From flannelgraph to downloads

21 April 2010

What resources exist to help children become disciples? And do they speak to a media-savvy generation, asks Julia McGuinness

“THE most helpful ministry re­sources aim to develop children’s sense of spirituality, and help them make connections between who they are, and how they relate to God and to the Church,” says Chris Hudson, from the Bible Reading Fellowship’s Barnabas initiative, which supports children’s ministry. “The old Sunday-school material would pose a question, and the answer would be ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ or ‘Jesus.’ It could be a bit superficial.”

“Children’s ministry has moved away from the educational model to a more exploratory, spiritual model, with the leader now more of a guide or mentor than teacher,” says Sue Doggett, Barnabas’s commissioning editor.

This kind of approach underpins Barnabas’s resources, Mrs Doggett says, which are “thematic rather than schematic”, and are intended to be easily adaptable for use with various groups. “Our materials have become less prescriptive. We want[ed] to open things up, to help people use their imagination, build skills, and think outside the box.”

Not all churches run children’s groups in church: some have either few children, or none; others make their morning service as accessible as possible to all ages. But Maggie Barfield, who oversees the Scripture Union (SU) publishing list for children aged from nought to 11, has found that about 40 to 50 per cent of churches running children’s groups use SU’s “Light” material, which is divided into age-related “brands” of Bible-based learning resources, in­cluding “Bubbles” for under-fives.

Roots, a joint Churches initiative supported by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, church rep­resentatives, and church publishers, is also popular. Its schematic biblical focus follows the lectionary.

Themed material, as produced by Barnabas, and by Urban Saints, through its “Energize” website for leaders, may provide age-related sets of Bible stories, or cover topics such as “Trust”. It can also be formatted for a particular setting, such as a holiday club.

Books with ideas for crafts, prayers, or games, children’s-worship CDs from publishers such as Kings­way Music, and some Bible-story DVDs, such as Storykeepers, are also available, as well as a wide range of material from the United States, including the popular VeggieTales DVDs.

SUE PRICE, who is the head of children’s ministry for the Kingsway Trust — which promotes children’s ministry resources and runs an an­nual conference for leaders of chil­dren’s ministry — says that the needs of children’s leaders have become more polarised: “Those em­ployed by their church are looking to devise their own material. They feel that they can’t just go out and buy a book.

“Volunteer children’s leaders, with busy working lives, want to pick up a book with a lesson plan in it on a Saturday evening, to deliver on Sun­day morning.”

In reality, children’s workers who are under pressure to produce their own material often turn to existing resources from which they can pick and mix, or simply re-sequence, rather than create from scratch, Mrs Price says. She feels that such an approach has much to commend it.

“Some leaders feel they are not allowed to change anything in books — not even the order of activities. But they need the confidence to adapt things appropriately. I generally say that people should not use ideas in my books exactly as they are written more than once.”

Adaptability of materials is vital as churches interact with an increas­ingly diverse range of children, from church-based children on a Sunday morning to midweek clubs for children from a non-church back­ground; from faithful members to irregular attenders (perhaps children from broken families who spend al­ternate weekends with each parent).

Added to that, childhood itself is changing, Mrs Doggett says. “Chil­dren are maturing more quickly. Nine has become the new 11, and 11 is the new 14. The transition period from child to fully fledged teenager has shifted. We need to work out how to manage the nine-to-14-year-old ‘bridge’, and cater for children at a younger age in a more mature way.”

THE need for flexibility does not stop there. Mrs Barfield has found that an ongoing concern for churches is what to do on a Sunday morning with a handful of children ranging from toddlers to teenagers: “It affects a lot of churches. Leaders have to deal with whoever comes.”

In response, this autumn Scrip­ture Union is launching “Mosaic” on its LightLive website, to provide weekly age-related, downloadable material linked to the “Light” pro­gramme, so that leaders can pick extra activities to cover all kinds of age ranges.

Such a situation more often affects smaller, rural churches. Barnabas is concentrating on developing re­sources with this in mind, Mrs Doggett says. “Rural churches can feel left behind by their larger, urban counterparts. They can struggle with fewer children, more limited funds, and a scarcity of leaders.”

Rural churches can also feel at a disadvantage because of their more limited facilities, but they need not feel over-anxious about being be­hind the times, Mrs Doggett believes. “Children bombarded with passive screen technology are starting to lose out on handling creative materials. Colouring has sometimes been criticised as a cop-out, but put out some paper and drawing imple­ments, and children are absorbed. We need not be afraid of the tradition of arts and crafts.”

Mrs Price agrees. “In my experi­ence, children love the opportunity to act, play games, and make things, or simply do some artwork that they do not get a chance to do at home, because it would be too messy.”

There are things you can do in print, Mrs Barfield says, such as filling in a quiz-sheet, which are not as effective online. “And finding out how Jesus calmed the storm by making a paper boat and splashing water is a far better sensory experi­ence than watching a DVD.”

The Energize website is a purely online resource for youth and chil­dren’s leaders, providing biblical-based meeting plans for those aged five to seven, seven to ten, 11 to 14, and 15 to 18, as well as drama sketches, articles, and online training-tools for leaders.

But, although Urban Saints in­creasingly includes video clips and ideas on how to use technology within session plans, such ideas are presented among other non-tech options.

“Children are more likely to en­gage with a DVD image than a flannelgraph picture,” Mark Arnold, Urban Saints’ volunteers director, says. “But it should not become the be-all and end-all. It needs to facili­tate what we are trying to get across.”

Mrs Barfield agrees. “Our mission is to help children to meet God as they engage with the Bible, through whatever means — reading a book, going online, or talking to a person. We must not lose sight of the im­portance of relationships.”

BUILDING relationships with chil­dren from a non-churched back­ground may present an even greater challenge. Providing resources for such ministry is be­coming a key growth area. “Leaders may be among children who have never picked up Bible, and only used Jesus as a swear-word, but face all sorts of issues in their lives. We need to find ways of meeting these chil­dren where they are,” Mr Arnold says.

Activities are essential, he feels. “It’s better to start with some games or sport, so the children begin to form a bond with the leaders, and perhaps start to relate to them as role models. Then leaders can introduce Christian concepts in a way these children can understand.” Helen Frank­lin, Scripture Union’s consul­tant for evangelism and discipleship, says that children’s midweek clubs are increasing, often as follow-up programmes to holiday clubs.

Scripture Union’s “eye-level” club materials are aimed at such settings. “The key thing is not to assume the children have Bible knowledge. We are still Bible-based, but have to work from a different standpoint, with a bigger emphasis on fun.”

A relational and interactive ap­proach is proving highly successful in initiatives such as Messy Church, an area that children’s ministry resource-providers are also increas­ingly seeking to address. One area is the provision of take-home materials to encourage and support parents in exploring faith within the family.

“If Messy Church is meeting only once a month, we need to look at what we can do for families in be­tween,” Mrs Price says. “What can we encourage them to follow up on back at home?”

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