Recently, a conversation with my apartment-mates dragged a long-forgotten song to the forefront of my mind–a Sunday school memory, childish and uncomplicated. With almost alarming accuracy, I began to sing “Jesus the Soccer Star“, complete with the dance motions I’d been taught many years prior. I didn’t think this was a strange memory. My apartment-mates did.
Their reaction was fair. After all, we are adults now. We read the apostles creed together, kneel in church for confession, debate fine theological points on a regular basis. Singing about how Jesus might be a music star, bus driver, or soccer champion doesn’t exactly fit into our typical spiritual lives.
Jesus the Soccer Star isn’t even the strangest song from my childhood (the platypus or woodpecker songs, anyone?). And yes, I think Jesus would have far bigger concerns than playing soccer if He were to return now. But I remember the joy that the song brought eight-year-old Emma and her Sunday school friends. We’d strum fake guitars, kick imagined soccer balls, honk invisible bus horns, singing with wide smiles about all the ways that Jesus just wanted to be a part of our daily lives.
There are lots of questions we could–and, I think, should–ask about how to teach young children about Jesus (perhaps calling Him a soccer star is… a little misleading). But there’s also something refreshingly simple about the Sunday School Gospel: Jesus loves us, Jesus wants to be with us, and Jesus will not leave us.
And maybe, every now and then, we ought to return to that simplicity.
In 2017, China released a revised version of their Religious Affairs Regulations, which had last been updated in 2004. These revised regulations took effect in February of 2018. Church members from around the world (as well as government agencies concerned with international freedom of religion) held their breath, anticipating the tightening of already-restrictive laws.
And indeed, to be a Christian in China is to constantly walk a tightrope between God and country. Since that February, house churches have been forced to close, crosses have been burned, and religious venues are required to present nationalistic symbols.
Of course, there’s also the matter of the children.
The conversion of anyone under the age 18 has long been forbidden by Chinese law, but in recent weeks, this regulation has been more heavily enforced. Children are no longer allowed to attend church at all, which means no Sunday School, which means–you guessed it–no Jesus the Soccer Star.
Many have speculated as to why the government would begin enforcing this law, and theories that start with the same basic premise all seem to branch in wildly different directions.
Perhaps China just really hates Christianity. Or maybe, rather than hatred, this reform springs from a desire for their ever sought-after unity. Perhaps, by restricting children from attending church, they’re attempting a generational reduction of Christians and therefore, a reduction in numbers of those who pledge loyalty to God first and country second.
Or maybe it’s a misguided attempt to protect the children. After all, before the age of 18, they’re young. Impressionable. What wisdom do they have to make declarations of loyalty to a divine being?
Almost a year ago, my roommate and I started attending Theophilus, a foursquare church in southeast Portland. It’s small but lively, full of all ages, including lots of children. The sanctuary seems to always be full of cooing baby sounds. And the best part is that there are no apologies made for these children–not when a baby begins crying in an otherwise quiet moment, not when a toddler goes dancing across the front of the sanctuary during worship, not when a restless kiddo sings quietly to herself during the sermon.
This week, the church had them administer communion. Everything else was the same–tearing a bit of bread from the loaf as the girl murmured, “the body of Christ, broken for you,” dipping that bread in the chalice as the boy said, “the blood of Christ, poured out for you,”–but it felt different. The sacrament felt heavier on my tongue. I had received the grace of Christ from the hands of children.
Sometimes we forget that children are the church, too. If we are attentive, we can receive grace from their small hands and wisdom from their young faith. They have much to teach us.
Let the children come, Jesus said, both a reprimand to his disciples and an invitation to the gathered children, who were watching with their wide eyes and eager hands, so young yet already learning their place in the world. And here was the Son of God, beckoning–let the children come.
We ought to listen.