Is this the best that we can offer?

Are you ready for Christmas? Perhaps, like me, you’re not *quite* there yet, or more realistically for me at least, you can see the big event hurtling towards you at a rate of knots and know you need to take action quickly!

My annual efforts to try to ‘do better than last year’ have led to my joining several online communities each offering their top tips for successful organisation and it’s in these forums I’ve spotted an interesting theme. Several better organised Mums than me (not hard!) have made comments such as:

“I was struggling to find a Santa experience locally that didn’t cost an arm and a leg but our local church has come to the rescue with their Christmas fayre; visits to see Santa for only £5!”

“Have you looked at your local church to see what they’re doing for Christmas? Ours is offering Santa breakfasts for free!”

Great! The local church is connecting with local families this Christmas, meeting needs and making connections but I have to wonder, is this the best that we can offer? Do we really want the church to be known at Christmas as the place where you get to see Santa for free? Don’t we have more to give?

We recently organised a conference for a group of local churches. We had words of wisdom and insight from speakers from across the country, but gave the final words to a 16 year old young man. When we asked him what message he wanted to give to these churches, we probably expected him to talk about the need for ‘more fun’ ‘shorter sermons’ or ‘newer songs,’ but instead, he said “something’s got to change; you treat Jesus like he’s an acquaintance but he’s your friend!” He went on to talk about the way church was boring and that was so wrong because God’s not boring! God does stuff and we get to connect to him! How have we made that boring?

As I reflect on this, I think again about Jesus’ challenge to his disciples in Mark 10:13-16, “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them” I see again new ways that we are, in fact, hindering the children. We make judgements as to how palatable or attractive Jesus may be, and decide to sweeten the pill; we decide we need a hook to bring people so we can make a subtle mention of Jesus as though he is an afterthought, we create worship services so far removed from acknowledging the presence of Jesus that our young people see them as boring.

Many of us will have already planned our Christmas events and many, like me, will still be ‘finalising arrangements.’ Whether those plans include a free Santa breakfast, a Christmas story trail, Christingles, nativity plays or living nativities, may we all have Jesus words ringing in our ears; “let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them.”

If you want to change the world…

Gavin Calver, CEO of the Evangelical Alliance, formally of Youth for Christ is well-known for saying, ‘if you want to change the world, start a youth group, it’s what Jesus did.’

I don’t disagree with Gavin, I love youth groups, I’ve been around youth groups for longer than I can remember, but if I’m really honest, I want to go back even earlier than where Gavin starts; I want to say, if you want to change the world, start a toddler group.

Let me confess, I haven’t been involved in toddler ministry that long. Working with the under-5s was an area I managed to successfully avoid until I had my own children and discovered there was nowhere left to hide!

In spite of this, I have long seen, and long believed in the value of toddler groups. It is my hope and prayer that even those still on the run from toddler group duty, and those who may never be called to take up the playdough-making, coffee-serving, chair-stacking, train-track-laying responsibilities, will see the life-changing, ministry-shaping potential that our toddler groups hold.

In February 2020, just before the world stopped and we went into our first lockdown, Hope Together, The Evangelical Alliance and The Church of England commissioned a piece of research by Savanta ComRes, which found that 74% of all parents of under 5s had attended an activity run in or by a church in the last year. 33% had attended a church-run or church-hosted toddler group. Of course, this will include a number of privately organised baby signing, messy play, baby gym-type classes, but this number is not insignificant.

The full Talking Toddlers research, together with further input on how we can build on this can be found here:

Whether you hear that statistic and rejoice at the 33% or grieve for the 67%, our toddler groups, and ministry with under 5s offers huge potential. Why? Firstly, because we know that early intervention works;

“It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men,”

“Give me a child until he is 7, and I will show you the man,”

“The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out.”

Early intervention works, if that is true for a child’s social, emotional and physical development, then it’s also true for a child’s spiritual development.

Imagine growing up never not-knowing the God who loves you. Imagine growing up never not-knowing a community of faith surrounding you. What a gift that is for the children in and out of our toddler groups, the children in our communities.

Why do I believe we can change the world with a toddler group? Because if we do this, we get to be involved in a child’s lifelong journey of faith from the earliest moments of their life and enable them to experience what it is to never not-know the God who loves them.

Do you know what else toddler groups do? They give us the opportunity to be involved in the life not just of those children, but also of their parents. All the research in the world concludes that the most influential element of a child’s or young person’s life is their parents. A 2016 Theos thinktank research project concluded: “Overall, despite the perceived strength of other social and cultural forces, ‘faith’s’ most effective ‘not-so-secret’ weapon in passing on beliefs and practices to the next generation remains parents.”

If you want to change the world, start a toddler group. Right now, as we continue this journey out of the trauma of the last two years, has there ever been a greater need?

Over the last few months, there has been a sense of inadequacy from some quarters in the churc, worrying about what we can’t do; “we can’t… because.”

“We can’t compete with the professionally run activities,” “We can’t provide all our families need,” “We can’t find the volunteers to run our activities,” “We can’t.”

