“It takes a village to raise a child.” This African proverb, the origin of which remains a mystery, has become widely known and loved. Its broad appeal is no doubt due to the fact that it rings true, that is, it conveys an earthy wisdom that contemporary society finds uncommonly refreshing and challenging.
From its earliest beginnings, the Church has understood the important role that it—as a Christian community—plays in the nurture of children. This is instantiated in a number of practices that are an inseparable part of the Church’s liturgical and communal life: infant baptism, children’s catechism, children’s communion, etc.
These practices reveal the way in which the Church, shaped by the teachings of Scripture, regards children. Unlike the Greco–Roman society of the second century that often deemed children as mere property, the early Christians saw them as bearers of the divine image (Gen 1:26–28) and therefore as possessing an inviolable dignity.
Unlike many cultures and societies (both past and present) where children are valued only for their future contribution as adults, Christians, following their Lord (Matt 18:3), value them as children. Reflecting on the radicalness of Jesus’ attitude towards children, Dawn Devries notes that: “[Jesus] not only [welcomed] but [set] them up as models to be emulated. The value of these children, according to Jesus, is not for the sake of something else but simply for what they are in themselves as children: that is, Jesus holds childhood as intrinsically valuable.”
Like adults, children have a special place in the Body of Christ. And, like the adults, children too must undergo spiritual formation. Dallas Willard defines spiritual formation in Christ as “the process whereby the inmost being of the individual (the heart, will or spirit) takes on the quality of Christ Himself.”
For many Christians, the first thing that usually comes to mind with regard to the spiritual nurture of children is the ministry of the Sunday School. However, the spiritual formation of children must also be seen as taking place beyond the confines of the Sunday School, that is, beyond the catechetical aspects of Church life—indispensable though this is.
It is through the dynamics of koinonia—often informal, spontaneous, unrehearsed, unpredictable and messy—that Christians learn what it means to be Christ’s disciples, what it means to pray, to carry each other’s burdens, to love, to forgive, to endure, to edify and to worship.
And it is also in and through this community that children learn what it means to live before God (Coram Deo) and for others.
What this means is that every member of the Body of Christ—not just their biological parents—must bear the responsibility for the spiritual wellbeing of the children in the congregation.
This truth is beautifully and movingly underscored in the baptismal rite of the Methodist Church. The pastor asks the parents of the infant baptizands and their sponsors this question:
Will you nurture these children
in Christ’s holy Church,
that by your teaching and example they may be guided
to accept God’s grace for themselves,
to profess their faith openly,
and to lead a Christian life?
After an affirmative response from them, the pastor then turns to the whole congregation and asks: “Will you nurture one another in the Christian faith and life and include these persons before you in your care?” The congregation responds with this covenantal pledge:
With God’s help we will proclaim the good news
and live according to the example of Christ.
We will surround these persons
with a community of love and forgiveness,
that they may grow in their trust of God,
and be found faithful in their service to others.
We will pray for them,
that they may be true disciples
who walk in the way that leads to life.