by Chris Ritter
“Gift or no gift, you are to do this, or else you are not called to be a Methodist Preacher.” -John Wesley
At our recent annual conference session I once again heard the historic questions passed down to us from John Wesley for those joining the conference. As the clergy candidates answered the bishop on cue, I found myself internally making my own response. We eventually reached this one: “Will you diligently instruct the children in every place?” My honest answer was, “No. That is not really my gift. I will certainly make sure, however, that qualified people are doing that job.” Upon further examination of Wesley’s actual expectation of his preachers, it is clear he would not have been satisfied with my answer.
I checked a copy of the “Large Minutes” of the United Societies. These are written as a sort of compilation of guiding thoughts for the early Methodist movement, a dialog between John Wesley and the preachers who were in “connexion” with him. In one instruction* he gives a list of seven requirements of each preacher as related to the spiritual formation of children:
1) Meet at least an hour each week with the children as a group in those congregations with ten or more children.
I used to do “children’s sermons” or “moments for young disciples” during worship. I eventually ended this practice because it increasingly seemed to be about creating an adorable moment for adults to witness and less about teaching something meaningful to the young. I am sure there are pastors who do this well and for all the right reasons. A four-minute children’s sermon during worship, however, hardly meets Wesley’s requirement of a solid hour of Christian instruction to the children of the congregation as a group by the preacher.
2) Converse with the children face-to-face when we see them.
Specifically, “Talk with them whenever we see any of them at home.” Wesley intended that his preachers would have an ongoing relationship with the children in their spiritual care. I think this instruction is especially unique in light of the prevailing notion of Wesley’s time that children should be seen and not heard. He desired there to be frequent and meaningful conversations between preachers and kids. The spiritual condition of adults was an urgent matter. The spiritual needs and condition of the young were no less urgent.
3) Pray earnestly for the children.
Wesley insisted that his preachers pray in earnest for the kids of the congregation. Their names, faces, and needs were to be part of the spiritual life of the preacher. Among the priestly concerns of pastoral intercession was to be this question: “How are the kids?”
4) Instruct their parents and encourage them in their Christian lives.
Wesley’s preachers were to bless children by shaping their parents. There was an expectation of pastoral visitation aimed at inquiring into the spiritual health and habits of each household. My colleagues and I are fond of saying, “Well, people don’t really expect or want the pastor to call these days.” However, I am not at all sure they particularly wanted these visits in Wesley’s day, either. Wesley required his preachers to go even where they were not invited for the purpose of encouraging spiritual progress. Pastoral visitation was about accountability, not about public relations.
Home visits are tough. Asking questions about spiritual priorities is tough. I have struggled with this expectation. During pre-baptism instruction, I find myself growing bolder in asking direct questions about the prayer and study habits of the family. I do so acknowledging my own failings in this area and my own struggles in parenting. If we don’t ask the tough questions and encourage parents toward spiritual progress, no one else likely will. In our day of travelling sports teams and competing Sunday activities for children and families, we need to have deliberate conversations with families about spiritual priorities. Wesley used strong language: we are to “vehemently exhort all parents.” He once asked his mother to record the parenting strategies she employed in her own large family and her counter-cultural words are recorded here.
5) If you don’t have gifts for ministering to children, do it anyway.
My excellent excuse for not doing much direct ministry with children has been that I have people more gifted than myself to do it for me. After all, “We are the Body of Christ… There are different gifts… None of us have them all… yada yada, yada…” Wesley would have told me to keep developing my gifts in the area of relating to and ministering to children: “keep doing it as you can until you can do it as you would.” You don’t have to be a natural. I don’t get the impression that Wesley had a lot of hand puppets and Veggie Tales videos at his disposal. In fact, he seems to me an unlikely candidate for holding the attention of a group of children. Have you ever read his sermons? Yet, it is obvious that he kept after it and expected his preachers to do the same: “Gift or no gift, you are to do this, or else you are not called to be a Methodist Preacher.”
6) Pray for the gift to relate to children and use every opportunity God puts in your path.
I am convicted that I seldom pray for greater opportunity to minister to children. I doubt any recent books on executive ministry leadership would encourage me to invest more of my time in this area. They say, “Delegate.” Wesley says, “Participate.” I wonder if there is something about entering into the world of a child that might have a positive formative effect on a preacher. Maybe a Christian leader is never more free than when he/she is investing time in someone that can offer no immediate benefit to the organization but is nevertheless critically constituent of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 19:14).
7) Preach annually on of the topic of forming children in the faith.
Wesley prescribed that a sermon on the spiritual instruction of children be offered annually, ideally on the day when a collection was received for the support of Kingswood School (the institution he founded for the education of the children of colliers). As I develop my preaching calendar for the coming year, I have decided to take Father Wesley’s advice and include a Sunday to encourage the congregation to be in the business of investing in the spiritual lives of children. One of Wesley’s own sermons on the topic can be found here.
There are other opportunities, as well. I love to remind the congregation during an infant baptism that the one being baptized is going to need nursery workers, Sunday School teachers, VBS workers, bus drivers, and Safe-Sanctuary-trained youth leaders as they grow. Caring for children is the work of the whole congregation. Wesley envisioned his preachers teaching this fact not just in word but also by example.
Our founder was also passionate about caring for children outside the Methodist movement. In addition to starting health clinics and schools for children, he cared for orphans and gave away the income from his publications to charitable causes, many of which benefited children. He extended the nascent Sunday School movement, which was founded by Robert Raikes as a means to teach reading to children who had no other access to education due to their labors in the mills and factories. His example causes us to think about our witness as a movement today in the face of sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation that damage the spiritual, physical, and emotional health of children.
Reading Wesley’s expectation of preachers has caused me to ask afresh the missional question, “How are the kids?” The needs today are certainly no less urgent than in Wesley’s time and the opportunities at our disposal as pastors are abundant. The greatest thing I might accomplish as a preacher might be the positive impression I leave on the next John or Susanna Wesley that just spilled their juice box on the church carpet.
*WHERE there are ten children in a Society, we must meet them at least an hour every week; talk with them whenever we see any of them at home; pray in earnest for them ; diligently instruct and vehemently exhort all parents at their own houses. Some will say, “I have no gift for this.” Gift or no gift, you are to do this, or else you are not called to be a Methodist Preacher. Do it as you can, till you can do it as you would. Pray earnestly for the gift, and use every help God hath put into your way, in order to attain it. Preach expressly on the education of children when you make the Collection for Kingswood School.