Let’s be honest, we’re not the first to complain about what we can’t do: Moses, “I can’t speak to Pharoah”

In Acts 3:1-16, we find two of Jesus disciples who began their service to a man in the street; “We can’t..” but they didn’t stop there: “I don’t have any silver or gold, but I’ll give you what I do have and I have Jesus, He’s incredible and He’s going to change your life.”

As a child I never really understood this interaction. I couldn’t understand why Peter and John started by telling the man what they didn’t have instead of telling him about Jesus first, now I wonder if we’ve lost sight of the fact that the thing we do have is Jesus.

When my son was tiny, we went to try out a toddler group in a local church. It was a little intense because we were the only ones there, but we got to a point in the session where one of the leaders said, “we’re going to have a story now, it’s from the Bible, but it’ll be ok.”

We’re apologising for talking about the one thing we’ve got! I once heard someone refer to this as treating Jesus like the vegetables we hide in the Bolognese sauce.

And do you know what the crazy thing is? People don’t want us to hide Jesus! Pre-pandemic, the Talking Toddlers and the related Talking Jesus research found that 18-34 year olds were more open than any other age group to talking about Jesus. And now? People have never been more open to talking about issues of life and death, we’ve lived surrounded by it in a way we’ve never experienced before, so let’s not hide the treasure we have.

“I don’t have any silver or gold, but I’ll give you what I do have and I have Jesus, He’s incredible and He’s going to change your life.”

If you want to change the world, start a toddler group; journey with children from the beginning of their life, engage with the whole family and share Jesus, the treasure we have.

Dreams for the Future

As the new year dawned and our eyes looked towards a post-pandemic world, I was asked about my hopes and dreams for the church, and particularly for children. This is part of an article originally published by Prayer Magazine

  • I dream of a church where we miss those children who are not in our midst.

Perhaps our children have returned to our church activities, or perhaps it isn’t yet possible to do so, but our children represent a tiny portion of children in this nation at this time. In 2017, Scripture Union launched its campaign; The 95, reminding the church that only 5% of children in the UK are in regular attendance or membership of a local church. As our doors reopen, and our children return, my prayer is that we genuinely miss the missing, that our hearts break for their absence and that we move to reconnect with them, helping them to discover their place in the Kingdom of God.

  • I dream of a church where children can take their place.

Back in the 1980s and 90s, Ishmael; children’s evangelist and worship leader spoke of children as the church of today and the leaders of tomorrow, yet still we are more likely to be found talking of them as the church of tomorrow. Our children have so much not only to gain from being a part of the body of Christ, but so much to give too. Let’s take seriously the gifts and skills they have, lets be brave and let them get stuck in and this means more than trusting them to take the offering plate around. When we allow children space to serve, we enable them to fulfil their God potential, and we allow the body to feel more fully alive.

  • I dream of a church who speaks out for children.

In August 2020, The Good Childhood Report, published by the Children’s Society found that children in the UK are the unhappiest in Europe. We must be a voice that speaks into that, offering hope, and speaks out for children, and “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Proverbs 31:8. The events of the last year have highlighted some of the inequalities which exist in our society, and we must speak out for those who have no voice of their own; reminding those who govern over us of their responsibilities to our children.

  • I dream of a church where everyone is welcome.

I have been saddened over the last twelve months to discover how many people have suddenly ben able to access church once it moved online. Now, don’t hear me wrong; it’s wonderful that people could access church! But it’s deeply sad that they could not do so before now. Many parents of children with additional needs have been able to access services without fear of being made to feel unwelcome because their child may make a sound, for instance. This is a travesty. When we return to physical gatherings, lets make sure not only our buildings are accessible, but our activities too. If we need to update our training, lets do that now, and be ready to be welcoming to all.

  • I dream of a church where Children’s and Youth leaders are cherished.

Many of our children’s and youth leaders have worked tirelessly throughout the last few months to provide resources for families, offer pastoral care, learn new skills to reach toddler groups and children’s church online for instance. And many of these are ‘just volunteers.’ Let us hold them up, thank them, and give them rest. Whatever 2021 looks like in terms of our activities, there will always be something more we ‘could’ be doing, but let’s be the permission givers who allow our teams to take time out; to rest in God and be filled once again.

  • I dream of a church who discovers God’s heart for children.

This is the dream above all others. When we ask Father God to share the things He cares for, the things He notices, the things He wants for His kingdom, we will miss those God misses, we will see God at work and the God-shaped potential in others, and we will understand our role in speaking out for those who have no voice, just as Jesus did. This point could perhaps have been made first, perhaps it even should have been, but it is my hope that this dream remains with you as we enter the new year.

We’re now six months into this ‘new year, and marking our own new beginning, as The Resources Cupboard launches as a national and local charitable ministry. We have lived with more uncertainty over the last six months as we continue to wait for things to reopen, restart, relaunch. What is clear is that we can’t go back. The world we inhabited pre-pandemic no longer exists and even if it did, what we had wasn’t working. We need to go forward, prayerfully listening to God’s guiding and taking steps into a future He has prepared for us.