8 March 2021
WELL If you want it Quiet ......
"Well if you want it quiet you could go to that church down the road. They don't have any children."
Pictures of the 1960's and 70's have a permanence in the memories of most parishes. Lovingly honed stories of Sunday school and Bible Class that was always full and overflowing with its hierachy of faithful Superintendants and teachers, leaders and helpers, building projects for classrooms to teach them in [which followed suspiciously the pattern of the local school] and a raft of social events with annual picnics, games and dances [for the daring-to-be-relevant parishes] are brought out as the definitive look of a real church by the generation which experienced them.
A big number in the children and youth area of the church was a symbol of the parish working well, or to use our present terms a "healthy congregation". To be without a children's/youth ministry was to be a "failure"
[In fact, with some exceptions, it was more likely the expectations of the community, and the demography which had one of the greatest influences on the numbers of children ].
A PLACE OF BELONGING
So if we had overflowing Sunday schools then, do we just repeat that model? Are numbers any indication of "success"? How do we measure "success" anyway? If the purpose of good children's ministry was to make disciples and build the church where are those children now in their 50',s and 60's who filled the church halls? We know that some are in our church and in other denominations but the majority are not. Therefore a children's ministry cannot blindly repeat that model without critique.
Stan Stewart, when he was a minister in The Uniting church in Australia produced a hard-hitting DVD called the "Greening of the Church" which asked that very question and set out to find why most had dropped out of faith and church. More importantly, he sought out the clues as to why others had remained. Although Stan's video was made in the late 1980's, it is still relevant and worth a look by church councils and congregations who want to reach out to children and families, and have those who are part of them belong actively.
A striking point that Stan illustrated was that many of those who had stayed had known they belonged in the church. But for others who had not stayed, their memories were of an adult church to which children came as silent, still visitors, like visiting the great aunt's where you sat you in your best clothes and were not allowed to touch anything, or you were banished to another room to be picked up later. Often that there even was a connection between Sunday school and church was simply missed altogether. Sunday school did not connect with the church, and church was something adults did. Sunday school, you grew out of with your family who had dropped you off on Sunday mornings, or attended occasionally. They drifted away from their church contact when the children stopped going to Sunday school. By the grace of God, others did hear and respond to the Gospel, through teachers and leaders whose faith shone through in their relationship with their charges.
When children had known they were valued and loved as part of the community, their faith had had room to grow and they caught, rather than were taught, the faith of their community.
That makes sense. Studies on our faith development tell us that the first step, no matter what age we are, is knowing we are welcome and belong. The church is the environment where we experience the belonging as a community and grow to know that we belong to Christ who is the head of the church. When we become older we claim that belonging for ourselves, no longer reliant on those who brought us. As we journey and grow in faith we need to return to or find a community where we belong to live out that faith.
An important factor in children's ministry is what is our motivation for having a children's ministry?" How we answer it will determine the way we go about it.
Our overall mission and purpose as a congregation [eg what is God calling us to do in this place and time with these people?] must recognise that children, youth and adults [of all ages] are all invited by Christ to be part of the household of God, and that each person/family has their unique gifts to contribute. Then, what we do will flow naturally into including families and children in all our plans. Otherwise we end up tacking children's ministry on to what we do anyway as an afterthought and along with youth ministry it can develop its own life and even separate off in a destructive way as it has never been properly integrated and given responsibility as part of the body of the church in the first place. Children, youth, and if fact any part of the church cannot be looked on as being "other" and useful for our purposes. If we are welcoming people we assume that children and families along with everyone else , will come and prepare to make them welcome in the name of Jesus.
An Iona communion prayer says
Then just when we’ve got it right
As to where we should go and what we should do;
Just when we’re ready to take on the world,
You come, like a beggar, to our back door,
Saying, “This is the way., I am the Way.”
And offering us bread and wine.
All ministry is a dynamic process. Change is continuous, and with young people and families, you set it all up and even just three years later you find it all needs to change because we are once again in a different culture..
And that is what we had in St Johns, Papatoetoe. A church which knew about children. In their 154 years, as the second Presbyterian church in Auckland, it had grown with the area. They had energetically planted just about every Presbyterian church for miles around, had had efficient structures for running Sunday school and Bible class, had pioneered community centre outreach, and virtually everyone in the present congregation who was able, had done their bit in teaching or leading young people. In 2003 there were Boys' and Girls' Brigades, but the congregation no longer supplied the leadership for the Boys Brigade. For the last 17 years it had run children's holiday programmes for the community and in 2003 about 70 children attended each programme in the church centre and the number of programmes increased each year as MSD funding came available. The co-ordinator of the holiday programmes also ran Brigade, and the leaders and helpers channelled their energy into these. Big changes in the demographics and ethnicity of the area were taking place and those who had stayed in the area found themselves now living in a multifaith, multiethnic community with mosques and temples of all faiths, springing up in familiar places.
In the St Johns church services of worship in 2003, there was only one family with two small children in church. While we were serving the needs of the wider community, we were not connecting with our own families as a worshipping community. Were in fact, we making them welcome?
