A telling question!?

In the lifetimes of most of us in CGMC, understandings of how and when children begin their own journey of faith have changed; and of course, not surprisingly, this is reflected in how the church as a whole has wrestled with what it means ‘to be converted’ and consequently how it also understands mission and outreach. Is it a crisis or a process? Is it nurture into faith or a definite moment of public commitment with a decision to believe? Is it an individual act or a community experience? Is it a once for all happening or a daily discipleship of following ‘the Way’? Or indeed should we even be talking about evangelism at all when it comes to children? The ‘empty vessel’ verses ‘flame to be fanned’ understanding of children’s spirituality surely has insights that question the view that children need to be specifically ‘evangelised’. So, it was with this whole debate that the CGMC Spring conference at Sheldon House in Devon attempted to engage, against the backdrop of these many different understandings and experiences of this whole topic.

Our three days in beautiful surroundings and in one of the most peaceful and comfortable venues we have enjoyed over the years, were all spent on site and divided between sessions that opened up the theme, the sharing of local stories and an attempt to explore the key questions together and work through what we should be saying about all this to those we work with in our denominational and organisational networks, as well as to the church generally in the UK and Ireland. We were not at all surprised to find that we struggled to come to any neat and unambiguous conclusions!

Nick Harding – the children’s work adviser for Nottingham and Southwell diocese – opened up the debate wondering out loud whether, with the loss of confidence that there is around the word evangelism, particularly when applied to children, we may not perhaps have lost our way about at least one important aspect of our ministry. With the statistics pointing to the fact that least 90% of children have little or no knowledge of the Christian faith, surely this was a challenge to present the faith to them more intentionally with an accompanying invitation to believe rather just hoping that somehow our relationship-building ministries of outreach would somehow lead them one day into naming what they already know or perhaps into asking questions to which we might offer some possible answers. Nick’s observation was that there have been hardly any new books written on this whole subject in recent years; in fact it seems a topic to be avoided if at all possible and maybe this is because we have all been rather cowed by accusations of indoctrination and manipulation. When we explored our own experiences as a group, in a ‘conversion line exercise’, it was interesting to see the range of ways in which we each talked about how faith had begun for us and whether we had been ‘evangelised’ into faith or not. And of course this exercise also reminded us that our own personal journeys into faith are hugely influential in shaping our own attitudes and practices when it comes to what we think about evangelism with children.

We can all recognise that there are definitely forms of evangelism with children that are not only unhelpful but very unhealthy; however, does that mean that we should give up on this idea completely? Nick left us with lots of questions, including:

  • Are we in danger of being so open-ended as never really to bring children to a point of challenge about anything?
  • What, after all, was the message of the gospel?
  • Have we created an unhelpful confusion about children both being very spiritual butalso not yet Christian?
  • Have we relied too heavily on faith development theories?
  • And what ultimately do we understand by the ‘believing’ component of the‘befriending-belonging-believing-behaving’ model of coming to faith?

Following this opening session, Andrea Harrison facilitated further discussion in groups as to what all this meant for our own training and ministries. Our discussions focused around issues such as:

  • What is the place of evangelism within the broader spectrum of what is meant by mission?
  • How is evangelism understood in the context of what we believe about children’s spirituality?
  • Are there helpful guidelines that we can pass on to those we work with?
  • What is the relationship between evangelism and discipleship?
  • What are helpful models of evangelism in the post-Christian western world?
  • Can CGMC make any useful statement about children and evangelism that could bethe beginnings of discussions for the wider Church?
  • Is there a place for a Core Skills module that looks at evangelism with children?(What is the good news and how do we share it with children?)
  • How might we firmly but tactfully challenge some unhelpful models of evangelismwith children that are already out there and which in fact already have an influenceon the way many churches think?
  • What should CGMC be saying about this at a national level?
  • How does all this relate to initiatives around the phrase ‘it takes the whole church toraise a child’?
  • Can we gather short pieces of writing about this whole issue, representing a varietyof views, and which can then be used to stimulate discussions in our networks?
  • Can we produce a conversation starter paper with reflections and questions as result of this conference?

Our second day together was very helpfully set on track by Rosy Nixon, who presented to us some of the thinking around ‘spiritual styles’ as formulated by David Csinos. Rosy unpacked the different ways that people came close to God in terms of their preferences towards the four styles David names: word, emotion, symbol and action. This presents the challenge of course as to how we accommodate all styles and thus work inclusively within our ministries and so it was very useful at this point to break into groups and experience a series of interactive exercises based on the Lord’s prayer that had been created in line with these different spiritual styles.

