A Body Divided

by Wess Stafford

In 1996, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton brought an old African proverb to the forefront of many American's minds: "It takes a village to raise a child." Well, she was rightand she was wrong. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment but I disagree with Mrs. Clinton's idea of who the village is. The village is not the government. The village is us—the church.

I grew up in an African village and I was familiar with this proverb long before it ever rested on the lips of American lawmakers. My parents were missionaries. I spent most of my childhood on the Ivory Coast in a small, dusty village named Nielle. It was there that I experienced the true meaning of this powerful saying. We lived it everyday.

In Nielle, there were no fences to separate properties. As you walked through the village, you would cross the courtyards of several families. There were no disputes about trespassing—the village belonged to everyone. If a person lacked something you happened to own, it was your obligation to share. If a woman's clay cooking pot broke, you readily loaned yours until she could make a new one. Every person in our tiny village knew that none of us could make it on our own. We relied on each other; we were interdependent and worked together. If one of us children fell and hurt himself, the closest adult was there to pick him up. They did not wait for our parents to show up—everyone was family.

It reminds me much of the early church. As you know, God used Peter to build His church and to set those powerful early foundations as to what the church should look like. One of those foundations was clearly "community." We get a glimpse of this in Acts chapter 2: "Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need" (vv. 44-45).

You don't have to look too far back to see when this was a way of life in our own country. Neighbors kept an eye out for kids playing stickball in the street. Children knew the names of their neighbors and knew they could go to any of their houses in case of an emergency. Families often gathered together with other families for dinner or conversation. It wasn't strange for a person down the street to stop by to borrow a cup of flour.

But something happened over the years. We began to put a lot more focus on self and individualism and a lot less value on others and community. In less than a century, we have become a segregated society of individuals. We build our houses closer to each other but we've never been further apart. We construct fences around those houses as if to say "this is mine and nobody else is allowed in" instead of sitting on our front porches to share the sunset, we retire to our backyard decks where we sit in isolation from our neighbors. Or, worse yet, we close the curtains, lock the doors and hide in our homes and trade sunsets for the latest television fodder. We have lost our sense of community, and we have lost the art of being a village.

I wish it weren't true but the same thing is happening in our churches. Today, many churches don't even allow children into the sanctuary. As soon as a family arrives at their place of worship, the kids head off in one direction and the parents in another. Don't get me wrong; I'm a big supporter of Sunday school teachers, children's ministry workers, and nursery volunteers. They are essential heroes to the spiritual growth of our children. If I could, I'd give them all medals. As an educator, I know the value of age-graded curriculum for cognitive learning.

I just fear that the pendulum may have swung too far in that direction. In our effort to be good parents, have we taken away the chance for our children to see their parents worshiping God? I don't know about you but I'd love to hear little voices join in the chorus of worship in church—right along with the adults!

Some churches have taken the bold and revolutionary stance that learning does not need to be segregated.  As one pastor of a thriving Seattle church told Christianity Today, "We pay as little attention to age as possiblethe Bible doesn't even have a word for teenager. So when visiting parents come up to me or call the office and ask, What programs do you have for teenagers?' I smile and say, We have church!'"

We often hear people refer to children as "the future of the church." While that may sound like a great sentiment, I disagree. Children are part of the church today. They are souls that need to be fed just like every one else who walks through the doors on Sunday morning. We're also kidding ourselves if we think they have nothing to contribute to the church. On the contrary, they are a vital organ. Imagine how much energy and life would be zapped out of a church if there were no children in its halls.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul teaches us that we are all part of the body of Christ. What good are the hands if we keep them separated from the arms? Of what use are the feet if they don't interact with the legs? He makes no distinction between adults and children in his description. When we divide and separate the parts of our body we become ineffective. If you want to look at one of the greatest weaknesses of the church today, perhaps it's the fact that we've lost our sense of community.

Please don't misunderstand me. I know that the Sunday school classroom is one of the most powerful places for a child to learn the Bible basics. I know that one of the best ways to get your teen or pre-teen involved in church is to find one that has an active youth group. And I applaud those youth leaders who are doing more than entertaining kids. I'm not advocating that we get rid of any of those wonderful resources. But it seems to me that there must be some way we can be a church and be a family at the same time. There must be a way that we can build community together, as families, with our children fully participating and worshiping beside us. If your church does not hold any event or gathering on a regular basis, where everyone takes part, you are missing out on a vital opportunity to strengthen the body.

We are in the business of kingdom building. And, just like you, I want my fellow saints to experience real community, powerful friendship, and heart-to-heart fellowship in a way that models what God intended His church to be: a safe haven, a place of learning, a spirit of sharing, and a village where believers of all ages truly do look out for each other's needs.

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