Thursday, March 16, 2017

NO CONTEST by Rev Stan Stewart, St Heliers Presbyterian Church, Auckland

For the last half of my life my wife Pauline and I have worked to encourage mainstream protestant churches (in New Zealand, Australia and beyond) to welcome, include and nurture children in their fellowship and in their worship.

It was mainly mainstream protestant churches that were established in every town and suburb across the Australia and New Zealand, 50 to 100 years ago. Their buildings look like churches and the denominations are generally Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist and Church of Christ.

Today the numbers attending these churches are shrinking.  Many have closed and of those that remain, many have few or no children at all.

There are several reasons why this is so, but this week I have been reflecting on one of them. I call it the ‘giggle factor’. I recognise that once parents take the ‘giggle factor’ seriously, churches, Sunday Schools, Christian clubs etc. simply cannot compete. There is no contest.

Through my work, I came to understand that the ‘giggle factor’ does not cut much ice in some religious groups. Mormons, Bahia and some other tightly knit groups give it no credence. Catholics, Seven Day Adventists and Lutherans have not been as vulnerable to the ‘giggle factor’ as the mainstream churches either.

This is how the ‘giggle factor’ works.

In recent years parents have become increasingly concerned about parenting. This is particularly so with single parents and parents of blended families which are the result of divorce or separation. Parents want to raise ‘happy’ children. Happy children in turn become positive credentials for the parents. On the other hand, unhappy children suggest to the world that something is wrong with the parent.

But, how do you know when a child is happy? Many parents assume that the happiness of the child can be gauged by his/her facial expression. The child who is smiling and laughing is clearly happy.

The assessment of a child’s ‘happiness’ by facial expressions has many variants. Only a few parents would go all the way with me on my assertions about the ‘giggle factor’. However, the opposite, the ‘bored’ child causes disquiet to most parents. In our society children soon learn the power of the phrase, ‘I’m bored’.

Some of the churches I have worked with have gone to extraordinary lengths to make children happy and keep them smiling. At a seminar in the United States I asked ministers to share their ideas about keeping children happy in and around the church. One minister told us that he had hit upon a sure-fire way to keep children smiling.

“He said, “It’s so simple and it always works’. He went on to describe how from time to time he has a lolly-scramble in church. He said that without announcement, he would step into the central aisle of the church and throw a handful of wrapped sweets down the aisle. He said, “The children love it. It is always a hit. I don’t do it every Sunday, but the children come each Sunday hoping that this will turn out to be lolly-scramble Sunday”.

However, few if any liked this idea. It was objected to on educational, theological, health and law-and-order grounds. But what other alternatives do we have? Well when the ‘giggle factor’ decides what a child is involved with, not much. What a church has to offer on Sunday mornings with stories, songs and prayers is no match for sport, hobbies, TV, and increasingly phone and computer games. For most children these are vastly more attractive. There is no contest!

I have wondered for years about how it is that some groups do not lose their children and young people. I now think it is about categorizing.

Many families in churches I have worked for categorize church attendance and Christian education as an optional extra. Few would say this plainly, but their actions confirm that this is so. It is placed in the same category as sport and entertainment and has to compete on this level. As long as it produces smiles (better still giggles) it is something to support. However, as soon the children start voicing ‘I’m bored’, it is dropped in favour of activity that produces smiles (better still giggles).

Groups like the Mormons, Adventists, Catholics and Lutherans have a different approach. They categorize church attendance and Christian education alongside maths and reading. It is seen as a cornerstone of life. If it’s fun, all to the good, but if it’s not, it remains a priority (like maths and reading etc.). So, grumpy faces and ‘boring’ don’t come into it. It’s as important as eating your vegetables. Once this is understood, even with the most loving and progressive parents, it is non-negotiable.

Making life decisions on the basis of what makes you smile, giggle or in recent parlance, ‘whatever turns you on’, is a very bad idea. Children whose life choices are decided by the ‘giggle factor’ or a variant of it, grow into teens and young adults who hanker for the adrenalin rush. Chemicals are the most effective medium for obtaining this rush. Hmmm!

The other side of the yearning for an adrenaline rush is the determination to keep pain at bay by any means. America is currently in the grip of a drug epidemic that is killing almost as many people as die in auto accidents - 28,647 deaths last year. This epidemic is fuelled as much by well-meaning doctors as it is by dope pushers. Overdoses of the most popularly prescribed legal painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, accounted for more deaths last year than heroin. (February 2017 - the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention - CDCP)

I love to laugh. My silly pranks and jokes sometimes cause others to laugh and other times embarrass – me included.

I enjoy parties, “Too much”, says Pauline my wife.  But laughs and parties are not the guiding star by which I set my course.

Understanding Jesus and relating to his spirit and his people in the local church is the most important thing in my life. He tells us that a life full and abundant is to be found in a life of service. The force of his spirit breaks down barriers race, clan and religions. He said we will meet him in the poor and prisoner.  In his family, no one has more importance than children and women.

In our church family, we have a wide variety of beliefs. In some ways, we cover the spectrum from atheist to fundamentalist. We accept each other and in one way or another we are all influenced by Jesus. In my view this concept of community could breathe health into a divided world. These insights are the very best things a parent and a church can share with their child. These values are going to be needed in the future that rushes toward us.

But it can never happen when children’s activities are decided by the ‘giggle factor’. Nor can it be left solely to the “church school”. The place these concepts are to be engaged with is in a local congregation, a community, an extended all-age, international family – just like ours.

In many ways, we are swimming against the tide of the world we live in. At some points, it will be difficult for our children and hard work for us. But what of value in life can be achieved without hard work?

Stan Stewart

PS: No contest. I realise it is not a contest. Sport and entertainment and what we do in our church family are two very different things.  Certainly, we have had many laughs together and I am sure we will have many more. But, that is not our main aim. Our commitment is to building a future of hope and for that we need everyone, from youngest to the oldest. 

1 comment:

  1. An extremely interesting perspective. Thank you for sharing/