"Suffer the little children" is a phrase from the King James Bible (Matthew 19:14) that has entered as a proverb into the English language. Jesus is simply telling us that we are not to hinder the little children from being brought to him. What Christian would disagree with that?
In the previous chapter Jesus issued a stern warning that anyone who caused "one of these little ones - those who believe in me - to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea" (Matthew 18:6).
Last week I looked at the horrific case of the editor and education 'expert' who has been found guilty of being a long term paedophile. Every sane human being, parent and Christian would be horrified at such abuse.
And yet the Bible warns us that there are sins of omission, as well as commission, which can also do a great deal of harm. Neglect can be as harmful as abuse. And spiritual neglect can be the most harmful of all.
George Barna in his latest book, Raising Spiritual Champions: Nurturing Your Child's Heart, Mind and Soul, which is based on Barna's own quantitative research, makes a devastating, and to my mind, true series of accusations about spiritual neglect against many Christian parents in the United States.
Barna's main observation is that millions of Christian parents have themselves not been adequately discipled in their faith, and as a result haven't a clue how to pass the faith onto their children. Parents either do a bad job or just desert the field all together and leave the education of their children up to others – whether schools, media, youth groups or Sunday schools.
The results are devastating – and in my view are the primary reason why the church in the US is in a steep decline. Just one example of the evidence that Barna offers is that just 36% of 13 and 14 year olds believe that God exists and is the all-knowing, all-powerful creator of the universe, while only 1% of preteen children possess a biblical worldview.
It's not just the US. In other Western cultures there may be differences but as so often, it does tend to be the case that where the American church leads, the rest of the world follows.
In my native Scotland I watched over the past few decades as youth were indoctrinated into a 'progressive' cult which completely turns them away from the God of the Bible. But it is not just the active indoctrination by the new Establishment which is the reason. It is the fact that most parents hadn't a clue how to protect or teach their children – and handed them over to Sunday school teachers who were often just as clueless.
I did some research into one small Highland church and found that there was a reason it was small. Over a period of many years, 40 babies had been baptised. Yet I was only able to identify one who was still attending church - and this in a theologically conservative 'strict' denomination.
In Australia, where I currently reside, Sydney Anglicans have been noted for having excellent youth programmes, ministries and schools. A few years ago, the optimum age for people leaving the faith tended to be after university – but in recent years the pendulum has swung towards teenagers. In one church we found that only 25% of teenagers living at home still attended the church of their parents – and only 50% attended any church at all.
Barna identifies the primary cause for this. It is not the hostility of the culture. It is not the education system. It is not social media. It is not peer pressure. The primary factor is the inability of parents to pass on their faith – and the failure of churches to equip parents to do so. The old proverb 'it takes a village to raise a child' is better expressed in Christian terms as 'it takes a church to raise a Christian child'.
The importance of this in biblical terms is demonstrated by the amount of teaching in the Bible on this subject – and by the severity of Christ's warnings in neglecting the children. If we did not feed our children adequately, we would rightly be condemned. But what about if we do not feed our children spiritually and thus cause them to stumble?
Here are just a few of the pertinent biblical injunctions:
"Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old, they will not turn from it" (Proverbs 22:6).
"Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4).
"These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up" (Deuteronomy 6:6-7 NIV).
In Psalm 78:4 the Lord's people promise "we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power, and the wonders he has done".
What can be done? It's one thing to analyse the problem, it's another to know what to do about it. Clearly what we are doing isn't working. Perhaps we can learn some wisdom from the past? Let me offer the following suggestions.
1. Real spiritual life
In order to tell our children the wonders the Lord has done, we ourselves need to know them. In other words, parents need to have a living and loving faith which their children can see.
2. Family worship
Why don't we return to the practice of family worship – where each Christian home is seen as a mini church and where prayer, bible reading and praise are as much part of the daily routine as brushing teeth, eating breakfast and doing homework.
Another forgotten practice is that of catechism. I have recently been going through a modern beautifully illustrated version of the Shorter Catechism which has been really helpful. As we look at it each Sunday it strikes just how much the theology applies to contemporary life. Take for example: how did God create humanity?
The Church needs to radically rethink how it educates children and young people. Half an hour of colouring in Bible stories on a Sunday morning is never going to cut it. In Dundee, Scotland, where I ministered for many years, I was greatly challenged when I was told that Muslim children went home from school every day and did two hours of teaching afterwards in the mosque!
John Knox argued that where there was a church there should be a school. That may not be practical today, but as some Christian parents are being compelled to send their children to state schools which are increasingly becoming anti-Christian, the Church needs to get back to the priority of education.
There are many excellent resources to help young people and parents – podcasts, sermons and books such as Rebecca McLaughlin's "10 Questions (and answers) every teen should ask about Christianity". I received so many questions from teens that I have published two books answering them – A.S.K. and S.E.E.K. No prizes for guessing what the third one will be!
Finally – and surely most importantly there is prayer. It is not without significance that in a chapter which begins with Paul talking about the relationships between children and parents, he ends by encouraging us to "pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this is mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord's people" (Ephesians 6:18).