A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on June 5 2011.
The question for a child is not “Do I want to be good?” but “Who do I want to be like?”
Let me weave together three different threads to begin the sermon. The first thread is a yellow triangular sign. You might see a sign shaped like it along the highway. Typically, a yellow sign of this shape has a safety message: Dangerous curve ahead, blind driveway over hill, pedestrian crossing or some other word of safety. But this sign is different. This sign has on it the outline of a building, perhaps a home. Inside that building, there is a character. You cannot tell if the character is male or female, young or old, but the arms are extended wrapping around a smaller figure, very clearly in a hug. Wherever this sign is posted means that this is a safe place. If a child feels lost or threatened or worried in some way and not sure of what to do, a child knows this is a place of trust. Come to this place, and in this place you will be nurtured and taken care of. Whatever your need is, this is a safe place.
We all recognize that there are many places in the world today that are not safe places for children. Not everyone has a child’s best interest at heart and there are those who would, indeed, harm a child which we find hard to believe. But where we find this yellow sign is a trusting and safe place. Children are safe here.
The second thread is a moment in a home. When a child comes in from school or from playing with a neighbor, and the child expresses a value, an idea, or a four-letter word that they did not learn at home, the family is aghast.
The parents ask, “Where did you hear that? Where did you learn that?”
“At the neighbor’s house. I heard them say it so I thought it was OK to say it?”
For the parents, it becomes a moment where it is important to create a world larger than the family where people share similar values and commitments so that it is not only in the house, but in the broader world, where people are not sabotaging what you have been trying to teach your children and, hopefully, actually supporting and encouraging them.
Children experience this when they want to spend the night with a friend or when they want to go somewhere with a friend. Children get endless questions: What is he like? What is his family like? What do her parents do?
The child is thinking, O my goodness. I just wanted to spend the night.
What the child does not realize is that the parents are concerned about creating a larger world that reflects the values they have as a Christian family.
Now the third thread. It has been several years ago, but an MTV executive said, “We own the minds of teenagers.” This was long enough ago that Bevis and his friend who cannot be mentioned in church were popular. I don’t check the MTV schedule but I think you can still watch them, but since then, things have gotten even worse. Now, rappers are mainstream and their appraisal of women, authority, and anger are put forth all the time. We recognize that what that MTV executive said many years ago represents an evangelistic attitude, if you would use that term for this, to own the minds of young people. It is an assault on the mind and values. Many families recognize how difficult it is to fight against the assault that is coming after the hearts and minds of their children. We need help.
These three threads come together: a safe place, a bigger place than our home, and a place where we can find help in teaching our children the values, virtues, and the Christian faith that would combat the things that the world would want them to believe. Of course, this place is church and today it is First Baptist Church.
There are several things I repeat in a sermon. At the end of my ministry, I would like to give a test to see if you have heard this or not. Stanley Hauerwaus who teaches ethics at Duke University says that the reason we need church is not because we are social creatures but because being a Christian is too hard to do by ourselves. We live in a very individualistic culture where we all say, “I don’t like church but I am spiritual. You don’t need a church to be a Christian.” But the truth is it takes a church to raise a Christian. It takes this safe place, it takes this broader place than just the home, and it takes a combined effort to be able to teach faith to our children.
We read the passage from Deuteronomy 6:1-9, and we tend to think of this as a word to individual families. We think this is being spoken to a household—the parents or the grandparents who might live in or near the home—but that is not the way the Book of Deuteronomy works. Deuteronomy is the second giving of the law. It is Moses giving this reminder of everything that the children of Israel have learned as they have been freed from Egypt, as they have wandered in the wilderness, right before they enter into the Promised Land. Moses is telling them again what it means to follow the Lord, your God. He is talking to the family of faith, to the full community, to the people of God, the ancient nation of Israel. It is not simply that this family and that family each ought to have the word of God on their doorposts, etc. but he talking to a community of believers to say, Create a world so that wherever a child goes in this community they will run into people who believe in God’s word, people who love God with all their heart, with all their mind, with all their soul, with all their strength, people who pray. Have this world where there is a fellowship of believers so that children look around them and see nothing but this kind of life.
We do this so that children understand this is perfectly normal—perfectly normal to trust God, perfectly normal to pray, perfectly normal to be a peacemaker instead of a troublemaker, perfectly normal to be generous and to forgive, and perfectly normal to talk about Jesus Christ.
We all have probably heard the statistics about the high percentage of children who are abused who become abusers when they are adults. It seems against logic. You would think that if you were abused, you would not want to see that happen to someone else. But the problem is that whatever children observe as they grow up, they think is normal. If they grow up abused, they grow up abusive, but if they grow up seeing faith, hearing people talk about Jesus Christ, and listening to family members pray, they pray. Whatever they observe is what they think is normal.
