As a child I missed out on learning an essential life skill: how to ride a bike.
Admittedly, I had once made an attempt to do so, but I fell off so spectacularly that I couldn’t be coaxed back on.
A few years ago I decided to rectify this situation. Confronting it in the way that we, in our modern world, approach our problems, I googled it and read everything I could about riding a bike. None of it helped. If you’re a man in his early 30s, stabilisers just aren’t going to cut it. Having read what felt like the whole Internet, it became obvious that I was no closer to achieving my goal. It turns out there is only one way to learn to ride a bike: get on one and have a go. I have a suspicion that we have been guilty of making a similar mistake with our children when it comes to helping them develop faith.
WE NEED TO THINK ABOUT CHILDREN’S MINISTRY IN A NEW WAY
We think that if we fill their heads with enough biblical knowledge they will become Christians. But actually that may be an insufficient approach. Too many children are graduating from our Sunday schools without a faith that is making a difference in their lives.
There is evidence for this in the struggle that many churches have in retaining teenagers. This has often been interpreted as a youth work failure. But to me this question should fall to children’s workers. We need to ask why the years we have with young children in our church ministries results in so few acquiring a faith that is robust enough to survive their teenage years.
I believe there are solutions to this, but they are more far-reaching than simply changing resources. We really need to think about children’s ministry in a new way if we are going to change things for the better. We need to help children get on their bikes and ride them, and quit trying to teach them how.
UNCOVERING WHAT IS HIDDEN
The funny thing about learning to ride a bike is that when you get on it you find that pretty quickly you can do it after all. It’s not so much that you have to learn how, but more that you need to discover a new way of using an ability that is already there: your sense of balance. The same is true with a child and their relationship with God. Much of what we have been trying to teach is already there within them. It simply needs nurturing with tools that develop a child’s unique sense of spirituality.
Children are already capable of engaging deeply with God and thinking reflectively about Bible stories, it’s just that for too long we have not given them the chance to do so. At times we have even actively stopped them.
As Christian leaders and parents, we have been stuck in an education model where the adults control the ‘God stuff’ and act as go-betweens, as if the child couldn’t engage with God or his word by themselves. You see this played out in how Bible stories are handled in our children’s ministry groups. Generally children are taught a Bible story and its meaning in one go. Often the meaning is shared even before the story, and then the rest of that session is spent reinforcing that point in creative ways, or making things that will remind a child of the story.
When I spoke earlier this year to children’s work innovator Jerome Berryman, he said: ‘If you just teach Bible stories they…get thrown out. If you’re really good at teaching a Bible story and you’ve been really good…at making art projects [with 3 to 6 year-olds], you may have figured out good ways for kids to remember things such as: “Zacchaeus was in a tree. He was small like you, but Jesus saw him.” That’s a nice Bible story and you can make cut-outs and models, and the child will remember it…But the story gets stunted and gets trapped in that.’
The reason the story gets stunted is that the children are being fed someone else’s conclusions about the story, rather than being allowed to engage in the process that leads to these conclusions. When these children grow older and the issues they face change, the rather twee conclusions they were given in Sunday school no longer cut the mustard. As Berryman says: ‘When you turn 15 or 17 and you’re trying to deal with things at that age, little Zacchaeus in a tree who Jesus invited for supper doesn’t help you very much.’
EXPLORING THE STORIES
Give the children in your church or children’s ministry the chance to think deeply about Bible stories and you’ll discover that they are truly capable of doing so. In the children’s group I help to lead at my local church, we encourage the children to draw pictures of the stories after we tell them as a way of exploring their meaning. Recently I was listening to a conversation between two children who had just drawn Jonah inside the big fish. One of them had drawn a light to represent God inside the fish with Jonah. The other child hadn’t done so, and explained that Jonah had done the wrong thing so surely God wouldn’t be in the fish with him. The first child thought God would be there despite Jonah’s behaviour.
Suddenly the conversation had moved on, and now the children were discussing whether God is really always with us, or whether this is conditional and dependent on good behaviour. The educator within me was desperate to step in and bring some clarity – of course God is always with you – but had I done that, I would have shut down that conversation and their faith would have been poorer for it.
I want the children in my group to know that God is always with them, unconditionally. But I want them to know that because they have reached that conclusion themselves by thinking deeply about it; not just because I told them. The process of discovering that truth for themselves is crucial, as it means that when I’m not there and they need to reflect on the nature of God or the Bible in some way, they have developed a process for doing so. If these children feel far from God, they can think about how alone Jonah must have felt inside that fish and realise that God hasn’t given up on them just as he hadn’t given up on Jonah, and that there is always
AN INNATE CONNECTION
This need we have to try to do things for children also clashes with what we know about a child’s spirituality. New statistics on this published by Scripture Union and US academic Dr Lisa Miller in June 2015 affirm that children have within them what Berryman describes as ‘an inherent sense of the divine’. We shouldn’t be surprised by this. It would be more surprising if a human being, made in God’s image, didn’t come with an innate ability to connect to its creator!