All this naturally led into how this should and could impact whatever we mean by evangelism with children. Clearly children will encounter and become more deeply aware of God in different ways and at different rates. It is therefore important that practitioners understand the sort of groups they are working, while at the same time, following the pattern of Jesus’s own ministry, recognising that every encounter is unique and needs a unique approach. Thinking all-style rather than all-age worship is a helpful by-product of these insights as well as reflecting on how it might shape our evangelism with and nurture of children. There will be further resources from David Csinos both in future Roots magazines and some articles can be downloaded from the following website: www.davidcsinos.com//publications

On our previous 48-hour CGMC conferences some of our programme has taken place ‘out and about’. This time, both because of the challenge of travel around Devon and, to be honest, the attractiveness of staying at Sheldon House, we stayed put and local people visited us! Katherine Lyddon, part-time children’s adviser for the diocese of Exeter, invited six people from her team around the region to join us and share their stories. First however we heard her own story about her new work and in particular about holiday clubs. She shared her heartache both that large numbers at these once a year events are not the best context to build relationships that can help faith to grow and that even when some children do make the beginning of a faith commitment they are often not followed up. She doubted that the churches even knew how to disciple such children.

We heard of schools work in Honiton and youth work in Sidmouth. Chris and Phil told us about their work on a housing estate in Plymouth emphasising the importance of long term commitment and relationship building. One of the great dangers with any form of evangelism is that things are just simply not followed up and that ‘event Christianity’ still too easily shapes how we work with children. We also heard about flourishing preschool work east Devon although at the same time it was sad to hear from one story how poorly the church councils both understood and supported this sort of work. In her summing up Katherine urged us to take risks, to trust God and to rejoice at everything that God was doing among children; it’s not about relying on what happens in the ‘God-slot’ but rather all our talk should be ‘God-talk’ and all our being with children a God-slot! Drawing on research tools such as the Engel scale, it is clear that many children and families are far more distant from anything to do with our faith than most churches realised. And in her experience most within the fold of the church are caught up with themselves and their own faith journey rather than being caught up in God’s mission.

In the afternoon we heard from two more visitors. Hannah Richards works for the ICE project based in Exeter working with schools in and around that city. Their strap line is ‘bringing faith to life’ as they deliver Christian schools work in a variety of ways. She shared some stories of what God was doing through their core team but also revealed that they are still searching for the right models to move forward, especially as RE in the curriculum is coming under pressure and maybe even the place of collective worship is under threat. Turning to another area of traditional evangelism, Margaret Lilley – who is the Scripture Union team leader for the south-west – shared about her work in this region, focusing on some of the activities she has helped set up and support, including X-site, Kids breakfasts and after school family clubs. She then turned to a particular concern of hers, namely the future of the beach mission, which has always been one distinctive expression of evangelism in this part of the world. The question is, have they had their day? She is doing research into this convinced that there is a future, although clearly so much has changed. Who are they for? Who runs them and why? How can they be followed up? What is their connection to the local church? We heard of bad examples of how this form of evangelism can be something that is little more than Christians parachuting in and out of a place. Margaret did however point to one promising model from the north-east of the UK in Hexham, where whole family mission weeks that have taken place regularly over many years are bearing much fruit.

For the second half of the conference we were in-house, as it were, enjoying a raucous quiz that Shelley had devised with questions of a local flavour and then on the final day we worked more intentionally in groups looking at some key questions, unpacking the meaning and the connections between the words ‘evangelism’ and ‘discipleship’ and then exploring what we wanted to say to the churches and to our networks about these aspects of ministry with children.

There’s no doubt we inevitably left a lot of threads hanging from our three days together; nevertheless, as usual we were all very much encouraged by being able to meet, affirm and support each other in our different ministries around the UK and Ireland. Finally we did also spend some time exploring the ways in which CGMC might develop its own identity more, both within CTBI and as a voice to the churches. These thoughts will be collated and recorded separately and sent round our membership and will be taken forward by the Executive.

We had begun our conference with a short reflective story about a local saint, St Boniface, who came from Crediton not far from where we were staying. He is still recognised abroad and honoured as the English Bishop who came as a missionary to Germany and Holland back in the 9th Century AD. Mission in this period of history was about telling an unknown story and challenging wrong ideas about God. It invited people to listen and respond to the stories of Jesus. In our post Christian era there is clearly a need yet again to find appropriate ways to tell the story of Jesus, once again unknown by so many, and to invite adults and children to respond. In addition it also became clear that evangelism, whatever we think of the concept, must surely take place within a context of making real relationships and thus being alongside people on a journey into faith. Katherine suggested that all evangelism must come out of a passion for God and a passion for people and that its key imperative was ‘to go’, as indeed Jesus asks us to do in the great commission, and to meet people, including children, where they are. She shared with us the following quote from ‘Christianity Rediscovered’ written by the missionary Jesuit priest in east Africa, Vincent Donovan:

Do not try to call people to where you are, as beautiful as the place may seem to you. You must have the courage to go with them to a new place that neither you nor they have ever been before.’

