A Message from Pastor Hale

A Message from Pastor Hale

Children are rightly to be treasured as divine gifts. Children are a “heritage from the Lord, the  fruit of the womb, a reward” (Ps. 127:3). So they should be received with joy, if the Lord so blesses. But we do not make them, God does it through those who He makes husband and wife. The act through which our Lord chooses to create life is meant to be part and parcel with marriage, so much so that He actually joins as one flesh through it — even those who are not legally married (1 Cor. 6:16).

But the gift of children can be used as tools to hold others captive. Our society says that we must placate and appease them, instead of the other way around. Discipline and demanding strict obedience is considered unloving, even though it is a divine duty. Children are commanded to honor their father and mother. This is a large part of the basis for society and the Church on earth.

Some churches have a competing children’s church, so that children are taken away from their parents and given a childish version of the service. It is much better that children learn how to worship as adults — especially from their parents. It is certainly not fun to have toddlers in the service, but they must learn to be quiet and listen if they are to do it someday as youth and adults. It is a great way to teach respect for God’s Word. The public service is a form of discipline, even for adults. We shouldn’t talk or comment during it, out of respect for others who are there to hear God’s Word and call upon Him. This is not easy for any sinner: to focus on Christ and His Word. But the sermon and Scripture lessons provide doctrinal meat for us to discuss throughout the week. Parents are to teach their children constantly, but to do so they must learn themselves.

But must we draw to church children, youth, and young adults? Over the years I have seen churches held hostage by one demographic.  “We MUST do _____ , in order to get this group of people in church.” So churches cater to one identified group, at the expense of all others. This is sad. The Church is Christ’s and He determines how it is to draw people: by His saving Word which creates faith in Him. There are human ways to attract people, but those who depend on human efforts to draw sinners in are not acting as the Church proper. God’s Word must be what we are about, not gimmicks. This applies to every age group.  We should trust Christ and leave  the Church to Him to take care of. If the Word is preached rightly (this is no easy task for those with the sinful nature), then all is blessed. This is not a human organization we are baptized into — we were baptized into Christ.

In my ministry I have heard many comments to this effect: “We must have contemporary worship to draw the young people.” “We must have children’s sermons to reach the young.” “We must have youth involved by having them do things during the service.” “We must have special, super- active groups for youth and young adults.” But Jesus taught us that only one thing is necessary: His Word. All else, however great, attractive, and desirable, does not forgive sins or give eternal life. There are no  musts, where Christ is rightly preached and taught.  When we trust His  promises we have everything. We live in the freedom of the Spirit, in the Kingdom of the Father. What we do is always tainted by sin, but Christ renews us through His Word — His means of salvation.

But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil
Hebrews 5:14

It is true that youth are the future of the church. But “youth” is a new category. Not long after confirmation, it used to be that many children starting working jobs and got married. They were adults, but now youth (this stage can even last through college) is an extended childhood. Some elderly alive today only went to school through 8th grade and then took on real world responsibilities. I believe youth should be treated seriously, as adults-in-training. There should be a balance between fun activities, service to others, and real doctrinal meat. Most youth actually do not want to be treated like 5 year olds, where playtime dominates. Our youth face a world that is more antagonistic toward Christ than we faced. Sins are more accessible and in-your-face than ever before in our country. It is a dangerous place. But we have the duty and responsibility to prepare them for this war zone. This is something that your pastors take seriously.  “But solid  food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:14). Not just for youth, but every age is to continue to  grow and not be stunted. No one should be satisfied with a child-like understanding of the faith.

