Jason Byassee: Lead like a child?

What does Jesus mean when he says we should lead like a child?

A friend texted me one Sunday morning to ask for prayers. His church asked him to “volunteer” in the 2- to 3-year-old nursery during Sunday School. Why didn’t they give him something easy? Like the mission trip to Mexico as the lone chaperon of the youth?

Someone tried to encourage him by telling him of the scripture in which Jesus commends a little child as the model of leadership: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” he said (Matthew 18:4). “What’s that mean?” my friend asked, reflecting on his own 3-year-old. “That I should throw my straw cup and bite the next kid who tries to share my toys?”

What does it mean, especially for Christian leaders? I really don’t know, and wonder if you do.

As often happens when we have a question on the brain, answers started coming. "Harpers" magazine has an interesting profile (subscription required) of an evangelistic ministry to children in a housing project in Connecticut. Rachel Aviv has some sympathy for her subjects, but not enough to avoid language foreign to evangelicals: she speaks of them “saving” kids, of kids “atoning” for their own sins, or even of the volunteers themselves as “missionaries” (I’m guessing they would prefer no such grand title). She does speak wistfully of a time when, as a child, she felt innately spiritual. She was an “uncomfortably religious child, vaguely Jewish but mostly superstitious. I had worried that the Lord would punish me for bad behavior by killing my mother.” Alas, she can feel no such religiosity now: “It would have been a relief if someone had given me a rigid and alphabetized set of beliefs like those the Fellowship offers (Instead, my parents sent me to therapy.).” The point is clear. Neither should any other adult expect such child-sized bites of belief. Hence evangelicals have to proselytize children—and often bully their way through the courts to these defenseless minds.

Is that what Jesus meant? “Give me a child for five years, and I’ll have him for the rest of his life?” Aviv heard from her subjects a version of this quote attributed to Hitler, Castro, Marx, “the Muslims” and “the Communists.” She figures its likely source is St. Ignatius Loyola: “Give me the child, I will give you the man.”

Another answer comes from a recent sermon in Duke Chapel. Bil Lepp focused on the difference between a child’s view of the world and an adult’s. Children think anything is possible. One snowflake outside? Let’s sled. Adults are there to ruin this enthusiasm. “No, you can’t sled until you have sufficient snow.” Philip, in John 6, was the adult. He knew there wasn’t enough to feed this crowd of 5,000. Jesus, and the boy with his lunch, saw that there was some. And that was enough. My kids think anything is possible, Lepp said. They’ll get up in the morning saying they’re going to build a rocket to go to the moon. It takes an adult to ruin that dream. So, for Jesus, to be a child is to believe anything is possible—that even we selfish ones who clutch our food can share and make enough for all.

That’s a bit different spin on childlike credulity.

Yet another comes from Chris Heuertz of Word Made Flesh. In his superb book “Simple Spirituality” he points to the anonymity of the child. “Did any of the disciples know him? Had he T.P.’ed any of their houses or broken any of their windows with antiquity’s equivalent of a baseball?” We have no idea. But here’s what’s most odd for Heuertz: Jesus could have pointed to himself as the model of a humble leader. Instead he pointed to an anonymous child: “Makes sense. Jesus put someone else forward.” And that’s what leaders do.

The ancient church didn’t like the anonymity. They, in fact, knew who the child was. It was the great Ignatius of Antioch, the martyr-bishop who would be torn apart by wild beasts in the coliseum in Rome. This had a sort of logic to it—that the child lifted up as an exemplar by Jesus would go on to become one of the early church’s greatest saint (and a model of a martyr-bishop).

These readings all avoid the standard sentimentality about children. ‘Kids are great because they are nice, they have short memories, they forgive each other, they are innocent,’ or whatever. Anyone who has been around an actual child will be despoiled of such smarminess pretty quickly. These readings all shift the emphasis of the passage slightly. And, they could all be wrong.

So what do you think Jesus means when he says to be great we should be like that child?

Jason Byassee is an executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.