Covenants: Church with children and parents

What is the meaning of childhood? British poet Francis Thompson once responded, “It is to have a spirit still streaming from the waters of baptism.”

It is here that the church’s ministry with children and families begins. Yet between baptism and confirmation we too often relegate ministry with children to Sunday School, Bible presentations, and children’s church, stringing together individual programs and calling it “ministry.”

It is my strong belief that the vows we take in baptism, and the manner in which we live them out day after day and week after week, shape the quality of our ministry with children and families. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “The test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children.” Turned and tweaked, it would be interesting for Sessions of our congregations to ponder, “The test of the faithfulness of the church is what it does for its children.” I want to propose, however, that “does for” does not necessarily mean more activities or programs, but rather that the quality of the church’s life with and for children is the measure of our faithfulness to God.

This is not to say that ministry does not take the shape of activities and programs but that the form is driven by the function. We begin with the questions, “What role does baptism play in a disciple-making church?” and “What is it we want for our children, and they need, to grow into a mature faith?”

I would suggest that congregations covenant for children. This approach is steeped in an awareness of what it means to baptize and be baptized and is guided by the promises it makes in this sacrament. The congregation would intentionally shape its ministry around the sacrament’s promises and responsibilities. This baptismal community takes its commitments seriously and seeks greater faithfulness in fulfilling its promise to help children grow into the fullness for which they are created. The very act of keeping these promises will define who the congregation is and can serve as a means for God’s transformation of not only the child but the congregation and individual disciples as we live in to the intentional community formed in baptism.

So, what does this look like in real life and how do we do this?

Its shape and form will be as distinctive as each congregation but there are a few common practices to help us get started. It begins with a study of Scripture and meaning of baptism, and dialogue with parents and the congregation about their hopes and dreams for their children’s faith. Consider asking questions like, “What does mature faith look like?” “What do you hope your child’s faith is like when they grow up?” “What does it mean that we dare to take children in our arms, as Jesus did, and baptize them into the family of God?” “What difference does it make in our relationship with children that WE are baptized?” From there the covenant begins to take its theological contour, “Because we believe … ”

The covenant for Myers Park Church begins with three points of belief, “All children are created in the image of God. Our baptismal vows engraft us into a covenant community and call us to faithfulness with and for children. The radical hospitality of the Lord’s Table compels us to welcome children in ways that transform the lives of children and the community.” This serves as the basis for why we are engaged in ministry with and for children and the standard to which we will hold ourselves accountable. Your theological “because” may be more or less complex or exactly the same. It is an exciting process to see what emerges by the leading of the Holy Spirit.

The second section of the covenant moves from “Because we believe” into “Therefore we will … ” and guides the practice of ministry. When I served a small congregation in Texas, our priorities were focused on serving the children of the community and providing a safe place of welcome for all the children. In the congregation I currently serve we focus on ministry that “shapes Christian identity so strongly that every child knows him or herself to be a Child of God, claimed in the waters of baptism, and heirs of Christ’s covenant of grace and love; that creates a place of belonging where children are welcomed, valued, and recognized as vital members of the whole community so that they may grow in the confidence and security necessary to live boldly into their identity and their call to a life of discipleship; that nurtures discipleship and makes real the love of God in each child’s life so that they may respond to that experience in every age and stage by loving the Lord their God with their whole heart and soul and strength and to show that love in concrete and real ways as they love their neighbor as themselves.”

Identity, belonging, and discipleship are the three measures of each of our programs and activities. When fourth and fifth graders gather for Mission Kids twice a month they encounter Scripture and mission education and then move into outreach activities around the city — their identity as servants is being shaped and the Christian practice of discipleship is being nurtured. Art and the Bible provides children an opportunity to learn how to be interpreters, not simply consumers, of Scripture as they wrestle with what a text means and then express that through various art mediums. Vacation Bible School has become Vacation Church Camp and brings together the children of the congregation with children from our community outreach partners as they transgress social and economic boundaries and make friends across the city.

God’s covenant of grace embodied in Jesus Christ takes on a new meaning and life in congregations that covenant for children. Reconnecting with our sacramental commitments can renew us, personally and corporately, so that we all may be fresh with “Spirits still streaming from the waters of baptism.”


Rebecca L. Davis is associate pastor for children and their families at Myers Park Church and adjunct professor of Christian Education at Union-PSCE in Charlotte.