People Group thinking was a significant concept from the first Lausanne Congress in 1974. The "10/40 Window," from Lausanne II in Manila, may have been the most important contribution of that gathering. Another window—what I call the "4/14 Window," is becoming a key focal point for the next quarter century.
The 4/14 Window refers to children and young people between those ages. It is well documented that most people who are going to make a decision to follow Christ sometime in their lifetimes, will do so before the age of 15thus, the 4/14 Window. This new window lets in the light on the foundations for the future of the church.
While this topic is extremely sensitive in the context of China, many opportunities may be lost if we are not more sensitive to the potential of and the mandate for the church in China to care for needy children.
The People of the 4/14 Window
The category "children" is much too broad to fit the normal definition of a people group. However, if we do view the children of China as a people group, what can we learn? We find the following:
- An enormous people group. Current estimates suggest that the total population in China is about one billion three hundred thousand. Of these, according to the population reference bureau, some twenty-two percent, or 286 million, are under the age of fifteen. This figure is approximately the same as the total estimated population of the U.S.
- A suffering people group. The people in the 4/14 Window are the most affected and vulnerable to every kind of disease and suffering. UNICEF data tells us that nearly 30,000 children die every day, most from preventable causes. China does reasonably well in managing the "Under 5 Mortality Rate" (U5MR), ranking 93rd in the world, but its enormous population means that over 500,000 Chinese children die before reaching the age of five. Moreover, the stories of child neglect and the general lack of parenting skills, especially in the rural areas, means that many Chinese children are suffering.
- An unwanted and victimized people group. Many of the people of the 4/14 Window are unwanted. One indicator of this is the still appallingly high rates of abortion, especially in the so-called developed nations.
Indeed, in China, abortion is not just an option for women but mandated by the One Child Policy established by Deng Xiaoping in 1979 to limit the country's population growth. Abortions are not the only result of this misguided policy. There is alarming evidence that the intense pressure on couples to make sure their only child is a boy has prompted a resurgence of female infanticide, despite official attempts to stamp out the centuries-old practice. In other cases, according to reports, girls are hidden from the authorities or die at a young age through neglect.
- A Receptive people group. At the same time, children are also the most receptive population on earth. In the US, nearly eighty-five percent of people who make a decision for Christ do so between the ages of four and fourteen. There is a growing body of research which suggests that roughly this same receptiveness is true in populations outside of the US, including China.
Children "Outside the Door"
Children warrant holistic ministry to address both their spiritual and physical needs. The Chinese church, in a sensitive milieu, has often overlooked both the biblical and the strategic importance of ministry to needy children. Again, while acknowledging the sensitivity of mentioning children in the context of China, there are possibilities which could be important for the growth and direction of the church.
Many churches in China do have programs for the spiritual nurture of the children in their churches. However, for many church leaders, the idea that the church has a responsibility to care for needy children outside its door is a very new idea. Workshops and training events are now being undertaken which challenge Chinese churches to understand the biblical significance of children as well as their strategic importance. In one of their discussions, since no Chinese character was found for children at risk, a Chinese symbol for children "outside the door" was adopted. Some Chinese church leaders are seeing exciting new possibilities for both church growth and outreach in China through strategies to do holistic ministry with children both inside and outside the door.
Care for Children "Outside the Door" is Biblical for All Churches
There is no question that such ministries are biblically sound. We see from Scripture that many of the same things we are concerned about today in China and elsewhere were problems in biblical times as well.
- Seizure for debts. The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt (Job 24:9).
- Hunger and nakedness. Lacking clothes, they spend the night naked; they have nothing to cover themselves in the cold (Job 24:7).
- Trafficking and prostitution. They cast lots for my people and traded boys for prostitutes; they sold girls for wine that they might drink (Joel 3:3).
- Abuse. They trample on the heads of the poor as upon the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed. Father and son use the same girl and so profane my holy name (Amos 2:7).
Though these things happened, and still happen to children, God is not silent. Throughout Scripture, we see that he is a defender of the orphans and the fatherless, and he expects his people to be the same.
Ethics of Ministry in the 4/14 Window
The prohibition in China against forcing children to believe in religion is widely construed to mean that it is still illegal to influence them religiously, and many churches are over-cautious in this area. But it does of course happen. There are, in fact, many Sunday Schools and other Christian ministries to children. Moreover it should and must happen. Ministry to children may be a remarkably effective way to find sensitive inroads into unreached communities and people groups.
