A tiny girl, Rose, rests against me in the pew, scribbling furiously in her colouring book, while at the front stands a youthful-looking old lady. She announces that the children are leading the service this week at this visibly diverse (and visibly urban) old Baptist church. This is not an entirely unique Sunday at Wentworth Baptist in downtown Hamilton, an inner city church devoted to its surrounding community and part of the True City network.
Perhaps it’s coincidence the senior pastor was away and children were leading the service, but nineteen odd years of looking at the world through Christian eyes has made “coincidence” null and void. The integration of children into the congregation was an important part of the service at the Freeway as well. So even though I didn’t expect the role of children to be an ecumenical issue, it certainly has become one. We do, after all, serve the God of the unexpected, who declares “new things” (Isaiah 42:9).
Children embody the virtue of joy because they are spontaneous, free, surprising and unrestricted. They are unordered and unorganizable. We, as adults, attempt to categorize them, as things in a world of things: the introvert; the ADHD child; the slow learner. Yet anyone who has worked with children knows that they exhibit a surprising capacity to break out of these boundaries—and “boundaries” is certainly an important concept in ecumenism. Perhaps the way we incorporate (or exclude) children in our churches is reflective of the way we participate in the struggle for Christian unity. And perhaps this is also the key to finding joy despite the difficult task.
Somewhere between the nature of the service (children-led) and the nature of the church (inner city) arises the issue of authenticity. Suburban churches ever and always struggle for authenticity because affluent culture is chained to superficiality—in appearance, emotion, wit and wisdom. The congregations of urban churches, however, have no pretenses. It is (sometimes painfully) obvious that those who gather are the “foolish”, the “weak”, the “lowly” and the “despised” (1 Corinthians 1:27-28). Yet God has chosen these.