The key is to actually help delegates on the course become reflective practitioners; people who are always developing their work with children because they are always thinking deeply about it. It’s exciting seeing the way people develop and change, and particularly noticeable is the way that their language changes. People stop talking about children’s work being ‘for’ or ‘to’ children and start saying ‘with’ or ‘among’, which is a profound difference. Also, ideas for silly games drift away and get replaced by ideas for spiritual practice, but weirdly there is one word that just won’t go away.
Even in a session at the end of the course when we were discussing how we could develop their work in the light of the material, people still couldn’t help but talk about the stuff they would need to ‘teach’. I always feel that if the course is working that word would get dropped, but somehow it never goes. I went home that evening thinking about what I hoped people would say instead. The word I settled upon was ‘experience’. Maybe we need to think less about what we want to teach children and more about what we want them to experience.
As I considered this, I realised there were loads of ideas we had discussed that evening as things we should teach children that would be better to be experienced with them. I suppose the classic example of this is all the worksheets I see stuck to the walls of Sunday school rooms, where children have coloured in stuff to tell them that God loves them. (Are the kids who stay inside the lines more respectful of God’s love? Or are those who cross the lines lost in wonder at God’s love? I’m not sure, I might be over-thinking this!) Endless Bible verses in bubble writing and pictures of rainbows try to reinforce something that is only really going to be learnt through experience. Children need to experience God’s love through his people, the Church. Then they’ll know that God loves them. You can’t colour your way to knowing this. If children grow up in a shurch that explicitly loves them, they will grow up knowing God’s love. If they don’t, teaching them about God’s love will make things worse as their experience of church will mean that they will think this is what God’s love is like.
Worship is another place where experience trumps teaching. Children cannot be taught this stuff; they need to be in it, experiencing it, seeing adults engaging in it and giving themselves to it. Then they will understand the worth of the God we worship far more than we can tell them because they will begin to sense his worth in the worship.
Children can’t colour their way to knowing God’s love. They need to experience it
As my train drifted home, I wondered: if experience was important, why was I not planning this? Why was I not focusing on this as part of the outcomes of the session? And if I did, what would these outcomes be? What would I want the children in my group to experience when they came? I got my points down to four, then boosted them up to six, then cut them to three, then realised I was being silly and finished at four. No, five.
- God. This sounds obvious, but it’s amazing how often we forget this stuff. Do we give the children time, space, resources and silence to hear God and know him close to them? Do we give children the chance to encounter God through being part of the wider body of the Church?
- Each other. Children’s faith grows in community, so children need to be part of one. That bit at the start where you have a biscuit and some (sometimes terribly weak) squash is more important than you realise. (For more about the importance of community, see p30.)
- Story. This is crucial. I don’t want children to just hear or learn a story, I want them to experience it. This means I’m going to put a load of effort into telling it well and then give children time and the resources to explore the story before we do anything that even hints at explaining it. These stories are the resources that will get them through their weeks when you can’t be there to help them. You really can’t take them too seriously.
- Themselves. An underrated but important thing. As we encounter God and reflect on his word, we come to know ourselves better. We ought not to miss this space to reflect for children as well.
There were four points actually and I kind of like them. To me, they look like a set of outcomes that reflect what good children’s ministry looks like now.