Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
It’s a favorite gospel story for many of us: Jesus welcoming the little children. Here in Luke’s version we’re told that parents were bringing even infants to Jesus, so he could touch them. Matthew talks about children being brought to Jesus “in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray.” (Matthew 19:13) Mark says Jesus “took them up in his arms, and laid his hands on them, and blessed them,” which is no doubt why many of us call to mind when we hear this story a picture of Jesus sitting with a whole bunch of kids up on his lap, and others crowded around. In all three versions, the disciples feel Jesus shouldn’t be bothered. He’s got more important things to do, people to see, signs to perform. Why waste his time on a bunch of little kids? This jars our modern sensibilities, of course, for what on earth – we think – could possibly be more important than our children? We need to remember that this gospel episode happened in a different time, and a different culture. Back then children weren’t the center of the universe around which their whole families would orbit. But even then, even there, Jesus recognized their tremendous value. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them;” he says. “For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” (Luke 18:16)
This congregation has a long history of welcoming its children. I’ve enjoyed seeing old black and white Sunday School photos from the early years of this church’s life, and I’ve loved hearing from adults in our church family who themselves grew up here at Magnolia Presbyterian Church decades ago. Welcoming our children, caring for them and teaching them is nothing new to us. For that, we can already be very grateful.
And then to have developed such a thriving children’s program in recent years under Lori Sawyer’s leadership. And to have benefitted from Liina-Ly’s lovely teaching style with our children this past year, and to have our fantastic team of volunteer preschool teachers and Worship BLAST helpers– we have certainly been blessed over the years with adults who know the importance of sharing God’s love with every child who comes through these doors. And I promise you, the search team is determined to find a new permanent Children’s Director worthy of picking up the baton, and ensuring that our growing children’s ministry will continue and flourish in years to come!
In the meantime, as you head into summer, you are poised on the brink of a fantastic opportunity to nurture “Sticky Faith” in the children of this church.
If you’ve not heard the expression “Sticky Faith” as it relates to children’s and youth ministries, the idea is that we want to do whatever we can as a church family to help our kids develop a faith that sticks with them after they graduate from high school, and head out on their own.
Kara Powell, Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute, explains the importance of “Sticky Faith” this way:
"When I was a child, 30 of my relatives would regularly gather at my grandparents’ house for family holidays. When we were all assembled, there were far too many of us to fit around one table. So we set up two tables: the adults’ table and the kids’ table. The adults ate in the dining room. We kids ate in the TV room.
The adults had pleasant conversation. Somehow the kids' conversation usually degenerated into dinner rolls being thrown at each other and a jello-snorting contest.
In theory, we were at the same meal. In reality, we had two very different experiences.
That sounds a lot like how adults and kids experience church today. The adults’ table is in the bigger, nicer room and the kids’ table is down the hall…
Do 16-year-olds [and 3-4 year olds, and 8-10 year olds] need time to be together and on their own? You bet. But … in our effort to offer relevant and developmentally appropriate teaching and fellowship for [children and youth], we have segregated—and we use that verb intentionally but not lightly—students from the rest of the church. That segregation is hindering young people’s faith development.
More than any other … variable, moving kids out of the kids’ table and into an intergenerational context of worship, ministry, and life seems to deepen students’ faith in high school and beyond.”
Here in this church family, we have taken this call to heart over the last 5 years or so, seeking out a variety of ways to integrate our children and youth into congregational life, encouraging their full participation everywhere we can, even as we provide opportunities for age-specific learning and fun as well. We are also ideally positioned, as a small church, to capitalize on the recommended 5 to 1 formula – that is, 5 or more adults befriending each individual child, as they grow up in the church.
The nature of the “sticky faith” we want to impart to them – in fact, the “sticky faith” we hope we all can claim, at every age – isn’t only about feeling a part of our church family, however wonderful that can be. And it isn’t only about remembering some great Bible stories and songs, as valuable as they can be. It’s about challenging one another to re-order our lives, to align with the important truths we are taught in the Scriptures. Sticky faith, at its heart, is really about transformation.
“Do not be conformed to this world.” That can take a lifetime of effort, can’t it? When we’re young, peer pressure may take the form of wanting to dress like our friends, or have the same toys… then perhaps it’s about attending the same parties, whether or not they always meet with our parents’ approval for acceptable party refreshments and behaviors… But really, peer pressure doesn’t ever go away. It just morphs – perhaps into subtle and not so subtle temptations to keep up with the Joneses?
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)
In other words, not just “don’t give into peer pressure” but resist peer pressure for the sake of the gospel. Not simply “be yourself” but be the person God created you to be. Remember that you are a child of God, that you belong to God, and God will hold you and claim you as his own, challenging you to live faithfully as Christ’s disciple, your whole life long. Life into that identity; embrace that calling. Don’t allow yourself to be squeezed and squished and contorted by the world. Allow yourself instead to be molded and formed and shaped by God.
How do we resist being conformed to the world? How do we set ourselves up for transformation? This is how. Right here, right now – this is how. We give ourselves the greatest chance of success when we absolutely steep ourselves in worship words: words of Scripture, words of prayer, and praise. And when we surround ourselves with brothers and sisters in Christ who believe them, and seek to live them out, and who challenge us to do the same. Our kids need these regular reminders as much as the rest of us do.
Of course there are other perks to being together each Sunday. Since it was my own daughter that was recognized as our high school grad today, perhaps I’ll be forgiven for sharing two recent snapshots of what her experience has been like, having grown up in this church family. One happened two weeks ago, when Alina’s fellow Deacons celebrated her graduation and gave her a beautiful send off … during one of a few meetings this year that she, at 17 years old, was invited to moderate. The other happened sometime last month, when toward the end of the Passing of the Peace, a third grade friend spotted her at the front of the sanctuary, where she was leading worship, and ran all the way down the aisle to give her a great big bear hug. There’s no question moments like these will stick with her, and help her feel deeply connected to this congregation, long after she packs her bags for college.
Of course there’s no way we can share that kind of magic with our church kids, if they’re not around. So I encourage all of our parents truly to make worship a priority for your kids. And I encourage the rest of you, to do everything in your power to support our busy parents, when they do. I would love nothing more than for every child of this church to become just as “stuck,” if you will, just as tied and tethered and beautifully connected to their faith community, as my own high school grad is.
To that end, I was delighted to learn that Pastor Janine will be bringing in an exciting new worship and education program this summer designed specifically to encourage intergenerational connections during your morning worship services. It sounds like you’ll even be invited to participate in service projects as a church family some Sunday mornings! How cool is that? That has sticky faith-building potential written all over it!
There’s no foolproof method for resisting being conformed to the world, and instead being transformed by God. But regularly reminding ourselves what transformed lives should look like is an excellent start.
And for that, you need only stick around.
I wish you all a wonderful summer of sticky faith building, for all ages!