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Rethinking children’s work

The environment our children are growing up in seems to be constantly changing. What does that mean for our children’s work? Do we need to rethink what we’re doing? The diocese of London’s Sam Donoghue thinks community is the key

A few years ago I had the pleasure of writing an article like this for Premier Childrenswork, so it’s interesting to come back to the same question a few years later and see where we’ve got to in the world of children’s work. In the meantime, I’ve completed my master’s degree in children’s ministry, which included a dissertation exploring what new models of church for children and families might look like.

So, with slight hesitation, I open the dusty old copy (June / July 2014) and have a look, and you know what? It’s not too bad. I would certainly stand by the main thrust of my argument, which is that children’s ministry needed to move to a new place, abandoning the idea that faith can be taught and towards a place where faith is explored together and caught through community. In fact, I’m more convinced than ever that the core of good children’s ministry is about building loving communities where children are given space to find God for themselves rather than a place where adults try to teach children how.

Classroom versus community

The theological word for ‘what Christians need to be taught’ is ‘catechesis’, and it’s a good word to think about as it’s really useful to have in mind as an end goal when working with children. It’s good to know what we want children growing up in our groups to graduate knowing. I think increasingly we need to realise that the most powerful tool we have to deliver this teaching is the community of our church and not the quality of our crafts. Children’s specialist Dave Csinos has coined the phrase ‘catechesis by community’ and I love it. He argues that a child who grows up in the heart of a loving faith community will take on its beliefs and values – you won’t need to teach them. I think we need to get children out of the classroom and into our church communities, where they can learn what it is to live a life of faith by watching and interacting with other Christians.

Our nod towards this thinking in the past has been the all-age service, the family service or even the ‘multigenerational service’, but, for me, we need to go much further than a once-a-month effort. And we need to think in terms of a multigenerational Church that includes children and young people in everything it does.

Another point I would still hold to is the need for children to have space at church. Space to explore their faith and be encouraged to ask questions and wonder, and space to encounter God through simple spiritual practice. By doing this, we are tooling children up to think for themselves and reflect theologically rather than be dependent on us to solve all their problems. These are the tools children need to navigate the world they grow up in. They need to be part of simple spiritual practice in their church lives that they can recreate in their bedrooms or at school. Connection with God cannot be dependent on church. Stillness is an underrated resource for children who need church to be deep more than they need it to entertain (see Faith at home this month).

“We need to get children out of the classroom and into our church communities”

Family life

Where I would take issue with my historical self is that I make no meaningful mention of family in my previous article. As it was a double article totalling 4,000 words, this seems a rather significant oversight. I failed to address the primary context of most children growing up in the UK. It seems especially strange now that, since I wrote, the pendulum has swung across to where we are now, with most of the new thinking in our field being around family ministry. So I would want to add some thinking about that, especially as I feel we need to show that the Church is able to respond to what family life in the UK in 2017 is really like, and right now I’m not sure we ‘get it’.

There are some elements of this change that I think we are well aware of: the increasing rate of poverty in the UK is appalling and now, according to Barnardo’s, 3.7 million children are living in ‘poverty’, with 1.7million living in ‘severe poverty’. Britain is becoming more diverse. According to government figures, 31 per cent of children in primary schools come from a black or ethnic minority group, while 20 per cent of children speak English as a second language. Families have also become more diverse in their make-up. According to the We are family report, there are nine types, but most families fall into one of three types: in 2016, 4.7 million families with dependent children had two parents who were married, a further 1.2 million families had cohabiting parents and 1.9 million families had a single parent.

There are aspects of all these statistics that the Church could respond to more effectively. We should do more to help those in need and welcome people that our society treats as strangers. But there was something else that came out in my research that I didn’t see coming, and which seems to be a huge issue we haven’t addressed at all. Families in the UK are busy in a way they never have been before.