We had a running joke during the conference! In a quote related to Wesley’s experience of his ‘conversion’, it is said that his heart was ‘strangely warmed’ when he first understood about God’s particular love for him and God’s calling on his life to go rather than just to stay where he was. Likewise we are in different ways always ‘being evangelised’ and ‘strangely warmed’ by every encounter we have and very often this happens particularly in our encounters with children, who in this way evangelise – are good news – to us. This sort evangelism is at the same time a form of discipleship, as we grow in faith step by step. Although we came to no strong and definite conclusions at the end of the conference, all of us were able to say both jokingly and seriously that our hearts had at various times been strangely warmed by new insights and thoughts, which would inform both our own personal walk with God and our understanding of how we can best support and encourage those we work with.

The Hidden Congregation

This was something new for CGMC, and indeed, as far as we know, no one else has tried to do something like this before! For a number of years now the idea had been brewing; over the past 18 months it took shape; and in November 2012 it came to fruition: namely, a day conference for Principals and Directors of Study from colleges preparing people for the ordained ministry, in conversation with members of CGMC about the place of children and families in their formational programmes.

For too long, as children’s and family specialists, we have moaned that church leaders just don’t seem to get children’s ministry; are not equipped to do things like all-age worship, take a school assembly, understand and nurture the faith of children and work with families effectively. The real world of a congregation in a church seems strangely to have been off the training agenda for those preparing to be leaders. This congregation was, you might say, hidden and not addressed by the most college curricula. Hence the focus for this day conference; but would colleges come?

Booking a well-known speaker and a respected facilitator was one way forward of course, alongside repeated invitations both by letter, e-mail and through personal contacts. And it worked! The day was finally attended by 60 of us, including over 30 delegates from 19 colleges of all traditions, some invited guests and members of CGMC. If nothing else was to be achieved on the day, we already felt that we had put the issue of children and families on training courses ‘on the map’ and a conversation would have begun.

Bishop Paul Butler set the context of the day with a very helpful analysis of where we are now with children, families, the church and society. He outlined the pressures on childhood today, including commercialisation, sexualisation, ‘mediafication’, family breakdown, poverty and changes in education, including the world of the internet. He also drew delegates’ attention to key reports and publications that had been produced in this area of expertise over the last decade. The stark reality is that most people come to faith before the age of 13 but that most children today do not have any contact with church and the Christian story. Set alongside this the reality that theology down the centuries has largely ‘missed the child’ in its understanding of scripture, then there is definitely a challenge to those providing training for future church leaders. What difference will it make when we, like Jesus, place a child in the midst?

Dr. Paula Gooder entitled her presentation ‘playing in the marketplace’. She drew on Zechariah’s picture of God’s future (8:4-5), where we encounter a multigenerational vision topped and tailed by references to the end-times. The Gospels of course affirm that, because of the cross and resurrection, this ‘end-times’ reality should now be breaking into the present and indeed be visible in our church communities today.

The streets where the children play and the old people sit with their staffs are the open plazas, which biblically are the heart of the business community. It is therefore very significant that it is in this very place that the two groups, which church largely hive off or are invisible, have an important role to play. And the fact that children are playing is also meaningful, with its echoes of God’s creative play as explored in the poetry of Proverbs 8. Intergenerational play should perhaps be one of the most important aspects that churches can encourage, whereas in reality – and like the critical comments of the present generation found in Matthew 11 from Jesus – quite the opposite is happening. In most churches the adults are not playing and so would likewise fall under Jesus’ condemnation. The question is how can this Biblical vision of a Christian community be established and how do we help prepare leaders to make it possible?

Following this, Bishop Paul offered some reflections, noting among other things that in some parts of the world this togetherness of young and old, as in the prophet’s vision, is still the norm and demonstrated far better than we manage it in our churches. This opened up conversations and a range of contributions from the delegates, including:

  • The challenge is not about finding clever ways to include children and families in our life and worship but how as a church we can make it easy for them to feel ‘comfortably present’.
  • Children may well be ‘icons of play’ for us but they are also much more than this, according to Jesus, who offers them to adults as examples of Christian discipleship and maturity.
  • However, it was acknowledged that colleges are under all sorts of pressures to include many things on their courses and this very fact sadly leads to there being no time for play.

