Children in Church – from one of our directors Rev Dr Mike Thornton

One of our Regional Ministers recently spoke to Ministers in Training at one of our Baptist Colleges. Amongst other things, he said that unless we undertake ministry to children, we will oversee ageing and most likely, declining churches. For some students, this was a surprising assertion and I hope it caused an awakening to the opportunities and challenges good children’s ministry brings.

A few years ago the Church of England published a report with the delightfully ambiguous title, Children in the Way. Certainly, some see children as being ‘in the way’ in terms of being a distraction from the serious business of doing church, whilst it can also be seen that they have the potential to be ‘in the Way’ in terms of being followers themselves of Jesus, deserving of pastoral care and discipling, and indeed able to minister.

In my own church setting I think it would be fair to say that both views have been held and vocalised at certain points! Yet my experience is that good children’s ministry as part of a ministry aimed at the whole family, not only spiritually nourishes the flock but also provides an attractive and fruitful means of reaching out to whole families. In all the churches I have ministered in I have seen the average age of the congregation fall dramatically as we have invested in children’s ministry – and that has not been by older folks leaving us!

Yet this is not as common a pattern in the demography of our churches as we would desire. Too many are ageing and shrinking in terms of membership and even attendance. We continue to ask ourselves ‘why’? There are clear pointers as we look back at changes in society over the last few decades. Amongst the casualties of social change was the Church. A study by The Revd Canon Dr Alan Billings, now retired from stipended Anglican ministry and currently South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, confirmed that younger women from the late 1950s found new liberation in education, employment, sexual behavior and fashion and not only stopped going to church, where women had been the mainstay of congregations, but were less likely to induct the next generation into the faith and the church as they had their families.[1] Callum Brown concluded that the loss of young women also led to an exodus of men from the church.[2] The consequent loss of children has affected and will continue to affect all subsequent generations.

Yet the tide is turning. Churches are adjusting and being more innovative in the way they engage children and families. Whilst the traditional Sunday School may be of a more a relic of the past, innovations such as Messy Church, holiday and after school clubs are gaining ground. Another important work is that exercised in schools, where meeting children’s spiritual needs are, by law, still to be catered for. Here, hard pressed teaching staff are very grateful to those who will sensitively come in to the school environment and address these spiritual needs.

A word of caution may need to be offered here. If we see children’s ministry as merely a way to attract adults (parents, grandparents and carers), we will have missed the point and we will miss this particular boat. The quality of our nurturing of children’s spirituality is critically important for the long-term benefit of the child, their family and the church.

In the Spring 2017 edition of The Bible in Transmission – an excellent Bible Society publication – Dr Rebecca Nye opens a wider discussion on children’s spirituality. She defines spirituality as ‘God’s ways of being with us, and our ways of being with God’. Founded on her years of work observing children and listening to their explanations of their own lives, she describes childhood as a ‘highly blessed’ stage of life, offering evidence to suggest that significant experience of God is more common in childhood than in adult years. She identifies three spiritual needs in children: to be deeply listened to when they articulate their spiritual questions and experiences; to be respected; and to have space (in every sense) for spirituality.

Our churches are ideally situated to offer that ‘space’, but it takes time, energy and commitment to offer it to them. It will not happen by accident; we must be intentional in making room for our children to be spiritually nurtured. We cannot do that effectively in isolation; we do indeed need to be churches for all ages and we need to coordinate what we do with what families can also do in their homes and we, or others, can do in schools.

[1] Billings, A., Secular Lives, Sacred Hearts, p.10;

[2] Brown, C., The Death of Christian Britain, in which he also posits that the secularising of Christian Britain was not a long process beginning with the industrial revolution but commenced and developed rapidly in the 1960s.

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