"Wealth will increasingly be defined by our ability to go offline whenever we want." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
March 20, 2007

Children’s Ministry

During a comment discussion with John Smulo the question of Children’s work in churches came up. It”s an important question for anyone thinking about church planting and/or new models of church. I’ve blogged before about my disentchantment with youth ministry. Children in church don’t need entertainment or containment. I do think they need some immersion […]

During a comment discussion with John Smulo the question of Children’s work in churches came up. It”s an important question for anyone thinking about church planting and/or new models of church.

I’ve blogged before about my disentchantment with youth ministry. Children in church don’t need entertainment or containment.

I do think they need some immersion and opportunity to become familiar with the Biblical stories and how they connect. That’s a foundation they will carry with them for the rest of their life, that can inform the spiritual choices they make as adults.

Moreover, I feel they need to have their imaginations sparked and inspired. One thing we often overlook is the way catholicism shapes the imagination of great film makers – Scorsese and Del Toro come immediately to mind. We can trace similar biographies amongst writers, artists and musicians (how many great pop and jazz musicians started out in church, especially churches with a strong Gospel music culture?).

Over the next few months you’ll be hearing a lot from me about culturally constitutive Christianity – that’s my attempt at a personal ethic and spirituality that embodies the idea of “being the change you want to see.”

I believe if we want to “re-think” children’s ministry, then the place to start is with viewing our kids as not just the future consumers of culture, but the future creators of culture. So why don’t we stop treating them like fickle, short-term oriented consumers who need to be entertained with the latest trend and fashion? Why don’t we start by taking the long term view.

Of course, that takes us back to the familiarity with the Biblical narrative that we started from and with the sparking of a religious imagination. But maybe that also creates for us a pastoral and social imperative as well – to help kids flourish in their home and family life and to maximise their educational opportunities as well.

That really pulls as away from viewing children’s ministry as something that happens for a few hours on a Sunday morning and occasionally during school holidays. Hopefully, it puts the kids in a larger context, both in terms of how they live and how they will live.

[tags] Culturally Constitutive Christianity, Children’s Ministry, Church Planting, Missional [/tags]

Responses
John Smulo 16 years ago

Thank you for your helpful thoughts on this topic. After reading your post, it made me think of how rarely–if ever?–I’ve seen someone in the blogosphere share thoughts on children’s ministry.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

It’s a topic that probably doesn’t get as much traffic as it should. Certainly it’s a valid criticism of emerging and missional blogging that children’s ministry maybe doesn’t get the attention it deserves.

Seems to me, as I meet folks in my parenting stage in churches, that children’s ministry is one of the prime reasons they still opt for conventional church involvement over more radical expressions of church.

I’m wondering if there is some way we can encourage theo-bloggers to be a little more active on this topic?

Pete Lev 16 years ago

Thanks Fernando, helpful thoughts! I like the call to a long term view

Toni 16 years ago

Maybe there’s less in the blogosphere because the kind of people that have a heart and gifting in childrens ministry are not instinctive bloggers. That is a serious comment BTW and not just a perverse or flippant remark.

Paul 16 years ago

Thanks Fernando, i like what you said about treating children as creators of culture rather than just consumers – would you be able to share any more of your thinking/ideas/experiences of how this could be done? How similar/dis-similar should the processes being carried out in our education systems be used/adopted for faith education – or do these have different aims and limited cross over?

lynn 16 years ago

Hi everyone

Great post Fernando, and good topic. I am, if you like, a children’s ministry practitioner both academically (halfway through a specialised BA Theology in Children’s Ministry) and practically (oversee pastoral and practical arrangements for the care of over 170 under-12s, innumerate team members, liaise with scores of parents and grandparents and attempting to spearhead various more “missional” initiatives – some in the trad area of summer clubs and some contextually appropriate like parenting groups run in conjunction with the health board)

I also ten years in teaching behind me, but not in primary (elementary) education; with angst-ridden teenagers in multicultural, multi-deprived areas.

