Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Church Growth strategies: 'Bringing in the children!'

We are looking to Stanley Hauerwas' for our underlying thought (challenge) as he says that:

'Church growth strategies are the death rattle of a church that has lost its way.'

Continuing to move on we find that today the bus stops at that most challenging of church growth areas: children. It's especially challenging because I find that a
 number of the people I encounter these days have come to the conclusion that the way to grow the Church is to somehow or other drag the 'next generation' into the church building and then by whatever means are available somehow turn them into Christians -  and there is something true here that begets something, in my opinion, quite awful.

Children have become the Philosopher's stone by which dead and leaden church becomes something golden.

I hear a variety of challenging comments with regard to people's churches and the situation surrounding the average age in them. In fact one place I know has so high an average age that the upper age for Sunday School must now fast approaching thirty! (if only they had anyone that young in the place!) 

Recently whilst in conversation with a bunch of lovely ladies who are members of a church that is looking to recruit a new Vicar. One of them reassured me that all would be well once the new cleric had been appointed (they hadn't actually advertised but I always applaud proactivity). I asked why they held the belief that the new incumbent would lead them into the promised land where numbers grew and the average age was reduced. Another summed it up quite succinctly with these words:

'Our church numbers are falling and there's no children or young people but that will all change once we've got a new Vicar!' 

All of them nodded their agreement for they were convinced that the new cleric, once appointed would arrive (having run past speeding trains and leaping tall buildings on the way) and would 'bring children in to church:'

Seems all they needed was:

I didn't have the heart to burst their balloons and stamp on their dreams and hopes :-(

The problem is that getting children in to Church is important but the problem is that we become so fixated on the issue of children that we lose sight of the scenery that surrounds them. we become so bound up with children as the 'future church' that we forget that they are also, very much, today's Church.

Much of the problem here lies in the fact that children aren't coming because parents aren't bringing them and so the key to 'bringing children in' is to bring in the people who bring children in!

Another part of the problem is that when we do manage to bring children in to church we work hard at stopping them from being engaged and functioning members of the body for rather  than include them in our church services we remove them from them as soon as we can. I wonder how many who read this post are in a church where they lose the children after the first hymn and have them return just before or during the Communion?

We engage in that time honoured travesty of Church that is the 'All-Age' service (or as it's known here : 'All-Age torture'. That ghastly place where we talk down to the children and think we're communicating to everyone present. Worse still are the places where the service has both a 'grown up' sermon and 'something for the children' - two opportunities taken to avoid any meaningful communication with the people groups present!

We need to look at messy Church - but as this has it's own spot I'll merely flag it up here and move on.

The problem is summed up by a colleague who moaned that even though they were working hard at making Church 'relevant, authentic and entertaining' they weren't keeping and of the children and young people who came through the doors.' Of course they weren't because they had to work at being such! The problem is that we need to actually have churches that are relevant, authentic and fun to be in, after all you can try hard and stick a pig in a dress but it's never going to win a beauty prize is it?

So here's the bottom line as I see it:

Stop pretending that your church is 'down with the kids' and stop thinking that we can only minister to the young if we use young people. All this tosh about only have a window of influence and efficacy with those ten years either side of our age is something we need to bin before we even start. Those most influential in my life were tens of years older than me and they were influential because they were truly kind, caring and interested. I wasn't a scalp but a developing friend who would one day, despite our age differences, become a peer (and in some cases their leader).

Stop using children in church as the hope for the Church and realise that it's Jesus, the Christ, who has that role (and label). Stop asking how many young people others have in church (and if you do, stop saying when you hear the answer, 'Oh, aren't you lucky!') and if you feel you really have to ask the question then find out how they came in and how the church relates to them and keeps them - be intelligent, not envious!

We need to realise that the young are smart and can see when you're putting on a show in order to 'win them for Christ' or lower your average age. They value honesty and can see through the faux friendship and the overrated welcome. Integrity and structure are the key factors here I reckons.

Recently I attended a service where there were about seven children in the congregation and the parents, being as bored as their young, were looking around and sighing and the thing progressed. The children were a little less refined and so played games, played up and fidgeted as time progressed. At last we were set free and one of the Wardens turned to me and, assuming the dog collar was a sign of being on the same side I guess, said, 'I hate it when people bring their kids into church, it really spoils the service for others!'

My response was, 'Not to worry, they probably won't come again.' And they Warden smiled and nodded and said, 'I hope not!' Later, whilst chatting to the cleric who had taken the service I looked sympathetically as they told me how they get families in but they rarely came back and moaned about increasing average ages of congregations and falling numbers. 'What we need to do is concentrate on getting children in,' they said, 'They're our only hope!

But the local kids were on the playing fields around the church, I saw them playing rugby and football and being taken out by their otherwise absent parent because it was 'their day for custody'. 

If we want to bring children into church we need to bring parents because they will bring them with them and when they do we need to make a place that's full on fun and full of integrity. A place where the children drag the parents back to rather than vice versa. It's great that grandparents bring their family's young, but that's timestamped and ephemeral - win the young parent who is starting out with the struggle that parenthood presents and be their friend and grow up, and into relationship, with them and their children and realise that Sunday has other challenges and attractions and look for the days and times when Church coming together becomes the main attraction and be it (honestly and openly).

It's not rocket science - it's not even clever! 

Church is the people who meet when they can in a place where they can because they want to meet - or we can tell them it has to be Sunday and our way!

1 comment:

What's The Score? said...

So there may be scope for something for the weekend, sir? Designed to attract and be of value to the "weekend parents" and their not-so-young children. What would that look like? A bowling alley? Rambling club? Cinema? Choir?