What comes first? To some suggestions that we make the place more user friendly physically, for example for pushchairs, there were at first the responses, "Why? There aren't any to make space for." Then the gradual realisation that neither would there be if we don't expect them.
If we invite people to our home we don't usually wait until they get there to make room for them to stay. We prepare for them. If we want families in our church we look at our church through the eyes of a family.
We provided a space at the front of the church [don't put the children, specially the small ones, at the back] with child sized chairs and activities which they could go on with in the centre of things. Session, without a qualm, voted to remove one third of their beautiful pews to make space and sold them. We then discovered space for one group also made space for others. We hadn't had room for wheelchairs and walking frames either. The congregation wanted families and they were supportive of all this.
At first we had a roster for sitting with the children. The two children that now came most Sundays enjoyed the activities. Members of the congregation who looked after grandchildren then brought them to church as they saw there was a place for children, and people who came to funerals in our church looked and said children are welcome.. Our gifted banner maker made a children's banner and some families came with their small children.
But by the middle of 2004 it was clear that our real need was for a children and family coordinator...The roster was not maintained and the need to be ready every Sunday regardless of whether there were children or not was palling, other weeks there were too many children and the continuity of a leader who they knew was needed. In the interim Jill Kayser, from Kids Friendly, was giving a huge amount of encouragement with resources and enabling ways forward. The Session had approved and agreed to incorporate the Kids friendly mission statement as part of our overall mission. We were already certified for OSCAR, and all our staff and elders were police checked and so the compliance work had already been done for our holiday programmes.
If God provides everything a church needs then the person we need will come, but we have to do the preparation. In St Johns, the Session had been there and done that and the expense of a children's coordinator was not part of our stretched budget.
Then Kids Friendly asked us what we needed. We knew exactly what our needs were, a person, a children and family coordinator, and for that we needed money. . We produced a job description and position for a children's coordinator anyway. Then the wonderful thing we needed to give us hope occurred. There was money available, a small amount of seed money for children and family ministry, enough in fact, for a coordinator for two years. We did not know if it would work, we had a handful of children, we didn't even know if in our changing neighbourhood there was anyone out there who would bring their families, but Kids Friendly had faith to risk and give hope to a church which had fished all night and caught very little and was cautious about sending the boat out again.
So we had a job and the finance for employing our worker, but who? How and where do we find someone?. Someone who liked children, who would be willing to prepare every Sunday when no one might turn up and not be dismayed. Someone who would be free of having to produce numbers, someone who would have as their prime task to love the children and relate to their families. We had a Session and congregation who would back it all up, welcoming the families, learning the children's names, giving encouragement and making space but we did not have the person.
We looked around. She was there all the time, as it happened. One of our students who was working on Sundays to pay her way. She knew immediately that this was her task.. Look first around your own congregation, many of our natural leaders, young adults, have to work in the weekends to pay for their studies, work out a way to make that unnecessary and free them to lead. She didn't want to be paid, but that was essential so eventually others could share the leadership with their finance as they couldn't do it themselves any more. As one of us and not full time, we couldn't fall into the trap of saying now its all yours, and leave her to it, everyone realised they were part of this still. And over time, Jill Kayser has provided supervision and the resources of what training was available and we sent our coordinator when possible.
Slowly, families came, almost imperceptibly, until we realised that 20 children were actively on the roll and their families came too. Church had changed. Over the last two years, 40 new attenders were in church, most connected with the children's ministry.
Babies and toddlers are in church as a matter of course these days and the older ones go off for their time of teaching and sometimes stay in church for the whole service. Those who have grown older have had a youth meeting start on Wednesday nights and we are looking for another leader.
But whatever else we do, when we have communion, and when we have baptisms, everyone is there.
Children do not "perform" but sometimes take their turn with the readings, sometimes they do a play or sing a song, but more often are part of groups with both adults and children leading part of worship. They made a film of the Christmas story in south Auckland to show last Christmas Day. [Yes there is a lot of room for improvement, Peter Jackson need not worry just yet!.]
Families who bring their children for baptism are keen to ask their neighbours in the street to the service and their wider families and one day we heard one of our regular little ones saying to a cousin, no, its not like school and take him round all the things they did which were hanging in the church café. The cousin turns up now. Two young girls came with their father. He said they had gone to many churches but this is where they wanted to go and he was happy..
One young dad was baptised, after bringing his child for two years and others are having good conversations about their faith.
We have never had any expectation of numbers, but have concentrated on doing our task, loving, giving the good news of Jesus and accepting all who come, and providing for families, including their children.
St Johns looks different now. We look more like our neighbourhood. Our community centre which has about 400 people / week going through it, offers parenting and family courses in partnership with Parent Trust and PSN to the community as part of our other adult education courses, as well as our work with the elderly people in our area.
We give thanks, for the practical encouragement of Kids Friendly in networking and sharing the experiences of others so we can share our faith with children and their families.
I do not believe there is one formula for carrying out the work, we can only tell the stories from our own context and place. But we must like and want children and families as a congregation and be genuine in our love and obedient in our calling to follow Jesus if we put growing a children and families' ministry as one of our priorities.
Jesus said , Let the little children come to me, do not try to stop them, for of such is the Kingdom of heaven.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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