Agendas, motives, assumptions and outcomes

To facilitate a truly global conversation, we ask Christian leaders from around the world to respond to the Global Conversation’s lead articles. These points of view do not necessarily represent the Lausanne Movement. They are designed to stimulate discussion from all points of the compass and from different segments of the Christian community. Please add your perspective by posting a comment so that we can learn and grow together in the unity of the Spirit.

A response to:

Ethics and Cautions in Mission with Children – Dan Brewster

Eight years ago, new to working with children in poverty, I met a young lady named Cristina.

An intelligent eighteen year old, Cristina lived on the shores of Lake Titicaca in Western Bolivia. As she shared her experiences growing up, she recounted how some years previously through the lived witness of her local church she became a follower of Jesus. Soon afterwards, because of her own witness so too did her parents, then aunties, grandparents, and siblings. She said she considers her and her family’s faith the most important outcome of the church’s ministry to her, above education, healthcare, vocational training and the many ways the church helped her develop.

It’s a story I’ve heard echoed possibly hundreds of times since. Of course, those in similar settings who have been offended or alienated by being ‘evangelised’ as children may not have the same opportunity to share their experience with me. Nevertheless, I admit I am a believer that children should not be excluded from our witness to Jesus simply because they are children, nor that in doing good we dare not talk about Jesus because of the inherent risk of power imbalances (though we absolutely need to be cognizant of those risks, as Dan has pointed out.) That may represent another (potentially the worst) form of exclusion for children already often profoundly marginalised.

But I have grown cautious, too. The matter of evangelising children requires careful circumspection, for theological reasons as well as issues of human respect. The risks are real. Dan has identified some. Here a few additional reflections.

Firstly, we need to very honestly critique our motivations for ‘evangelising’ children. Are we compelled by an overwhelming love for God in Christ and our neighbours, and simply can’t help but share the good news with those around us (including children)? Does our witness do just that – point to Christ? Or are we driven by what Dutch missiologist J.C. Hoekendijk called ‘undisclosed motives’– winning (easier?) converts, amassing numbers to cite (or to stroke our own, or collective, egos), out-growing Christianity’s perceived competitors (Islam, atheism, secularism), or insecurity: that is, attempting to buttress the sinking ship of Christendom by ‘raising up a new generation’? These agendas – some of which may seem innocuous at first glance – can lead us to instrumentalise and objectify children. In other words, turning them into instruments (or targets) of our adult agendas (including the agenda of ‘global transformation’). Doing so objectifies and de-humanises children because it treats them as a means to an end, not human beings seen in the Scriptures as having God-given dignity, individuality, and complexity. Acknowledging the complexity of children as fully human beings means recognising their vulnerability and their agency; their immaturity as well as insight, their individuality as well as being part of a demography, their powerlessness as well as their emerging independent decision-making capabilities.

Further, mission engagement with children requires us to think carefully about the content of the gospel we seek to share (through word and deed). Much ‘evangelism’ has been reduced to formulas, beaded wristbands and sinners’ prayers. Reducing the gospel like this doesn’t necessarily make it clearer or simpler for children, but can slip into narrow, jargonistic ‘gospels’ which are neither clear to the concrete thinking of children, nor representative of the rich, whole gospel story. I sat through many a presentation of the gospel as a child which sounded a lot more like bad news than good news (making God out to be a mean-spirited cranky old man), and which were much more human-centred than centred on God’s great acts to love, redeem and restore, and establish his lordship over his fallen Creation.  Our theologians and Biblical scholars are important resources in helping us to keep a check on what we understand and communicate as ‘the gospel.’ Practitioners and action-oriented missioners take note: not stopping to think things through means we can be busy doing good things badly, which is not much better than doing bad things really well.

Finally, we need to carefully critique our presuppositions about children in relation to God. Are children ‘lost’? What does ‘lost’ mean? There are numerous historical and contemporary theological considerations of the child in relation to God which can help inform, shape (perhaps even challenge) our many assumptions. This in turn fundamentally shapes what and how we communicate with children.

Should we share God’s good news in Jesus Christ with children? Cristina is just one reason I answer ‘yes!’ But which ‘gospel’? Driven by what agendas, motives, assumptions, and outcomes? Indeed these are questions not only pertinent to evangelism to children, but to all our witness to Jesus Christ, whom by his incarnation as a human (child), his life, death, resurrection and Spirit is ultimately the One responsible for bringing anyone, young or old, to faith.

DJ Konz works for Compassion Australia