However, our efforts to connect children to God are often clumsy and may hinder what is already there. Many experts in children’s ministry share a growing sense that we need to think differently and offer children the space to engage with God alongside equipping them with spiritual practices that help them to find God wherever they are. In Formational Children’s Ministry (Baker Books), Ivy Beckwith describes this process as ‘giving children the spiritual tools to last a lifetime’. I love this. It offers a contrast to children’s worship, which seems to place an emphasis on getting children excited enough to last a week, or prayers said on their behalf that simply require an amen from them at the end.
Many children’s ministry leaders and volunteers are rediscovering spiritual practices with children, once again using tools such as lighting candles or allowing silence, and they are reporting their amazement at how children are able to engage with God through these simple things. In my group, we tried a practice where the children lay silently on the floor and thought about what it would be like if God gave them a hug. I wasn’t sure how well they would be able to do it, but the first time we tried I called them back after five minutes and they were still going strong. They didn’t need me to tell them how, or to correct them, they just needed space. The best thing I could do was lie there and seek God for myself as a fellow pilgrim, rather than as the expert.
LESS EDUCATION, MORE CONTRIBUTION
Education has made us forget that the best place for a child to be formed in the Christian faith is not in a classroom full of age-appropriate activities and resources, but in a community of people loving and serving God and one another, where children can learn to do the same by joining in. We need to rediscover what it means for children to be fully part of the Body of Christ; contributing to church life in a meaningful way.
All-age worship and family services do make efforts towards addressing this, but there seems to be a general dissatisfaction with these approaches to worship in many of the churches I visit. Is this because we are still trying to create a service where we all tolerate each other, rather than celebrating each other’s contributions?
MANY CHILDREN’S MINISTRY LEADERS ARE REDISCOVERING SPIRITUAL PRACTICES WITH CHILDREN
Writing for Premier Childrenswork magazine, Beth Barnett explored what all-age worship might look like when everyone is welcomed as a contributor rather than as a consumer: ‘Many people respond to all-age worship with concerns that adults need different kinds of spiritual nurture from children, or that children enjoy going out of the worship space to their own “special programme”. On one level, I agree. Children and adults do need different things in worship. Adults need to have children around them. They need humbling and connecting to sensory, emotional and symbolic elements. They need help with play and questions and wholeheartedness.
‘Children need the companionship and supervision of adults, models and mentors, relationships and connectedness. Children need exposure to ideas that will stretch them and feed their curiosity. They need to hear adults talking about things they don’t always quite understand.
‘While we’re at it, teenagers need to be given responsibility and room for their radicalism to stir the sediment of reality, to exercise their important calling in allowing their idealism and energy for change to make the middle-aged feel healthily uncomfortable.
‘The very old, what is it that they need? Sometimes it’s able-bodied assistance, but more deeply it is to see that the young are taking the torch and carrying on what the old have spent a lifetime championing. Some need a new supply of travelling companions for the last lap of life, as many of their long-term friends have already gone before them. They need allies in a changing world of technologies.’
CATECHESIS BY COMMUNITY
Dave Csinos uses the term ‘catechesis by community’ to describe how being part of an all-age community will actually do more to nurture the faith of our children and teach them how to live as Christians than any number of courses or stunning multimedia resources. We really do need our children out of the classroom and back in the heart of our communities.
Another place where children will learn in a community is within their families. And as churches and children’s ministry leaders or volunteers, we need to think again about how we can support and encourage this.
It’s not necessarily about providing family devotions or resources written especially for use in the home, but about helping form homes where children learn what it is to be Christian through the culture grown in their family.
This is learned in the way guests are welcomed into the home and the way money is spent. Children are discipled as they watch and join in.
Children are spiritually alive, capable of profound insight into Bible stories, desperate to play their part in our church communities and are not to be hidden away to learn things they can already do. It’s a challenge to us adults as to whether we are willing to receive them.
Nurturing a child’s faith at home
ENCOURAGE questions and don’t always try to answer them. Instead, open up more discussion. Respond with things like: Why do you ask that? What do you think? Ask: Can you think of a Bible story that would help us think about this? It will help to draw the child into reflection. Avoid finding a neat apologetic that will close their questions down.
INVOLVE children in the church community as often as you can. Invite people round at times when your kids are still up, and spend time together. Persuade your house group to meet when the children can come along. Take a child to the men’s or women’s breakfast.
FIND ROLES in which your child can serve the church. When we were kids we helped my dad clean the church when it was his turn on the rota. As teenagers we did the OHP (which dates me a bit). Children shouldn’t just be church consumers any more than you should, so receiving their gifts of service is important.
ASK a child to pray for you, as well as you praying for them.
HELP your children find little rituals that assist them at prayer time. Some children like to say the same prayer, word for word, every time. Others like a prayer read aloud from a book. Some may prefer to be in silence and stillness with you.