Thoughts on Children and Ministry…
Here are the thoughts of a respected adviser from the CofE as he retired from his post. Everyone working with children, anyone who leads a church that seeks to minister with children and all those who volunteer in ministry should read this.
- Work with children is a teaching ministry of the church. It should be recognised as such by the ordained clergy and they should take active responsibility for its oversight as they do for all other ministry in their parish.
- To do this effectively, ordained clergy need extensive training in children’s ministry – not necessarily in order to undertake that ministry themselves but to understand what constitutes good practice and so to be able to oversee it in an informed way.
- The crucial role that childhood plays in shaping the attitudes of adult life must be emphasised in the strongest terms. The experiences children have in church – whether as fleeting visitors, or more regular attenders – may determine their view of the Christian community, for good or ill, for the rest of their lives. In this respect, the Church’s ministry among children is one of its most important and justifies the commitment of considerable time, effort and resources.
- The building of Church as an all-age community should be a priority for all parish ministers as it: models unity in diversity to the world; encourages us to meet the needs of those with the weakest voices as well as the most powerful; reminds adults of their corporate responsibility for the young; utilises the gifts of all in God’s service; models the practice of Christ in embracing the little ones.
- Clergy should take a lead in making ‘all-age’ the default position for all activities in the church, rather than separation by age. The latter should occur only in exceptional circumstances.
- An all-age approach draws parents/carers into greater involvement with the church as they are encouraged to support the nurture of their children. Clergy should ensure that parents/carers are involved in the preparation of the children for admission to communion before confirmation, and for confirmation. They should also encourage involvement of parents/carers in all-age initiatives such as Messy Church. This will foster the faith development of young adults and provide opportunities for clergy to develop pastoral conversations with them.
- Clergy should make full use of the resources and research of the national Christenings Project to make sure that they capitalise on the opportunities for involving young families in the life of the church. This will involve a culture of welcome and openness in the church, not least openness to change in the way things are done not just at baptism but in the wider worship and life of the church.
- Clergy should challenge the misapprehension that expressing things clearly, simply and with brevity, and providing liturgical actions which have an immediately recognisable meaning and relevance is ‘dumbing down’. The challenges posed by engaging children in worship, if met with creativity and enthusiasm can revitalise worship for all – not least for ‘unchurched’ adults who may be drawn into church to ‘give it a try’. Clergy should be encouraged to recognise the ancient spiritualities of the church in some of the more active, participatory, and imaginative approaches of contemporary worship.
- Recent work, originating in the field of children’s ministry, on different spirituality styles – word, emotion, symbol and action – has application to all ages in the church. Clergy should be aware of these considerations when planning worship and nurture activities for the whole church community. This is just one of many examples in which innovations brought about by considering the needs of children can be promoted to the whole church community not as concessions but as gifts. Similarly, recognising and catering for different learning styles – a concern in children’s ministry – can inform approaches for all ages in church.
- Clergy should be encouraged to recognise that fostering and facilitating children’s fullest participation is vital for the life of the Church so that it can benefit from their insights and input. As with any marginalised group, exclusion from the full life of the community impoverishes it and involvement enriches it. Such involvement also increases the children’s sense of ‘owning’ a church as theirs, increasing their sense of commitment. The admission of baptized children to communion before confirmation is a particular example of full participation that reminds the Church that the strongest unifying factor is its spiritual practice. Children should be fully involved at this spiritual level in their community. Much recent work has been done nationally in providing resources for children’s participation – see ‘Learn to Listen’ : www.learn-to-listen.org.uk
- ‘Owned faith’ was seen by John Westerhoff as the final stage of faith development. Children can be encouraged from an early to become accustomed to the exploration and open questioning that Westerhoff saw as prerequisite for this ‘owned faith’ through a Godly-play style approach to learning. Clergy should become familiar with this open approach, which seeks to raise questions arising from key aspects of Christian scripture and practices rather than offering a dogmatic set of propositions, and explore its possibilities for engaging not only children but also adults both within the church and outside it.
- Clergy should be encouraged and supported in their schools work, and work with children in the community, not least in recognising that this is ‘children’s ministry’. If there are no children within the walls of the church building, a church can still have a rich ministry among the children of its parish by working with them where they are. This can lead to a greater flexibility in concepts of what is ‘church’ actually is.