Michelle Hunter's research into church toddler groups makes for surprising reading
Premier Christianity magazine's recent article 'How Evangelicals took over the Church of England', and in particular Linda Woodhead’s quote that the church is viewed by wider society as “exclusively for very enthusiastic Christians”, really struck a chord with me.
Part of my job is to collate parent and toddler groups occurring across the UK for a national database. Our remit is to not include groups in our listings which advertise explicitly religious content (i.e. Bible stories and Christian songs or prayers). However general church community toddler groups are fine.
I have spent several months looking at hundreds of UK church websites and the results across the various evangelical and liberal churches have been astonishing.
Many churches no longer offer these key support groups, or, if they do, they seem to be solely aimed at believers.
In England, and to a lesser extent Scotland and Wales, the overwhelming finding is the more evangelical the CofE or Baptist church, the more trendy and flashy the website and the less likely they are to have a group I can add. My heart sinks each time I open a page with huge images splashed across the screen of wildly enthusiastic people, promising awesome worship, transformational life groups, cosy curry nights and funky youth groups. In many of these cases, I know that there won’t be a parent and toddler group, and if there is, it will talk about children loving God and learning more about Jesus.
What’s wrong with that, you say? Well for those on the outside, it could be perceived as a bit of a closed shop. A 'boys own' club for those who are already part of the happy shiny enthusiastic Christian crowd. As a non-Christian parent of toddlers, I’d have run a mile!
Conversely, the more Anglo-Catholic or Liberal CofE (or Methodist, URC or Catholic) the church, the more likely they are to have a static webpage, with a bland picture of the church, and yet be running a toddler group, open and welcoming to anyone, with no references to the Bible at all.
The exception to this, fascinatingly, is Northern Ireland, where regardless of the denomination or evangelical slant, the consensus seems to be that bringing in community groups is a good thing. 90% of the Northern Irish church websites I visited offered a non-threatening toddler group, some of which went as far as to stress that everyone, of all faiths and none, was welcome to attend.
The whole research exercise was incredibly frustrating at times and on many occasions, I found myself yelling at the screen “Who are you here for?”
It bothers me that some evangelical churches may be failing to appeal to the very people in the community who need to hear the message the most.
Why would a local family - indifferent, suspicious or even hostile to religion – ever have the need or desire to set foot over the threshold after viewing a website which seems to be "exclusively for very enthusiastic Christians"?
My local church has two thriving community toddler groups and many of the new members of the church, have come to faith through this route because they encountered the love of Christ through their attendance of a warm and friendly group. If the group then occasionally offers prayer to Mums or a Bible story, most people will be quite happy with that. But if the church website puts people off before they even set foot in the door, then that’s a great pity.
Clearly the statistics show that evangelical churches are the ones who are growing, but perhaps some of them need to rethink their marketing strategy and do more to bring in outsiders rather than seeming to be ministering solely to their own flock? Then perhaps there would be even more growth!
Churches must look at their website with fresh eyes. Are you including the local community, and if so, is it in a non-threatening way? If Jesus had a church, who would he invite? And if he had a website, what would he write?
Michelle Hunter is a researcher for an app for parents of 0-11 year olds, which lists family-friendly events and groups around the UK.
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