Author: Murray Wilkinson
Children and Young People’s Ministry Adviser for the Diocese of Canterbury
I learnt to speak Afrikaans when I found myself on a gap year selling tractor batteries to an Afrikaans farming community. The thing is: I’d spent the first 12 years of my life as an English speaking South African, being taught in school the subject of Afrikaans. There is a long line of teachers who tried to teach me the language, and a very short list of farmers who actually managed it.
Anthropologists call this enculturation, the process of passing on the ideas, languages and skills of a group to the next generation. It happens through observation, experience, and some instruction. As churches grapple with the issue of developing their ministry with children and young people, especially when it comes to worshipping together; I wonder if we unearthing a desire to ‘pass on’ the stuff of our faith that we value the most: our sung worship tradition, the language we share and the stories we tell? Are we content to just make sure that they are doing church the way that we do church? Are we happy to pass on the institution and the structure? Or is it a better idea to focus on that which we want to preserve, the passion for following Jesus Christ, the opportunity to develop a life of faith that gives us life to the full.
As Adviser for ministry with children and young people in the Diocese of Canterbury I have been very privileged to have time to explore a range of ideas: ‘faith development’ theories, faith formation models, research into ‘Children’s Spirituality’ and ‘Generational Theory’, models of Intergenerational Worship and ‘Re-imagining youth and children’s ministry’. Through all of these ideas, and in order to help us share our passion for worship, we’ve begun to describe these under two characteristics.
Firstly, that we prioritise faith formation instead of just information: relying on more than just teaching bible stories about God, by offering opportunities to encounter God and the space to tell the stories of those encounters. In other words, what would we gain by joining in worship together with all ages?
This might only be possible with the second characteristic: that we build intergenerational communities that make space for individual formation and transformation. Not just out of fear for the future of our church; but because of how much we are missing now by not sharing experiences of God across generations.
As I’ve shared this idea in conversations, in meetings, formal and informal chats in corridors across the diocese, I’ve had the opportunity to grapple with the practical consequences. At a recent PCC meeting, I was asked the question, “Murray that’s a lovely idea. But how do we get from where we are to what you’ve described?” I’ll be honest, I fudged the answer. As I tried to say: “well what you need to do is…and then maybe you could try…” the obstacles seemed so insurmountable.
I left that meeting berating myself as I drove home, I thought I had failed. I hadn’t done a good enough job. I hadn’t helped them find the answer that they wanted. And then it struck me. We were having the wrong conversation.
It was no good talking about how to do church until we’d faced the deeper challenge of how it is that we see and perceive our children and young people. The obstacles faced by that church were easily summed up in the attitudes of the people who attend. They seemed to hold a low expectation of children and were subsequently unable to recognise all that they might learn if their adults were to see children in worship as much as the other way around.
These two characteristics hang neatly on the idea of ‘Fellow Pilgrims’ – the challenge to raise our perception of children and young people from empty vessels to disciples on an equal footing. If our churches are to become places were all ages and generations worship together; then I believe we need to change the conversation from searching for new ways to attempt to teach our younger generations how to be Christian and instead to treat them as ‘Fellow Pilgrims’; active in their own exploration of faith right alongside us as we attempt the same.
Let’s stop talking about youth work, or children’s activities that are ‘for them’ or ‘to them’, and let’s talk instead about ‘ministry with children and young people’. ‘To’ implies that we know all the answers if they would only listen, ‘with’ recognises instead their intrinsic value as a member of the Body of Christ, created in the image of God.
If we are able to take that changed language into our churches and places of worship, and enable others to ask the same questions, then maybe we can raise our perception of everyone in our communities and begin to prioritise faith formation through encountering God and not just information for all.
What might we learn about God, from our children and young people if we were to give them the chance to share their experience of God in an intergenerational community that helps them to live in God’s story, not just know about God’s story.
Let’s help them to sing alongside us so that we might learn from each other through that powerful enculturation process, where God is calling us next as Fellow Pilgrims.