We were represented at the Church of Scotland’s Community of Faith Conference in Inverness on 23 April 2016, which focused on action for churches with ‘few or no young children and young people’.
This is our note of the Keynote speech by Suzi Farrant, Young People and Young Adults Development Worker with the Church of Scotland’s Mission & Discipleship Council.
As you will see, her ideas about rethinking Sunday School are challenging and thought-provoking.
1 From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s will, sent to proclaim the promised life which we have in union with Christ Jesus—
2 To Timothy, my dear son: may God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace.
3 I give thanks to God, whom I serve with a clear conscience, as my ancestors did. I thank him as I remember you always in my prayers night and day. 4 I remember your tears, and I want to see you very much, so that I may be filled with joy. 5 I remember the sincere faith you have, the kind of faith that your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice also had. I am sure that you have it also. 6 For this reason I remind you to keep alive the gift that God gave you when I laid my hands on you. 7 For the Spirit that God has given us does not make us timid; instead, his Spirit fills us with power, love, and self-control.
2 Timothy 1: 1 – 7 (Good News Translation)
What is the church?
That may seem like a strange question to be asking.
But, until we understand all things to do with the church – its ecclesiology, we are not going to be able to understand why our children and young people seemingly do not want to be part of that structure.
We all know that the church is not the building; the church is the people.
Who are the people?
Is it those who are members – even if they don’t actually attend worship? Is it those who regularly attend worship? Those who practise their faith in the prescribed way? Is it those who have read the whole Bible? Is it those who pray a believer’s prayer? Is it those who have been baptised? Is it those that put money in the offering plate?
What is the purpose of the church?
Is it to gather once a week in worship? Is it to build one another up? Is it to challenge one another? Is it to learn about God? Is it to reach out to others in our communities?
If we say that the church consists of people being in community – to worship and to grow as disciples and to reach out to others with the Gospel – then children and young people very much need to be a part of that.
And not just a part conveniently tagged onto the side, but an integral part.
Where are our children and young people?
Looking at the Church of Scotland’s annual statistical returns for 2014, we find that 271 congregations reported no one under the age of 18 involved in their church.
A further 482 congregations reported having fewer than 20 young people in their congregation.
This means that 55% of Church of Scotland congregations have fewer than 20 children and young people present and involved.
Children and young people make up about 13% of the people in our congregations. Children and young people make up about 20% of the Scottish population.
But there is hope
We have a God who is far bigger than any statistics.
As Matthew 18: 14, reminds us:
In just the same way your Father in heaven does not want any of these little ones to be lost.
With that hope comes a challenge: God loves each and every child in our communities, whether they are part of the church or not. He longs to have a relationship with them. We are sent to be God’s hands and feet in that process, here and now.
As Matthew 18: 5 says:
And whoever welcomes in my name one such child as this, welcomes me.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, God works through us – but only if we allow him to.
Linked to the question of ecclesiology is the issue of faith formation.
How is our faith formed? How do we, as the church, help or hinder that faith formation?
Our standard procedure at the moment is to take children and young people out of the bulk of worship services and teach them in age-appropriate groups – whether we call that Sunday School or Sunday’s Cool or Good News Club or God’s Gang or something else.
In those groups, we try to teach them all the things we think that they should know about God.
This model is based on the idea that children are empty vessels that need to be filled with knowledge. Our job as adults is to impart the knowledge that we think is important to them.
Potentially, that model is dangerous.
Arguably, that model has been a large part of the reason for the declining numbers of children and young people in our churches today.
By our actions, we are demonstrating to our children and young people that they can only be part of the “real” church when they are old enough. We give them the impression that they cannot have a relationship with God that is as important as an adult’s relationship with God. Anything that they discover about God by themselves cannot be ‘enough’ because, as adults, we hold the key to their faith.
This is a rather simplistic – and perhaps exaggerated – account, but hopefully you see where the argument is coming from.
Faith is about so much more than simply knowledge
It’s about experience, trust, journey and relationship.
