Infants and Children in the Church (book)

Dr. Kevin Lawson (Professor of Educational Studies at Talbot School of Theology) recently co-edited and published Infants and Children in the Church: Five Views on Theology and Ministry in partnership with Dr. Adam Harwood (Associate Professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary). We wanted to learn more about this book, so we had Dr. Lawson respond to some questions:

Dr. Lawson, we hear you have a new book out. What is the title, and what is the book about?

The book is Infants and Children in the Church: Five Views on Theology and Ministry. It is about how five different historic church traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Baptist) understand the nature of children, their relationship with God, their place within the church, and appropriate ministry with them.

When you started working on this book, who did you have in mind?

Primarily those preparing for ministry leadership roles in the church, to better help them think through their understandings of how children relate with God, and how the church is to minister with them.

Who is your target audience and how will they benefit from reading the book?

As stated above, I think that church ministry leaders will benefit from reading the book, because it will help them carefully think through what Scripture has to say about infants and children, and consider well how the church is to minister to them, for them, and with them. The book will also be of interest to both theologians and children's ministry scholars as it challenges them to ground ministry in theology, and live out theology well in our ministry.

What led you to write the book?

Adam Harwood and I are the co-editors, and contributors to this book. We met 10 years ago at an ETS conference where Adam had presented a paper on infants and children from a Baptist perspective. I encouraged him to pursue writing in this area and helping the church think more carefully about its ministry with children. He invited me to tackle this project with him, and we have pursued it for many years. We believe the church needs help in this area and that God has given us the kind of guidance we need in Scripture. My own contribution is the introduction and the final chapter on ministry practice with children in light of our theological foundations.

What is the ultimate goal of your book?

To help pastors and other ministry leaders in church settings more carefully think through their ministry to, for, and with children, leading to stronger and more beneficial ministry with children.

How is your book relevant to the Church today?

The church tends to focus either on ministry with adults (preaching, small groups, new believers classes) or youth (youth groups, intergenerational ministry efforts to connect youth within the church), and it has not given enough careful thought to our beliefs about how God works in the lives of children, and how we in the church can minister to them best. Effective ministry with children leads to stronger youth ministries and eventually stronger adult discipleship. Childhood is a foundational time for faith development, and we need more careful consideration about how to do this well. We have many different theological traditions in this area, and the better we understand our own positions in relation to others, the more clearly we can discern how to develop effective and faithful ministry with children.

Can you share with our readers a small excerpt from the book?

Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD,

the fruit of the womb a reward.

(Psalm 127:3, ESV)

Have you ever received a gift that left you feeling uncertain about what you should do with it? I have many times, and while I welcome such gifts, and appreciate the loving intentions of the givers, such presents leave me puzzled. Scripture declares, and followers of Jesus affirm whole-heartedly, that children are a heritage from God, a gift to us; thus, we Christians rejoice whenever a child is born into our families and into our churches. And yet, as the church we sometimes find ourselves a bit perplexed about what to do with these so-called gifts once the celebration is over. The dilemma comes down to this: just how are we to faithfully steward these precious little ones? How are we to minister to them, to encourage their spiritual growth, and to support their developing relationships with God—their Creator and Father?

Over the last hundred years, churches of all denominations have posed theological questions related to children and childhood, seeking guidance in the development of the church’s ministry the children God has given them. They ask,

  • What is the spiritual condition of children, and how can and should they relate to God during this early phase of life?
  • In what ways should Christians include them within the fellowship and community of the church?
  • In what sacraments or ordinances should children participate at particular ages or stages, and what does their participation mean to them and to the church?
  • How might believers effectively raise children toward love and faith in God, toward trusting reception of God’s grace through faith in Christ, and toward spiritual maturity?
  • What responsibilities should the church in general and parents or caregivers in particular take in the spiritual instruction and nurture of children?
  • How can Christians work together for our children’s good?

Churches today have diverse understandings of how to answer these questions—a reality leading various denominations to follow different practices with children. For instance, in some traditions, infants are baptized; in others, baptism is delayed until such time as a child expresses personal faith in Christ. Moreover, some traditions include children in celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, or Eucharist; others delay participation until a certain age is reached or until a personal experience of faith is vocalized. And although some churches include children in the full experience of corporate worship, others create separate worship and instruction experiences for them. In many cases, these diverse practices are deeply rooted in a theological understanding of the needs of children and of their place within the church body. In others, there has been little serious reflection on how or even whether theology should impact the way Christians train their young.

Though most believers would express a desire to be faithful to God in the care and spiritual training of his gift of children, answering questions like those above proves difficult for many. Marcia Bunge, reflecting on the current state of theological thought on issues regarding children observes that this has led to some negative impacts: “The absence of well-developed and historically and biblically informed teachings about children in contemporary theology helps explain why many churches often struggle to create and to sustain strong programs in religious education and in child-advocacy ministry.” (Marcia J. Bunge, “Introduction,” in The Child in Christian Thought, ed. Marcia J. Bunge (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), p. 4)

This book is designed to foster the kind of theological reflection for ministry practice that will help the church better respond to the gift of children in our midst. Christians need to give more attention and thought to the theological principles underlying this topic and to their implications for ministry practice. By carefully examining our own beliefs and practices, as well as those of other major branches of the Christian church, we hope to stimulate more thoughtful reflection and greater discernment concerning how God would have us minister to, for, and with children—both those within our congregations and those within our communities.

In a sentence or two, what is the main “TAKE AWAY” you want your readers to get from your new book?

Children are a precious gift from God, and we need to do our best to understand how God wants us to care for them, instruct them, and guide them so they can have a real, vital faith relationship with God as they grow.