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Reaching the 'third audience'

The impact of Christians going into schools can be far reaching and cross-generational – we shouldn't underestimate the potential of children to reach their parents, writes Spinnaker Trust director Martin Sweet


In each school Spinnaker visits there are not one, not two, but three audiences: children, school staff and… parents! To illustrate this, here’s one story that got back to us.
A teaching assistant said that, when she got home, she heard her child singing in her bedroom. It was one of the songs we use in our assemblies. She went upstairs and peered through the half-open door. The child had set her teddies and various other animal toys in a semi-circle around her and was singing to them (think Toy Story). Intrigued, the mother asked what her daughter was doing. She replied that she was doing an assembly like the Spinnaker person does.
This captures something of the essential aim of our mission statement over the past 30 years: to present Christianity in an appropriate and engaging way.

But I have a question.
If we have this opportunity, and if schools are open to appropriate input, and if churches are so keen on what we are doing, how much impact can we expect to see? Should we be seeing more than we do? And if so, how might this actually happen?


Children and teachers – the first two audiences in schools

Many groups who visit schools have a very busy operational pattern. Spinnaker’s is to visit each school regularly, mostly on a fortnightly basis. This enables us to fully complement the social, moral, spiritual and emotional education of children. Hopefully our clear presentation of Christian stories and information supports the school’s need to present ‘values’ to their children.

The first audience that Spinnaker meets is made up of increasingly unchurched children, ignorant of what we as Christians take for granted. We value the opportunity to step into this gap and bring Bible stories and teaching alive.
The second audience is the staff of every school we visit – not least the teachers who sit through our assemblies. Some regularly tell us that they value our input, not just because it fits well into the given educational parameters of assemblies and collective worship in primary schools, but because the children vote with their smiles! The absolute best commendation of Spinnaker’s work is that schools continue to invite us in after many years of visiting.

But it can go much further than that – such as the time a teacher came up to a Spinnaker team member and confessed how the recent topic in our assemblies had challenged them about their own behaviour. Or the time a head teacher tearfully prayed in their office with a Spinnaker worker. All this because we are ‘in their world’, which is perhaps where the church needs to be.
So I wonder if this ‘need’ is being fuelled by the increasing demands upon our schools – the pressures on both management teams and classroom teachers. As Spinnaker seeks to work more effectively with each school community, we are grateful for every opportunity to build a strong relationship with staff and to be in a position to offer support and prayer.


The third audience – the parents

And finally there is our third audience. These sit, not in the school hall or classroom, but in their homes, as they encounter what their children unpack from their days at school, as we saw from our example at the start of this article. It is a sobering thing to discover that you are talked about. But what do we want children to be saying?
The first thing we might want them to say about us is explained by Dave Roberts in his recent collaboration Faith-full Generation (published by Children Matter in partnership with Presence Books 2017). Here he proposes that the faith formation of children in schools will be impacted by the way the church models the compassion of Jesus in response to the needs of the world around us. They need to see that we care about the challenges facing the world they are coming into.
And yet I think there is still more that can be done. We all agree that children today face a challenging future, but instead of simply bemoaning our limited resources (both as a church and a society), perhaps we need to see things differently. Perhaps children themselves are a key ‘resource’ that we have overlooked.
Jesus did not tell us merely to teach children, he told us to become like them. His ‘lead’ example of spiritual life was the child, not the adult: the kingdom belongs to those who are actually like children.
I think Jesus was saying that there are important characteristics of children that must not be lost in adult life – like simplicity, trust, spontaneity. Can these qualities still challenge an older generation? I am convinced that, while there is an unparalleled opportunity to engage with children through education, we need to acknowledge that children themselves may have an important role as they bring parents into the process. Most commentators warn us that the parents of this current generation are probably the most removed from the church that we have ever experienced.


Children modelling faith to their parents?

I am left with the conclusion that the work of Spinnaker, in visiting primary schools, is more complex and cross-generational than it might first appear. With this potential of children to reach their parents, perhaps we need to review the importance we give to children in our churches.
Can we reach them? Can a mere assembly-taker in a school make that much difference?
I feel as though I have carried this question in my heart for 30 years. A traditional African proverb says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ reminding us that every aspect of our community plays a part in the formation of a child’s character. And yet it is the children in our schools who get to speak to a big chunk of the adult village that equally needs teaching.
So I am left wondering whether there is something yet more wonderful and challenging in the heart of God. Are we ready to believe that God will use and empower this generation of children to model faith to their parents – parents the church may never meet any other way?

Dare we at Spinnaker believe we can reach some of this third audience through our work?

“It is time for some fresh thinking, some creative thinking, and some risky thinking about how we can empower our children and give them a voice to be agents of change in our broken world.” Dave Roberts

Thanks, Dave. Amen!

Picture: Svend Damsgaard | Freeimages

Martin Sweet writes on behalf of the Baptist Education Group (BEG). The vision of the Baptist Education Group is to encourage every Baptist church to strategically engage in supporting its local school.

Martin is director of Spinnaker Trust, an organisation with over 25 years’ experience, based in SE London, regularly supporting over 100 primary schools in London and the Southeast with RE, assemblies and much more.

Baptist Times, 13/06/2017
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