Future Car with hand

Back to the Future: Part One

'Where we're going we don't need worksheets'.

What if children’s work in the future looks nothing like it does now? It’s time for a change, says Premier Childrenswork editor Sam Donoghue. Strap on your seatbelt and get ready for take-off as we venture into the unknown…

In 2012, leading children’s ministry thinker John Westerhoff III was speaking at a conference in the USA called Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity. In his talk he suggested that we are on the cusp of something new in children’s ministry; he described us as on the edge of a paradigm where the way we do things now would change to reflect new ideas and new thinking. When I heard this talk I couldn’t help but be excited – I’d thought about and hoped for this for a while. There was however a disappointing end to the exploration: he said that he didn’t know what this paradigm would look like.

The specific wording here is significant. He didn’t say we needed to develop. He didn’t say we needed to evolve. He’s looking for something bigger than that; he’s looking for a paradigm shift. This means that everything changes because the core assumptions and values that underpin all the thinking in the area has shifted. Once we have made the jump, everything changes and there’s no going back. Once rejected, the methods cannot be readopted because they reflect values we no longer hold.

I think you’ll agree that this idea is both scary and quite exciting. Scary because it will mean abandoning things that we currently hold dear and being willing to admit that we’re not getting it right, but exciting because there’s an amazing adventure into the unknown ahead, where what happens in our churches for children will change and begin to nurture a faith that sticks and lasts a lifetime. I’d like to spend some time in this article exploring why I would agree with Westerhoff that we need to move on from where we are now. In the next issue, I’ll try and peer over the fence into the future, to explore some key ideas which could form a new future for the work we do with children.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey and join in the thought and discussion needed. None of us have all the answers on this, but together I believe that God is calling us into a new thing, unlike anything we’ve done before.


There is one overarching and defining feature of children’s ministry in the UK at the moment: the thinking that we are primarily educators, teaching children how to be Christians. The influence of this way of thinking is everywhere; open any children’s ministry curriculum and you’ll find it on every page. This is where the paradigm shift begins.

When I applied to work at the Diocese of London, I was working as a schools outreach worker in Basildon in Essex, and spent my life following this educational way of working. Hundreds of assemblies in primary schools followed the same ‘magic’ formula: tell the children what the theme was and illustrate with amusing anecdote, present a Bible story on a similar theme making use of the economies of scale that we benefited from by covering 40 schools who all received the same assembly, explain to the children why the story was connected to my introduction, apply this learning to their lives and then finish off with a prayer that the children could agree with by saying ‘amen’. We had great fun and we made amazing props (including a full-size Goliath and a big fish called Bryan that could swallow a child). The introductory stories we told were always funny and the children would laugh enough to get stern looks from the teachers, but we developed an uncanny knack of settling the children back down in time for the prayer.

My routine in Sunday school was similar: tell a Bible story, reinforce the meaning with activities and craft or choose a theme that I could support with a Bible verse or two. The problem with all this is that I couldn’t help but wonder what the point was – was teaching these children about the Bible and God enough and was learning Bible stories the key objective? Or was all of this a means to a greater end? And quite frankly what’s going on with action songs? I needed to think, but to be honest I was so busy doing and being pretty good at it that I just chose to opt out of thinking. I only really read books which told me that I was doing ok and whenever I was confronted by differing ideas I’d leap on the flaws rather than hear what was good in them.

Having had a little more time to ponder in my role at the Diocese here are my thoughts for why the educational model isn’t working and needs not to be not just changed, but abandoned.

We are teaching children not to think for themselves.

The problem with the model where I teach children about the Bible is that I do all the thinking. All the children need to do is listen and then be able to say it back to me by answering some plenary questions or taking part in a quiz, they get the answer right and I can say the children really learnt something. I wrote a whole resource like this, full of clever talks that helped explain things, with added craft to re-enforce it. The only thinking the children were given the space to do was finding the answers to my questions to check they’d listened.

Working this way leaves the children with no framework to think about God for themselves, as all they can do is take our interpretation and apply it to their lives. In fact, the balance of power between them as a child and you as an adult means that telling children what Bible stories mean will actively stop them thinking; they will find it very hard to disagree with you so if they do, they will assume that they are wrong and you are right.

We often describe the Bible to children as a manual for our lives and show them how to treat it that way with well-meaning but over-simplified stories. It is so much more than that, and we need to draw children into its depth and mystery; they are well set up to do this. Children just don’t think like us. We are grown-ups and so we think abstractly, able to stand back from a story and think about what it means; children explore stories using their imagination to enter into them. It is this imagination that is our route into helping them find their own way, facilitating not teaching.  

Change is scary because it means abandoning things we currently hold dear, and admitting that we’re not getting it right

We are getting between children and God so that they depend on us and not on him.

I’m not sure that I really understood how a child could connect with God or even if they could, so I felt the need to do it all for them. I would tell them what to say and what to do but it was on my terms and not theirs. Much of what we do for children comes from the assumption that we need to connect them to God, showing them how it’s done. Rebecca Nye’s research shows the importance of  realising that a child is already spiritual because: ‘It can help us both embrace the reality that children are made in God’s image, that they are already switched on, and also to challenge the idea that children come in a kind of “kit version” that we must make into a God compatible model. Sometimes we behave as if spiritual life can only begin once a child has been filled up, by us, with enough religious knowledge.’

This means that a primary function of my ministry with children isn’t to teach them how to pray or show them how to hear God but to get out the way and allow what is already there to flourish. We are too fast-paced and action-packed; we need to slow down, and give children what Ivy Beckwith describes as the ‘spiritual tools to last a lifetime’ rather than a reliance on us to provide the right songs or the correct amount of hype to help children to respond in a way that we have prescribed. We need less leading and direction and more space and freedom. Children don’t need us to host their time with God; just them and God is plenty.

It’s children’s work Jim, but not as we know it

We take advantage of children’s need to belong to teach them to conform.

John Westerhoff III says that a child’s faith is tied up with their need to belong. Therefore if a child feels a sense of belonging in a group they will adopt its belief and values, so it’s actually pretty easy to get children to do or say the right things. It can be really encouraging when children return from a Christian camp and tell you that they are ready to change the world and tell all their friends about Jesus. This is by no means a bad thing but we need to be aware that those are the things that we teach them to say and affirm when they say them. We need to find a way beyond this, where discipleship means being empowered to walk in the way of Christ.


I was hugely challenged recently when chatting with a curate in London who had been in a senior youth work position before being ordained. I was telling him about a study I had read which analysed teenagers who had only heard Bible stories without explanation as children, as part of the Godly Play curriculum. They had never been taught about ‘how not to sin’ or ‘how to behave in a Christian way’. It said that they were passionate about justice for the poor, about caring for the sick and for protecting the environment. We couldn’t help but speculate whether or not they were as good at avoiding the standard teenage pitfalls around smoking, drinking and sex etc. Then my friend said something which cut through our conversation, ‘This is the problem,’ he said. ‘So much of what the article described as the teen’s passions – justice, the environment, caring for the sick – is what the ministry of Jesus was all about, but we’re more worried about whether their behaviour lives up to our expectations.’ Perhaps we’ve missed what it really means, and what’s really most important, in teaching a child how to follow Jesus.

Next month Sam will be back with part two, exploring what the future of children’s work might look like.

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