Holding onto our feet, we rolled from side to side on our backs, following lots of back-bending and twisting. “Everybody loves a ‘happy baby’!” quipped the yoga instructor. That is what this move is called, but my train of thought derailed at that point and I started pondering: “Yes, why do so many people prefer babies to older kids?” This is certainly the case in the adoption world. For many prospective adoptive families, the younger the children the better. And to me as a pastor, the parallels to integrating into a “church family” and our preference for “happy babies” are striking.
With infants, adopted or birthed, parents have the optimal opportunity to imprint on them our own habits and behaviors as the standard for “normal”. We are the ones establishing the patterns that the synapses in their little brains recognize as familiar, both cognitively and emotionally. Attachment forms just by meeting their basic needs, without needing to debunk their previous experiences of broken trust. It’s easier to make them fit into our family – easier for them, easier for us – even though infants certainly run the show for awhile just by crying.
In mainline Protestant congregations, we love “happy baby” baptisms. Children of the congregation as our new members fit so seamlessly into who we already know ourselves to be as a “church family,” if only there would be enough of them. We imprint upon them the right way to worship, participate in education, volunteer, and take part in the umpteenth annual _______ supper, and they believe this is how church is and ever shall be. They do not enter the family agitating to change it, or challenging our ideas of who we are and what is most important to us.
In our adoption process, my spouse and I knew that older children are harder to place, so decided we would be open to children up to age 6, setting that limit largely for ease of language acquisition (since we were adopting internationally) and for the child to start school at the same age as their peers. Those were our parameters to make it easier on the child, but also if we’re honest, to make the transition easier on ourselves. They have a better chance of blending in, catching up, and assimilating. As one parent said in a support group we were a part of, “We knew we were signing up to be a conspicuous adoptive family, but we didn’t know we were also becoming a ‘special needs’ family.” Some of those invisible needs that are never going to show up in the paperwork manifest later as behavioral, emotional, or cognitive challenges. Older children come with more history, and if they are in the care of the state, that likely entails neglect or abuse. The older they are, the more aware children might be of the emotional trauma of the whole story that led to them being available for adoption.
So it is with those who come to faith, or to our specific congregation, from a different denominational background or church culture. They might be joining our church family because they have suffered neglect or some form of abuse in another church or tradition. They may be coming to faith for the first time because of things that have happened in their lives and likely a relationship that showed them some love. If any of these is the case, I hope we are attentive enough to recognize that this is not going to be easy on any of us, and the whole family might change as a result. I hope we create the space for our newer family members to process what they’ve been through, and safe space to tell us how what we do might be in a code they don’t understand or otherwise exclusionary. New members could be mirrors leading to self-awareness and renewal for our church family. But assimilation needs to be set aside as a goal, overpowered by the new standard of actively cultivating belonging for everyone. Resembling each other, except in sharing the love of Christ, is not a defining feature of the family Jesus created. Neither is fitting in without friction, or requiring no adaptation by anyone else.
A “happy baby” is not the goal for church families, although it is a nice massage for the lower back.