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A place to belong

As family time gets more stretched, many have moved online to find community. But while this works for young people, what about children? Lynn Alexander suggests the church can provide this crucial aspect of their development

There is a movement in society today towards building better communities and creating places for people to belong. Advertising executives have been especially good at creating scenes of holidays, happiness and extended families coming together to enjoy one another’s company. There are even advertising campaigns targeting people who might have suffered broken family relationships and feel lonely - just this week I saw the slogan for the British Army: “This is belonging”. A quick glance at their website reveals this: “A sense of belonging may sound like a small thing. Yet it fuels you as much as food and water, because it doesn’t just feed your body, it feeds your mind and soul. The stronger the sense of belonging - the stronger you become.”

While our country is talking a lot about building stronger, safer communities, it seems to me, as ever, that children might be the last thought on this. The assumption is that children are naturally included in our communities but the reality is that absence from one-on-one conversing (called ‘serve and return’) is growing ever more common: adults pushing buggies while checking social media as their child faces away from them; tablets with preschool apps on them to ‘entertain’ during mealtimes or on long car journeys; CBeebies Bedtime hour replaces stories. Attachments are growing to fictional characters and vividly animated screens rather than to nurturing caregivers. A quick glance at BBC viewer feedback threw up several comments similar to this one: “My child won’t settle until In the night garden comes on the TV.”

I want to call us back to a sustained and renewed commitment to make a place of ‘belonging’ for children, particularly in their early years. Early experiences affect long-term outcomes in learning as well as physical and mental health. Children need the support of caring and supportive adults to develop ‘executive function’: the ability to self-regulate and to develop the skills required to process and carry out instructions. We have perhaps traditionally thought that parents carried out this role but there is strong evidence that other adults have a crucial role to play.

Russian dolls

Caring adults around the child and their family have influence over them. In turn, growing healthy and resilient children can have an influence on others within the community. Secure and healthy attachments with adults help to sow further secure and healthy attachments with peers and other adults. Lev Vygotsky is a developmental psychologist who has examined the connections between growing children and their culture (or community). He wrote that children’s development occurs within their culture (ie they are heavily influenced by that which surrounds them), and in turn, their development transforms the culture. For Christians, this is compelling reading as we are called to bring change (transformation) to the culture in which we find ourselves. Here is a way to affect our communities that doesn’t need a church building, finance and staff, it just needs our time and attention to the very youngest we may have responsibility for and in a supportive, nurturing way to those we know around us.

Urie Bronfenbrenner proposed that the growing human person is influenced by what he calls: “A series of nesting structures, each inside the next, like a set of Russian dolls.” A child’s immediate setting - the home, the classroom, the church, is called a microsystem. The second level is called the mesosystem, which refers to the interconnections between microsystems (for example, the connection between church and home). Children grow and develop in all of their microsystems under the influence of all of the persons within that microsystem.

This is really important to grasp when we think about providing a community where children belong. We all have a part to play, and there are big implications for the Church; we don’t have the monopoly on providing this safe place! Therefore when home, church, school and neighbourhood all speak the same unconditional love and acceptance and work together to allow developing human persons to flourish and grow, it’s all the more powerful. Ongoing, lifelong commitment to Christ is made (or broken, sadly) in these microsystems.

Every single one of us in churches, whatever our attitudes and actions towards the young, is part of the microsystem. How we react towards their presence has an influence upon them. Our willingness to include them, listen to them, consider them in our church plans and strategy, has an influence upon their growth and development.

Family tree

How do we begin to create a sense of belonging for our children? I lead a small team piloting a form of Sunday afternoon gathering called Family Tree (familytreechurch.org.uk). We make space for children and adults to meet together as an intergenerational community to try and create this kind of safe place - a microsystem. We apply the triangle of ‘up’ (worship, Bible teaching), ‘in’ (prayer and fellowship) and ‘out’ (sharing good news - physically going out of the building once a month) to everything we do. I garnered some feedback from the children and teenagers about what made Family Tree special for them, replies included that everyone knew their name, what was going on in their week and what they were good at; they contributed to the programme - they loved joining in on prayer walks and giving little gifts out in the community when we were involved in street evangelism; they know they are part of something bigger than just themselves and their own flesh-and-blood family.