A common argument among Chinese church leaders is that children are not psychologically mature enough to make an informed decision or to choose their own religion. Hence, directing a child towards a particular religion is not ethically correct. However, this position is not scriptural. The biblical pattern of evangelism is to proclaim the gospel to everyone. No one is excluded.
Evangelism or providing Christian training to children of non-Christian parents is neither exploitative nor unethical. At the same time, we must be very clear about the particular sensitivities of ministry to children in China. It should go without saying that:
- Children should not be subjected to religious teaching and training without the knowledge and consent of their parents.
- Children should not be baptized until the parents are also ready to be baptized, in order to ensure that the child has support and encouragement in his or her new faith.
- Where a commitment to Christ may involve ostracism, rejection, persecution or suffering, the consequences of a commitment to follow Christ must be clearly presented in a manner commensurate with the understanding and maturity level of the child.
The One Child Policy—A Special Opportunity for Chinese Churches?
China's One Child Policy was noted above as one of the ways in which children are victimized. Unfortunately, when one seriously examines the One Child Policy, it is clear that the problems already mentioned are not the only ones that have emerged. One acquaintance, who works in China, made the obvious point that the One Child Policy means that children today have no brothers and sisters. If the policy is continued for more than one generation, it also means that the child has no aunts or uncles, no cousins, nephews or nieces. In short, the policy totally destroys the extended family. The children have no relatives except their parents and living grandparents.
Nevertheless, this policy may provide significant ministry opportunities for Chinese churches. Today's couples in China often prefer career success to children. Educated and economically better-off couples typically have either one child or no children. Since the third generation under the shadow of this policy is already being born, a very unique phenomenon has emerged: these little ones receive the full attention of six adultstheir parents and four grandparents. This, coupled with families' economic improvement, often produces children spoiled by material supplybut with a spiritual and mental emptiness. This may open the doors of opportunity for local churches to reach out to these children. For instance, churches can organize ministry to help build a correct value system among these children or to provide supplementary tuition to meet their academic needs. In demonstrating their love for the children, churches may be able to win the confidence of the parents and win their hearts for Christ.
In the countryside, the dynamic is quite different but still presents the opportunity to reach out with the gospel. In remote places where agriculture remains the main economic activity and people are less educated, families often break the One Child Policy for reasons such as a lack of knowledge of contraception or the traditional cultural preference for boys. Breaking the policy will cause suffering for both the "non-first" children and their parents. The "non-first" born will not be entitled to any social benefits, such as free education. In general, as these families are poor, their children will rarely have the chance to go to school, and may also suffer from lack of access to proper medical treatment. The parents and the children are viewed as outcasts.
However, this too presents special opportunities for the church. If churches are willing to love these children by caring for their practical needs, they will not only minister to these needy children but have a good chance to reach out to their families.
Children as Resources for Their Parents
In this article, I have been careful not to suggest that the main reason for caring for children is to gain better access to their parents or other adults. Ministry to children as children is inherently valuable in and of itself. It is true that in many cases the Chinese children may be significant sources of, and resources for, Christian truths for their parents. While this should not be the only reason to reach out to children, it needn't be either illegitimate or manipulative. Children, especially those in non- Christian contexts, are often influential in bringing their parents to Christ. They are often the first to understand the love of Jesus. They may be the ones who learn to pray for their parents. Since the children may be learning to read, while the parents are illiterate, the children may be the ones who are able to tell or read the stories of Jesus to their parents. Our programs are replete with stories of just those things happening. Countless parents testify that it was their children who first heard of Jesus and who influenced them to make a decision to follow Him.
Let the Children Come
There is a tendency among Chinese church leaders to stereotype ministries to children saying either that it "can't be done, that ministry to children is not serious mission, or it is the work for the less able or creative church members." In their enthusiasm for development of global evangelism strategies, Chinese Christians have at times acted as though we did not have time to wait for young Christians to mature into their place of leadership. This is shortsighted and dangerous.
Today's Chinese children are still tomorrow's Chinese leaders. Maturity in future Chinese Christian leadership requires strategic and sustained investments in the nurture of Chinese children today. The 4/14 Window, so neglected by much of the Chinese church, may be a very effective way to further and enrich church growth, develop new Christian leadership and reach adults and unreached peoples.
Dan B., Doctor of Missiology, has worked for some 30 years in various roles for agencies involved in holistic child and family development. He has written and taught widely promoting and managing child development programs, and has been involved in planning and monitoring child and family development or relief projects... View Full Bio