Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Education or nurture?

For many years now I’ve been grappling with the way we (the church) seek to nurture children’s faith.  Whenever I hear that a church’s children’s ministry strategy is being devised and managed by a Christian Education Committee I try to delve a little deeper into what they believe children’s ministry is.  Growing faithful children, especially in today’s secular world requires so much more than education.  “Christian education is no substitute for real, living membership in the community of faith,” says Gretchen Wolff Pritchard in her book “Offering the gospel to children”.
“The nurture of children within the church is commonly known as ‘Christian education’ and takes place almost exclusively in the church structure known as the ‘Sunday school’ which models itself on regular school.  It is organised in (mostly age segregated) classes with teacher (albeit often untrained), who use curriculums with lesson plans.  It operates on the unspoken assumption that children must learn how to be Christians….before they can actually begin to do any of the things that Christians do together in the community of faith: pray together, celebrate the sacraments, share their faith and their lives, cherish the hope of things unseen and bear witness in love and service in the world.”

I was invited to run a “mission evening” with a Presbytery last year and my brief from the clerk seriously challenged me.  “You don’t need to tell us to minister to children,” she said “we all know that already!”  Well this had me flummoxed.  I’m the Kids Friendly Coach, what am I meant to talk about, if not children’s ministry?  After much deliberation, I decided maybe they did know they should minister to children, but possibly they had a limited understanding of what children’s ministry is.  So I prepared an interactive workshop on what it really mean to “let the children come?”  In small groups participants discussed statements started with “children’s ministry is…..” and shared stories of how they and their churches respond to this.  I was relieved at the end of the evening when the clerk said to me:  “That was wonderful.  You really got us thinking!”
The Kids Friendly ideals and self-review is a good place for churches to start if they want to develop a holistic children’s ministry strategy.  The review process helps churches explore the way children are included and valued as full participating members of the all age faith community and also encourages churches in their mission to “unchurched” children and families.  But for children to really be accepted as fellow-worshippers there needs to be heart-felt intention.   
“Baptised children are not recruits or trainees.  They are Christians. It is their birthright as Christians to be included in the life of God’s people in community: to approach God in awe and love in worship, to be welcome in to the sacred space, to receive Christ body and blood, to know and be known to their fellow parishioners by name and to express their faith in service, not as a class project, but as member of the parish family.” (Wolff Pritchard)
For children to be truly included in the faith community, the congregation needs to remember and honour their vows made at children’s baptisms to nurture and welcome them and help them grow as Christians.   “In a sense we are all Godparents of every child in the church.” Pritchard suggests that this responsibility may mean we take turns, to sit with a restless child, to support his parents and help them to relax in worship.  As a congregation we need to remain committed to children being there with us before God’s altar.
Pritchard reminds us that parents too need to be “educated” and encouraged as they bring their children to church.  Parents need to learn that if their children are to be fellow parishioners they do not need to say “shhhhh” to every enquiry, or offer a cracker or bottle or storybook to distract them.  Parents need to invite children to experience worship with them.  They need to sit upfront so children can see what is happening and whisper in their child’s ear “look watch Pauline (our minister’s name), she is picking up the cup now and saying the special words Jesus said.  Or “Close your eyes now because we are going to say the special prayer Jesus taught us” etc.
Jesus said “Feed my sheep”. He also said “feed my lambs”.

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