Five years ago, almost to the day, as I sat cradling my newborn baby, a church leader asked me to think about running a toddler group. I almost laughed them out of the room. I do youthwork, not toddlers. I’m holding this tiny human being, feeling completely overwhelmed at what lies ahead of me and going to toddler groups is daunting enough, let alone running one. And yet, here I am, five years down the line, not only running a toddler group, but writing about them too!
This morning, I read with interest Michelle Hunter’s blog: Why your evangelical church isn’t as community-focused as it thinks, published in response to the Premier Christianity magazine’s recent article How Evangelicals took over the Church of England. I do not recognise the experiences shared in this piece and believe there to be far more positive stories emerging in the church-run toddler groups, meeting week in week out up and down this country.
My own very brief summary of Michelle Hunter’s experience is that churches that run toddler groups with too much Christian content are not welcoming to outsiders and are run more as a club for the like-minded.
I do not see this. I do not see this in the group I am now given responsibility for running, nor do I see it in any of the different toddler groups that helped me preserve my sanity in the first couple of years of parenthood. I do not see it in the conversations that grow in online forums where toddler group leaders across the country share their questions, their ideas, their prayer requests, their joys and frustrations.
Our toddler groups, as any other ministry our churches offer, are here for Jesus
At the heart of the blog piece, Hunter asks a question; “Who are you (the church) here for?” I want to be so bold as to suggest that our toddler groups, as any other ministry our churches offer, are here for Jesus. We are not simply here to provide community-based toddler groups that prop up a strained statutory sector provision and we do not need to hide our distinctive Christian identity out of fear that we may offend.
I do not see a closed club for the like-minded. I see groups where children and parents of all faiths and none choose to walk through the doors to the place they have found extravagant hospitality and a radical welcome. I see groups where networks of older women prepare and deliver meals for the shell-shocked first-time mum. I see groups where parents talk about what it means to them to parent their stubborn two-year-old with grace. I see groups where grieving parents find love and understanding. I see groups where the refugee finds a home. I see groups where adaptations are made to suit a child’s particular needs. I see groups where Bible stories are shared each week with families of all faiths and none. And I see groups where disciples are being made in church halls in villages, towns and cities right across this country.
We do not need to hide the fact that we are Christian in order to attract more parents; it is the very gift we have to offer.
Becky May has worked with children and young people in a variety of settings and is the author of God's story for under 5s.