A lot of my ministry so far has been with children and young people – whether at home, through the church or through my work with primary schools. So when I was told that I would need to do a 5 minute presentation on a topic of my own choice for BAP (Bishops’ Advisory Panel) I thought that the persistent attitude that some churches have towards children could be a good place to start
Topic chosen – timings……difficult! My original piece came in at 12+ minutes. Editing is easier said than done. How do you cut out words, yet alone sentences, that you’ve spent ages choosing so that they say exactly what you want them to say and still make it have the same impact? Nonetheless, repeated attempts at timings certainly do get the contents into your head, you can work out the parts you stumble at each time, and eventually you get it down to 4 minutes 46 seconds – give or take a second – and you hope with a fair wind and barring a complete meltdown that you’ll get through it.
The piece below is an amalgam of the original and final version just in case you think I delivered this like the actor John Moschitta in the FedEx adverts!
Children Should Be Seen and Not Heard
Children should be seen and not heard… a phrase that was actually coined by a 15th Century clergyman called John Mirks; originally intended to refer to young women, possibly echoing Paul’s exhortation in his first letter to the Corinthians, but now simply meaning young children. It is said to emphasise that you think children should behave well and be quiet. I’m fairly certain however, that this phrase is still very much on the lips of many in our church congregations – those who complain about children talking during the sermon, stares given to parents of fidgety children and God forbid that they should be allowed to run freely up and down the aisle!
Children should be seen and not heard – in fact we’re not too sure that they should even be seen in some cases. Nothing may be explicitly said – although sometimes it is – but this attitude definitely lurks close to the surface. A disingenuous attitude bearing in mind the concern shown about the falling number of children and young people in their congregations, and witnessed by the large number of adverts in the jobs section of the Church Times calling for ministers that will build up ministry to families and young people. The dreadful irony is that the thing that people are asking for may very well turn out not to be what they actually want. They want to see more children; they don’t truthfully want to engage with them.
Somewhat reassuringly, in many churches children’s ministry and youth work are given high priorities and their youth ministry flourishes, but even here this is often done as a separate entity building up the church body but not necessarily building up the body of Christ.
The concern that churches are in decline, particularly where young people are involved is not a new problem. The Church of England’s 2004 report Mission Shaped Church pointed out that ‘We are becoming a nation of non-churched people in terms of Sunday school contact’ – and I use ‘Sunday school’ in its loosest form to represent children’s ministry. The report goes on to say that ‘Even by the end of the First World War, the majority of children were not in Sunday school. Those who were 10 years old in 1950 are now fast approaching retirement, and of them 70% did not attend a Sunday school. That means that the majority of even the elderly are non-churched.’ By the year 2000 figures showed that only 4% of children attended some form of church activity.
Conversely, the church is not attracting 96% of the younger generation. Furthermore, the majority of those who do attend church regularly with their parents, or take part in church workshops, have already decided by the age of 9 to leave, and this is happening not only in the more traditional churches but with evangelical congregations as well; although here the age of decision seems to be higher. The reason for this is that they often feel that they are not engaged by the church, seeing it as yet another form of schooling where they are talked at and not to.
Hence the recognition that young people need to be ‘seen’… because quite frankly if they are not ‘seen’ then for some churches, within as short a period as one generation, there will not be a church for them to be ‘seen’ in. These congregations are looking for new generations to replace the existing one, members to follow on rather than walk alongside. The trouble is that they want children to be ‘the church of tomorrow’ rather than the church of today.
If we truly believe that God loves everyone without exception and that children can experience God, then churches need to become places where this happens. They don’t need another programme; they need people who are going to make a difference in their lives, who respect their spirituality, allowing them to witness not only in church, but in their own families and beyond. They need to be ‘heard’
How is this to be done? Well neither children nor adults should instruct each other by telling them what to do – it’s never about who can shout loudest or longest to make yourself heard! However, children can still teach adults even without verbal communication. Adults basically need to look at what they ARE – and learn. Look at what they DO – and learn even more
We know from the Bible that God uses children as well as adults to work out his purposes … consider David, Samuel, Josiah – even a young teenage Mary giving birth to Jesus. Moreover, the business of learning from children is one that Jesus himself demonstrated and emphasised.
‘And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’ Matthew 18:2-3
By doing this he was saying look at the qualities this young person can teach you. He wasn’t asking them to regress to childhood, but to see how the natural humility, honesty, vulnerability and faith of the young are what will ultimately make the difference.
It’s true that churches have been aware of this dilemma and the need to do something significant about it for some time. Programmes like Kidz Klubs and Godly Play were introduced in the late 90’s, and huge investments have been put into youth ministries. Yet the majority of pioneers from these initiatives, now in their 20’s, have left the church in droves and this age group is at an all-time low. Where have they gone? Why are they failing to carry their faith into adulthood?
Recently Messy Church has come to the fore, recognising that if you simply wait for young people and families to step over the threshold on a Sunday morning you could be waiting in vain. Instead it very successfully attracts large numbers of families and young people with no pre-conceived agenda about converting them to ‘bottoms on pews’. Its sponsors, the Bible Reading Fellowship, state on their website that it ‘has deliberately chosen to have a ‘non-controlling’, ‘hands-off’ approach in the way it promotes Messy Church in the hope that this will give God space to grow his church as he wants to, and that it will give everyone encouragement to experiment and innovate’.
If churches are to have children in them, then those children and their parents need to feel welcome just as they are. You need churches where parents feel comfortable; not ashamed or nervous. Worship services where children are free to be … well, children. Even if that means that sometimes they will be loud, will move around, will play and fidget…because that is what children do. Children should not be mini-adults, fulfilling an adult agenda.
It’s about creating experiences to help them to be part of building the Kingdom… because it’s often in the experience that it’s glimpsed – where Kingdom values are not only outwardly expressed but inwardly nurtured as a compass for life.
It’s about providing opportunities for children to be transformed and discipled… where people of all ages gain wisdom from each other; older to younger and younger to older; because you never know the effect that a conversation, an encouraging comment, a ‘get alongside you’ activity will have on the child in a day, a month, a year….. surely every single one of Christ’s disciples needs to be seen AND heard!
P.S. I did manage to remain upright and came in at 4 minutes 54 seconds