Child Theology: Five ways to be a child-friendly church

Editor's Note: The following post was originally published on Mission Musings, the blog of the General Board of Global Ministries, and has been reposted with permission.

Can you imagine a church that is truly child-friendly? Whose ministry involves children and teenagers capable of being change agents?  What was your experience in the church as a child? What can we learn from children?

These questions surfaced during the March 25 Tea and Theology study session with 24 staff members from The General Board Global Ministries in New York.  Jorge Domingues, head of Mission Theology and Evangelism for Global Ministries, introduced Gordon Greathouse, our presenter, who is now the missionary in residence.

Greathouse served as a missionary for Global Ministries in Brazil for 35 years.  He spoke passionately about child theology and its practical implications.

What is child theology about?  It is a contemporary theology and a movement that seriously takes children as subjects of theology and mission. Children are not passive receivers of mission or church’s ministry.  Child theology places the child, like Jesus did, in the center of theological conversation.

“Child theology,” explains Greathouse, “explores how children served God’s purpose throughout the Bible, and challenges the church to rethink what it means to be a “child of God.” Its starting point is Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18: 1-7.

Pondering on these verses made me reflect on the radical yet refreshing teaching of Jesus.  There is “shock value” in this. In a world where children were without power, Jesus chose what seemed to be “powerless.”

When the disciples asked Jesus who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus did not lecture on Humility 101. Instead, Jesus got up, invited a child and placed the child in their midst saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Whoever welcomes such child in My name welcomes Me.” Matthew 18: 2-5.

For me, welcoming a child in Christ’s name is doing mission. Being a child is being in mission. Children are the church in mission, and may point the church to God’s surprising ways.  Are migrant children welcomed, or are they being separated from their families?  Are church activities and mission programs more geared toward adults?

Greathouse and proponents of child theology ask whether traditional theology is too adult-centered and misses Jesus’ child-focused vision of the reign of God.  Is it possible that a church being too adult-centered neglects the importance and contribution of children? Is it possible that an adult centered church led to the decline of churches in the North?  

Greathouse asked, “Are children today considered part of the Kingdom and treated as equal citizens?”  If so, then the central question is: How do we engage children and teenagers so they feel they are a vital part of the church today? Furthermore, what can we learn from the children? How do we engage them in building a better world for all?

That afternoon reminded us of serious problems besetting children around the world. Yet, what inspired me most was what we can learn from children: the sense of awe and wonder, humility, trust, energy, excitement and idealism.  Children blossom when they feel they belong.  They are not the “church of tomorrow,” they are today’s church.

Have you heard of Shade and Fresh Water program in Brazil?  Greathouse and his wife Teca have worked with children in Brazil through Shade and Fresh Water program. It has become an effective model of a child-centered and world-transforming community.

Finally, what are the marks of a child-friendly church? Drawing from the character and mission of Jesus, a child-friendly church follows the example of Jesus: (See excerpt from Maos Dadas, Sept. 2012).

A child-friendly church is one that:

  1. Welcomes and includes children
  2. Listens to children (to their wisdom and spirituality)
  3. Brings healing to children and family
  4. Blesses Children (faith nurturing and providing age-level program participation)
  5. Includes Children in the mission of the Church

“We, as staff, are a reflection of an adult-centered theology,” commented Domingues. 

Pat Watkins, Global Ministries’ missionary for the Care of God's Creation, pointed how children who are naturally related to nature can “lead us adults back into a relationship with God’s creation.”

Child theology can help you and I appreciate deeply how precious children are, and how they usher us   adults into the Reign of God.

An Invitation:  Can you share with me how your church has been blessed by children’s presence? How do children from other parts of the world speak to you these days? How child-friendly your church is? I invite you to leave your comments.

*The Rev. Elizabeth S. Tapia, Ph.D. is the director of Mission Theology (Mission Theology and Evaluation unit) for Global Ministries. 



Elizabeth S. Tapia

Rev. Elizabeth S. Tapia, Ph.D. is the director of Mission Theology (Mission Theology and Evaluation unit) for Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church in New York City. She is an Elder in the Bulacan Philippines Annual Conference.

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