I suspect that title dates me a little. When Peter, Paul, and Mary made this song popular, most of our churches were full of children and young people, but today most of our congregations could only respond, “long-time passing.”
What happened? Most of the children who attended our Sunday Schools, VBS, Explorers, young people’s groups, and camps in the late 20th century are not sitting in our pews in this century. Some may still call themselves Christians, but they see little value in attending worship (except perhaps at Christmas and Easter), or bringing their children up to love and serve the living God. There isn’t one answer as to why this has happened, and when we read scripture and history we know it is not a new thing.
As reformed Christians, we believe children are born with a capacity to be in relationship with God. We do not put this in them—that’s the way they come to us—but it is our task to help children mature in their faith. It takes parents, grand-parents, family, friends, and congregations working together to make it happen. At a child’s baptism the parents and the congregation promise to help the children grow in their love for God. Fortunately, it is not all up to us. The Holy Spirit, who is active in our baptism, calls and motivates us all to grow and mature in our faith.
It wasn’t enough to teach children:
- God loves you and thinks you are wonderful
- God wants you to be nice and kind and help people
- Bible Stories.
It wasn’t enough to give them fun and even memorable experiences at:
- Sunday School
- Vacation Bible School
- Church Camps
- Youth Groups.
These are all good things in any child’s life, but there is more to knowing and serving the Living God. We all need to know:
- That God can’t be just put on a shelf until there is an emergency and we need God to bail us out
- That God wants us to be more than “nice by societies standards.” God demands that we live obedient lives and serve God and others
- How to listen to the “still small voice” of God and talk to God
- How to verbalize our faith and share it with others
- That often a life of faith is counter-cultural
- That God demands us to worship the Triune God in the company of other people of faith
- And the list goes on….
If we have remained in the church and continue to love God and serve God, then we all have a story about how we got here. Our stories can be quite varied, but we should be able to articulate them. I was taken to Sunday School for part of my childhood, but my parents were a bit “hit and miss.” In my final year of high school, my best friend and I were thinking about joining a new club at Rockcliffe Airbase. My friend’s father (an elder in a local PCC church) said he would prefer she join the new youth group starting up at the Protestant Chapel. I was open to going to a youth group because I had good memories of going to a PCC Sunday School in my childhood, so we took his suggestion. Not long after, a youth leader encouraged me to give my life to Christ. I said yes, and the rest is history! It’s been an adventure and still is!
So now what do we do? We can love the children we have today in our congregations, and challenge them to grow and mature to be men and women of God. For me, that has meant spending time worshipping with children for over 25 years using the “Children and Worship” program. I love this program because it helps children worship God in a reformed style of liturgy, learn the vocabulary of worship, experience Biblical stories in a multi-sensory way, talk to God, and experience God’s love; but children need more.
- They need their parents to share their faith in the home.
- They need the adults in their congregation to know their names and talk to them and listen to them.
- They need opportunities to serve in the church and in their communities.
- They need to attend pot-luck suppers, VBS, camp, and more.
- They need God’s people praying for them by name .
- They need the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in their lives.
(It would also help if their congregation’s worship service engaged them body, soul and spirit.)
And what about those children of the late 20th century who have been “a long-time passing?” Well I believe we did plant some seeds of faith in them and these seeds can still grow, but we need a mighty movement of God’s Spirit to generate new life. Our job is to pray for them, love them, share our personal faith stories and continue to find ways to invite them home.