Mercer looks to Scripture to argue that children are participatory members in the community of faith, drawing particularly from Mark’s gospel. She notes that the children in Mark’s stories are not carefree, obedient, and joyful. They are poor; they are sick or possessed by demons. They are continually underfoot. Yet Jesus’ healing and blessing of children marks childhood itself as canopied with the grace of God. Jesus includes children and those who care for them in the inner circle of disciples.
Having made this broader argument for including children in the community of faith, Mercer reviews the challenges in practical terms for church worship and education. She believes that ambivalence toward children is reflected in our education programs, evaluating popular pedagogies through a theological and historical lens. Children, she notes, are often taught a theology that is full of moralisms. Packaged curriculum is often advertised as easy, emphasizing its entertainment value and minimal prep time.
Her critique is telling, but she does not suggest we do away with Sunday School. Rather, she suggests that education programs should not be separated from the larger life of the community. Mercer challenges the notion that education in the church is simply one of storing information in memory, suggesting that the dynamic of learning takes places any time the community gathers. She recommends that children learn hymns not only by following along in church, but in Sunday School; that there be a component for children in every hands-on mission in which a congregation participates; that, as they grow older, children be given access to the full range of congregational work, even participating in the Lord’s Supper by baking bread or bringing in the elements. Activities such as these will lead to observations and conversations that enable children to start thinking theologically and begin formation for discipleship.
For Mercer, educating children in faith means including them in every aspect of church life — in worship, in mission, in fellowship. Becoming a disciple cannot happen apart from that community. Relationships that are formed as folk strive to live and work together following Jesus are crucial. While there will always be a place for Sunday School, Mercer warns that care should be taken to ensure that children do not linger on the fringes of congregational life. To the contrary, educational programs can provide settings for every adult in the congregation to learn with the children and to become more deeply involved in their own Christian formation.
Pastors and lay leaders should read this book and grapple with Joyce Ann Mercer’s arguments. Readers will draw fresh inspiration from her scholarship and renew their passion for a truly hospitable church. Her arguments are richly complex, and, while this is no casual weekend read, she reminds us of an important truth that we ignore at our peril: Congregations can and must find ways to become welcoming places for children and all others on the margin, for those whose lives are messy, for those who don’t conform. For all of these, God has a purpose. Such hospitality is perhaps not quiet and peaceful, but, just like discipleship, nothing about following Jesus is easy.
Melissa Kirkpatrick is a certified Christian educator working in National Capital Presbytery. She is a member of the Company of Teachers of the Reformed Institute of Metropolitan Washington.