Retirement brings all sorts of opportunities, apart from the obvious ones. When I retired just over a year ago my wife and I decided that we would take a few months to visit various churches before deciding where we would become members. (Though staying in the same area, and greatly missing the people we had worshipped and worked with for twenty plus years, we were clear that there was no way we could continue in the church where I had been pastor.)
All those fellow-ministers - good friends with whom I had shared many a ministers’ meeting - what did they actually do on Sundays? How did they go about things? How did they preach? How did they lead worship? What amazing innovations, what daring experiments, what radical ideas, was I going to find?
Well, it was an eye-opening experience. The variety was considerable, and there was much to be grateful for. But at risk of falling into grumpy-old-man mode (well, at least I’m cheerfully grumpy; and I insist that I’m not really old!) I’ll mention one or two of the things that struck me less favourably...
The dress-code was often informal to the point (in my admittedly subjective opinion) of sheer sloppiness. I long ago abandoned any idea that a (male) minister has to wear a tie, never mind a jacket, but it seems to me that reasonably smart casual is important, at least in a fairly typical neighbourhood church. But sometimes there seemed to be almost a self-conscious delight in sheer scruffiness: “Look at us, aren’t we daring!”
Leadership of services was often contracted out to a “worship-leader”. No problem with that; but it was difficult to avoid the feeling sometimes that anyone who could strum a few chords on a guitar (hey, I was doing that nearly fifty years ago!) was thereby qualified to be a worship-leader, with the result that the quality of the service varied from the excellent to the squirm-making. Fine, you could say (though personally I wouldn’t), for the regulars, for in-house; but what about the newcomer, the enquirer, the sceptical non-Christian?
Music - ah, that perennially controversial issue. This was usually led by a band rather than a solo instrument. In principle I regard this as a good development; the days of the tyranny of the organ seem to be largely gone. But again, there was a down-side too. Have we simply swapped the tyranny of the organ for the tyranny of the guitar? Why is the strummed guitar regarded as the default instrument? - could you sometimes give us the tune, please! And is it really necessary to have the drums played so deafeningly loud? It was a joy occasionally to hear a violin, a saxophone, a flute.
And prayer - mmm, I have to be really careful here, for this is an area where all my prejudices come bubbling to the surface. For example...
I long ago gave up the notion that the Lord’s Prayer has to be included routinely in every service. In fact, I was once told off over my own failure to do this. But - er, never? or virtually never? And on the rare occasions when it is included, isn’t it a little odd to have it in the archaic King James version? Why?
And what has happened to intercessory prayer? – apart, of course, from remembering the needs of people in the fellowship? Certainly Peggy’s ingrown toe-nails and Jack’s loss of work are not to be minimised. But, look, there’s a big wide world out there! Wars, tsunamis, political crises, terrorist atrocities, horrible injustices...
And what has happened to structured, prepared prayers? Is it really so unspiritual? God forgive me, but I have even found myself falling into the habit of counting the number of “justs” and “Lords” in any given prayer. Too often these are meaningless filler words, a sure sign that the person praying is, ahem, just winging it: “Oh Lord, we just want to thank you, Lord, that we are here today, Lord. We just want to say how much, Lord, we love you, Lord. And Lord...” We expect people to prepare when they are speaking to the congregation on behalf of God; why not, then, when they are speaking to God on behalf of the congregation?
But hold on, I’m running away with myself. None of this is what I sat down to write about! No; what was particularly striking was that the children’s slot, whatever it is called, has largely disappeared. The pattern still seems to be that the children go to their different groups after twenty or so minutes, but it seems odd that while they are with the full congregation there is no provision specially for them. They simply have to sit through what is largely appropriate for the adults, even if that is seemingly interminable singing. What better way to put them off church for life?
I have asked about this change once or twice and been looked at as if I am some sort of dinosaur - “Goodness, have you still been doing children’s talks! We gave them up twenty years ago!” At first I thought there must be something seriously wrong with me; but on reflection I decided it was time to come back fighting and to ask, “Wait a minute! How can it possibly not be a good thing to give the children a place of their own in the service?” All right, they are going to be catered for in their groups. All right, they have Messy Church or whatever as well. Fine. But so what? Aren’t we, as churches, families? And doesn’t a family when it comes together make space for the youngest? What, as they say, is not to like?
I know of course that children’s talks can be bad. I heard one once that was little more than an excuse to make a series of stupid mother-in-law jokes, seriously offending a non-Christian young woman we had gone along with. On another occasion the speaker, no doubt inadvertently, had the congregation laughing at, not with, something a child had said. I’m sure, of course, that I have given a few bad ones in my time. Children’s talks can be patronising, even manipulative, in the sense of effectively using the children for some other purpose than simply drawing them closer to Jesus. They can be done with more of an eye to the adults than to the children: “Ah, isn’t it lovely to see the children involved?” “Aren’t the children cute?”
Yes, let’s grant all that. And let’s agree that it’s good that in recent years serious questions have been asked about children’s talks, what their purpose is, what form they should take. But - and this is the point - the fact that things may be done badly is no reason for not doing them at all. I imagine that many Baptist churches have a fair quota of people in the teaching profession, so even if the pastor or other leader doesn’t feel comfortable with speaking to the children, surely there is someone who could take on the task.
Jesus loved children. He enjoyed their company and made them welcome when others tried to turn them away.
Anything - anything - that can be done with integrity to bring children closer to Jesus should surely be grabbed hold of with both hands: we know only too well that our world will woo them away from him quickly enough. Sunday morning affords a perfect opportunity: to teach, to interact, to create a bond, to say in effect “You matter here!” Who knows, a brief talk or other presentation could change a child’s life for ever. So when it comes to children’s talks I say: Let’s do it! Let’s do it unashamedly. Let’s do it with conviction. And let’s do it well!
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in north-west London, with many years’ experience in the ministry. He was the minister of Lindsay Park Baptist Church, Middlesex from 1990 until 2012.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications.
Picture: RGB Stock