How can we expect our children and young people to have a relationship with Jesus, if we never actually introduce them to him or show them how?
It’s almost like expecting someone to learn to play a musical instrument by only learning the theory – never actually giving them the instrument and showing them how to work with it.
When we looked at the passage from 2 Timothy at the outset of this presentation, we saw that he was brought to faith not simply through what he read but through his mother and his grandmother living out their faith and sharing it with him.
We see the same thing with how Jesus was with his disciples. He did not tell the disciples what to believe. Instead, he journeyed with them, sharing as they went. He helped them to work through the questions. Often, he then just gave them more questions to grapple with. He did not wait until they had “learned enough” before he included them; he included them from the beginning.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described this very thing as “place sharing”. Whilst it is perhaps not what we remember him for, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a youth worker. By all accounts, he was a very successful youth worker.
Place sharing, for him, was a costly thing. It was not about him; it was about the other person. It involved giving up part of his life to be an important part of another’s life. So, costly, yes – but what an amazing and effective way to share faith.
John H. Westerhoff III classed that as ‘action’ – an action which involved thinking, feeling and willing, which is transmitted, sustained and sponges through our interactions with other selves in a community of faith. For him, faith formation happens best when people are included as part of a worshipping community. They are shown faith in action by the mingled experience of themselves and others.
Our own faith is more likely to develop in this way as well
As we explore things together, question each other, as we open our lives to each other and to God through worshipping as one body. As we share our hopes, our struggles, our fears and our joys together.
One analyst of the results of a national survey of the church in the US, covering the period 2003 to 2005, suggested that children and young people tend to mirror the religious lives of their parents. Nurturing the faith of young people means investing in the faith of their parents and congregations. Treating young people as a “separate species” – instead of less experienced members of our own – was one of the 20th century’s greatest errors.
Arguably, by separating of our children and young people from the adult worshipping congregation, we have reduced the church to a lesser version of itself. We have made the church into something that it was not designed to be. We have harmed the faith formation of those of all ages, in the process.
It also means that, when numbers in church dwindle, as they have been doing over recent years, we get completely stuck as to what to do. How can we encourage children to come to church, when we have not got enough to form a Sunday school?
What can we do?
Recognising that faith is formed as we worship together, as part of a community of faith, we need to change the culture of our churches, seeing children as fully human, with just as much to give as they have to learn.
We must take the faith formation of all ages seriously – see it as far more than simply gaining knowledge.
This is no easy task but, in many ways, those churches which have no or few children or young people are going to be best placed to initiate such a change in culture.
Arguably, one of the most practical things that churches could do is get rid of our Sunday Schools. We could integrate our children and young people back into our worship services.
Those churches which are already struggling to keep their Sunday Schools going are going to be the best places for that to happen.
But it is not as simple as just stopping our Sunday schools. We also need to reconsider the way that we worship when everyone is together.
In this, we could learn from the work of David Csinos.
He has done research with children in which he tried to find out how children encounter God. (Note that the sample of children used was small and so this is very much qualitative analysis rather than quantitative analysis).
He found that although each child encounters God in a different way, there are 4 distinct categories to which people of all ages fall:
- Word; and
These 4 spiritual styles encompass all approaches to spirituality and faith.
He found that the ability to categorise people distinctly into one or other of these boxes was particularly the case with children and young people. Each child tends to favour one particular style.
This classification system is also applicable to adults, but as adults we tend not to be so distinctly categorised; as we grow older, we tend to diversify and show features of more than one category (maybe, even all of them).
This research is worth delving into because the details are key to the successful employment of this strategy.
The ‘joy’ of all-age worship
All-age worship, generally, fills people with dread.
We know, from experience, that it often ends in disaster. Trying to please people of all different ages and stages never seems to work.
All-age –v- all-styles
We need to stop thinking of it as “all-age worship” and instead think of it as “all-styles worship”.
A 5-year-old, a 17-year-old, a 42-year-old and an 80-year-old, who all experience God in the same way, can all experience God through worship, according to that particular spiritual style.
