A Guest Post by Rebecca Stevens-Walter
In the history of the Church, exclusion has been the primary weapon used to maintain the Christian narrative of purity, and with it, white supremacy. During the hundreds of years of chattel slavery in the United States, enslaved people were required to worship separately from their white owners; women, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA people have been actively excluded from church life; and children, too, have been sent away, shut out, and separated from the Body of Christ simply due to their age and ability. My experience has taught me that this happens with great intention in the white protestant church as well as any church that proudly declares their “progressive” status.
This narrative of purity is the foundation for Christianity’s legacy of colonialist oppression—a reality nowhere more visible than in the Church’s obsession with growth. Yet, the goal of the Church is not to grow—whether it is growth within the bounds of membership roles, programs, or funds. The church exists to share the radical message of Jesus’ love to all people out in the world.
Rather than ask, “How many new members do we have?” or “How many young families do we have?”, we should ask, “How many people within the walls of the church have learned, by example, what it means to make a world that is set up for everyone’s liberation?” It is justice to implement a Church culture of intergenerational participation. It is justice because intergenerational life confronts and dismantles the narratives that permit exclusion.
It should be noted that implementing intergenerational participation is a) not the same as children’s worship and b) a full community effort. Intergenerational is for all generations. How does a person who is 95 years old feel invited into worship with a 3 year old, and vice-versa?
Why is it some people only feel engaged spiritually if they are participating intellectually? By extension, un-intellectual worship is denigrated, accused of being devoid of spiritual value. Yet intellectual worship is an ableist notion in its own right. Worship that is often deemed as too simple or un-intellectual is actually the most spiritually engaging worship we can practice.
The Church, as a highly influential social institution, can teach justice by practicing intergenerational inclusion within the bounds of worship and church life. If we choose to integrate children into the most important act of church, worship, we are teaching sustainable justice. We are promoting the message that a child’s presence is not a sacrifice or concession, but rather a Divine gift.
Everything that any human encounters in a church should be set up for their close connection to God. This principle applies to both adults and children alike. If a child is expected to be in a space, it should be spiritually, emotionally, and physically safe for them. The Church as the model for liberation starts with the safe, full inclusion of children in the communal practice of worship.
This is how we build the kin-dom. This is how we repent. This is how we live out the gospel. This is how we love.
About Rebecca Stevens-Walter
Rebecca Stevens-Walter is a Renaissance woman with expertise as a musician, theologian, teacher, coach, and pastor. She was born and raised in western North Carolina, and trained as a classical musician throughout childhood and college. Since moving to New York City in 2012, Rebecca has crafted her musical education and pastoral sensibilities into a ministry that serves a diverse and dynamic community. Using story, song, and prayer, Rebecca teaches that worship can and should be for all people, and can be intergenerationally engaging without being heady or simplistic.
Rebecca graduated from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York in 2017. Having studied under the late Dr. James Hal Cone, her academic work culminated in an academic text and corresponding liturgy that addressed the study of children’s liberation theology. Intended as an addendum to black liberation theology, children’s liberation theology holds the assessment that God is on the side of the oppressed and seeks to liberate those whom society has placed in mental, emotional, or physical slavery.
Rebecca is a cradle Presbyterian and is certified for ordination in the New York City Presbytery. She currently serves as the Minister for Intergenerational Culture and Children, Youth, & Families at the First Presbyterian Church of Brooklyn. Rebecca has two beautiful children, Wren (5) and Story (2). Her husband Zachary is a music producer and Franciscan Friar in the Progressive Catholic Church.