Nigel & Jo Hemming look at how we can engage Children in the life of the church.
“From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise”
A wise man once said “Your opportunity to influence young people for God is limited; for the first ten years or so of life you need to feed them with as many Godly values as you can. When they hit the teenage years it doesn’t help to rant and rave. You just have to sit back and let them work out their faith for themselves trusting that what you have planted will grow.”
We’ve been watching this process in the life of a young friend of ours. She has been involved in church for as long as she can remember, and has had a time of sitting back and sorting through her thoughts, issues and beliefs of her personal faith. At the end of last term she was in an RE lesson in which the topic was ‘God and suffering’. As the only one prepared to ‘stand up for God’s point of view’ she found herself debating with both pupils and teacher, publicly explaining the basis of her own faith. We cheered when we heard; not that arguments were lost or won but that she is finding a real and personal faith worth standing up for. So many parents long to see their children active in their faith but often don’t get much encouragement despite hours of love, prayer, care, and modelling. Being a Christian parent is a tough job. Parents have the primary responsibility for the spiritual growth and development of their children. So what can the Church do to help?
Babies on broken chairs
Sunday Schools were originally set up to educate poor, working children who could not attend regular school during the week. Kids learned to read and write in addition to learning about moral values. Over time, the general education role was lost and Sunday Schools developed solely spiritual aims. In many churches, this has further deteriorated into a babysitting service to keep children quiet whilst parents spend time worshipping the Lord. Some of us can remember being ushered out of church after the obligatory ‘children’s song’ into a cold, dark back room with all the broken chairs, expected to keep quiet for an hour and a half before being released back to freedom and fun.
So what are the alternatives? Within a church planting movement like the Vineyard it can be hard to find the right place for kids in the church planting equation. They often aren’t part of the ‘core’, they don’t have money to contribute, and they are labour intensive, requiring workers who could be involved in growing adult church. But, let’s look through another pair of lenses! Children have far more energy than many adults. Their faith and expectation that God will move and answer prayer is often unswerving and uncomplicated. They are great gatherers and talking points. People will receive servant evangelism gifts or accept invitations to family events from children when they would ignore or reject the same gifts or invitations from adults. Rather than being barriers, children can melt barriers and become a vital and effective part of church life.
Involving Children and Families
So how can a small church involve and include children? It’s not necessary to launch into full-blown Sunday church if there are families in the congregation. The Wharfdale Vineyard in Leeds hires the local leisure club on Sunday mornings for a family gathering time, using the facilities, chilling out, and having a brief time of worship and an adult focused talk whilst the children swim. South Birmingham Vineyard borrowed a model from others and arranged a morning of family servant evangelism with all ages giving out chocolate in the park. Other Vineyards have provided opportunities for families to be an active part of the church with whole families signing up on the rota as ‘meeters and greeters’ or serving refreshments.
we aim for lots of fun and time to build friendships
As the church grows, and Sunday morning services become inevitable, there are obvious benefits in developing specific work with children. If we want adults in church who own our vision and values, we need to start teaching and training our children now. If we feed them a diet of anything less than the truth and don’t give them the chance to experience God’s life-changing presence we are selling them short. They may drift away or find the transition into adult church too great. With children, as with other areas of church, the truths and values are the same but the packaging may be different. In our programme we aim for lots of fun and time to build friendships. Children often don’t choose to come to church; they are hurled into an alien environment and suddenly expected to get on with other children they may not like or have much in common with. There are hundreds of ways of helping kids get to know each other; For example sleepovers, video game mornings, Mcdonald’s breakfasts, roller blade/ bike events, a ‘bring a pet morning’ (as long as it’s caged!), board games, arts and crafts…. Whatever your bunch of kids enjoys will work.
Church for children
If we believe that God’s truth is relevant ‘to all ages’ as well as ‘in all ages’ we should try to give children a balanced diet of Old and New Testament teaching, Godly values and practical life issues. We should provide an opportunity to tithe, spend time in worship, and minister to one another. This all takes time to develop and sometimes it can look quite different to adult church – ministry times might start with everyone lying on the floor and worship can be very rowdy!
Some churches divide children into age based small groups for teaching and application. Others have all ages together. There are pros and cons for both methods. We have found that an opportunity to be part of a bigger group (maybe For worship or ministry) and a chance to be part of a smaller group to focus the teaching application at a specific age can be helpful.
Some Vineyards have kinships for older children and young teens. If you meet in a school as we do, going to school on Sunday as well as Monday to Friday seems to affect the responsiveness of some children. Giving children their own group, which they can choose to attend, can prompt a big step forward in personal commitment and ownership. Meeting at another time in the week at a different venue can have a positive effect.
Children are a vital part of the whole church family and we can be creative in the ways we involve them, rather than being constrained to old models and programmes. There are lots of resources and training opportunities available; there is no need to reinvent the wheel. We’ve found that material may need ‘tweaking’ to make it relevant to particular groups. We’ve also benefited from sharing the same themes as the adults on some occasions (e.g. a series on the Ten Commandments) so that families can discuss what they have learned that morning together over lunch. God can and does call people with a heart to work with the young; if you can’t see them yet in your church, pray that God will reveal them. Working with kids can be isolating and draining; but it can also be very exciting.