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“You just don’t know how weird church is” 

Playing sports, going shopping – or sitting in a pew? Staying in bed, watching Youtube – or singing hymns? Living a distinctive life as a follower of Jesus; but still wanting to fit in with your peers. We really shouldn’t underestimate the pressures the children and young people in our churches face. By Nick Lear

Weird Church

The BBC TV programme Top Gear has been immensely popular, attracting some of the top viewing figures for BBC1. Despite the well-publicised issues with the presenters the show remains popular and its return was eagerly awaited. Cars are driven to places and in ways that cars have never been driven before. They are driven around a track at maximum possible speeds. Cars are used unconventionally: as darts; converted into amphibious vehicles; and so much more. The show does things with cars than the vast majority of us will never do, but the big kid inside me would love to do. Yet all I ever get to do in my car is pootle around on the roads within the speed limits.

I wonder if many children in our churches look at what their friends do on Sundays with the same amount of envy. Their friends get to stay in bed / play games / enjoy sports / go shopping / watch YouTube / and so much more. Church-attending children get up early, go to a service, sing songs and hymns, sit through a lesson, hear about events that happened thousands of years ago and drink over-diluted orange squash. Their friends are living the Top Gear experience while they are Sunday drivers. Be honest, which would you rather do? Can you imagine trying to ‘sell’ church to your school friends the next day? Most adults in churches have grown so used to what we do that we don’t realise just how weird church is for the vast majority of people in our country, even more so for children and young people.

Ten years ago I became aware of statistics that showed that children were disappearing from our churches at a faster rate than ever before – 25,000 in ten years! It prompted a national prayer day - On Our Knees - and a strategic response emerged from suggestions were made from the answers that churches gave to the prayers that had been prayed. But ten years on the difficulties of raising children and young people in the faith are still present, even if churches have made changes. Their experience of church is alien to their friends and potentially alienating them from church.

At an early stage in their life many children and young people in church are being asked to make the sort of decision that many of us adults don’t have to face – choosing between their friends or their faith; a choice that may make the difference between popularity and mockery. And the pressure they are under should not be underestimated – pressure from parents to attend church (and perhaps to make a commitment to Jesus); pressure from their church leaders to live a distinctive life as a follower of Jesus; pressure from their peers outside church to conform to their values and lifestyle; pressure from within not to upset anyone and not to stick out from the crowd. Is it any wonder that some of them adopt a chameleon lifestyle where they change how they are (and who they are) to blend in with their surroundings? Is it any wonder many parents have a struggle to get their children to go with them to church?

Sunday Schools began as a philanthropic education movement and evolved as Governments took over the provision of education for all. They have morphed into becoming the primary way in which Christians pass on their faith to the succeeding generations. Many churches still operate this model today – albeit with enticing midweek programmes – but we have delegated and abdicated responsibility for the spiritual well-being of our children and young people to our churches. The heart of the problem, it seems to me, is that we have forgotten that in the Bible the stories of faith were to be talked about in everyday life.

I’m not blaming parents here because it’s a cultural shift we have all bought into and churches may not equip parents to disciple their children. In my last church we created some laminated place mats for families to use at meal times. They had three colourful pictures on them that represented ‘Thank you, sorry and please’ and were intended to be used at meal times as a reminder to help families pray together more naturally: before praying the family could talk about what they wanted to pray about – the whole family, not just the children. To my shame this was the first tangible thing I had done in Ministry that was specifically designed to help families ‘normalise’ faith. To my delight they proved very popular. The experience spoke loudly to me. It spoke of how we can do small things to make a big difference.

So what can we do? Helping our families to disciple their children is a good step in the right direction. While I am asking awkward questions I might as well ask some more: how honest are we about our faith? Do adults present an image of having it all sorted for fear that our doubts and questions might be contagious? Do we equip them to ask hard questions of the Bible or to accept it unquestioningly? Do we do them any favours if we teach them to believe that with Jesus all our problems disappear (when they know full well from their home experience that this is not true)? If their faith is merely an unquestioning imitation of the faith of those who teach them we should not be surprised if the seeds we have sown have fallen on the path, among weeds or stony ground rather than fertile soil.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not knocking groups and programmes and activities for children and young people. They need to be included in the life and activity of the local church. If, however, that is supplemental to our faith and discipleship being a natural part of family life we may well help our children and young people to normalise their faith. If we help them to discover a robust, honest, realistic faith in Jesus they will be better able to “stand their ground, and after they have done everything, to stand.” (Eph 6:13)
Nick Lear is a Regional Minister in the Eastern Baptist Association

This article appears in the Autumn 2016 edition of Baptists Together magazine

Baptists Together, 09/09/2016
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