Yesterday I attended the Evangelical Alliance's council meeting, along with various others who have an interest or expertise in children's ministry. There were many excellent speakers too, who spoke with passion about their given subjects. Together, we were looking at the subject "It Takes A Whole Church to Raise A Child". (Do read Krish Kandiah's excellent article in Youthwork Magazine here, or get a copy of Christianity Magazine) If you are a twitterer, search for the hash tag #wholechurch where you should find lots of quotes from the speakers. Although, if my fellow attendees were like me, they were too busy listening and discussing to tweet, and not wanting to miss anything!
This is not a summary of the whole day - that would take a lot of blog entries! This is just about the part I had the privilege to play in the day.
As part of this, I was asked to prepare a 5 minute slot answering the question "Is Church Toxic to Our Children's Faith". Before any one complains that five minutes wasn't enough, I need to explain that this five minutes was to set the scene for further discussion - it wasn't a talk in it's own right as that wasn't what was needed. (It was also a good discipline for me to hone what I said and make every word count!)
As promised, this is a summary of what I said (Not word for word!):
Is church toxic to a child's faith? It was to people in my family, and that toxicity has gone on to affect them for many years. But I feel at this point, I should point that not every church is toxic to a child's faith.
Yes I do believe church can sometimes be toxic to children's faith!
Toxicity is often due to a combination of substances rather than just one, and in much the same way, I believe the problem of church being toxic to a child's faith is down to a combination of factors - but it's not always the same mix.
There will be a different recipe of toxins for each individual child - something that affects one child may not affect another and vice versa. But within that mix, that recipe, I believe there are a five constants - things that will affect the majority of children.
- A lack of acceptance of and grace towards children in being fully part of the church, now, this minute. (It's not a case of waiting until children are 18)
- A lack of opportunities for children to serve
- A lack of a safe space for children to make mistakes and learn from them - as they serve, as they take their place in the church, whilst still being children (and we have to remember that they are still children and will be child like!)
- A lack of vision - for both the child and the children's work.... Or even the wrong vision (how we see it/how we wanted it to be for us), rather than allowing God to put His vision into the work we do.
- A lack of solid theology, taught in a child friendly way that takes into account the age and stage of the child; We often either give the children a twee theology (Tweeology) that only gives milk and no meat (wrongly assuming they can't manage meat), and doesn't stand up to the rough and tumble of school life, or we give a thuggish theology that gives so many rules that a child just cannot live up to them. All of this, when actually, we should be giving meat, cut up into child sized pieces - the right size for their stage of the faith journey.
We also have children with additional needs to think about, where the above toxins can be amplified/made more toxic just because many question their ability to have faith - but that's a whole new topic on it's own. These children can also have faith.
But - there is an antidote to the toxicity! (because I can't help putting a positive point in!)
ACCEPTANCE , LOVE, GUIDANCE and SIGNIFICANCE
In the discussion that followed - both in small groups and as a larger group it was said "that's the same for anyone walking into our churches". Yes - that's absolutely right! In this whole discussion, what we are talking about is 'community and family'. Not a group of children along side a group of adults, but integrated community.
Other comments and questions that came out of this section of the day we're numerous and helpful, including comments on how busy children are with their various activities and the difficulty of finding a night that churches can run clubs and activities.
It was also good to receive a question on the use of social media with children - something I may well blog on sometime on the future (including making it work from a safeguarding point of view). I do see a value in using social media in the right context. Youngsters who often won't open up and discuss what is bothering them will often publish it to the world of Facebook. It's a good way to find out what interests them and what matters to them, and then use that 'social media relationship' to build community with them within the church. To be able to ask a young person how an activity they mentioned on Facebook went, can add value and significance to a relationship.
We shouldn't be 'about' getting bottoms on seats on a Sunday morning, what we should be 'about' is building family and making our children feel valued and significant. That value shouldn't be based on how many times a child can make it to our activities - it should be based on the fact that our children are valued by and significant to God.
There was one thing that occurred to me whilst preparing for this (probably due to my dyslexia), and although I had it in my notes, I didn't have time to say it and 'unpack' it:
It takes a whole church to raise a child, but could it be said - it takes a "whole" child to raise a church?
I'll probably blog some more on what some of the other contributors said at a later date, but I think my favourite quote of the day came from David Niblock (Abundant Life Church, Bradford): "Don't put a lid on your children"