Part One – the picture in my head and a general moan.
My first memories of church on the cusp of the 1960s were going to Sunday School in the building next to the church and one day being told I was too old for the Sunday School and would go to the main church now. The daunting atmosphere made me turn round a few metres inside the door and walk out never to return. Part of that, I guess, is that my parents did not go to church, my father, an elder in the Church of Scotland, never felt comfortable in the Anglican church in England. So I put my hands up that I start from a fairly negative place.
My next church experience in the enlightened 1970s (as an argumentative atheist) at the age of 21 was having to attend church for special occasions with my class of ten- and eleven-year-olds in the North London Church of England Primary School where I got my first teaching job. (God definitely has a sense of humour!) Trying to keep them interested and, above all, quiet was quite a challenge so it did not improve my opinion about the church’s attitude to children, namely that they were definitely wanted to be seen, to be small adults and definitely not heard unless they were singing or reading.
Since then, the growth of Sunday morning sports clubs and the demise of organised religion in general has seen a huge drop in attendance by children and families. Much of life and news is captured in bite sized social media clips for both children and adults and the choice of church or a sporting activity and being with one’s teammates is not really a fair contest.
What does church have to offer children? That is not the same question as ‘what does being a Christian offer?’ which has a different answer entirely.
The large warehouse-based Pentecostal church on the nearby industrial estate offers an indoor skate park side room and ride on toys in the main auditorium for the little ones. The service is loud enough to drown out the noises and so for young parents it might seem a good choice. Other denominations have traditional Sunday School where they have enough children and the children may or may not join the main service at some point.
Over the years in our benefice churches, I have seen and experienced a variety of approaches and to say that I hold fairly strong opinions about some approaches is to understate my passionate for education and how we treat our youngsters. Here are a few examples I have experienced over the last 4 decades…. I am sure you have others that you can tell me about later….
- The full high church experience: Children are encouraged to join the choir, robe and be acolytes, incense boat carriers etc and a room might be provided for parents to remove children who are not coping with the service. My suggestion, once upon a time was to make the Lady Chapel in one of our churches into a sound proof room with a screen and a loudspeaker broadcasting the service to any adults having to take children out would still be able to feel part of things…. Of course it was dismissed instantly but I like to put ideas out there!
- Children go out for the first part of the service for a Sunday School experience and come back to sit with the leaders, or with their parents at the Peace and report on what they have been doing as part of the notices slot.
- The traditional approach of making any children sit quietly in the main service because the feeling was that the discipline of this would inculcate a love of the liturgy. Sunday school provided mid Sunday afternoon.
- Family services with and without communion where the attempt is to involve everyone – especially those with a shorter attention span. My favourites for these when we had lots of very small children was a bespoke service sitting in a circle in the Lady Chapel with the children trapped in the middle so they could not run off and became everyone’s responsibility.
- Breakfast / café church where there was an activity table in a fairly prominent place where the children could participate in challenges related to the service theme and still be part of the whole service. (Some of these were eucharistic some not – the other advantage of these was that they were in the Crypt / church hall which was much cheaper to heat in the winter)
- Occasional Children’s service (annual?) ….. written specifically for children, e.g. Christmas Eve service which is probably the best attended service in the Church calendar apart from the occasional large funeral which will, unsurprisingly, not involve kids.
- The Hybrid….. a service aimed at adults but with a bit in it aimed at the children who are expected to sit quietly for the rest of the service. (Personally, I find this sort of ‘keep everyone happy by giving them a bit of what they might like’ service very difficult. More of this in a future post)
- Messy Church – obviously aimed at children and totally different to the liturgical needs of most pew-dwellers.
- Invitation services aimed at the uniformed and other organisations.. but you have to have something attractive to invite them to. Remembrance services are an interesting example where it might be the be experience in the church year for those people in church.
So roll forward to the early 1980s as a parent of very young children and the weekly battle to keep them amused in the pews – the rigmarole of choosing quiet toys and activities to take and the juggling of attention on them while trying to attend to the service. I really do not blame parents who give up and stay at home.
The attraction of dropping them off for football training, parkour, swimming, cricket or rugby is huge compared with the battle of pew pew-containment. Is it any wonder our churches are shrinking.
Now this is the point where I hope some Readers / readers will jump in and with exclamations about what happens in their church where it is all different and thriving and I would love to hear about how you do it, the demographic of your area etc.