Author note: this is the second article in a multi-part series I am writing in 2022 and 2023 providing an overview of child liberation theology. You can read the first installment, “An Introduction to Child Liberation Theology,” here. The next installment, “Your Family and Child Liberation Theology,” looks at how child liberation theology can be applied to parenting and caretaking of children. You can read it here.
Faith communities need child liberation theology because they are one of the primary locations where children learn about their place and value in the world. Churchgoers frequently look to their faith community during times of stress and trauma. This includes family stress and trauma. What you model in your faith community—how you and other members talk about and relate to children—will have widespread consequences far beyond your church. It can set the standard for how children are to be protected and loved in your neighborhoods, your schools, and even your governments.
Whether your faith community is a mega church in the suburbs or a small rural church in a farming town, whether you have large children’s programs or keep children with adults for worship and teaching, you are constantly communicating to children (and their caretakers) what their place and value is in your community.
Stop and think about both of those issues. What place are you assigning to children in your faith community? Are they in places of honor and leadership? (Is that even a possibility in your faith community, having children in positions of leadership?) Or are they tolerated and segregated? What value does your faith community bestow on children? Is being a child something celebrated and lifted up as a model for righteousness? Or do children in your church long to grow up so that the adults will take them and their concerns seriously?
Child liberation theology is both the challenge and the opportunity to be intentional and purposeful about what messages your faith community communicates to children. Every day you are communicating these messages: through your child protection policies, through the structure of your children’s ministry, through your children’s ministry’s curriculum, through the structure of your general worship services, through the structure of your church leadership—all these elements are choices you make that say something to children about their place and value in the world.
Children are not the only people watching and learning from your faith community. Parents and other caretakers are also learning from it how to interact and relate to both their own children and other children in the community. Families often look to their faith communities first for support in times of stress or trauma. What is your faith community telling parents and other caretakers about power and the use and abuse of that power over children? Are you encouraging parents and caretakers towards healthy or unhealthy resources and coping skills to deal with family stress and trauma?
Child liberation theology also speaks to weekly services, calling for intergenerational worship and teaching in faith communities. Child liberation theologian Rebecca Stevens-Walter, who conducts workshops on intergenerational worship and teaching, describes it as “a model of intentionally including all generations in the acts and rituals of holy communal worship.” Stevens-Walter explains that, “For around 100 years, children have been excluded from a majority of worship opportunities for many reasons, most recently under the assumption that children ‘can’t handle’ grown up church.”
There are many aspects to intergenerational worship and teaching, like shortening sermons and using analogies and metaphors understandable by, accessible to, and relevant to both adults and children alike. These are all important. But intergenerational worship and teaching could easily be misunderstood as worship and teaching that merely includes children.
The thing is, it is much more than “including children.” Intergenerational worship and teaching is worship and teaching led by children as well. It is having both the imagination and the faith that children are whole, separate spiritual beings with their own questions and concerns and can, if given the help and tools they need, indeed lead worship and teaching. Yes, this will involve work—scaffolding is the word for it—but consider the alternatives: either segregating children every week into spiritual ghettos led by the “lesser” teachers or making children sit in adult services that bore them to death and make them feel small and unimportant. Either we figure out how to fully engage children and their questions and concerns or we risk them (understandably) walking away and never looking back when they grow up.
Child liberation theology also demands thorough child protection systems in faith communities. This is non-negotiable and really a prerequisite for implementing child liberation theology. Your faith community should already have a child protection policy. If you are attending a church or other faith organization that includes or involves children in any way and it does not have a child protection policy, consider that place dangerous. That place has a big, bright red target on its back—both from child predators as well as lawyers. Without a child protection policy, you will have no foundation for your community to contextualize and understand child liberation theology. If you need help creating a policy, you are welcome to contact me. However, the very best resource is The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries by Boz Tchvidjian and Shira Berkovits.
In her visionary book Parenting Forward, Cindy Wang Brandt wonders: “What if the solution to the world’s complex problems begins in our homes and local communities, by unlearning the patterns with which we have treated children and having the courage to change?” (p. 4). I don’t think we have to wonder about this. I think we know there is a profound and significant connection between how we treat children in small, local contexts like church and how we as a society have created a world that discriminates against and abuses children in systemic fashion.
The first step in dismantling this anti-child world we live in is this: to stop giving it fuel. To unlink the continuity between church and other parts of life that harm children. To do everything in our power to make our faith communities safe spaces for children. This is why we need child liberation theology so desperately in our American faith communities. Places of faith should not only be speaking out prophetically against discrimination against and abuse of children; they should also be empowering children to speak out for themselves. We can’t do that until we look in the mirror first and start examining every aspect of our faith communities and ask how they impact children—how they assign place and value to them.