Where do the children play?
Not always at church. Judyth Roberts, the Synod’s Children and Family Ministry Consultant with Uniting Mission and Education, offers advice for congregations with a heart for working with children — and ones that wonder where they’ve gone.
It’s a familiar scene: excited children running through a worship area shouting and irritating the adults. When the leaders complain, they are reminded of a Bible verse from Psalm 8:2. This curious scene happened 2000 years ago and is recorded in Matthew 21:15-16. Jesus reminded the Jewish religious leaders of God’s heart for children and their need to be heard. In 2011 the National Church Life Survey asked children about their church experiences to enable us to hear their voices.
The NCLS results show that the 10,000 children surveyed across Australia can tell us about their thoughts and feelings about church. A summary of the UnitingChurch in Australia results can be found online at childrensministry.org.au.
My experience during the past four years in New South Wales and the ACT is that city and country children are able to articulate a strong faith and prayer life. They value attending church and children’s programs at their churches and schools. They describe Bible stories, prayers, pictures of Jesus, crafts, camps and friends as strong influences, helping them feel part of God’s family. But what made the biggest difference in helping them know Jesus was the loving actions of their parents and their church community.
The missing half
Adults are so accustomed to worshipping without children present and children are so used to being segregated that we have lost the desire to come together as the people of God. In many Uniting Churches children are tolerated in worship for only a brief time before being asked to leave. “And now it’s time for the children to leave … ” has become a part of the liturgy and ritual of most churches.
It can be the message children hear most frequently. Half of the children who are raised in churches leave before they reach adulthood and never come back. New Australian research in Sydney by David Goodwin (in his book Lost in Transition – Or Not?) has found that children who attend adult worship on a regular basis are twice as likely to make a successful transition to adult church, especially if they are able to genuinely participate. He also found that church members who ignore children, or have mainly negative contact with them contribute to their decision to leave church but that children benefit from spending time in inter-generational settings outside the Sunday services.
How can we respect (to re-spect means to look again) children as part of the body of Christ, nurture them, encourage them, teach them and love them? The Sunday school model allows us to see children primarily through an “education lens”. As adults we can see children as empty vessels, needing to be filled with information about God. But children have rich spiritual lives from before birth and so a way of enabling them to learn the religious language and rituals and faith practices of the people of God needs to be found that does not devalue what children bring. Many youth and adults find they need to unlearn things taught them in Sunday school in order to grow in faith as adults. How can we work with children and families with authenticity and grace in these times?
Learning from children
Of course it was Jesus who said we adults need to become more like children, and that when we welcome them, we welcome him and the one who sent him. So how have most churches moved so far from the Biblical teaching about children? In the Old Testament it is usual for children to be included in the bloody, noisy, smoky, messy, multi-sensory worship in the Temple. Jewish families today teach their children about honouring God and their faith stories around the table as they share Shabbat meals and re-live the ancient stories in a series of celebrations throughout the year.
Children are always included and have a role to play in the sharing of the stories. These are multi-generational stories of babies like Moses, young children like Samuel and adolescents like David and Daniel, leaders like Joshua, men of faith like Abraham, prophets like Jeremiah and strong women like Sarah, Ruth and Esther. It is recorded that Jesus was taken to the Temple in Jerusalem as a new born baby and also as a twelve year old boy to participate in a high holy day.
He was respected so much by the older men that they included him in their circle as they wrestled with the word of God and what it means. Among the stories of saints from the earliest church times there are children and young people offering leadership and a prophetic voice. How can the church today be open to the leadership or prophetic voices of children?
These are challenging questions for the church, and the answers we discern will shape the future. There are some exciting developments occurring in Australia that involve new ways of relating to families. The three I have been most involved with have been playgroups, MessyChurch and Godly Play. All are for all ages – you are never too old or too young for them. They have in common hospitality, making space, and they are all about forming relationships not running programs.
MessyChurch is changing the religious landscape in Britain as thousands of churches now have monthly services which connect with many thousands of families who otherwise would not attend church. Playgroups in Australia reach many thousands of families and provide a safe space to explore what it is to be a parent or grandparent and form safe communities. Godly Play provides the religious language and faith practices to enable meaning-making within a safe community.
Where are the children?
Some people in churches ask “Where are the children?” The answer is for much of the time they are in schools. SRE remains a vital part of the church’s ministry to many thousands of children and when done well and supported by congregations, is a blessing to families. The UnitingChurch also provides school education for about 10,000 children in New South Wales. How can we offer a qualitatively different school culture so the light of Christ shines through? Many churches offer after-school clubs and care, and others offer family camps, including KCO. Then there are events, including the successful Children’s Week event A Day in the Park.
God is always doing “a new thing” and we need to prayerfully discern how God is opening new ways for us to connect with families in the community beyond “info-tainmen”’. Playgroup remains the easiest way to open the doors of the church to the local community in a way that is valued and trusted by the community.
What also seems to be working is when churches offer sacred space, especially if they use religious ritual to help families celebrate Christmas and Easter, to mark births through baptism or naming and blessing services. Other ceremonies to mark death through funeral services and through providing services like “Blue” Christmas and ANZAC or Remembrance Day services are valued by the community. Some churches are connecting with their communities through intentional collaborative projects like events, camps, bush care or community gardens and flood relief.
As members of Christian communities we sometimes need to be reminded how much children learn from us when we aren’t intentionally teaching them. Our lives and our worship must embody the love and care we preach.
Look around your church. Do you know the name of the child sitting near you with his mother? Do you remember the name of the baby recently baptised and pray for them? Do you have something special for the children to eat at morning tea time? Are you listening to parents and children’s ministry leaders and supporting their valuable work?
Please contact me if you’d like some fresh thoughts on family and children’s ministry: Judyth Roberts, Godly Play, MessyChurch and Playgroups Project, UME. Phone 0409154625.
For further information about playgroups, Godly Play and Messy Church, SRE, KCO and A Day in the Park visit childrensministry.org.au and godlyplay.org.au.
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