I think Toni makes a really good point. I’m not an instinctive blogger. Loads and loads mulls through my brain every day – things I need to do; things I need to work on; things I feel God is saying as to the future direction of my role in church. I am a do-er more than a thinker; some would say I need to think more! 🙂 but I find it hard to open some of my thoughts up in children’s ministry “online” because of the following reasons:

(a) lots of areas of controversy abound. Ron Buckland in his (fantastic) little book “Children and God” outlines no fewer than SEVEN possible responses to the question: what is a child’s standing before God? I was training a group this morning; and within the room there was a multitude of answers as to what happens to a two year old who dies.
Not blogging these means you don’t attract criticism. I’ve got too many other sensitivities to worry about without attracting more attention by risking offending other people’s views on the age of personal accountability/when should a child be baptised/does having a Christian parent give you standing or privilege before God etc etc. Suffice to say: there is a lot more agreement about the standing of adults before God 🙂

(b) there are situations I don’t want to blog about because we are working a lot of this through in my home church…..we need God’s help to continue to be sensitive to the needs of all ages of people in church but especially so to children and I will continue to be an unashamed advocate of that cause. We seem to be attracting more and more children because there are some areas of practical ministry that we are able to offer specific support in – children with additional support needs, for example.

(c) Which leads me to another reason why blogging about children’s ministry is difficult – sensitivity and confidentiality. It’s hard to blog about theory without mentioning personal experience. And I must never mention any details that identify individual children and families online. Unless it’s my own 🙂

I have got lots I want to say; loads I have discovered this last year as I have been able to travel to a few places and reflect on my own vision and practices and I have actually read a lot (those who know me may be surprised by that!) Some wee bits and pieces pop up from time to time on my blog.

Would be delighted to contribute to any further discussions if I can and I will flag this one up on my blog too.

Glen Woods 16 years ago

I appreciate the thoughts. I am a Children’s Pastor and Children’s Ministry Consultant in Portland, Oregon, USA. Currently I am working on my doctorate. I am specifically considering the reasons why the church does children’s ministry in the prevailing modes found in Western culture. A couple of thoughts have emerged from my 20+ years of exeprience, plus my readings, discussions and coaching sessions with other leaders:

First, there seems to be an emerging desire to move children’s ministry from simply an apparent one dimensional segregated church activity to a more integrated ethos of family located and focused ministry. The implication is that substance will be given to the ubiquitous commitment that the church supports and equips families to nurture their children in the faith.

Second, there is a growing awareness that an ethos for children and family ministry ought to impact the whole of human experience, not simply the learning of biblical facts, Christian history, how to behave in church and how to share the gospel. In other words, it calls for a re-engagement with the culture after the example of Jesus himself which affects the whole of our daily living.

I appreciate the topic and the comments. I think there are more out there discussing children’s ministry than has been suggested. The hard part is finding each other.

Blessings,

Glen Woods
http://www.glenwoods.net
http://www.glenwoods.blogspot.com

Marcus Bull 16 years ago

Hi Fernando. This is great. At the beginning of 2007 I started working 3 days a month for the Yokshire Baptist Association (England) on a Commissioned Ministry: ‘Connecting the Christian Faith with Children’. Here are some of my thoughts so far (there’s more on my blog) …

I am only working three days a month on this Commissioned Ministry, and I’m only part way into my second month. So it’s difficult to give you anything very concrete at this point. Certainly I have no answers or strategies for us (yet). I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that point, actually.

But what I do have is a list of questions, and a set of challenges to the way we connect our faith with the children in our churches.

The Challenge from the Bible

In October 2005, at a ministers conference at Moortown Baptist Church we were presented with this set of Bible passages and asked to imagine, if this was all the Bible we had ever read, what would be our theology of the place of children in our churches: Dt 6.1-9; Ps 78.1-8; Ps 131; Jer 1.4-8; Matt 18.1-6; Mark 5.22-24, 39-43; Mark 9.33-37; Mark 10.13-16; John 6.1-13.

