Ethical Mission Response to Children at Risk

by Greg W. Burch

The author offers three foundational guidelines for workers among children in high-risk situations.

As a missionary working with street children in Caracas, Venezuela, I frequently came in contact with Christians deeply concerned about the plight of children in that city. One day, I was contacted by a church leader who was profoundly moved by an experience he had in coming in contact with young people on the street.

As a result of this contact, the church decided to develop a ministry to street children and subsequently hosted an activity for them.

Those of us concerned with this population of young people were encouraged by the enthusiastic involvement of this church. The event was held in a park near the church campus. Upon completing the games and food, the leader called together the young people for a Bible study. He delivered a message focused on the importance of letting go of sin and following the Savior. The primary focus of his message was on illicit drug use and sex. Upon finishing his message, the young people were given the opportunity to raise their hands in acknowledgement of their commitment to follow Christ. The majority of those present made some indication to repeat “the sinner’s prayer” and leave behind their life on the street. This was a great idea, but there was one problem: there was no place for the children to go.

It appears to be common among some sectors of the Church to respond to the needs of children at high risk by taking similar action. This is a normal response when confronted with a desperate situation. Many desire to help children living in crisis, but simply do not know how to respond outside of presenting a message of repentance. This message is critical as we respond holistically to the needs of children, yet falls short if presented as the only answer to the circumstances in which some children at high risk find themselves.

For some, the solution to their misery is a simple fix: trust Christ and repent from sin and your life will change. What those who were beginning their ministry to these children failed to understand was that many of these boys and girls had repeatedly made such a commitment. In missional engagement with children at risk, we are frequently confronted with those who, with good intentions, desire to help and care for children, but in the end do more harm than good. Here I would like to begin a discussion of the place of ethics in missional response to children at risk.

Children at Risk as a Mission Focus
How do we understand mission engagement in ethical terms with children at high risk? Within the mission movement we have seen an increase in ministries concerned with this population. This is evident with historical evangelical agencies like Latin America Mission, Serving in Mission, Salvation Army, and WEC International, but this can also be viewed in newer movements such as Action International, Christ for the City, Viva International, 180° Alliance—United Global Action with Street Children, and Word Made Flesh. Other Christian development organizations, such as World Vision and Compassion International, have for several decades held our attention as they have responded holistically to the needs of children around the globe. These are positive signs for the contemporary Church today.

A basic definition to help us understand the term children at high risk is “those whose well-being and development are imperiled to the extent that their life chances, emotional progress, and sense of self-worth and identity are all under threat” (White and Wright 2003, 117). Children who are living and working on the street, sexually exploited, trafficked, living in absolute poverty, affected by HIV/AIDS, and/or abandoned are perceived as belonging in this risk category.

Mission to children at risk has been portrayed as the great omission of the Church. Patrick McDonald and Dan Brewster presented a clever little booklet entitled, “Children—The Great Omission?” at the 2004 Lausanne Forum for World Evangelization in Pattaya, Thailand. It seems that some are beginning to focus their attention on this population. As we develop a missional response to vulnerable children in our world today, there are several ethical principles I believe we should keep in mind.

The Place of Ethics in Missions
In the history of mission work, formal ethical concerns appear to be a fairly recent issue. Most issues of ethics in missionary activity appear to be connected to how missionaries should react to different sets of ethical values found in cross-cultural situations. For example, should the missionary pay bribes or offer gifts in exchange for services rendered? In surveying the horizon for helpful ethical guidelines for missional engagement with children at risk, little was found in traditional mission concerns. (One exception is the guidelines found in Dan Brewster’s book, Child, Church and Mission [2005], particularly sections four and five.) Another helpful development is a biblical framework which helps us to understand God’s heart for children.

In September 2004, an international dialogue began which focused on understanding God’s heart for children at risk (a.k.a. UGH). This framework continued to develop in and through the Cutting Edge Conference held in Cirencester, U.K., in September 2005, when hundreds of practitioners, pastors, and mission executives came together to discuss the topic. As a result of these discussions and the resulting papers, a book entitled Understanding God’s Heart for Children was published in 2007. This provides a helpful framework from which to move forward in developing a theologically-influenced understanding of ethical engagement with children at risk. The framework is made up of seven key principles:

1. God creates every unique person as a child with dignity.
2. Children need parental love in a broken world.
3. God gives children as a gift to welcome and nurture.
4. Society has a God-given responsibility for the well-being of children and families.
5. Children are a promise of hope for every generation.
6. God welcomes children fully into the family of faith.
7. Children are essential to the mission of God.

