Haddon Willmer on Beth’s Paper – 9-8-11

Thank you for showing me this.  Here are my reactions.

1   It led me to read once more Beth’s 4/14 reflection.  I am more than grateful for it – it is quite stunning in the depth and precision of the theology, ie talking of and from God and not just performing well academically, and in the way it addresses a large group of contemporary disciples who are having difficulty in entering the kingdom of God.  I would like to see this paper as a CTM booklet.  It needs to be developed:  there are many pregnant and searching sentences in it that need further exposition, in order to be made clear.   In its essence, if it were detached from the immediate critical polemic that gave rise to it, the presentation of child theology seems to me to be the best succinct and all round statement yet.    (It seems, from this correspondence, that Dan is not shaken by this critique;  the 4/14 missiology is a safe envelope, and within it we can talk about children in the Bible, but the possibility that the child placed by Jesus might step out of the Bible and shatter our missiology and all we build on it, is unthought.)

2   It is important not to diverted from the heart of the matter (point 1) by enquiries into the history of 4/14 concept etc.  That is not to say such enquiries have no value.   I knew Dan had popularised the idea, I did not know that he invented it.   Beth is quite right to say it has some use as a sociological instrument, but is dangerous when more is made of it.  But it is sociologically rough and incomplete.   This is evident from what Dan says about his own practice.  He has extended it to 18 (thanks to the UN), and that of course puts together child and teenager/young adult, two very different ways of being human, the one biddable and embedded in home, the other deliberately breaking out.   It may be that in the US 85% of adult Christians became Christians before they were 18; but that tells us less about the child, universally, than about the peculiar nature of US culture and religion.   Dan finds in his informal enquiries that the number of 4/18 faith-starters never falls below 50% but that of course implies that up to 50% in these groups became Christians later.   I have long thought that in Britain, Christianity has little future unless somehow adults can be persuaded or led to become Christians, because it is clear that basing the future of the church on converting children does not work.  Even in the less than 50% of churches where there are children, many of them do not persevere to be adult Christians.  The British people is now largely dechristianised – third and fourth generation who have never been in church, who know virtually nothing about Christian faith, and feel no need of it.  They do not induct their children into faith.  So a missiology that has some idea about how to share the good news with adults is essential.

It is necessary, even in a culture where the church is large and where children become Christians as children.   This is because children become teenagers and then adults, inevitably.  Many of them have their prodigal revolt.   Thanks to education and the cultural contexts, they find non-Christian ways of thinking and living which appear attractive and good.  There are all sorts of ways, some better than others, by which children who were Christian in some sense choose or are led not to be as they grow up.   Dan’s enquiry, like most enquiries, in this area does not get into the question of why and how Christian children cease to be children (it also does not ask whether keeping going in the Christianity one was inducted into as a child leads people in the long run to thinking, adventuring Christians, making a living sacrifice of their blossoming adulthood to God, or whether it produces people who are docile security seeking church people).    It is my hunch that many people who were in some sense Christians as children,  are only adult Christians because they were persuaded somehow to become Christians when they came to the age of their own life-shaping decisions.  That means, that even if the church is successful in bringing many children to Christ, it must face the turmoil and scattering of young adulthood, and it must have a ministry of intelligent and appropriate evangelism for adults, who may think they have seen it all as children and have seen enough.   (This shape of the life of adult Christians is borne out in many biographies, though I am not aware that any comprehensive study has been made.  The way I see this whole question is grounded in my own experience.   I never left the church, outwardly, but I could not go on in a simple continuity with the christianity of my upbringing, profound though that was.  I am only a Christian today because I got into a search for a Christianity which makes some sense of me (rather than merely to me) ).

Even from a pragmatic, missiological point of view, then, the 4/14 ideology is inadequate.   It leads to indulgent, sectional capers like Singapore and does not help us to think about the whole range of what is involved in preaching the good news to everyone.

3   [edited]

4   This a critical moment.   We must work hard to help everyone to make the most of it.  That means, we have to give more weight to point 1 than to points 2 and 3.

best wishes


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