(RNS) — In churches all across the world, partway through the service, half the congregation is asked to leave the sanctuary. While the head pastor leads those in the pews in an in-depth exegetical exercise, the rest are ushered into the basement, fed a snack that’s chosen for them and taught Bible lessons by a volunteer.
“It teaches segregation,” musician and pastor Rebecca Stevens-Walter said about the widely embraced practice of children’s church, where kids leave the main church service so adults can enjoy “real church,” distraction-free. “Churches have adopted a separate but equal practice for children.”
Stevens-Walter is a theologian in the emerging field of child liberation theology, a Christian movement and belief system that says children have the same worth as adults. Based on understandings of God as a child (as demonstrated through Christ) and as a God who sides with the oppressed, child liberation theology teaches that children’s needs and safety should never be an afterthought.
While strands of this theology have been woven into earlier movements — from Black liberation theology to queer theology — until recently, the only book exclusively dedicated to the topic was Janet Pais’ “Suffer the Children,” published in 1991. This month, a second entry in the genre comes with the publication of R.L. Stollar’s “The Kingdom of Children,” which reframes Scripture to unpack how children can be prophets, priests and theologians.
The release of Stollar’s book is the latest example of how child liberation theology is gradually making inroads in select seminaries, intergenerational churches and parenting groups. Indirectly, the echoes of child liberation theology can be heard in advocates calling for children’s rights in the context of homeschooling, adoption and gentle parenting.
When asked why child liberation theology isn’t a more well-established field, Stollar, a longtime child advocate and the creator of the site Homeschoolers Anonymous, said it’s another example of how society overlooks children.
“People don’t often think about children as a marginalized people group,” Stollar explained. But, he argues in his book, the universal problem of child abuse, the high rates of infant mortality in the United States and the practice of trafficking children all suggest we live in an anti-child world where adults are prioritized.
“They are the only population in the world that has no voice in any official capacity,” said Stevens-Walter, who pointed out that children don’t vote, can’t physically defend themselves and are dependent on adults for survival.
Child liberation theologians advocate for lowering the voting age and respecting children’s voices by inviting them to participate in decision-making. This can look like giving children the choice to say “no” to a hug, letting them select from a variety of snack options and asking them to give input on everything from what their bedroom looks like to whether or not to be homeschooled. When it comes to religion, it also means not dictating what a child believes.
Education reporter Nadra Nittle, who includes a section on child liberation theology in her new book “bell hooks’ Spiritual Vision,” said children’s rights are also denied in schools where students are suspended for talking back to adults or where corporal punishment is still permitted.
“So it’s OK to use corporal punishment against children, whereas hitting an adult would be considered assault. It would be considered a crime,” said Nittle. She added that the oppression of children is also seen in what bell hooks would call the “fascistic” notion that children have no rights or power in their home.
Instead of physical punishment, child liberation theologians suggest alternative responses to misbehavior like giving children options. For example, asking: “Would you like to play nicely with your brother, or would you like to play in your room by yourself?” Adults can also try defusing situations with humor, providing logical consequences (like having a child help repair something they broke), empathizing with children when they are upset and holding children supportively when they are acting aggressively.
For Stevens-Walter, child liberation theology — and the reversal of child oppression — begins with Matthew 19:13-15. Jesus instructs the disciples, “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.” Jesus not only signals the importance of children by welcoming them, child liberation theologians argue, but he also embodies the reality that God is a child, not just a father or Lord.
“The fact that God revealed themselves as a child is very contrary to the way we think about power and might and worth and value,” said Stollar.
Believing in a God who once cried inconsolably, experienced the stages of child development and, Luke 2 says, “grew in wisdom,” ought to prevent Christians from responding punitively to challenging but normal phases of childhood, including tantrums, according to Stollar. It should also inspire Christians to embrace an evolving faith, rather than a static one, Stevens-Walter said.
While other liberation theologies are led by members of their respective groups, for now, child liberation theology is being advanced by adults. Stevens-Walter said it’s necessary for adults to take part because they, too, were once children and must deal with their childhood traumas so they can stop the cycle.
Adults should also empower children to take ownership of their theologies by including them as decision-makers in faith communities, according to Stollar. “For me, the ultimate goal of child liberation theology is for children themselves to take this theology and figure out what they want to do with it,” he said. Play, he suggested, is one form of theology that gives children space for wonder and permission to reimagine and question Bible stories.
“When we play, we are reflecting something about who God is and what God values,” Stollar writes in his book.
In the meantime, the principles of child theology have tangible implications for how Christians ought to worship, safeguard children, parent and even engage in politics.
“It’s not just about the way we raise children, but also advocating for issues that matter to children, whether those are issues like food insecurity, access to medical care and poverty,” said Nittle.
Stollar told RNS that child liberation theology calls every faith community and religious organization to not only adopt a child protection policy, but also to ensure their policies are shaped by children’s input. He thinks every community should review their policies regularly and ask children two simple questions: “How are we treating you? and “How can we treat you better?”
Families, too, can create their own versions of child protective policies by agreeing to things like not raising voices at one another, knocking before entering a room and listening when someone asks to stop being tickled, Stollar said.
In a worship setting, child liberation theologians believe children should be treated as full participants. For Stollar, that includes the sacrament of Communion. Stevens-Walters thinks sermons should be nixed in favor of stories, songs and prayers that are geared toward children as well as adults. Activities often dismissed as “childish,” like coloring, can be used as vehicles of learning for congregants of all ages.
But removing children from worship or forcing them to sit through services catered to adults, she said, should never be an option.
“If we’re actually creating worship where people are spiritually filled,” said Stevens-Walters, “that’s the body of Christ at work.”