Whitney Houston (may she rest in peace) once recorded a very nice song that largely echoes the sentiments of many adults in the parish life of our church. They are, to be sure, very nice words and tune isn't wholly barf-making either!
I believe the children are our futureTeach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children's laughter remind us how we used to be
This is from the first verse of a song called "The Greatest Love of All" and it is a song with much merit that doesn't set your teeth on edge when it is played. Only it is precisely wrong.
Oft have I heard that children are the 'church of tomorrow', that we should steep them in a heady mix of baybee Jesus and high liturgy so that people like me have altar servers and PCC secretaries in the hinterlands of the future. We might even sling them the odd shekel so that a neat little youth club with ping-pong might thrive, allowing us the means by which we can miss a God-given opportunity.
Mark's Gospel gives us the proper approach to children, and they are words known to many of us God botherers. So well are they known to us that it is our default position to frown and tut when the under-fives maraud around the church between epicleses. We are told (well, to be sure, the disciples were told) to let the children come forward, and not frown and tut for fear of the wrath of a displeased God of volcanoes and dinosaurs and all that.
I am here, dear Reader, to tell you that children are not the church of tomorrow. They are not our future. They are their own future and they are the church of right now. In the great unspoken hierarchy of Parish Life (largely a matriarchy for anyone labouring still under the misapprehension that the blokes are in charge), we have the Choir in their own appointed seats, the wardens in their stalls, the 'old guard' who occupy their life-right given seats of the last five decades, the adult visitors who get what is left (if they dare) with the small messy space at the back reserved for the nasty noisy ankle-biters to play. Should they feel inclined to cry because that is what small children do from time to time, then they are loving escorted out to stand outside in the rain with the mortified mother and the frustrated father (who will never be seen in the building ever again, ever).
It is my modest opinion that treating children as the 'church of tomorrow' is among the single biggest cancers in God's Church today. We bolt their derrieres to the spot, enforce silence upon them and expect them to carry on and build a personal and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. They are the church of now. Tomorrow, they say, never comes - and it is entirely right. Scripture would even guide us in this, too: This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. At no point do we learn about tomorrow being a sacrament or the week after next being the grace filled moment. We are taught vigilance in the here and now, to watch and wait and not sit back and fritter the moment.
In my church, the children are the honoured guests. They are treated as such (even to the extent of concelebrating with me [sort of]). It is their church building, their aisle to walk up and down along. Why is this so important? The answer to that is simple: children get the whole God thing at an instinctive level and the adult are, I truly believe, placed among the children to learn about faith.
I wonder if the greatest love of all is to let children enjoy the day that they have been given, and not filed away until they start full-time employment.