Ask the Experts: Growing faith, parent leaders and unchurched children

Our experts answer your questions on children’s and families ministry.

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Question #1 We have a mixed-age group. How can we make sure that we’re growing faith in all the children, and not boring some with tasks that are too simple?

A. This is becoming a common issue in many churches and when you throw in the unreliable attendance of many families (for very legitimate reasons!) it can make planning a real nightmare. Clearly the answer isn’t to split a small group into several unworkably small groups; by doing this you’d create a very unstable setup where leaders wouldn’t know most weeks if their group would even run. You’d also destroy something quite exciting that your group has going for it; small multi-age groups have the potential to become really special communities.

You need to remember that you aren’t a school and your primary function isn’t educational; your prime function is the nurture of faith and the best way to do that is to create a community for the faith to grow in. With this in mind you can think differently and worry less about drawing teaching points that work for everyone. Here are a few ideas:

1 Make sure the older ones are involved in serving. Don’t so much as make a drink without children helping in every possible stage. The younger ones can hand out cups and older ones can pour cordial and water into them.

2 Tell stories. A well-told story is something that children of all ages can sit, listen to and enjoy. So be creative in finding exciting ways to tell stories from the Bible. Remember that children of different ages ‘handle’ stories differently so don’t tell them what it means; let them think about it for themselves.

3 Multiple activities. I would like to try to have a period in the session where children can do their own choice of activity. During the course of these activities I would be expecting leaders to sit with the children, join in and chat about the story and what the children thought about it. These informal discussions would be replacing any kind of formal teaching slot as the age range would preclude this.

Sam Donoghue is the head of children’s and youth ministry support for the Diocese of London, and co-editor of Premier Childrenswork 

Question #2 Should parents be children’s leaders, or does that create a confusing relationship for the children? 

A. I think it is a very positive thing to have children see their parents speaking about God in front of others, and seeing that what they teach in public is actually how they live in private. I think the stress here is less about parents as children’s leaders in church, and more about how parents themselves negotiate the additional role of teacher to their parent / child relationship. Here are a few things I say to the parents who lead in my kid’s ministry:

1 Include your children in the planning. You have a member of your group in your own home. Ask their opinion on one area of the planning at least, so they feel invested in what is going to be done. Invite them to help you prepare the activities or visuals, to cut out, stick or design things to help you.

2 Prepare your child for the role shift. Most conflict comes because no one anticipated that there would be a shift. Children need to know where they stand when a parent adds a new role. Have a chat with your child to say: ‘This Sunday I am going to be leading your kids group. When I am leading, my job is to help everyone in the room connect with God for themselves and learn more about life with him. I want to be the best leader I can, and part of that job is to be as fair as possible. I want everyone to feel seen and loved, and so I need to make sure that I am being fair in giving everyone a chance to be picked for games and for sharing answers.’

3 Use team to discipline your child in the group. I love team, and I tend to suggest that generally you ask another team member who is in the room with you to take the lead in disciplining your children. This releases the stress of deciding whether your child is being overly disruptive, or if it is just annoying you hugely because it is your kid! It also takes the interpersonal stress out of it for your child and you, and helps them feel comfortable in the understanding that your eyes are focused on everyone, not just them. It protects them from feeling exposed and empowers a bit of freedom for them even in failure.

4 Keep the feedback loop open. Ask your children their opinion, not only about how they felt that morning session went, but also I suggest that you often ask: ‘How do you feel I am doing in being your dad and your leader at the same time? Is there anything that you really like? 

Rachel Turner is the author of Parenting children for a life of faith and Parenting children for a life of purpose

Question #3 How do you engage unchurched children in prayer, without forcing anything on them?

A. Prayer is both an essential part of what we do, but also something that makes some people feel uncomfortable. The different situations you work in will present different opportunities for prayer and also different expectations. One good question to ask is, ‘Have I put the children in a position where their beliefs are compromised or where mine are?’ If we can manage these situations in a way where we all feel that we have behaved with integrity it will enable prayer to take place and allow everyone to feel they have been treated well. In many schools the expectation from staff would be that prayer is optional. In my ten years as a schools worker, mostly in multi-faith settings, I started every prayer with: ‘I’m about to pray - if you want to pray as well then say “Amen”, if you don’t want to, or are not allowed to, then just sit quietly and think about what we have learnt today.’

Having got into the habit of saying that every time, I actually quite liked it as it gave the children a mental ‘opt out’ in a situation where they couldn’t leave. It meant I could then pray but they were not asked to pray things they didn’t agree with or that their families might not approve of. However, I would actually use a form of words like that in all settings. Just because a child has come to a group doesn’t mean they agree with the Christian faith – or want to be there! Personally I think explaining that prayer is optional takes their belief, or non-belief, seriously. It also shows that we take prayer seriously, it isn’t just words but is us coming to our heavenly father. This is a significant spiritual act that we invite children to participate in, in their own way allowing them to decide for themselves when and how they want to be involved.

Andrew Smith is the director of interfaith relations for the Bishop of Birmingham

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