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.

Lessons from the Gareth Southgate School of Youthwork

Becky May, Founding Director

If you were to list the three people least likely to write a blog in response to the football this week, I would fully expect my name to appear. I am not known for a love of the game; I do remember falling asleep during the Euro ’96 quarter finals, which my equally-ambivalent-towards-football Mum had decided we really ‘should’ watch. However, my interest in this year’s tournament was slightly increased, not least because of my son’s interest, but also because there seems to be a culture around this team which is somewhat more appealing than may have been seen in recent history.

This week, a number of posts have been doing the rounds on social media reporting and celebrating the Christian faith of some players. This sits uneasily with me. Once we start to put the latest Christian celebrities on a pedestal, we are setting them up for failure. We should be praying for believers in the public eye, but let’s be careful about the way we use their status and the expectations we may have of them.

I do believe, however, that there are lessons from Gareth Southgate and his squad which are applicable to our own youth ministry, (and perhaps our children’s and family ministry too). You may be relieved (or disappointed) to discover they have little to do with football…

  1. Leadership Matters

Gareth Southgate has shown himself to be an exemplary leader throughout this process, bringing out the best from his team, setting the tempo and the course for others to follow. In the press conferences following Sunday’s match, Southgate demonstrated another leadership quality perfectly; “That it’s down to me. I chose the penalty takers based on what we’ve done in training and nobody is on their own. We’ve won together as a team and it’s absolutely on all of us in terms of not being able to win the game tonight. But in terms of the penalties, that’s my call and totally rests with me.”

President Truman famously owned a desk sign which he referred to from time to time; ‘the buck stops here.’ In the last 18 months or so, we have seen countless examples of those in leadership pointing to others at times, rather than taking responsibility. As leaders we must be those who take responsibility. As Christian leaders, we do so under God’s wing, but we must still know what it is to be accountable and to own the calls we make.

  1. Character Matters

Much has been said over the last 15 years or so lamenting the notion that young boys and girls want to grow up to be footballers, as though the children are somehow to blame for the role models, we have given them. Notwithstanding my earlier warning about who we may choose to put on a pedestal, this squad have demonstrated what it is to be people of good character; to be those who stand up for economic justice, racial justice…

Recent debate has raged around whether it matters what we do in private, so long as we can get the job done. Of course it matters. We cannot be people of integrity part time, we are not a series of personas living out different roles, we are complex, flawed, beautiful human beings and character matters. As we seek to help our young people grow in character, we need to help them grow their whole person.

  1. Risks Matter

Each of us have our own boundaries about how far we are prepared to go outside of our comfort zone. While some of us will happily jump out of aeroplanes, or throw ourselves along zip wires, the rest of us may prefer to take things a bit more slowly.

As the penalty takers stepped up to take their shots, commentators were already questioning whether the right players had been chosen. Had we won, it would have been seen to have been the right decision.

Sometimes we take risks and they work. Sometimes we take risks and they don’t. As we begin to think about what we are going to do next, the one thing we can’t do is go back to what we were doing before. It may feel safe, but it wasn’t working. If we are going to see a generation transformed by Jesus, then we need to be people who are ready to take risks, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Some things that we try will not work and we need to be ok with that. We need to develop a culture where it’s ok for things to go wrong, where we review what we’re doing, evaluate and keep moving forward. We need to be the risk takers.

  1. Age Doesn’t Matter

In the final minutes of the game, a 19-year-old young man stepped up to take the final shot. When it didn’t reach the goal, that young man was consoled, supported and held up by his team and his leader. When was the last time our churches modelled that?

In the wider world, our young people are fighting for Queen and country, playing to represent their nation, researching life-changing innovations, investing in money-making developments, standing up and speaking out about injustice. In the church those same young people are often being made to wait until they’re older before they are allowed to play their part, that is if they are still in our churches at all.

I love reading about Jesus’ disciples, because I love how deeply human they were. Jesus didn’t ask them to complete an induction course or a lengthy theological study, he called them to follow Him, and in their ‘unreadiness’ He worked with them to change the world. What would it take for us to pass the ball to a 19-year-old? What would it take for us to live out 2 Timothy 4:12 in our churches?

What do you think? Are there lessons we can learn here?

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.