So in what ways can college tutors and leaders of churches be like the elders with their staffs in the vision and create a safe place for others to play?

After lunch we had a series of contributions, including information about the new common orders that are coming into being, which will affect most training colleges and also bring the opportunity for some rethinking of the curriculum; input from CGMC members about the sort of issues they are facing; an overview of thinking on children and children’s spirituality; and possible models for how children and families might be included within a typical normal college curriculum, but not just as an ‘add on’.

There was certainly a lot to fit in, possibly too much in the time we allowed, but it did get cluster groups talking and some of the outcomes from these conversations can also found on the CGMC website. The day ended with some time for reflection and final comments, facilitated by Bishop Paul. It was clear that all this was only the start of a dialogue and indeed we were encouraged to hear some delegates talk about ‘the next time’ we do this!

Following this conference CGMC members got together to work out what might be the best, next steps. There is always of course the possibility of doing something like this again; but in the meantime the hope is that the conference will create a platform for CGMC members to hold deliberate and focused conversations now within their denominations about these issues.

We were able to present all the delegates with a folder containing a CD of past CGMC publications, information about our network, reading lists and hard copies of the Core Skills course. One delegate said he had come hungry for resources and ideas and in a small way we think we did our best to feed this.

If we are going to be a network that helps facilitate change in colleges, which will in turn transform the future ministers and ministry of the church, then we must indeed be vigilant and intentional about keeping open channels of communication about all that was discussed on the day. To this end we will need to keep returning to these issues as a group and seek ways to make any new thinking and possibilities available to those colleges who came, and indeed new ones, in the years ahead.

A place for everyone

Welcomes are important and welcoming everybody should surely be a hallmark of the Christian community whenever and wherever it gathers. This call to inclusivity was the theme of this year’s CGMC Spring conference in Scotland. Whether this is about welcoming the differently-able or those whose lives had been affected by deep trauma; whether it is about welcoming children with social and emotional needs or those damaged by the commercialisation of childhood; whether it is about the elderly with dementia or the very young with learning difficulties; or whether it be a child or adult – the obligation to be inclusive is an imperative not an option if we say we meet in the name of the one and who turned no one away. However creating this sort of church gathering is never going to be easy; but, as so many of us know in CGMC – a group made up of those who act as advocates for children within their denominations and organisations – there is a high price to pay if people do not find that welcome, because it endangers and hurts not only those individuals who are excluded but all of us. So, to set the tone for our three days together we began with a traditional Scottish welcome of oatcakes and whisky, as we gathered at the Gillis Centre in Edinburgh, and before we began our busy and very rich programme of visits and talks organised for the 19 of us who were welcomed that first afternoon.

At the end of our time together, in our final session in fact, we were urged to take away from this conference a vision – the sort of vision ‘without which the people perish’, as the writer of Proverbs tells us; a vision of the richness of a church community which is determined to embrace difference and which is always asking the question, ‘who isn’t here?’ Only with this big vision of inclusivity, even though it means that we are often teetering on the edge of incompetence, can we truly grow, either individually or as faith communities.

We first encountered the power of such a big vision on our afternoon visit to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, which was designed by an architect with just such a vision; a vision of an organic building that was like a tree with leaves, expressing both the energies and aspirations of the Scottish people. And indeed on our tour of the building, we did catch that sense of life, not only in the discussion groups gathered here and there throughout the light open spaces but in the main chamber itself with its people-shaped seats for every member – a deliberate expression of inclusivity. While here, we were also all very impressed by the Scottish MSP, Kezia Dugdale, who holds a cross-party brief for children and youth, and who answered our questions refreshingly and honestly, as she acknowledged that she still had much to learn from other parts of the UK and in particular with regard to children’s rights and children’s inclusion within the decision-making processes of Scottish society.

We were to encounter leaves again the following day when we spent time hearing of the work of Richmond’s Hope – a local project offering bereavement support for children. It touched many of us as we heard how the team here, led by Donna, has pioneered a programme that gives time to children who have experienced the death of friends or within their family – an experience which pushes them (and all of us) into a lonely and frightening place. At Craigmillar Church – in an area of Edinburgh with a history of deprivation – these children have found a welcome; a safe place to explore their feelings of sadness, anger and pain. Over twelve sessions they are helped to unpack their memories, manage their emotions and develop appropriate coping strategies; and at the end they also have the opportunity to add an inscribed leaf on to the special prayer tree set up in a corner of the church. This project is welcoming over 230 children every year through its doors and is clearly touching so many children and families who (in answer to that key question earlier), in many churches could well be among those who ‘are not there’.

