Growing the church: teaching children to understand Christianity

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In our diocese of Liverpool we have a Rule of Life. It is quite wonderfully simple. Designed to be understood by a four year old:

Pray – Read – Learn – Tell – Serve – Give

In my preaching around the churches of the diocese and in my work in schools I quite often talk about these simple words. On many occasions I hand out cards with the six words on and ask people to write one thing that they are doing for each word, or, on some occasions, one thing they could do. 

Every single time that I have done this there is one word that people get stuck on:

Tell

There are, no doubt, cultural reasons for this. We are British. We don’t like to talk about religion. Even worse, we are Anglicans!

However, I think there is a more fundamental reason for our nervousness around telling people about Jesus and our Christian faith. Many of us are just unsure about what we believe. I wrote recently about the Growing the Churchmaterial I use in parishes and how, beginning with first principles, I ask participants to think about who Jesus is, what Jesus means to them, what Jesus has done for them. I use a variety of phrases. The result is always pretty much the same. There are some comments about Jesus as a friend, someone to talk to, but mostly it is Jesus as an example of how to live that is given. Not once, on what must now be dozens of occasions, has anybody ever written about salvation, redemption or even the incarnation.

In his book The Table, Paul Bayes, Bishop of Liverpool, wrote about the experience of praying the Creed daily at the Office while in the United State with Episcopalian friends. The Creed is generally prayed morning and evening there as it always has been in the Prayer Book Office. I wrote about the neglect of the Creed when we pray the Office in the Church of England here. Having preached about the Creed at a Growing the Church event recently one priest commented that she ‘did not think of the Creed as a prayer’. Indeed, it is not addressed to God. However, I wonder if we re-introduced the Apostles’ Creed to our daily prayers, multiple times a day perhaps, it might remind us if the essentials, the essence of our faith. In 1 Corinthians 2:1 St Paul reminds the church in Corinth that he did not come using ‘lofty words’. One of the lovely things about the Apostles’ Creed is its simplicity. I must have been seven or eight when I learnt it off by heart (for my First Communion). I wonder how many church families now teach their children the Creed by heart?

The Creed works because it is a concise summary of the history of salvation. In just 108 words. It would be a great Confirmation class task to ask candidates to summarise the Christian father in the same number of words. Or perhaps even for candidates for ordination.

There are other ways of summarising the Christian faith. I have used one of these in the last two Growing the Churchsessions I’ve lead. It is the picture, the ‘frieze’. produced for the Understanding Christianity course produced for Religious Education in schools and shown at the top of this post. It illustrates the biblical narrative from Creation in Genesis at the left to the new heaven and the new earth in Revelation at the right, with the crucifixion at its centre. It is a powerful tool to use when teaching children but also with adults many of whom will not have thought of the biblical narrative in this holistic way before. It is a subtle and complex piece of art work and worth taking time and effort to reflect on. It would be wonderful if children becoming familiar with it in schools could also see it in church entrance halls or other areas.

One of the problems I often highlight in our provision of Christian learning for children in church is the pitch. It is all too often patronising to children. There is no excuse for colouring in and sticking other than as ways of passing time. Children studying Shakespeare when they are 10 in school need to be approaching Christian teaching with the same level of expectation and complexity. The only material I know that can help Sunday school teachers, those leading First Communion and Confirmation preparation, to do this is the Understanding Christianity resources. The material has been prepared for schools so can’t be taken off the shelf for use in church situations, although there is much in it that could be. 

A good deal of the material available for children in church situations is based on the lectionary or on bible stories. Of course, this is good, but children are used to sophisticated approaches to literature of all kinds. Ten year olds are certainly capable of understanding the rudiments of source criticism around the gospels, examining the authors purpose and identifying a variety of genres in Scripture. I have never seen even these simple things being done in church. But more significantly than that if children only gain a memory of a few stories and narratives they will have no intellectual framework into which to set these stories. That is where the whole span of the biblical narrative and a basic summary of christian doctrine is needed.

Finally, children can gain a high distorted view of Jesus if all they learn are the parables. The parables themselves are not, of course, children’s literature, although the simplicity of the structure of some of them can make us treat them that way. If children are to form a mature relationship with Jesus they need to know a lot more about him than the stories  he told. I once designed and taught for a number of years a unit of work to Year 9 pupils (13-14 year olds) called, simply ‘Jesus‘. At the beginning of the unit I asked pupils to write a letter to a friend telling them everything they knew about Jesus. Usually there would be an account of the nativity, very often a few stories, only occasionally the crucifixion and resurrection, and the naughtier pupils would say that Jesus was ‘boring’. During the term I would teach gospel passages that illustrated what sort of person Jesus is; how he reacted to people, the link passages that shows him not answering questions directly, coming at things at a tangent and so forth. At the end of the unit I would ask them to write a letter again to a friend telling them about Jesus. Then I would hand back their first letters for them to compare. I knew the unit had worked when pupils wrote or said that Jesus was ‘interesting’. As indeed he is.

Understanding Christianity is a great leap forward for Religious Education. I hope that we can make a similar leap in our Christian formation of children and young people in church so that they can relate to Jesus who is so utterly fascinating, and understand who he is and what he has done for us. If we could all explain that in 108 words it would powerfully enable our mission to bring people to Jesus, and our ability to grow the church in depth. That would give us something to tell.

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