My notes from that day remind me that we were challenged by these thoughts:
– religion in the Bible is family oriented;
Рthe children were not separated from the adults in biblical worship; they were totally integrated in the ritual life of God’s people;
– therefore the children must be totally a part of the everyday life of the church;
– they ought to be involved not just in learning but also in teaching the rest of us;
– we adults can learn from the behaviours and the attitudes of children;
Рin fact, Jesus made the child a model – an example – to those who would follow Him;
– neither age nor youth is a barrier to serving God;
– and we have a duty to value, and encourage, and guide our children;
– Jesus included children at the same level as His disciples
Рchildren should be allowed to serve adults; and adults can be blessed through the childrens’ gifts;
– children need to be listened to / allowed to serve / valued / and made a part of the action
– we adults need to have a childlike attitude;
– children are important for who they are now, not for what they will become
– as Jesus was focussed on the needs of the children he met, so must we;
– the Kingdom of God is not about status or position;
– rather, our church structures must reflect the importance Jesus placed on the least;
Рas Jesus put a child ‘in the midst’, He made children central to the Christian faith and thus challenges our whole approach to them

There is another challenge from the Bible, too. And it relates to the way we use the Bible with our children. We have all heard – maybe we have been guilty of telling – versions of the story of Noah and the Ark that focus almost exclusively on the fluffy animals and miss the point of why that story is in our Bibles in the first place!

I met with Nick Harding last month, and he talked to me about the need for us to use the biblical narratives “in all their gory” (especially when we’re talking to boys!). But so often we use sanitised children’s Bibles, or carefully selected and dumbed down version of the stories.

The Challenge from Child Theology

Child Theology has been described as “ a global process working to inform, engage with, and challenge the full range of Christian theology, inspired by Jesus when He placed a little child in the midst.”

Jesus deliberately placed a little child at the centre of a theological discussion about the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, and then He taught several vital truths while the child was standing there. Children are central to the biblical vision of the Kingdom of God. They are agents of and partners in God’s mission, not simply recipients of the Good News!

There has been an adult bias in every aspect of Christian thinking for the last 2000 years, and our churches are all built around the needs and desires of adults. We have seen children as objects to be educated or protected (adults-in-waiting, human-becomings) rather than as agents and signs of God’s kingdom with unique contributions and insights.

Jesus challenges us adults to become like little children. And yet so much of what we do with children in church is designed to turn them into what we think are mature Christian adults.

I am meeting with Keith White, in a couple of weeks. Keith has written a lot of this material himself. And he finishes one paper with a plea that little children must no longer be “relegated to the stable, but at the very heart of everything that goes on in the inn.”

The Challenge from studies of Children’s Spirituality

A lot of research, in recent years, has looked at the spirituality of children. I wonder how well our Sunday Schools (or whatever we call them) really nurture children’s spirituality? Actually, I wonder how well our churches nurture the spirituality of adults?

Various studies talk about the child’s need for security (safety, protection, covering, the experience of ‘being held’) if they are to be able to experience love, whether giving it or receiving it. Is that not what Christ achieved for us by His death?

Children have a need for significance (the affirmation that they are special). And at the heart of the Gospel is the amazing truth that you and I matter infinitely to God. That’s why He sent His only Son.

Children, of course, need boundaries (rules, discipline, values, norms). Freedom, as you know, is not the absence of boundaries but rather what emerges when there are appropriate boundaries such as those provided for us by God.

Children need community, relationships with others. And one of the great themes of the Bible is the intention of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (the primal, divine community) to create a community of faith.

And creativity is what children are made for (play, fun, humour, learning, and so much more.

I wonder what we would find if we were to analyse what we do with children in our churches according to those categories?

Other studies refer to contexts, conditions, strategies, processes and consequences. Or a child’s stages of consciousness (child-God, child-people, child-world, child-self). Or even just the need for children to use their imaginations, experience wonder, exercise their bodies.