As Douglas McConnell appropriately points out, the framework is helping us to understand that there must be revolutionary changes in our churches and agencies if the 1.5 billion children at risk around our world are going to be cared for in a way that “reflects the values and presence of the Kingdom of God” (2007, 7).

I would suggest that another helpful resource is found in the social sciences and, in particular, social science research. Daniel Carroll suggests that “the social sciences stand as an unexplored and untapped source for ethics for many evangelicals” (2000, 321). Given the nature of research in the social sciences, it appears that the issue of ethics, especially regarding research with children, can provide those concerned with missional engagement several possible guidelines.

Ethical Guidelines for Mission to Children at Risk
One ethicist points to the place of provision, protection, and participation as three key ideas behind the place of ethics in research with children. These terms are commonly linked to the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the subsequent ratification of the CRC in nearly every country in the world (Alderson 2004, 98). I would suggest that, in light of the commonly recognized terminology among child rights workers and local child service organizations, missional entities begin to reflect upon the place of these three perspectives in engaging with children at risk (see Ennew and Stephenson 2004).

Providing for Children in Need

Ravi Jayakaran of World Vision suggests that “God’s first expectation is that we provide what children need for their care and nurture” (Principle 3 of UGH; 2007, 153). The Church is to provide for children irrespective of their religion or faith decisions. In providing for children at high risk, normally we understand this in the form of food, clothing, housing, and emotional support. Local churches and agencies are in an ideal place to provide for these needs.

Unfortunately, some Christian homeless shelters and churches have been known to force the homeless to attend a church service (where a message of repentance and salvation is presented) in order to receive access to basic needs. This has been practiced among children at risk as well. Based upon the biblical framework (Principle 4 of UGH), mission agencies and churches should avoid drawing children in with promises of food and other material necessities with underlying motivations of evangelizing them. Children should be provided for based upon a divine calling to care for those most needy in society. In other words, there should be “no strings attached” to our care.

Another issue we must take into account is what John Perkins calls a “false charity.” Among missions to children, we frequently see those in society who, out of a need to relieve their guilt, respond to what they perceive as a need. This often causes more problems for both the child and the community. In the case of some street-living children who have turned to self-medicating their pain with drugs and alcohol, the offering of money only exacerbates problems as the young people turn once again to drug use, but now with more money in hand. Part of recognizing that children are promises of hope (Principle 5 of UGH) includes providing for them with careful reflection so that future generations will be prepared to carry on the hope of Christ.

The Place of Child Participation
A second recognized concept for caring for children is that of participation. In a journal article entitled “Involving Children in Health and Social Research,” the authors present an interesting question: Are children to be perceived as “human becomings or active beings”? (Balen et al. 2006). It is argued that children should be recognized as social actors, rather than as “objects to be studied.”

I would suggest that as we approach missional engagement with children at risk, we recognize their human dignity and place as actors in society. As children who have been created as unique people with dignity (Principle 1 of UGH), we will want to recognize that they have been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26). Given this theological insight, the opinions and actions of children matter.

What I am not suggesting is that children are mature persons able to participate on equal standings with adults in every circumstance. But given their place in their own developmental process, I suggest we consider the possibility that children, as actors in society, be perceived as people who are given ample opportunity to develop their faith in a responsible way that is coherent with their developmental process. In acknowledging their place as subjects rather than objects of missional engagement, we are declaring that children also have something to teach childcare workers. It was Jesus who recognized the important role children play in the kingdom as he looked to the Psalms (8:2) to support the sporadic declaration by children that he was indeed the Messiah (Matt. 21:15). If Jesus permitted the participation of children, why don’t we?

To include children as participants means to recognize and respect their voice. Some have concluded within medical ethics that children aged 14 and up are in a position to give informed consent as to whether or not they agree to become subjected to research. Children aged 7 and up are believed to be developmentally capable of giving assent (which is, in a non-legal sense, the agreement of a child to participate in the research process; see Balen et al. 2006, 34).

In thinking through missional engagement with children at risk, I would suggest guidelines that are in the same spirit as that of social and medical research. Children should be approached and informed as to the purpose of a meeting. Given that parents (or guardians) play an essential role in the lives of children (Principle 2 of UGH), it is recommended that they too be given a reason for an activity and invited to participate where possible. Children below the age of 7 should be given access to spiritual resources as well, but in a way that is in accordance with their developmental process. Manipulation should be avoided at all costs and if children do make a spiritual decision, proper discipleship with parental acknowledgement should be engaged. As children progress in their faith development, they should be given the opportunity to not only receive spiritual support but give it as well. It’s when we recognize their place in the faith community (Principle 6 of UGH) and provide them with the opportunity to help in fulfilling God’s mission (Principle 7 of UGH) that they will become active participants in the extension of God’s kingdom.

