I first wrote some of what follows 4 years ago. It feels like yesterday, but during those four years how many more children and young people have left the Church? I am doing this current series of 20 essential books for ministry – they span children’s, youth and adult essentials – because (and this might not be a popularly held view) ministry is not age specific, ministry does not happen in vacuum packed age groups – or rather, it does – but it shouldn’t! These books, I believe, are essential reading for EVERYONE involved in ministry with children, young people, families and adults, every generation! Whether we focus at different times on age specific activities or not, that child or young person does not live in a vacuum, they have a family, they have friends – and VIA your relationship (and mine) we might be the only person sharing Jesus with the entire household and group of friends that 1 child or 1 young person or 1 adult represents. When we are encouraged in scripture to ask if we lack wisdom (James 1 verse 5), I believe we lack the wisdom to see and understand how the small piece of what we “do” in ministry fits together with the whole, and we also lack the wisdom to see that raising the next generation (as part of the Body of Christ, not as some separate species until they hit adulthood). If any part of the body hurts it impacts the whole body (1 Corinthians 12 verse 26). There seems to be a silent scream that continues and we appear blind to the reality of the numbers of young people that leave the church – so much so, we now have “crisis” meetings about where our 18-30s are (er, they left the church 15 – 20 years ago, and we didn’t do anything).
So, Lord, open our eyes to see what is happening, open our ears to hear the scream and gives us the wisdom we lack so we might journey with, disciple and encourage the next generation in the Church – before it is too late.
The Argentinean pastor Juan Carlos Ortiz, in his book “Disciple”, first penned back in the 1970s, tells of preaching the same sermon (on love) again and again, week after week. Eventually someone spots this and asks, “when are you going to preach about something else?”, to which Ortiz replies, “when we are more loving, I will preach about something else.”
We have a serious situation when we consider how the church in the UK is going to survive – we are, sleepwalking towards oblivion. I say that because what is often reported in the Christian media are the accounts of unmitigated disaster . . . or something amazing that transforms lives . . . in between (and obviously not considered newsworthy) is the mundane, the boring, the just “not very good”. The vast number of children and young people who continue to leave the church are not leaving because it is awful . . . it is just that there is not much to what most churches engage in that excites the imagination, forms faith or develops disciples . . . mediocre is going to be the death of us.
This is not a reflection on those serving children and young people in our churches faithfully, week in and week out . . . they, alone, cannot usher in a new age of growth in the Church . . . it will take the whole church to wake up! Church leaders, parents, grandparents, 20 somethings, 30 somethings . . . we all need to get a grip and start making a difference together for the next generation.
Some years ago, Penny Frank wrote a book called, “Every Child a Change to Choose” . . . published in 2002 (with it came a website and resources to encourage evangelism among children) . . . it did not last long, and the book is just a footnote in Christian publishing history . . . about the same time, Margaret Withers was a year into her job as “Archbishops Adviser on Evangelism among Children” . . . this post ceased in 2006 (work finished? Children now “reached”?) . . . nope. Please, let’s not let Marks book just be an “interesting” read, or something worth thinking about what when we have more time, or something we recommend to others because it is not really “our bag”.
This “bag” is everyone’s . . . there is an old (and oft quoted) African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” . . . we need to rediscover what it means to be Church, literally, the “community of the called out ones”. If as adults in the church there is nothing distinctive about who we are and what we do as followers of Christ . . . it follows that we do not have much to pass on to the next generation. We maybe need to rediscover what we are here for. Marks book helps the church begin to do this – not if we read it, but if we do what it says.
This is the most important book / report written about children’s ministry (and how the church needs to engage with children and their families) for the last twenty years. Why do I say that? Well, it not only unpacks some excellent research with some uncomfortable conclusions – hence, perhaps, the title – but, unlike many books before – it goes on to articulate from Mark Griffiths’ own practice how we, as the church, might go about making some changes in children’s ministry that have a lasting impact.
What is great about the whole book is that everything Mark discusses or proposes is based on the evidence found in the research. This is an academically rigorous piece of writing, theologically stretching and yet, at the same time, eminently practical. I guess this is what happens when you have the uncommon combination of an academic and a practitioner in one person!
The first part of the books gives a great overview of where we have come from since the very first Sunday school to the current challenging circumstances the church finds itself in. This, in itself, makes the book worth a read – particularly the eye opening “fifties freefall” – as Sunday school moved from afternoons to the same time as morning services, the church subsequently lost half its children in one generation. There is more to it that that – but you have to get the book! There follows a detailed exploration of case studies carried out on a number of kids clubs.
In the second part of the book as Mark explores how we connect with the un-churched child there is a very helpful exploration of theology and an excellent critique of church practice and what helps (and hinders) effective work with children. There are ideas and concepts, insights and nuggets of truth on almost every page in this section. In Mark’s conclusion, there are recommendations that deserve more notice than a quick read of my review . . . they deserve close attention and prayerful action – if we are to grow the church and make sure the title of this book is not prophetic.