Practical Divinity: Care for children: a Wesleyan calling

By Andrew C. Thompson
 
The ministry of early Methodists impacted the lives of men and women in remarkable ways. Under John Wesley’s leadership, the Methodist revival in the British Isles emphasized a gospel that included concerns for both body and soul.
 
The Methodist preaching of the time called for a renewal of the heart through faith in Jesus Christ. But it also taught that those whose hearts had been renewed would be changed in their outward lives. So for people of that time, it was only natural that powerful preaching services and prayer gatherings would go hand in hand with social outreach to feed the hungry, heal the sick and educate the unlettered.
 
One part of the early Methodist movement that often gets overlooked is the Methodists’ deep concern for the welfare of children. When John Wesley and other young men met to organize their spiritual lives in the way that would eventually be called “Methodist,” their Irish friend William Morgan led them in gathering together a group of poor children for instruction. The project was so successful that they eventually had to hire a local woman in Oxford to take on the role of schoolteacher. 
 
The commitment to the wellbeing of children would become a hallmark of the Methodist movement when it began to expand in 1739—a point made by Richard Heitzenrater in his excellent book, Wesley and the People Called Methodists. One of the first major projects that John Wesley undertook after he committed to field preaching was the Kingswood School near Bristol, England, which was founded to provide education and Christian instruction for the poor children of the area.
 
Wesley also gathered the children in the places where Methodism spread so that they could form “little societies” similar to the societies intended for grown-ups. One of the questions Wesley began asking new Methodist preachers in 1766 reads, “Will you diligently and earnestly instruct the children, and visit from house to house?”
 
Wesley at times admitted that he found ministry with children to be difficult, but he never let that stand in the way of pursuing it at every opportunity.
 
Ministry with children in Arkansas
 
Many of our local churches in the Arkansas Conference see ministry with children as one of their primary activities. I think it’s encouraging to recognize how deeply embedded that commitment is in the Methodist DNA.
 
Wesley himself defined Methodism first and foremost as the “religion of the Bible.” And in that sense, it’s also true that the Methodist devotion to ministry with children is an outgrowth of Jesus’ own teaching: “Let the little children come unto me and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14).
 
This past June our annual conference approved a Childhood Hunger Initiative that will seek to address food insecurity among children across the state of Arkansas. The hope is that every local church in Arkansas will participate in some way to help end childhood hunger across the state. 
 
There is already good work being done on that front through various agencies, of course, and it is important to publicize and support it. Our local churches represent a huge resource to start new projects addressing children’s hunger in their own contexts, as well. So congregations ought to think creatively about what they can do to spread the gospel by caring for hungry children.
 
‘With utmost care’
 
We’ll be hearing more about this new initiative in the weeks ahead. As we prepare in prayerful and practical ways to commit ourselves to this good work, drawing on some Wesleyan wisdom might be helpful.
 
Wesley once referred to children in a sermon as “immortal spirits whom God hath for a time entrusted to your care, that you may train them up in all holiness, and fit them for the enjoyment of God in eternity.”
 
He believed children were gifts of God, as we all do. His point here is not just about the value of children, though. It is about the profound responsibility of Christian adults to guard them, protect them, provide for them and raise them as followers of Christ.
 
That’s an issue of faithful stewardship—care for the little boys and girls God has placed in our midst. So I think Wesley’s pastoral advice serves as a fitting word for us to consider as we embark together on a great missional ministry:
 
“Every child therefore you are to watch over with the utmost care, that when you are called to give an account of each to the Father of Spirits, you may give your accounts with joy and not with grief.”
 
The Rev. Dr. Thompson, Wesley scholar for the Arkansas Conference, teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary. He writes “Practical Divinity” quarterly for the Arkansas United Methodist. Email: athompson@arumc.org.