Daughter of Jairus (2) – Welcoming Children

Daughter of JairusThe church was full (for once). The visiting preacher had drawn a big congregation. Children played in the far corner. We sat, ready to hear the preacher’s message about the importance of inclusivity. “Children shouldn’t be allowed in church” said the voice of someone behind me. “What are those parents thinking. They should be keeping them quiet.” And on they went. An argument broke out in The Peace. “When my children came to church they were quiet. Such a shame they’ve spoiled a good service.” I received communion and left. It wasn’t the children who spoiled it.

Not only did Jesus go to children, as he did with the daughter of Jairus, he wanted children to come to him. And they did.

Please read: Mark 10:13-16

Children were part of Christ’s ministry on earth: whether they were brought to him by others as above or when a young boy is used by God to enable the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:9).

Children have been part of church life for centuries: Sunday Schools began as far back as 1780. But now we live in a very different world. A world of YouTube and iPads. Facebook and WhatsApp. Smartphones and gaming. A world where Sunday mornings hold many more enticing and exciting activities than going to ‘boring old church’.

Research shows that a church with no children or under 16s is very likely to be in decline and sadly, they are often the self-same churches whose idea of children’s work is tucked away in the far corner (noisy toys removed) or a Sunday School which hasn’t changed for decades. We live in a world where there are no children at all in a quarter of the Church of England’s congregations.

So yes, “We need more families and children” is a perfectly valid cry from many small and, often, declining and aging congregations. But there’s an inconvenient truth to be addressed… “Let’s be honest: we’re not that type of church.”

Yes, of course, there should be provision for those occasional visitors (activity bags, soft play area, Bible-based word search and quiz sheets etc). But there’s also a need to face up to the fact that children’s ministry has to engage with 21st Century children and not one which replicates the grown-up’s childhood experience. Effective children’s and young people’s ministry may simply not be within the gift of those who are in the existing congregation. That’s not a fault – it’s just the reality.

For churches in such situations, focussing their efforts on ministering and reaching out to people to whom their gifts do relate to (older adults and the newly retired, for example) may well be the better part.

But also, just like Jairus: if you can’t do it, point them to someone who can. There are many churches whose work with children and young people does match the capabilities of the adults who attend. Places where they have the skills and the expertise – and, crucially, an existing, critical mass of children, young people and adults to make it enticing, engaging and enjoyable.

When Jesus said ‘Let the little children come to me,’ he didn’t add, ‘and now take them to church.’ This is about going to where the children and young people are: with no expectation to come on Sundays. Enabling them to meet Jesus in the places where they already feel relaxed and secure. Taking the message out: not expecting them to come in.

We are to take children and young people towards Jesus’ arms, in order to have his hands laid upon them and to be blessed. Blessed with a love that tells them they are precious and special. A love that tolerates their moods. A love that lets them be noisy. A love that rejoices with their singing and dancing. A love that heals and comforts. A love that accepts them for who they are.

What story is your church enabling children and young people to tell?

Nicodemus (1) – Darkness

NicodemusThe words of John 3:16 are one of the most well known verses and most quoted of Jesus’ sayings – and behind them lies another story.

Please read John 3:1-21

Nicodemus was a leader of the Jews. It’s possible that throughout his life, Nicodemus may have simply accepted all that was taught to him by the Jewish rabbis. Learning the Psalms and the Law. Listening to the story of how Moses led the children of Israel out of Egypt. Acquainting himself with the acts of Abraham, David Elijah, Elisha and so many more. And leading others in doing the same.

But now, afraid to show his interest to his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus has encountered someone who challenges all that received and perceived wisdom. A man who performs miracles. A man who is different to any other teacher he has ever known. Nicodemus knows that Jesus comes from God: he’s seen the miracles (‘signs’ as John calls them) and we can assume he’s heard the teaching.

Sounds familiar? Years of going to church. Singing choruses and hymns. Hearing the same liturgy (or not). And maybe we also feel uncomfortable with some of it. We don’t like to hear some of it. We’re happy with the easy bits. We decide what’s interesting or important. We tack on the bits we like to make them fit the way our churches do things and other aspects of the system we already live with. We come and listen when it suits us, and go back to our ordinary lives when we need to.

‘There are many ways through the garden,’ someone once said to me. Our journey through the ‘Garden of Faith’ has the capacity to take us in different directions, going deeper and deeper in to the growth and the undergrowth that exists there. It is up to us to sniff the flowers. To climb the trees. And to dig up a few weeds.

If we have been used to one particular type of church or a specific approach towards the teaching from the Bible, for example, it can be confusing when God begins to take us to a new part of the Garden. We may be reluctant to get up from the particular bench (or pew) we’ve sat on for years or to turn away from the view we’ve always had. It can be unsettling and disorientating. We may feel lost. Cut adrift from God. We crave stability but the ground in the garden is shifting.

The ground under Nicodemus was shifting and he began to realise there was another way through the garden: that there was more to God than he had ever thought. God will always take us to an even better place. A place of growth and depth beyond our expectations.

Nicodemus came, in the darkness, seeking spiritual direction. In times of our own spiritual ‘darkness’, it can be helpful to seek assistance from someone else to take us through the garden. A guide. A companion. A wise teacher. While none of us will be able to have a spiritual guide quite the same as Nicodemus, seeking out such advice and support can be helpful.

One approach can be to have a spiritual director. It may well be helpful to seek such direction or accompaniment from someone who is not in the same church as you are. Maybe also from a different background or tradition or churchmanship: if we need space to ask questions or explore uncertainties it’s important to be able to do so with someone who is going to travel with you and not dismiss your explorations. Of particular importance is to see someone who has received formal and structured training as a spiritual director. If you are part of an established church (e.g. Anglican, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, URC etc) then contact a central body (e.g. Diocese) for information about what is available. Guided retreats and Quiet Days can also be helpful: taking time out of the demands of everyday life for prayer and reflection. (Maybe take a look at retreats.org.uk)

Which part of the garden do you want to explore?

Would it help to have someone to guide you?

 

 

When you’re ready, move on to Part 2 of this story.