We were certainly out and about quite a lot on this conference thanks to the kindness of local members who drove us and this gave us all time to talk and reflect, which is always an important part of our meeting together. Our visit to South Queensferry on the Firth of Forth, right next to the great road and rail bridges, included a time to sing with Suzanne and Mark from Fischy Music. Their distinctive songs are very popular in Scottish schools, helping children to explore and express their feelings with easy-to-learn tunes and catchy lyrics rooted in Christian values.

And that same visit even included an ice-cream stop – yes, in February – after a walk through the old town. While later that day we were out and about again on a evening guided tour of the upper part of Princes Street, hearing among other things of the story of Thomas Guthrie, who recognised how many poor children were being excluded from receiving education and so was moved to found Ragged Schools; and of William Smith who set up clubs for street boys that led to the founding of the Boys’ Brigade. And some of us ended that day, after a drink (or two) in Deacon Brodie’s Pub, with a taste of deep-fried Mars Bar and thus were welcomed into the experience of one of the ‘delicacies’ of local popular cuisine!

But it wasn’t all fresh air, food and being ferried about! We did spend time indoors tackling some big questions. Iain White, secretary of the Church of Scotland Guild and one time member of CGMC, opened up the whole debate around the sexualisation and commercialisation of children. Drawing on his own and also recent research by the Mothers’ Union, he helped us explore the implications for Children’s Ministry of the way childhood is being insidiously eroded for many by the influence of the advertisers and the media; and to think through what churches might do in response. How might parents be empowered to be more confident in the face of the commoditisation and monetarisation of children? How can those of us in churches find a voice to challenge all this without sounding prudish and old fashioned? And indeed what might CGMC contribute to this debate? Children are always in a context of course and the context of family is a growing concern for all of us in our work on the ground, as evidenced in particular by the rise of in the number of those appointed by churches as family workers /ministers, as well as the growing interest in faith in the home. This is already earmarked as an area for some targeted research by CGMC, to which we have committed ourselves for a future conference.

On that same morning, it was especially good to hear the challenging and forthright contribution from Sally Hyder. Herself in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis and with a daughter who has learning difficulties, she asked us to ‘think differently’. What does it mean to have a disability and to have faith? What does Church feel like when you live on a different level? And just how inclusive is church…. really? She also had some wise words for us about parents of disabled children, who could equally be aggressive, over-protective or simply silently hurting. And when it came to communion – as indeed to all aspects of our belief and practice – the presence of those who are different remind us so strongly that grace is a gift not a reward; and that it is simply about being ready to receive, not necessarily to understand. At the end of her session, Sally introduced us to her youngest daughter Melissa. Many of us thought it was very brave of her to come into such a big adult gathering but it also challenged us to think how ready we were to receive her. Maybe in the end it was Melissa who taught us most about being inclusive! One final thought that Sally left with many of us was of children’s spirituality being like bubbles that float by and in which we were simply called to delight rather than to analyse and thereby risk bursting them.

Returning to where this reflection began, it was Professor Donnie McLeod from the Centre for Inclusivity and Equality, who helped us all reflect on the theme biblically. He began by telling us his own story as a Gaelic speaker from Lewis who always felt excluded; and then as a teacher, who felt called to include those children who our traditional education system failed and marginalized. He reminded us that the Great Commission was a command to go to…. everyone and to make sure ‘all are welcome in this place’. However, being inclusive is not the same as being integrated – a mistake often made for example when creating the so- called ‘all age service’. Inclusivity is an issue for the whole church to address and is far bigger than just disability and access. Becoming an inclusive church is a lifelong process and it should be a regular part of our reflective practice as individuals and as churches to go on asking those key questions: ‘who isn’t here?’ and ‘why?’ In society much is built around exclusivity and this has unhelpfully shaped our vision of church. But Christian communities need to be counter-cultural and keep asking awkward questions…. and indeed encouraging children themselves to ask such questions. God-with-us in Christ is the expression of his great, inclusive love for each one of us; and our us-with-all-others is a key witness of that love to the world. Paradoxically, the call to inclusivity is the narrow way to life that is hard to find but which is at the heart of what it means to be the Body of Christ.

There was, as you can read, much to think about here, explored in theory and practice. As we were reminded in our worship on the last day, Jesus himself modelled inclusivity. He went out of his way both to touch and to be touched by the outsider, the stranger and social outcast. Following his example and drawing on earlier images, maybe we as Christians are each one of us called to be leaves on the tree of faith and who together can bring health and healing to the world (i.e. the healing to the nations as is cited in Revelation). And as we truly seek to welcome everybody, reaching out to the ones on the edge and including them, they will find shelter under the leafy canopy of God’s inclusive church.