Protecting Children
A third area focuses on child protection. Recent documentation on holistic child development among Christian childcare workers can prove to be helpful. As Heather MacLeod mentions, it is common for some to be attracted to working with children at risk for selfish and even harmful reasons. MacLeod underscores this by pointing out that “increased media attention in the last decade has highlighted this fact, identifying cases of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of children by staff and volunteers. Christian organizations and church groups have been included in this attention” (2003, 245).

She goes on to suggest that the development of child protection policies is an essential tool to caring for children within Christian outreach: “Child protection policies are aimed at reducing the risk of anyone who is associated with the organization abusing children” (2003, 247). (For specific information on child protection policies, see MacLeod 2003, 245-255. Viva International also provides capacity-building tools such as a Quality Improvement Scheme for improving care to children at risk. See the Helpful Resources section below for more.)

Several years ago, while visiting a home that was established to protect children, I came across a depressing scene. The home had been established by a well-known mission agency concerned with abandoned children. Over time, the home and local response team had deteriorated, the original substitute house parents had left, and out of a need to provide adult leadership, those in charge began to place short-term missionaries who were unprepared to care for these children. The methodology that was chosen by many was forced prayer and fasting. The results were devastating.

So while there are concerns about ethical outreach to children at risk, several recent gatherings over the past couple of years by mission agencies and other faith-based organizations are a hopeful sign that we are beginning to pay more attention to these issues. This is especially evident in the Child Safety and Protection Network, which includes thirty-two partnering agencies. The agencies involved have developed a collaborative network for training and dialogue on child protection and abuse prevention. These and other developments should be applauded. Yet more dialogue on issues of ethical missional engagement and protection of children must continue to be developed. The Child Safety and Protection Network is a great place to start for ministries wishing to engage children at risk as a mission focus. For further information on how your organization can become part of the network, contact SIL at

Alderson, Priscilla. 2004. “Ethics.” In Doing Research with Children and Young People. Eds. V. L. Sandy Fraser, Sharon Ding,Mary Kellet, and Chris Robinson, 97-112. London: SAGE Publications.

Balen, Rachel, Eric Blyth, Helen Calabretto, Claire Fraser, Christine Horrocks, and Martin Manby. 2006. “Involving Children in Health and Social Research.” Childhood 13(1): 29-48.

Brewster, Dan. 2005. Child, Church and Mission. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Compassion International.

Carroll, Daniel R. 2000. “Ethics.” In Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. Ed. A. S. Moreau, 319-322. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

Ennew, Judith and Paul Stephenson, eds. 2004. Questioning the Basis of our Work: Christianity, Children’s Rights and Development. Teddington, U.K.: Tearfund and Black on White Publications.

Jayakaran, Ravi with Paul Stockley. 2007. “Society Has a God-Given Responsibility for the Well-Being of Children and Families.” In Understanding God’s Heart for Children: Toward a Biblical Framework. Eds. Douglas McConnell, Jennifer Oron, and Paul Stockley, 152-158. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Authentic Publishing.

MacLeod, Heather. 2003. “Child Protection.” In Celebrating Children: Equipping People Working with Children and Young People Living in Difficult Circumstances around the World. Eds. Glenn Miles and Josephine-Joy Wright, 245-251. Carlisle, U.K.: Partnernoster Press.

McConnell, Douglas 2007. “An Introduction to Understanding God’s Heart for Children.” In Understanding God’s Heart for Children: Toward a Biblical Framework. Eds. Douglas McConnell, Jennifer Orona, and Paul Stockley, 1-8. Colorado Springs, Colo.: Authentic Publishing.

White, Keith and Josephine-Joy Wright. 2003. “Theoretical Frameworks Defining Risk and Resilience.” In Celebrating Children: Equipping People Working with Children and Young People Living in Difficult Circumstances around the World. Eds. Glenn Miles and Josephine-Joy Wright, 117-122. Carlisle, U.K.: Parternoster Press.



•  A Tool Kit for Child Protection (training material, set of three):

•  Child Protection Tool Kit:

•  Quality Improvement for Children at Risk Ministries:

•  Reducing the Risk II: Making Your Church Safe from Child Sexual Abuse:

•  The Churches’ Child Protection Advisory Service (CCPAS):


Greg W. Burch, Ph.D., teaches at ESEPA Seminary in Costa Rica in ministry to children at risk. Previously, he worked in Caracas with street children. He is a member of Latin America Mission and author of the book Community Children: A Ministry of Hope and Restoration to the Street Dwelling Child (Latin America Mission, 2005).

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 4, pp. 416-422. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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