Perhaps we need to ask ourselves what do our children really need from church / Sunday School / Worship? Have we even bothered to ask them?

Many churches have discovered The Essence Course as a fantastic introduction to Christian spirituality for adults. And there is now a children’s version, Kids @ Essence, which is doing the same sort of thing for children’s groups. It might be a very useful resource.

The Challenge from Educational Theory

Educational theorists know that everyone has a preferred learning style. And there are a variety of different learning styles. And it is an acknowledged truth that we all learn more by doing something that just by hearing about it.

Children don’t learn well from 20-30 minutes ‘instruction’. Sit down, sit still, and listen to what I want to tell you. (Neither do adults, actually, although many in our congregations and most of our preachers wouldn’t want to admit it!)

So why is that sort of ‘instruction’ at the heart of all we do as a church? Could it be replaced with something else? If so, we wouldn’t need to ask the children to leave us to do something else during the ‘boring’ bit!

Or, if we think that some sort of differentiated (age-specific?) instruction is important for our children, should we also be giving some attention to the different levels and abilities and learning styles of an adult congregation?

‘Godly Play’, by Jerome Berryman (and others) is one resource that utilises some rather different learning styles than the didactic. And there are others out there, too.

The Challenge from Other Forms of Church

There is a whole set of challenges from some of the new forms of church:

– Messy Church is a multi-sensory, practical and interactive expression of church for all ages, which ends with a shared meal.

– The All Age Church movement, goes far beyond simply the advocation of All Age Worship, with a call for churches to become All Age communities:
“being church together, regardless of age, should be a norm, not an anomaly. In order to nurture people and raise up new leaders we need strong relationships that transcend age divisions”; “we need to start asking ‘what can we not do together?’ rather than allowing the church to operate with a separatist default position”; “the church of all ages is the clearest way to embody kingdom values of welcome and reconciliation in order that the whole world might be saved.”

РMany of the smaller, emerging church groups are also highly inclusive of their children. Admittedly, that may be because so many of them are so small that they cannot afford the resources for a separate children’s work. But we can, and must, learn from them.

But one of the biggest challenges I have discovered in my reading comes from the Eastern Orthodox Church:

“Their approach to children is fundamentally different from other denominations. Children are baptised into the church, receive the sacrament, and become active participants in the Church.”

I don’t think it’s too far from the mark to suggest that what many of our churches do is remove children from the main worship experience (some would say we actively ‘reject’ them from the main worship experience) in order to teach them about it.

Take the Lord Supper as an example. I would be willing to bet that most of the children in most of our Baptist churches have never even witnessed a communion service, let alone been allowed to participate.

But in the Orthodox Church, “the purpose of education … is not to inform children about what will eventually be theirs, but to interpret and deepen understanding of what is already theirs, that is, what children are already experiencing through being the church.” It is this “early exposure to the worship and activity of the church [that] prepares the child for personal and corporate lifelong membership.”

I know that, for these churches, it is Infant Baptism that is the starting point. And we Baptists wouldn’t want to go along with that. But it seems to me that there are things in their approach that we could easily adopt and/or adapt with regard to our own children.

So. A series of challenges to the way we can, and should, connect the Christian faith with our children. A set of challenges that are not just about doing Sunday School better, but more about re-imagining what church could be for our children, perhaps even getting back to what and who the church is really for.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Pete – thanks for the comment and the link on your blog.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Toni – I would tentatively agree, based on some good people I’ve known. But thankfully there have been some great comments from people with a background in this area.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Paul – in light of some of the comments so far, I’m going to blog a follow-up soon and that will incorporate some of your questions.

