Church and children

This is a my reflection from a meeting of lay readers last Thursday on the topic of how to work with children in your local church. Like all posts on this blog it falls within the wider theme of communications which is my trade and my hobby.  Jenny Cobb talked about the children's club they had set up in the village on Saturday mornings. And as the readers pitched in one by one to talk about their local situation I was struck by the heroic nature of so much children's work. And how people just get on with it because they know it needs doing. I confess having got off a plane from San Francisco less than 12 hours before that I snoozed off in my chair a couple of times but these are some principles I culled to make sure I would remember what was a valuable exchange.

Childrenschurch
1. Attention is the most valuable gift that we can give children.  Children and teenagers are generally starved of attention (I exclude education), so actually value the attention of adults wherever it is provided and is genuine. I have seen a woman in her 50s hold a circle of 20 young people with an age range between 5 and 18 rapt. Because she gave them her entire attention, knew them all individually and showed that she was interested in every single one.  

2. Belonging is the glue that sticks a group together. When children are given responsibility and are recognised for individual roles they flourish. Similarly adults don't need to be specially gifted to work with children. Jenny told the story of one of her adult helpers who is so inept with children that his main role is to blow up balloons which he does with energy and devotion – that is his role and it is appreciated by the children he works with.

3. Specialisation and expertise is dangerous because it disempowers those who don't have these gifts. This also extends to professional teachers. Most children's work struggles because they lack musicians or artists or skilled storytellers. When you don't have such people you imagine they will make the difference. When you have them you become so dependent upon them that no one else will try to fill the gap. It is a universal principle that the weak and incompetent can deliver more than the professional and the gifted because there are so many more of the former than the latter.

4. Beware of consumerism whenever it rears its head. The reason why youth groups and Sunday schools stay small is that every week there are at least some who give it a miss because they perceive that it is boring, or not cool or naff. You cannot compete with children's TV or with the production values of the entertainment that children are used to. So don't try. What you provide: attention is different and actually much more important. You will never match the excitement of television or the latest chart songs. As soon as you try to compete you make what you do look absurd and amateurish. What we do is different. 

5. Sprats and macherel. The saying use a sprat to catch a mackerel is very relevant to children's work. Because we need to accept that in a European situation we are in the sprat business. It is unlikely that we will work with groups larger than 20. So we need to get used to being small and to make a virtue of the low children to adult ratio. In parts of Africa a typical youth group will number 200 giving entirely different dynamics.  We need to be content with the low numbers because of the richness of the interaction it gives.

The second lesson of sprats and mackerel is that we need to focus on the present – on baby mackerel and not what they may or may not turn into. My church is in recovery from a prolonged period where all that mattered was what either brought in children in large numbers or might draw in families because of the children. People know when they are being used and manipulated. Children and young people need to know that they are valued for who they are and not because they are pew fodder in waiting. The holiday club that Jenny Cobb talked about took place on Saturday morning. It wasn't a childcare scheme for adults in church on a Sunday. Nor was it a surrogate recruitment activity to smuggle children into church services.  Our activities need to be relevant to the needs of children whenever this is relevant and this may not be a Sunday morning. It is only by giving attention to children and young people and their needs now that we earn the right for them to want to stay connected to us when they reach adulthood. In a society where we are constantly vigilant about abuse of children we need to be mindful that working with children not because of who they are but because of what we can get from them is a form of grooming. Of which the pagans are rightly suspicious. The unequivocal acceptance of children and young people is a gift that most adults are not willing to give. Last Thursday nights discussion was a reminder that in the church there are still many adults will to give this most precious gift. 

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