Wrestling the big world questions with children

This was my very first 24 hour time away with Children’s Ministry Network and whilst I knew one or two people who were going, I didn’t know many. However, they seemed to know me and we had fun working out how and when we’d met – this included in my changing the gender of Mel and also seeing that Marth had legs (joys of only meeting on Zoom)! It was good to meet people from different denominations, some of whom arrived late or not at all (meet you next time Aled) due to the snowy weather.

High Leigh conference centre was our home for these precious hours, a place I visited 39 years ago at a conference held by the Methodist Church in the International Year of Youth. I shared how investing in young people is so important and that I bear witness to the investment others put into my life.

‘Wrestling the big world questions with children’ was our theme and Sam and Lorraine led us in 3 sessions. These focussed on Exploring, Experiencing and Expressing and using our heart, mind and strength to think, feel and act! Judy from Wales gave some interesting insights via video and in our small discussion groups we explored how we engender a collaborative process with our children and how do we truly engage them in meaningful conversations? Tokenism was off limits and we wanted to know how do enable children to effect change?

Sam and Lorraine shared about the power of ‘pen portraits’ and how they had asked children to put these together for a conference using the 2 stars, 1 wish idea. 2 stars for things they like about church and 1 wish for something they’d like to be different. Each child completed one of these and their profile was left on the chairs of the delegates. Each delegate was asked to read that profile and in all the decision making, they had to keep this child in mind. This was incredibly powerful.

The need to ‘create a brave space’ was the major challenge for us all, and we realised that many of the gatekeepers of children’s voices need to have a cultural change and shift.

Fishcy music was used creatively in the times of worship and reflection, and the use of imagery and children’s words reflecting on major world events was hard hitting. Those hard and tough questions often have no answers and in the midst of all, God is with us.

Hearing updates from different denominations across Britain and Ireland was both an encouragement and also challenge, as people grapple with change, budgets and priorities. Two highlights for me were the news of 2 resources coming out from the Salvation Army – ‘The Small Fish’ podcast aimed at 11 year olds due for release in the summer and also the BOUNCE ball which uses a simple ball with accompanying cards to help children explore their feelings and responses – look out for these.

Food featured throughout the 24 hours, and meal times generated rich times of conversation and connection. A thread throughout our time was the power of getting alongside people in the everyday and doing life together. The news about a ‘Chop and Chat’ session in a Quaker church demonstrated how young people preparing soup was a nourishment on so many levels as they shared the activity and outcome with others.

In our last reflection time, the focus was on ‘excuses’ for why children are not listened to. It was very challenging as many of the excuses were ones we’ve heard many times and we wondered what would happen if the roles were reversed and we said old people are ‘too old to join in’ or ‘they are not competent’. Hearing of a session being led by young people who asked an old person ‘to read the lesson’ and another older person ‘to take the collection’ led to many wry smiles.

We heard how Sam finds pots of money down the back of denominational sofas and how this has led to a creative award scheme, that honours children and young people who are making their voice heard and make a difference in their world. Children as young as 4 have received an award and we all loved hearing about Henry whose love of lampposts has led to him setting up a Lamppost Society with its own Facebook group. He’d raised funds for a village in Africa where there were no lampposts in order to bring light to that place.

Agents of Change in the Methodist Church is another way in which children and young people have been recognised and we were challenged re how are we recording these stories and sharing them for others to hear, and be inspired. Demonstrating our impact is good for funding but also so rewarding for people who invest so much time into working with children and young people.

The 24 hours ended with a business meeting, and we were all excited to hear about the ‘Ministry Essentials’ training programme. We talked about which other organisations and denominations needed to be in the room and that the children and young people of Britain and Ireland need us to be championing a cultural change across the UK so that their voices are heard.

A time for everything

There’s a time for everything, and this was the time for members of CMN from all four corners of the UK to gather at Shallowford House in Stone for our 48 hour conference and retreat day. There were a few newcomers and a few ‘old hands’ (a politer description than the one actually used!), together representing well over 100 years of experience, and the gathering also marked a farewell and thank you to Mary Hawes (convenor) and to Rosie Nixon (secretary) for their invaluable contributions over the years to the network and to the CMN exec.