As a congregation, we gather together and we create a safe place. We create a place for children to come to at different times in the week. They are held by people who are not their own family. Even before they can think and remember, they associate this place with trust because someone loved them and held them, and perhaps sang to them Jesus Loves Me. The trust they learned in the arms of a caregiver in this church is the foundation for believing they can trust in God. They grow up with the families of their friends who have reasonably similar convictions about the Christian faith and reasonably similar experiences with Jesus Christ, and it is a broader world. This is normal. This is the way people believe. This is the way people act. They grow up with an intentional system of teaching children God’s word, of teaching children to pray, of allowing children to lead in worship.
Have you ever heard that nature abhors a vacuum? It is not simply enough to protect them from the MTV world, but it is to instill in them the things of God. Suppose you build a home and the landscapers come in and prepare perfectly all the top soil around your house. If you do nothing to it, what happens? The dirt is the vacuum and the weeds come in. The best way to keep weeds out is to grow strong grass. If you grow good, healthy, strong grass, it does not allow the weeds to come in. What we teach children intentionally, on purpose, and with a plan, is to provide in their hearts and in their minds things of God that help protect them against the assault from places like, for example, MTV. It takes a church to raise a Christian.
Today, we thank Prissy Tunnell for how she has helped us develop this approach to ministry. It would be impossible to summarize it all. How do you count all the children, all the Bible verses that have been learned, all the families who have been led to model Jesus Christ in their home in a special way through Prissy’s ministry? We can’t do it. We can’t count them all. We see a good example of them in church this morning, but there have been 13 years of children passing through and families being influenced by this. I see families today that are present from many different places. Children came back from children’s camp this week as a recognition that this approach to ministry and the way in which Prissy has led us to do it is a testimony to how important faith is in the life of so many families.
I would challenge us today to do two things. One is to thank Prissy for this which we do, but also to recommit ourselves to the fact that this is the foundation of this ministry. Let us build on the foundation. These are the first chapters in this approach to ministry, but let us write more chapters. Let us commit that future generations of children will also have the same experience. What is it Moses says: “Tell your children and your children’s children”? Keep the cycle going. Let the children know about Jesus.
The Frenchman who wrote The Little Prince, Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, was an amazing man. This was a children’s book, but he also wrote a book entitled The Wind, The Sand, and The Stars that National Geographic says is one of the best adventure books ever written. He was a pilot for the French Mail Service in the early days of aviation. He tells the story near the end of the book that was on the eve of World War II. Populations of people were shifting across Europe. War was inevitable and people needed to be back inside their national boundaries. There was a large group of Polish miners who had been mining in northern France who were forced to go back to Poland. It was a sad lot of people. They were poor. Everything they could carry was in a bundle and they were packed together in trains. As he rode along in the train, he sat down and looked at a couple. They were like many of the couples—crowded together, weary, and poor. They clearly were peasants. He said: “I sat down, face to face, with one poor couple. Between the man and a woman, a child had hollowed himself out a place and fallen asleep. He turned in his slumber, and in the dim lamplight, I saw his face. What an adorable face! The golden fruit had been born of these two peasants. I bent over the smooth brow of those mildly pouting lips and I said to myself, This is a musician’s face. This child could be Mozart. This is a child, a life full of beautiful promise. Little princes in legends aren’t any different from this. Protected and sheltered and cultivated, what could this child become? When by change a new rose is born in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They isolate the rose, they tend it, they foster it, but there is no gardener for this child. This little Mozart will be shaped by the rest of his poor world. He will love shoddy music in the stench of night dives. This little Mozart is condemned.”
Those of you who teach and work with children in a variety of settings have probably all seen the child, a child that is brilliant but will never have the nurture to develop the brilliance, the child that is gifted but will never have the opportunity to develop the gift. There is no one in that child’s life to nurture them and to grow them. How many wasted lives are there because children did not have the opportunity?
In the world of faith, it is our goal as a congregation, and has been under Prissy’s leadership, that no child not have the opportunity to grow and to become what they could be in faith. Each little child could grow to become Albert Schweitzer, scientific genius and wonderful missionary, to be a Lottie Moon who gives a lifetime to teach others about Jesus Christ, that each child could reach their potential in faith, and to have an impact on the world that we today may not even be able to imagine.
No child condemned but each child loved and nurtured. Each family taught to be an example of the broader family of faith, each taking its part to raise these children. It is our heritage and now it is rooted deeply.
Today, we thank Prissy for her part, and we commit ourselves to continuing this for all children. Always.
 Antoine De Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand and Stars (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt, Inc. 1939), p. 228
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.