“But why don’t we have more youth? What are we doing wrong?” That is a worldly line of questioning. First, it denigrates the youth here who are willingly hearing Christ and receiving His forgiveness. This is truly a miracle, as it is for every believer. Anyone who gladly hears Christ  has His Spirit and life. It is not about numbers, but letting the Holy Spirit work where and when He wills, through Christ’s Gospel. I was very impressed with Zion’s youth who went to Higher Things, because they actually come to church regularly and do the main Christian activity of hearing His Word. In so many churches the youth are their own separate group, so that many do not attend the public services and make the youth group their own private country club. Christ does not divide us — He is one, just as there is only one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Youth, babies, and the elderly need the exact same thing: the forgiveness of sins and rescue from death. The Gospel of Christ gives us all we need. Youth should learn from parents and experienced adults how to be Christian. It is not natural to believe and live by faith. We must continue to fight against sin as long as we breathe. What a great opportunity we have if even only one youth wants to hear Christ’s Word. Angels are rejoicing in heaven over the one sinner who repents, but we foolishly want more visible results and grumble against all our Lord is doing among us. But don’t we live by faith, not sight? It is only by grace that the Lord does not strike  us down.

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.
1 Thessalonians 5:14

But who doesn’t want more youth? Unfortunately, parents often send kids through catechism instruction (some church members don’t even do that), but they don’t actively lead them to be Christians after that. How can Christ’s sheep not hear God’s Word? But some parents don’t care about that saving Word very much and make it optional for their children. That is tragic and sinful. It shows little concern for the souls Christ has entrusted to them. Parents, not pastors or youth leaders or elders or schools, are ultimately responsible for the well-being and instruction of their kids. Perhaps instead of trying to draw youth who act on their own desires (and don’t always make the wisest decisions), we need to teach the parents and tell them of their Christian duty of leading their children to Christ. But that’s not fun — though it is Christian. This every Christian can do: “And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all” (1 Thess. 5:14).

Christ Blessing the Children
Christ Blessing the Children, 19th century by German Artist Bernhard Plockhorst

We can get more youth and members overall in a faithful way, but most won’t like the remedy. We do not need to dumb down our teaching or make everything a non-offensive play-time or be scared to preach God’s law. We should go to one of the purposes of marriage: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” There are no adults without there first being youth, but there are no youth without there first being children. And there are no children without there first being  babies. And only women can carry these divine blessings in their bodies and birth them into the world. This is something we may have a say in, if the Lord blesses with fruitfulness.

This statement about another conservative Lutheran synod applies to almost all American churches: “WELS families aren’t having as many children as they once were. This is reflected in the declining in infant baptisms.” Of course, we would like a quick fix to grow the church or youth group or Sunday School numbers, but none are given by our God in Scripture. There is no short-cut to making Christians, who are physical people who must be born and then hear the Word of the Lord.

The lie is: “If we just do this one practical technique or get the right in-touch, hip leaders or play cool, popular music, all will be fixed.” Why don’t we just listen to God’s Word? We are lazy sinners and don’t want to wait for natural growth. When my kids reach youth age, the youth numbers will grow — not by magic, though. They must still be taught what their baptism into Christ means in the intervening time by their parents. This is real work, just as raising an infant  is.

So we should be encouraging the younger parents: children are not just fun accessories. They are not a lifestyle choice — they are direct blessings with which Christ blesses marriages. People come into the world in no other way than childbirth. Man-made church growth methods do not actually grow the human population. It doesn’t really matter how much we want children or think they fit into our lives. They are a holy and sacred privilege we should embrace. We should be thankful and praise God anytime Christian parents have a child, since the world gives so many selfish reasons for avoiding them. But an infant baptized is brought fully  into  Christ’s Church. He is given all Christ’s forgiveness and all the rights of being His priest. But they must be taught what this means and how to exercise these baptismal rights, as they grow in knowledge and understanding of God’s Word. It is certainly not a quick fix. But it is given by our Lord and truly Christian.

No longer is this 16th century description true: “the Lutherans untiringly preach to the people, ‘Be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth’.” We confess that it is good to multiply and be fruitful. Christ says so. And this is how the church most naturally and faithfully grows. It is not easy or fun to be a parent. Children are real sinners and they do not want to be Christian. Without  parents constantly parenting, they will not likely be. But if we did this difficult task, trusting in the Lord’s methods and care, we would not be grasping for straws — methods, personalities, entertainment, and stylistic changes — to grow the church. Let us be satisfied with Christ’s appointed means and trust that He will preserve His church, as He has promised us: “on this rock (of confessing Christ the Son of the living God) I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Amen.

Rev. Philip W. Hale is a pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Omaha, NE.