If you approach worship in that way, it does not matter what ages of people turn up on any given Sunday. It will be enough if what has been prepared fits all spiritual styles. This will then be applicable to everyone. (It means that the Minister will no longer have to a children’s address up his or her sleeve, in case a ‘new’ family with children happens to appear unexpectedly.)
Alternatives to shutting down Sunday School
If closing down the Sunday School is considered to be too radical a step, at least consider moving to an approach which encompasses all 4 spiritual styles.
This will be particularly beneficial where your Sunday school is small and has a wide age-range of children. It will allow them to meaningfully experience God together.
The bigger picture
Of course, faith formation is much more than what happens for one hour on a Sunday; it matters what happens during the other 167 hours of the week as well.
Research by Sticky Faith has found several things we can be doing to encourage the development of a lasting faith in all ages, particularly younger people.
The things that their research has suggested we should be fostering in our churches include:
- justice and service opportunities – get them involved in our food banks and Christian aid collections
- participation – get our children involved as active participants in worship rather than just as passive receivers – let them take up the offering orbe part of the welcome team
- time for reflection – they don’t need to be “entertained” all the time – they need times of quiet too
- rituals and rites of passage – celebrating the sacrament of communion is one of the defining actions of the church, so let’s enable our children take full part (there are about 60,000 children involved in the church of Scotland but only about 4,000 participating in communion)
- retreat experiences – this could be just a group of young people but it could even be the whole church going away on holiday together or just for the day
- families sharing stories – sharing how God is working in your lives – parents and grandparents sharing with children their doubts and their questions – recognising that we do not need to have all the answers
- adult relationships – our children and young people need to have relationships with adults who are not in their direct family – why not enable a system whereby each child can have a relationship with 5 significant adults not within the family – a mentoring system – this could be through a shared interest, whether it is music or sport or something else
- community – despite the comments above, age-appropriate groups are still needed for children and young people but they might be better moved away from Sunday to midweek, for example
If you want to take the Sticky Faith findings on board, again, you will probably find that easier if your church has no or few children or young people at present.
Sticky Faith have produced some useful resources.
Children and young people currently outwith the church
We must not forget those children and young people in our communities who currently have no connection with the church.
We need to be equipping the children that we do have in our churches to be reaching out to their friends with the Gospel.
It is also important that the whole church should be intentionally involved in those areas where children and young people are. Most notably, this covers schools.
Supporting your local school
Schools offer a great opportunity to build relationships with children and young people.
We can help them explore their spirituality.
Headteachers wield a lot of power and may not always be favourable to providing opportunities. However, opportunities exist in the shape of things like:
- prayer spaces in schools;
- religious observance;
- getting involved in music or sport or part or other things which were in schools.
Resources include Bubblegum; Fluff; and Easter Code.
One of the keys to success with such ventures is having more than just the Minister being involved.
The children and young people in our churches and communities need us to be brave.
We need to have the courage to share our whole lives with them. We must show them, through our words and our actions, that having a relationship with Jesus is the best thing of all – and that being part of the church is amazing.
You will not necessarily agree with everything contained in this talk. However, at least take the time to ponder and consider some or all of the resources and discussion materials to which reference has been made.
A full reading list has been provided.
Take the time to listen to what God is saying about it all and what He wants you to do.
Remember that God is with us.
It is not a numbers game. It’s not about having more children than the church down the road. It is not about securing the future of a particular congregation.
It is about each and every individual child and young person – and their relationship with God.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you love each one of us.
We thank you that we have a relationship with you.
We thank you for the children and young people in our communities.
We thank you for the love that you have for them.
We ask that you give us that same love:
so that we may be bold and courageous;
so that, although it is difficult, we will step out and we will do things differently;
so that we may love the children and young people in our communities with your love.
Help us and enable us to be agents of change in our churches and in our communities.
Work through us, Lord, to change the lives of children and young people.
We ask this in Jesus’ name.
Image of Child Reading The Bible by Samantha Sophia via Unsplash