Certainly one of the things my wife and I have been discussing a lot is that our daughter’s curriculm, the IB, places a big emphasis on “risk taking” but our experiences in church didn’t really involve preparing kids to take risks.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Lynn – thank you for a sensational comment! You’ve practically outlined some great reasons why it is difficult and sensitive for bloggers to write about their experiences in Children’s ministry! I hope you can comment again next time I write on this subject.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Glen – thanks for your comment. You’ve inspired me to be a lot more intentional about hunting out Children’s ministry blogs and linking to them.

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Marcus – that’s a blockbuster comment, so much to digest. I’m going to draw folks attention to your thoughts in the next post, because there is a lot there worth reflecting on.

Marcus Bull 16 years ago

Hi Fernando. Just looked at the comment you posted on Smulo’s blog. You said: “I voted content and for me that simply means the church we attend meets our family needs, which almost exclusively revolve around a decent Children’s Sunday School programme.”

I wonder, though, if Sunday School is the best way to connect the faith with our children. Most churches have a default separatist position when it comes to children – they go to their activities while the adults do ‘proper’ worship in the church. We don’t even children access some of the things we do (e.g. communion) because we think they don’t understand it yet. But we are in serious danger of asking more of our children than we do of the adults who attend worship. If participating in the eucharist is reserved for those who understand, perhaps we need to go back the strict baptist tradition of interviewing every newcomer to make sure they can take communion.

I am becoming more and more convinced that we need to re-imagine and re-order our churches so that ‘all age’ becomes the default position. Let’s do as much as we can together! I accept there may be some times when adults and children need to do things separately. But surely they are few and far between. And if they’re not, how can we make them so?

Sorry it’s a bit of a ramble/rant!

lynn 16 years ago

Hi all

I agree with Marcus on the “let’s do as much as we can together”. I am in a large church (for the UK) with children numbering towards 200……..but there are very practical difficulties with doing as much as we can together.

We hold all age services approximately every 6 weeks but it’s the first thing to get the dates bumped or moved if it doesn’t suit. I haven’t yet dared to suggest that once a month would be the absolute best way to incorporate all age services so that everyone knew when they were, with a short, dynamic service and food afterwards; kind of like a “First Sunday”. ….

That said; we are making great strides forward and I sense a freedom not only where I am but with others that I network with. In the famous words from a Scott Underwood song: “hop on the bus, God’s on the move” (OK; theologically you can shoot me down for quoting this 🙂 but these words I think reflect a groundswell of change and movement in children’s ministry)

Fernando, most grateful to you again for raising this. I will raise this too on my blog (I referenced your discussion last week)…..soon!

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Marcus – you’ve raised some really good points. Certainly one area where my thinking has done a full 180 degree turn in the past decade (or more) has been on the question of segregation by age. I think the contemporary church has been too willing to extend the fragmentation by lifestage that society has fostered.

The church we currently attend sequesters children off to their activities while the parents engage in “real” worship. It’s not a pattern I agree with and I suppose it is a sign of “discontent.”

But, I would also want to maintain that sometimes separation is not the same as segregation. Maybe the answer is some kind hybrid, where we all have times of cross-generational unity and worship as well as specific times for age-related learning?

Fernando Gros 16 years ago

Lynn – I’ve been in the same sort of situation a few times before, with churches that have good intentions about “family” services but let them get bumped first – the standby service as I heard it once described.

Margaret 16 years ago

Lots of interesting stuff here. I certainly think we don’t talk to and work with our young people in churches enough (in my experience in Scotland anyway). In Scotland schools are beginning to take seriously the idea of active participation – churches will ignore this at their peril in my opinion. I have a professional interest in gifted education and the reference to age in these posts interests me. Age and stage (as schools are organised) causes huge problems for children who are 5 but operating like a 10 year old. I think the way we traditionally “do Sunday School” causes real problems for children too. Many are ready to grapple with big issues about God, the Bible, the world, poverty etc but don’t get the opportunity. Incidentally gifted and talented children are often very spiritually aware and asking the big questions of life. While learning styles aren’t a panacea I totally agree that the way we “do church” is not conducive to anyone’s learning. We need to rethink church not just children’s ministry!

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