Faith development

I started Family Tree to take account of the work of John Westerhoff’s stages of faith development. Westerhoff describes faith as a verb: a way of behaving. Bear in mind that he points out that these are generalisations and not meant to box children or adults into distinct categories. Here are the first two:

The stages begin with an ‘experienced faith’ - children first learn about Christ not by what we say or teach theologically but by the experiences they have connected with those around them. They sense, explore, observe and copy the stimuli around them, and experience through interaction. This stage is where children form their impressions of God from their experiences of Christians and church. This means that I try to do all I can to ensure that the child’s experience of church is marked by love, trust and care. If you are in a bigger setting than our Family Tree, with organised crèche and Sunday school facilities, then the volunteers who look after children should be taught about the importance of these early days. The church crèche / nursery should become a hothouse environment for demonstrating the love and faithfulness of God. The physical space becomes very important - clean, warm, well resourced. The very best volunteers who want to be in crèche, not just reluctant parents, should serve the youngest members of the congregation. Loving grandparents, aunties and uncles become the voice and touch of Jesus to the babes they cradle. The community can help faith to grow - children possess spirituality, which we expect will grow to personal faith in a loving God.

Look to recruit and encourage leaders who make use of small details that make every child feel unique and special

 

The second stage is ‘affiliative faith’. This follows naturally on from stage one, assuming the needs of experienced faith have been met during childhood/early adolescence. Belonging is key here - membership of an accepting community of faith is important. A clear sense of identity is formed - for example: “This is my church, we sing these songs as we gather together.” The children join in with the activities of the community, such as storytelling or singing, and share something of the awe and mystery that holds the community together. The child needs to be accepted and to feel a sense of togetherness and will take on board much that a significant and trusted leader gives to them.

So what does all of this practically mean for our children’s ministries? For those of us involved in midweek clubs or summer holiday clubs, here are some ideas:

  • We have sometimes thought that energetic, bouncy youth and children’s leaders might be the best at leading small groups, but don’t despise the day of the older person! Look to recruit and encourage leaders who take time to notice small things, address children by the correct first name and remember and make use of small details that make every child feel unique and special. Where you have lots of younger or inexperienced leaders, offer them training in the values contained in this article.
  • Use the routine that is often provided in holiday club or midweek club leaders’ material, it creates a safe space and a rhythm that many children value, not just those on the autistic spectrum. The opening song, aerobics, drama, story, snack, group time and so on mirrors structures such as those found in groups like Cubs or the school classroom. Again, we are providing a sense of belonging and safety and highlighting a ‘partnership’ in experience with the child’s other settings shown in the Bronfenbrenner diagram.
  • Offer family events to build a sense of partnership and community. I always say at such events that we as a church are here to support and encourage families in the community and that we are so glad they have trusted us with their children and value them hugely. I thank them for bringing their children to us. Remember that there is real value in all of a child’s microsystems bringing a consistent message of: “You belong, we are here for you and we want the best for you throughout your life.”

It’s very powerful when home, church, school and neighbourhood all speak the same unconditional love and acceptance

For those of us involved in toddler groups:

  • Maybe parents / carers come to play alongside their children and sometimes you feel that your opportunity for Christian witness is minor. However, we have a role in encouraging those parents who are not being absent but are making huge efforts to develop their child’s brain architecture by engaging with them. Look for opportunities to praise and encourage them in any way you can and speak well of them when you are with them. We might love them to come and attend our parenting course, or to bring their child along to an all-age service, but actually, more than anything we want to show love (unconditional positive regard, as psychologists say) to that child and their family. They are then more likely to feel that they have a place to turn to when in need, or perhaps their whole lives long they will remember the love and care expressed to them.
  • Consider giving some kind of input to those who come to your toddler group on children’s cognitive and social development; children love the sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves and many parents relish learning more about this. There are many resources to refer to, for example, from the Harvard Centre on the Developing Child (developingchild.harvard.edu).

I want to end with a message of reassurance for parents who feel hard-pressed and stretched: you were not meant to carry the burden of parenting on your own. We (the Church) are here with you, to model something of unconditional love and acceptance towards the tiniest, cute baby to the grumpiest teenager.

                        Cynthia Neal wrote: “Children are to be part of a faith community and share in its life.” Let us not be ashamed of what our community can offer; we have something that works and a community of loving and caring people of all ages watching out for and speaking well of one another, which existed in the Old and New Testament communities. Experts describe the need for consistently loving, ‘on-message’ communities as places that help children grow and develop. How wonderful that this was at the heart of the design for community put in place by a loving creator God! His design for the development of children and young people within loving, intergenerational communities is the best plan for faith development.

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