discuss things in group. And it was lively and interesting to them. I know one young man who went to that feast site, was somewhat disenchanted with his church experience, and going to those classes was a wakeup call for him. It just changed his whole approach overnight. Suddenly he became interested in church again. So I think that’s a great model for understanding that we’re not talking about quick fixes. It took a long time for them to do that. But that’s how groups of people build healthy sets of standards – over time , by consistent, persistent application. We’re not talking about quick fixes. And we need to start now for the future of the church if we want there to be a church in twenty years.
We really do need to think seriously about that. We’re talking long term. We’re talking on-going effort. We’re talking deep-seated personal change of every adult in the congregation. And we’re talking about applying those changes across time – patiently and consistently and persistently.
Let’s look at my new favorite scripture. We see that spiritual growth happens miraculously from this scripture. And we see that if we plant, water and do what we can to make conditions right, Jesus said, in Mark 4: 26, this is what the Kingdom of God is like.
Mk. 4:26 – …a man scatters seed on the ground, and night and day whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain, first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. So there you have it. If we plant and water, if we do what we can to make conditions right for children in our congregations, then spiritual growth is going to happen by a miracle all by itself. If we provide the conditions that kids need, if we provide – talking about this age group – opportunities to connect with peers and adults – parents first, then pastors and mentors and teachers and other adults – if we provide opportunities for them to learn about God – things they can learn at their age – age-appropriate learning – if we provide opportunities for them to learn skills that they can use to help the congregation, and then teach them how to do those things, if we do that, they will attach to us, and they will attach to the congregation, and when the time is right, they will come asking questions about baptism and it will seem like a miracle to us.
I want you to notice this last verse. It says:
V-27 – All by itself the soil produces grain. And notice how this happens in an organism: first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. It doesn’t happen all at once. It happens in stages . And children are just like plants. They grow up in stages, too.
According to Eric Erickson, the developer of psycho-social theory, which is what we’re looking at here, people develop their attitude toward work in this stage of development. “As a child develops skills and the ability to assess themselves, they form an assessment about whether they will be able to contribute to the social community they are in.” Think about all the prisoners that have the tattoo on their arm that says, “Born to lose” – a very common tattoo seen in prison. What are these people lacking? Well, there’s something they didn’t learn between the ages of six through twelve. And that is that they can make a contribution to society. So if we teach our children how to use their skills, and develop skills, and, if they come off well in the assessment that they make of themselves, they are also going to make an inner commitment to strive for success. And, if people believe that they can be successful in their endeavors, then it’s much easier to believe that they’re efforts with God will be successful as well. So it’s important that children learn to believe that they can succeed if they work hard.
Let’s move forward and look at what they call the developmental crisis of this age. Every age has a crisis point – where you either learn, or you don’t learn what you need to learn to be successful for the next stage. And they say the tension points in this crisis area are what they call industry versus inferiority. Now industry as a term used here is an eagerness to acquire skills and perform meaningful work – just like that little girl that was in my office wanting to help me, learn how to count those backpacks and do that job. It’s just a natural thing for her. And, if we want to play to this vital attitude that children naturally have at this age, we’re going to teach our kids between six and twelve skills about the Bible – knowledge about the Bible. We’re going to teach them about serving at church, about helping the elderly, about helping those who are younger. And we’re going to help them be successful at making friends of all ages in our group. We will take them under our wings, so to speak, and teach them in parental and mentoring relationships how to participate in the church’s work. And they can learn this easily at this age. And once that connection is made, then it tends to stick.
Now the other side of that pole is inferiority. And their definition of that is, the belief that one cannot be successful – how they define inferiority. I knew a man once, who was in his seventies, and one day he told me that when he was ten his father told him that he was a sorry little rat! That happened to him over sixty years earlier, and it still brought tears to his eyes. That message ripped the heart of his drive for mastery as a little ten-year-old kid. It was cruel. It was an old, deep festering wound. Of course, we can create that same sense of inferiority in children in less direct ways. All we have to do is leave them out and ignore them, and they get the same message. They believe that they can’t help. “You can’t make the coffee. You might spill it.” We’re always telling them to be careful and be quiet. The child who is not allowed to use what he or she is hard-wired to learn is going to feel detached and disconnected from the activity of the group.
I have a friend who was explaining to me how it was that he grew up in a large Protestant church and yet did not believe in God. And he started his story telling me that while church was going on, he was wandering in the back halls and climbing around the bell tower. He was the invisible boy. Quite unintentionally, the adults sent him a message. And that message was, “There’s no place for you here. You don’t belong. Nobody cares about you. You’re not even missed.” Have we done that in our congregations? Every time a child walks by us, whose name we don’t know, we do it. What do you think Jesus thinks about that? It really doesn’t matter what we think. He’s already made Himself clear on that issue. We learned what He thinks about that at the beginning of the sermon. And nothing is more important to our salvation than attending to the spiritual and developmental need of the children in our midst. The older they get, the more true that is. The older they get, the more impact the congregation can have on them.
Let’s look at the process by which children become industrious and learn new skills. The process, as defined by educators and social scientists, is called education . Now when I say that word, we think of things like Sabbath school programs and Bible study courses and things like that. And these kinds of formal training are essential, and they are potently effective at helping children this age, but that is not what this word means, in the way they’re using it. I want to quote from the text book I’ve used for this series on what this word education means. “Every culture must devise ways of passing on wisdom and skills of past generations to its young. This is the meaning of education in its broadest sense.” So when they say, “Education,” they’re talking about passing on the beliefs, the values, the behaviors, the whole thing to our children. Now you think about that, and then you think about what Dr. Bruce Perry, the great brain researcher said. He said, “Western culture is the first culture in the history of civilization to lose the ability to transmit its values from generation to generation.” We’ve lost that ability because generations don’t spend enough time together for the values to be passed on! If we don’t want to see our church die out, if we want to transmit our values to our children, we have to act differently than most of the people around us. We have to begin spending time with our children – not only ours, but children of other people. That child that Jesus noticed, blessed and held in His arms was not His child! And yet there was connection there. As a community of believers we have to contribute ourselves to the process of connection.
God has provided a broad highway into the heart of each child through these developmental drives. And if we match our efforts to them – to their drives and what they need – then spiritual learning takes place easily and naturally. It happens just like Jesus said, “All by itself.” We need to sit down in our groups and our congregations and give serious thought and lay plans and devise ways to pass on what we know through connectedness to our children. And if we do that, perhaps at the end of our road, instead of disapproval and millstone, we will find a crown of life and the smiling faces of all the children we have helped – then spiritual equals and fellow children with us – in the family of God.