Time poor

The scarcest resource for a lot of families is time and, despite experiencing this myself and through my interaction with other parents, I have to say that it’s worse than I thought. The proportion of families where both parents work full time has risen to 49 per cent, with most parents working beyond their contracted hours to finish their work. Therefore, 29 per cent of parents feel burnt out by the challenges of juggling work and family life to such an extent that they have had to take time off sick or claim holiday to recover. The solution to this has predominantly been to make more high-quality childcare available and, while 68 per cent of families access some form of paid childcare and three out of five grandparents are regular childcare providers, this report showed that parents do not want more free childcare hours. What they would like is to work fewer hours in order to have more family time. It is easy to see this as a ‘middle class’ issue, but 63 per cent of families living in poverty have at least one parent who works, often covering multiple shifts with unreliable hours.

These statistics seem to say to us that if we think we can nurture the faith of families by expecting them to come to loads of events and meetings, we are going to fail. The world has moved on. However, we have a huge problem here as something that has not changed is the need for children to be connected deeply to faith communities for their faith to grow. It’s a pretty harsh catch-22 that in my view has the potential to squeeze the life out of our next generation. And please remember that parents are not working the hours they do out of selfishness but in order to pay the bills. There is a housing crisis in the UK that means the cost of housing for families is soaring. We need a way to solve this and fast, and I’m not sure we’ve got it right yet.

“Children need space to explore their faith and be encouraged to ask questions and wonder”

Faith at home

One reaction we are seeing is the desire to push the responsibility for the nurture of children’s faith more squarely onto parents and into the home. This is often presented as the ‘biblical model’. There is no doubt that in the Bible the nurture of faith did happen in families, but thinking this now all falls to Mum and Dad is a bit of a leap. The idea of ‘family’ meaning what we mean - the nuclear family - is a pretty recent idea. For most of history, family was a much bigger unit than parents and their kids. In the Bible, family can easily mean 60 to 100 people. In a world much less connected than ours, families didn’t spread out, they stayed together and lived together. They were an economic unit that worked together and they looked after their elderly and sick themselves. Raising children was the responsibility of the whole group (an investment in the future of the group) and faith was passed on by the group, not just the immediate parents. The family was a multigenerational faith community with a strong identity; a hugely rich ground for children to grow up in.

We shouldn’t expect parents to solve this. They have a role, but they are not the sole answer. Children’s faith needs to grow with in something bigger than a nuclear family. They need friends, relatives, uncles and aunts - who aren’t really uncles and aunts - who are all telling them the story of our faith and walking with them. The only thing that’s like this in the life of a child is the Church. This is all very interesting, but it takes us back to the question that we have established needs to be solved. How can we square the circle of a child’s faith needing community and the family having no time to be part of community?

So where do we go from here? You know, I’m not sure. I have some ideas, but I cannot claim to have the magic bullet that solves this. However, here are a few thoughts that I can offer as part of the conversation:

  1. Let’s get behind parents and support them. It has always been tough being a parent. There was no time when it was easy, but there does seem to be a particular issue that is putting a lot of pressure on families in a way that wasn’t there in the past in such a uniform way. We need to be parents’ biggest source of support and encouragement, and not a source of pressure and condescension when they fail to get to the event we planned with them in mind. We want them to take the lead in raising their children in faith, but we need to be their most magnificent supporters.
  2. We need to explore the breadth and depth of the potential of fresh expressions for children and their families (ie not just Messy Church). Events need to be life-giving, short, easy to engage with and stay in touch with, even if they can’t make it. I genuinely think that 30 minutes of ‘actual meeting’ is about the most you can hope for, and then you need to have more optional community time and allow people to leave if they need to.
  3. We need to realise that coming to one thing a week is a lot for a family. We can’t expect them to come to loads of things, so whatever a family comes to needs to be church.
  4. The more elaborate we make family ministry, the more we doom them to be swallowed by the busyness of life. Simplicity and authenticity are the future. We need simply to eat together, pray together and share stories together. Any more than that and you may struggle.
  5. Parents need to rediscover the prophetic power of getting their kids to stuff. There’s no getting away from this. Much as I passionately believe we shouldn’t nag, cajole and guilt parents into coming to 60 meetings a week, they must take a lead in getting to stuff. A key way we show how important faith is to us as a family is that we keep going to stuff no matter how busy we may feel. The way we help with this is by welcoming parents into life-giving, loving, authentic communities where their faith grows too.

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