I remember having a peculiar relationship with other children in church as a child. We were all thrown together under the unifying bond of our faith but, like any group of children, had different personalities and backgrounds.
There was a sense that we should get on with one another, but I do remember experiencing the full range of emotions towards my church brothers and sisters including love, joy, jealousy and fear.
Like the time someone who was much older than me won the toy fluffy cat because they remembered more of the catechism. That didn’t go down well with me.
As a teenager the relationships grew more intense as we relied on one another as a minority group in our schools and communities. There could be a tendency for ‘church friends’ to be separate though I remember enthusiastically bringing ‘school friends’ to youth groups and Christian summer camps.
I struggled as a teenager with bringing my whole self to either church or to school, and one or two church friends who also shared both lives probably knew me best.
Looking back I don’t remember active work from church leaders to support our friendships, and sermons about relationships often seemed to focus on adult relationships in the church (eg forgive before coming to the communion table) or on loving our neighbours outside of church.
I think it could help our children with their relationships if we thought about the following:
Support children and young people to bring their ‘whole selves’
There can be a danger that children feel pressured to ‘act’ a certain way in church, but it is vital they can be themselves. That is the only way to truly connect and build communities of trust. If we pressure children to bring their Sunday best eventually they will disengage.
It is of course right to gently challenge where necessary and set appropriate boundaries, but we need to create safe spaces where children and teenagers can explore who they are, and in doing so experience grace and love in action.
I have experienced churches where anyone could walk in off the street and feel at home, loved and welcomed, and conversely those where even an impromptu sneeze felt awkward.
It brings to mind the words of the great old hymn Just as I am: “Just as I am, thy love unknown has broken every barrier down.” That’s the church family we should strive to give our children.
It also means they are less likely to feel like they have to show up as a different person in church, and their friendships and relationships will be more genuine and long-lasting.
Help children and teenagers manage conflict
We all need help with managing relationships at times, and children need active support to work through their differences. We won’t all get on; we won’t all be natural friends but as a church family we should show love and respect for one another.
This can be especially hard in church as – like our birth family – we haven’t always chosen one another. There will be those we are naturally drawn to, and others we find challenging or scary.
As adults we should be honest with our children that relationships can be hard but that we are always prepared to work at them. There is a reason why the Bible keeps telling us to love one another.
It is also important to be mindful how we talk about our church family behind closed doors and to take all steps to avoid cliques in church. If you always sit in the same row with the same people then get up and move.
All of this will impact on how your child then treats other children in the church. If they see you being open and loving to all, they are much more likely to behave in the same way.
Encouraging friendships for life
One of the real joys of the church family is the opportunity to make friends with people of all ages, cultures and backgrounds. I love watching my son wrap his arms around the older congregation members in our church as much as he whizzes around chasing his little buddies.
In a positive faith community we don’t ever have to be lonely. As much as children’s and youth groups are a brilliant opportunity for children to explore their faith and relationships with one another in a way that is age and stage appropriate, some of their best learning will come in their interactions with the wider church family.
I will never forget the love shown to me as a child by older members of the church; the polos sneaked out of handbags, the purse that I only discovered years later contained a £5 note, the offer to come and fish newts out of a pond.
True friendship knows no bounds and is a taste of heaven – and that’s the best gift we can give our children.
Friendship Friday, the annual event held by Kidscape, is 9th November and falls the Friday before Anti-Bullying Week. This year’s theme is ‘Food for Friendship’. Kidscape is encouraging families, friends and faiths to come together over food to promote friendship, anti-bullying and inclusive behaviour, whilst raising funds for Kidscape.
Visit kidscape.org.uk for more information on how you can take part.