Everyone Benefits by Including Children in Small Groups
Small groups are gospel-centered communities on mission. The scriptures beautifully describe a small group of believers committed to seeing the gospel of Jesus Christ flourish in one another, then extending the gospel to all their neighbors. The idea sounds simple, yet living it becomes complex and challenging.
Many small groups struggle with how to handle children in the community. Maybe you can relate to one of our communities that had 14 adults and 16 children under the age of 8. In their mind they fit the ideal size of 12 t0 15 for a community group, and they were seeking to be innovative in their scheduling and structure. They rotated their meetings with men meeting one week, women the following, couples going out on date night, and then enjoying a family outing on the weekend. Theoretically this schedule allowed them to see each other weekly, but they never formed into a community that encouraged one another and extended the gospel to their neighbors.
Where Do We Go Wrong?
Many of our small groups apparently believe children get in the way of adults seeking to be in community and on mission. To be fair, no small group model communicates so explicitly, but when children aren't included in the number for the community group, it unintentionally conveys their lack of importance. We know Jesus welcomes children as valuable to God. The Book of Acts speaks of entire households participating in this new gospel faith in Christ and describes church life happening in believers' homes. The scriptures never explicitly speak of children in these communities, but we can still deduce that God views children as a blessing and the primary mission field for parents. So a gospel-centered community on mission embraces the view that children should be included and seen as members of the community in need of becoming disciple-making disciples.
We must re-imagine the church community, moving beyond life-stage idolatry to see the church as a family. Repeatedly the Bible refers to the church as the household of God, and familial language is used in describing our relationships with one another. We become spiritual brothers and sisters and make disciples of spiritual children with God our Father because of the work of Christ in making us fellow heirs by the power of the Spirit in the gospel. Community groups that gather around the gospel, then, will includes singles, married couples, and families who seek to fulfill the many "one anothers" of Scripture, discipling one another, and participating in each other's mission fields. Since the parents' mission field starts with their children, the rest of the community seeks to own this mission with them.
For families to share their community's mission, parents will need to see singles and married couples without kids as valuable to them beyond babysitting. When the gospel of Jesus Christ becomes our primary identity, life stage becomes a way to serve God and his mission rather than our main focus. If parents do not invite singles and married couples in their own church to be a part of their family, how will they ever extend the gospel to their neighbor in the same situation?
Good for the Whole Community
The entire community benefits from the gospel-centered community that involves children. This is not only better for the children and the parents, but also for those in the community who don't have kids or may never have children. They become spiritual parents seeking to form a new generation of Christ followers.
The children see models of the Christian life other than their parents in all walks of life with varying pasts that educate them for the future. Kathy Keller's article on raising children in the city speaks of how others in the community can share their experiences to testify to the goodness of God in avoiding the temptations our children will face.
As a father of three now, I'm so thankful for the experienced families who opened their lives to me. If I had never been shown how to parent by a gospel-centered family, I would have been dramatically different, likely over-protective and fearful. I was handed a three-month old when I was a 23-year-old single man and given a bottle to feed her at dinner with the community I had just joined. Thankfully, my education didn't stop there. I saw the delightful side of parenting coupled with the challenging parts. This prepared me to be a father well before I had children myself, giving me hope for a future family to be centered on God.
Many in the church have never seen a family try to display the love and grace of Christ to their children. Many whose parents did not model this love struggle to figure it out on their own. When we seek to integrate children, we bless the family and the kids, but we also bless every other member of the community who can learn from watching parents who seek to love their kids.
But How Does It Work?
If you share this vision and conviction to include children in community life and mission, what does the actual meeting look like? There are three primary options. In each one, the community must consider how the children will be shown truth, have fun, and experience the love of Christ. A community group can pursue babysitting, involve the children for part of the time, or involve the children for all of the time. (A helpful resource for can be found in Mike Breen and Alex Absalom's Launching Missional Communities.)
Some community groups choose to pursue babysitting, but each week someone rotates as their way of serving. We also encourage them to use the Jesus Storybook Bible or provide age-appropriate curriculum and feel the freedom to turn on a movie. This way communities serve one another while learning to disciple each other's children.
Children Involved for Part of the Time
This might cause you to change your community group meeting time to incorporate family meals or games with everyone that includes a time focused on caring for and teaching the children. The "formal time" uses babysitting to have fun, know God, and extend the love of Christ to children. This forces a community to learn to let all of our conversations be rooted in the gospel, including when joined by our children.
Children Involved for All of the Time
In this scenario, the entire community must be prepared to extend Jesus' love to children, as aspects of the community will need to change. The conversations would likely change, the setting would likely be more informal. Encouraging or challenging conversations will have to become normal in the middle of chaos. This will also force accountability times and even some of the prayer times to be different throughout the week.
The benefits of this mindset are many. Seeking to involve children requires that we restructure our community life to no longer revolve around our own convenience but aim to bless everyone else. My children are more joyful and obedient after they have been around a number of people who love Jesus and love them.
As the community develops a regular rhythm that includes children, this community can move toward mission fairly easily during informal time. This would happen through the community opening up their rhythm to their neighbors or seeking to join the activities of their neighborhood. These activities likely follow a similar pattern of sometimes requiring babysitting and sometimes incorporating children.
There's no reason to be surprised that all benefit from community life in small groups that involve children. This is the type of community that God calls together by his Word and invites us to joyfully participate in.