I firmly believe that we should become like Israeli body-builders. Let me explain…
A few years ago, I took my family to Israel to celebrate my recovery from cancer. We hung out in Galilee, visiting Capernaum and Magdala, and soaking up the sun and the history. Then we popped over to the coast, and it was in Haifa, at the base of Mount Carmel, that I had my revelation.
We were walking along the beach when I saw it: an outdoor gym, right on the seafront, designed for people to come and work out. It looked like the same equipment as I have in my local PureGym, except it was presented in bright colours under a large metal awning right on the beach. Using the equipment was a horde of huge men in tiny vests, pushing and pulling and sweating. It was obvious that these guys spent hours and hours there every day. I was impressed. If I could work out under the shade, looking at a gorgeous beach, I’d probably work out a lot too. The next day as we walked past we saw that children had completely overrun the gym. They were climbing on the equipment and swinging on it. Some pretended to work out, while others just pretended it was a motorbike. The area was covered in children.
And then it happened.
Three muscly men arrived, water bottles in hand, towels slung over their shoulders. “This is going to be interesting,” I thought. “Will they see the kids and think, ‘Nope, there are children there. I’m off’? Or will they shoo all the kids away?”
As I watched, the men calmly walked up to the equipment, still chatting, picked pieces the children weren’t using and proceeded to work out. With the children still there. The children didn’t run away. The men weren’t fazed. They all stayed. More men arrived, as did more children. An old woman in workout gear appeared and started on one piece of equipment. The children continued to play. Some chatted to the men and a few attempted a workout. The big men showed them how to do some and then got on with their heavy lifting.
I was stunned. It made me reflect on how, in the Church, we can struggle within an intergenerational setting, and on what we can learn from these Israeli bodybuilders.
Fully engage with it
It seems that sometimes when children are present we abdicate the space. We say: “Oops, it looks like children are here, so this must not be for me.” If children attend a church event it becomes a ‘family’ event, with the needs of children and family at the centre. If a child comes to a home group, adults can feel restricted in what they talk about for the sake of the child. If children are present, we often take huge steps back in our willingness to fully engage spiritually and mentally in the situation.
I was struck by the healthy middle group of these Israeli bodybuilders. The space was distinctly designed for them. It was an adult-designed space. Yet when they arrived at it they weren’t put off by the presence of children. They didn’t feel like they needed to prioritise them or sacrifice what they were there to do. They came for a good, hard workout. And they had a good, hard workout. The children’s presence didn’t stop them from wholeheartedly pursuing this aim. What if we learned how to fully pursue God while children were present?
What if we wholeheartedly worshipped with kids there? What if we genuinely talked to each other about our struggles, even when children were around? What if we cried, encouraged and talked about doubts even with kids in the mix?
We keep talking about wanting to make church accessible to children so they can access what is happening in the room. But to do that well we need to have something for them to want to join. We have to be a room of engaged, dynamic people who love God so our kids can see it and want to join in. If we stop engaging so that our children can we aren’t doing our job as adults. Our job is to fully love God and pursue him, and to help our kids do so alongside us, not instead of us.
Help children access it
I was fascinated by the way the children asked questions and tried the equipment out while these men were fully engaged. Between sets, as the men wiped the sweat out of their eyes, they would gasp and answer the inquiries, then pick the children up to set them on the equipment. They facilitated the children’s interest without any agenda to force them into anything. They were happy for the kids to watch and to exist in the adult realm, and then to facilitate their interest if they had any. These bodybuilders didn’t come to the gym to do that. They wouldn’t describe themselves as exercise outreach youth volunteers. They were just plain old adults doing their adult thing, and letting kids be around them as they experimented and played and engaged.
I find that the average congregation member has lost the comfort of enabling the children around them to play and engage in an adult spiritual setting. Part of our role within a church has to be to return those skills and values to our congregations so they can experience the joy of helping children truly become part of the church culture.
I watched this little community experience a kind of peace and joy that I want for my church. The bodybuilders weren’t stressed out by the children and didn’t feel resentful about their presence. The children felt wanted and welcomed around these people they admired, and they got to try new things and feel strong. Parents got a little break, laughing as they watched their children experience these new activities. And the strong men got a good workout.
Let’s help build that kind of community in our churches. As we try to create good programmes for children, let’s not forget to build an adult congregation that knows how to pursue God with children welcomed in its midst.
Let’s all be Israeli bodybuilders.
RACHEL TURNER is the Parenting for Faith pioneer at Bible Reading Fellowship. Her book Parenting Children for a Life of Confidence and other resources can be found at parentingforfaith.org