Anyone spending time reading the profiles of churches looking for ministers, as I have over the last 6 months, soon comes to recognise that there are a number of things almost all churches want. Prominent among these is “more children”. There are very few churches that would say they were happy with the number of children attending (I preached at one last year, which had around 60 in its Sunday School and would have struggled to cope with more, but that was a special, and very enjoyable, case).
As I’ve prepared this Sunday’s service for the two churches who are thinking about calling me as their minister I’ve had to think about what to do with the “all age time”, the short talk before the children go out that has replaced the “children’s address” there as in many places where there are few if any children in regular attendance on Sundays.
I’m told there will be some children, mostly of pre-school age, and that they will be sitting with their families rather than together at the front (as is the practice in my sending church). This deprives me of my favourite format for this segment of a service, which is a conversation with the children. I need to think of something simple and engaging to say, accessible to all and relevant to the overall theme of the service.
Thinking about this has caused me to ponder on something I often wondered about during my years as a Sunday School teacher. What is the best thing that could happen out of a child’s engagement with the Church. This is a particular puzzle for me, perhaps, since I didn’t have any contact with the Church as a child. I have no memories to draw on, either positive or negative.
My experience has been that the majority of the children that come through our Sunday Schools drop out of church life sometime in their teens, when they go away to University if not before. This may be different in more “evangelical” church settings, where there seems to be a stronger culture of youth work but certainly seems to be the case in the liberal churches I’m most familiar with. We ran a fairly successful youth group at Morningside for a number of years and one or two of these young people remained involved in church, but presumably this wasn’t the point of the exercise (or we would have been less happy with it than we were).
I also found, as a Sunday School teacher, that I was deeply dissatisfied with a great deal of the material available to me. The core message was often “Jesus was nice so you should be nice too”. The children certainly found that easy to understand and to repeat back to me but I wasn’t at all sure it was making any real impact on them and they certainly didn’t seem excited by or even interested in it.
Do we want children in our churches so we can tell them that they ought to be nice?
That doesn’t work well for me. I don’t really think this message about imitative niceness is anywhere near the heart of the gospel.
What I found was that I wanted to tell the children the great Biblical story, about creation, the fall, the election of Abraham, Israel’s occupation, loss of and return to the promised land, Jesus and the Church. I also found that the materials were there in Scripture to make that story interesting and even exciting, if one put aside an immediate concern for making the children nicer. They loved building and tearing down the Tower of Babel and building and then destroying Solomon’s Temple. We had a great time re-enacting the Exodus and the conquest of Israel.
I had in mind giving them some familiarity with stories the significance of which I don’t think I fully understand and which they have a lifetime (God willing) to grow into.
The best reasons for wanting children in church seem to me to be what we can offer them in beginning a disciple journey and what they can offer us as models. At some level I think the churches that yearn for their presence understand that. The Church is called to be the community of God’s people and without children part of that community is missing. They are important because without them we are incomplete. This reason doesn’t demand that we try to turn them into anything they aren’t already.
On the other hand to be part of the community is to be in the presence of Christ and to worked on by him, to be on the way to becoming what the redeemed human being should be. This is a process that is never complete, for any of us, and the end point of which is unimaginable for us. This means that the best things we can offer the children are a model of what it is like to be a faithful disciple and on the other an introduction to Jesus as the culmination of Israel’s story.
Anyway, this slightly confused reflection on children in church hasn’t completed my preparation for “all age time” on Sunday, so I should get on with that, but it has made me surer that I’m not looking for a moral lesson. What I want is something that speaks clearly and simply about us being a community who come together to learn with and from one another how to be disciples of Jesus, who is among us who loves us and who wants us to live life in all its fullness.