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.

Growing the Church: parish weekends and events

This is, famously, an age of anxiety. That anxiety is certainly shared by the church. For the last four or five years as well as retreats and pilgrimages and other teaching and preaching. I have been delivering sessions to parishes which I have been calling “Growing the Church”. Some of these have been weekends, others days or part days, yet others multiple sessions of 90 minutes or so. At the start I generally ask people to write up what they hope to get out of the sessions. It’s a good reality check for me, particularly when I review them at the end. Anxiety is very strong in those hopes expressed at the start for: more children, more people …

These Growing the Church sessions are not intended to replace any of the well developed schemes for church growth and renewal. In many ways I would see the work I do as preparing the way for them. I will almost always mention the New Wine network, Leading Your Church Into Growth, Alpha and more recently tried to plant seeds about starting new worshipping communities outside the church building at times other than a Sunday morning. A way of working that is proving highly successful in the diocese of Liverpool, especially when using our school buildings.

One of the things that strikes me is that in parishes people are very eager to get to the vision writing/mission action planning stage very quickly. In schools a new Head might take two or three terms to work on, and that is seeing each other five days a week for the whole of the working day.
I try on these days to establish some basics – Why do I go to church? Who is Jesus to me? etc before moving any further. I have also begun using Psalm 44 to do some real lamenting about the difference between our ‘memory’ of church as a sort of ideal period we would like to return to, but which in reality can never exist again. I think if we don’t do that we are just frozen in grief or yearning for a mythical past in which there were dozens of children in the Sunday school and crowds at the daily Mass.
Other elements I include are my thoughts on Education and how they relate to our work with children and young people: the need to raise the standard of our education material and make it knowledge-based not simply experiential; and give young people real, substantive leadership. I always include some Mindfulness material. Bookshops, attendance at Mindfulness events etc are evidence that there is a real hunger for stillness, silence and meditation in our wider society. A hunger that we are failing to address in our Sunday worship. This is an open door for Christian mission which we are almost totally neglecting. There is very little opportunity for silence in most Sunday worship. Generally, when anyone leading worship says that ‘now we will keep a few moments of silence’ I barely have time for one breath, I have never, anywhere, had time for more than three. At Taizé they manage 10 – 15 minutes of silence in their worship three times a day. And this is always the thing that children and young people find most intriguing and good.
Finally, I always include an informal celebration of the Eucharist as part of the day. Ideally about half way through. This can bring together elements of Mindfulness, as well as a good chance to re-iterate the overriding importance of memory both as learning and in establishing shared memory as who we are, in Jesus’ words to ‘do this in memory of him’.
Preaching on the second day is a good chance to pick up on themes that strike me from the initial session. Almost always this is the same: the need to root our mission, our desire to grow the church, in substantive Christian faith. I come more and more to see the Apostles’ Creed as useful here. The reasons people give for Jesus being important to them, or what they like about Jesus, are generally either emotional (although there’s often not much of that) or Jesus as an example of living a good life. A living relationship with Jesus is, of course, essential to Christian faith and I often use the icon of friendship (Jesus with his arm affectionately around his friends’s shoulder). However, no one ever mentions the acts of salvation history. So what we have to tell people becomes very weak indeed.
I also stress the cross as an image of us needing grow the church horizontally – to draw more people to Jesus – and vertically – our relationship as individuals and as a community, with God. Interestingly this is the work that people seem to neglect most, or perhaps take for granted.
Unless it is a whole weekend we don’t spend any time writing a Mission Action Plan. That can be done by a small group separately. That is not because I don’t think it is important. On the contrary, being ‘intentional’ about mission is only going to happen if we have a plan and hold ourselves to account for it.

These events are really helpful for me and I learn a great deal from them. I change the material I use every time because I am always learning as well as because contexts are different. The work we have done in Liverpool on new worshipping communities in schools (mainly in the Wigan area) has really helped me to see that developing new congregations can be useful in relieving the anxiety of existing, ‘inherited church’ congregations. So often much of the anxiety comes from expecting that a new priest will suggest yet another set of changes to the worship, or moving of furniture. Sometimes it can be best to leave all that as it is and put our energy into new manifestations of the church. It also helps us to face up to the fact that those of us who love church can find it hard to understand the resistance of people who have no church experience to traditional church.

More children, more people is the constant hope of parishes and congregations. That horizontal growth will only come, in my view, when there is more faith, more experience of Jesus, more faithful living, more deep conversion to the gospel. That is the challenge to every Christian. Why is my life not sufficiently converted that my living alone brings people to Jesus?

The constant mantra in my teaching is a quite simple:

– Jesus centred

– Spirit filled

– Bible based

The anxiety is real. But we should not be controlled by it. In particular we need to be faithful to the New Testament vision of prayer as releasing the gifts of the Spirit. God expects every Christian to experience and share in these gifts. To believe that prayer is somehow difficult or fruitless is to collude with the anxiety.

An age of anxiety, yes. But also an age of liminality, provisionality and that provisionality can contain much energy and the seemed of renewal. Growing the Church never leaves me feeling depressed or anxious for the church. I find these events stimulating and energising. I hope some of those who participate in them do too.