It was a time to share and encourage. The organisations and denominations represented were given time to share news and resources. There were many similar threads – news of changes of emphasis within some denominations to a more generalist approach, with the associated fears of children’s work getting lost in the mix; moves towards promoting faith in the home and a more intergenerational way of working; concerns about church sizes and lack of volunteers and how best to equip them and build mutually supportive networks. It was good to share stories of both struggles and successes, helping and supporting each other and sharing resources, which is what CMN is all about. Some working partnerships emerged where interests coincided. Coming together makes us greater than the sum of our parts and the collaborative nature of CMN strengthens children’s ministry in general.

It was a time to plan and develop. There was exciting news about Ministry Essentials* (*working title) as the plans for the course were laid out and people started volunteering to help with writing the material, as well as looking for links between this and education, knowing that schools play a massive part in the day-to-day experience of our children. A small working party was set up to look further into the practicalities and possibilities presented by the digital world in hosting the material and making it accessible to groups and individuals.

It was a time to organise and communicate; A business meeting saw new appointments to the exec and a chance to think about future meetings, including ECCE (European Conference on Christian Education) which will be held in May 2023. We heard of developments with the website and the creation of a new Facebook page.

It was a time to reflect, retreat and re-treat ourselves. Highlight of the conference was the chance to spend some time in retreat, ably facilitated by Mary Hawes. Having spent some time looking at the influences on children’s ministry over the last 100 years – books, events, people and more that have been movers and shakers in this are – everyone was given opportunities to consider the people who have had an impact in nurturing our faith. We considered where we are now, both personally and in a work capacity, and looked forward, with plenty of time given to reflecting and respond in the way most suited to our needs and preferences. Some chose to walk in the beautiful surroundings, some chose to take advantage of the plethora of craft materials, some chose to relax in the extremely comfortable sofas and drink coffee together as they chatted, some may even have chosen to have a much-needed nap!

All too soon it was a time to pack bags, leave rooms, share a final meal, and pray that our taxis arrived in time as we said goodbye and travelled off in every direction, refreshed and resourced for the next step of the journey in children’s ministry.

Together again!

It was such a delight to gather in person at Shallowford House 20 months after having to cancel our previous conference on the day due to Covid.  We welcomed a number of new members.

We spent time reflecting on the challenging times we have been through and their impact on churches ministry among children.  Some themes emerged:

  • Families reluctant to come back – have missed their sport etc but not church – WHY?  What was wrong with what we were offering before?
  • Shorter altogether worship works better now (plus coffee and craft/activity time)
  • Outdoor spirituality has found resonance – people are persevering with this
  • Poor have got poorer – children’s lives have been most impacted by economic fall out
  • Relationships need investing in – time, meals, intention
  • People are still working out what is safe for them – eg vulnerable people asking others to take lateral flow test

Sarah Holmes from Liverpool Hope University shared findings of recent research, which was very stimulating and promoted much discussion and reflection.

Some observations of Children’s and Family Ministry:

Marks of Covid – despondent, frustrated, confused teams; reduced teams and funding; segregated ministries; exhausted parents; decreased engagement from parents; some marginalised (eg younger/SEN/no tech access)

Programmes, Resources and Activities – Church Views:

  • difficultly connecting with children online – despite how engaging they find technology otherwise…
  • Transferring pre-pandemic face to face methods to online platforms didn’t work – training needed to help people devise things for their own context
  • Churches struggled to shift their mindsets into new way of ministering – people used to come to us, we now need to (re-)engage with them
  • More broadly, churches overlooked children’s work – no people left to run it

Parents Views:

  • 34% said provision was good
  • 66% felt negatively about it (disappointed, frustrated, upset)
  • 27% said their child was excluded, isolated, not accommodated by their church
  • Limited IG opportunities- limited their access to role models of faith and hindered sense of belonging
  • 43% parents reported segregated ministry
  • 40% reported ministry to whole family
  • 12% said segregated ministry felt detrimental

Reflecting on Programmes and Activities:

  • Are they meeting the needs children?
  • Are they meeting the needs of parents?
  • Are they meeting the needs of churches?
  • Are churches asking these questions?!?
  • Pre-pandemic 95% parents felt child was affirmed and well received at church (but many did not feel this themselves – felt judged

Spiritual Impacts on Children:

Family faith/church discipleship / faith role models – differing engagement across these 3 areas for different children – what gap filling do we need to think about?

Young Children:

Huge gap they have had – beyond toddler groups what can churches do to bridge this gap?  NB have not grown up in church so now alien environment.

Spiritual Well-being:

Personal domain – how do we help children be activity participants and investigators of faith?

Communal domain – relatively continuous group of people who meet to share themselves and grow in faith and shared values, children need to show their care etc 

Thinking about Children in this Era:

  • What role do children have in our churches?
  • To what extent are children and families valued by congregations and church leadership?
  • How is this seen?

Family Ministry:

  • 32% said family spiritual activity increased
  • 25% decreased
  • 17% grown/enriched
  • 10 increased discipleship in home = more intent AI on, more spiritual conversations, faith part of everyday life
  • 48% main support was family & Christian friends – informal structures
  • 18% said church, 8% said school nb churches said main focus was supporting families!

What churches think Christian parents wanted:

  • 29% reconnect with church
  • 15% support from church
  • 15% encouragement
  • 26% support to grow Christian faith in the home – nb does not match ongoing activities!

Church seen as service provider rather than partner in children’s faith development

What do Christian parents want from church?

  • 50% to support parent nurturing their children’s faith
  • 25% to reinforce parental nurture of children’s faith
  • Less than 1% to take complete responsibility to nurture children’s faith

Working in partnership with parents:

  • 3000 hours per year away time – in church for 40 hours per year
  • Team around the Child in church – who is part of this?

A strategy moving ahead:

  • 68% churches leader said no set/formal vision/strategy for children’s ministry 
  • Less than 2% said that they did
  • 13% returned to pre-pandemic activity
  • 8% said their strategy was to recruit more team
  • Others listed hinderances (financial pressures, burned out parents. Church disagreement, church not great at planning ahead…)

What is the role of church? Provider, place to belong, place to serve, partner? How can churches genuinely listen to the needs of children, families and schools?

The way forward

We enjoyed some social time together, catching up on our different contexts and experiences of the past 20 years.   We spent time reflecting on our sharing and learning and considering the way ahead for our own contexts and for children’s ministry more broadly.

All churches and organisations have ‘more important things’ that push children down the agenda. How might we work to resource and connect children and those working with them with the key issues the church is wrestling with – environment, racism, gender, sexuality?

Can CMN have a conversation with Safeguarding about Intergenerational ministry and the vital importance of enabling informal relationships to develop and flourish? Do we want to include youth in this?

Working to support grandparents as key people in the faith development of children – could this be a joint piece of work? 

CMN Business meeting: 

Normal pattern of a 24 hour gathering and 48 hour conference to explore something more deeply each year – now proposing zoom catchups in between these.

Environment – children and grandchildren will live the consequences of the decisions we make today – same with the church

How do we amplify the voice of children and children’s ministry in the church through CMN?  Encouragement to feedback to our own organisations and CTBI after each gathering.

Core Skills

  • Now called Essentials for Ministry
  • 3 groups working on developing this for youth, children & family/intergenerational ministry
  • Each covering 10 topics – insights, personal development, skills – in 10 sessions
  • Blended learning approach – tutor led groups with online support

New CMN website launched – Suzi been developing this.

Grateful thanks to everyone involved in setting up this gathering, and looking forward to the next one, with hopefully even wider representation from all the member churches and organisations.  Everyone valued the peer space for sharing, learning and reflection.