GIVEN the average age of 60 for Church of England congregations, there are still plenty of worshipping Anglicans who remember going to a thriving traditional Sunday school with choruses, colouring books, and Bible stories, on Sunday afternoons.
Yet very few churches today offer anything for children on remotely the same lines. Sunday schools, which started as a radical and innovative educational movement more than two centuries ago, have, by and large, withered away.
A church statistician, Dr Peter Brierley, of Brierley Consultancy, says that it is difficult even to quantify the decline in traditional Sunday schools, as the way in which children are involved in church life has changed so much in recent years.
Children’s ministry, however, remains a high priority for the Church, especially in the age of what Alan Charter of Scripture Union — who is also the director of the initiative Children Matter! — calls “the secularised child”. For congregations wanting to develop their children’s work, many more resources are available, including several new approaches to children’s ministry.
“There is no one way of doing Sunday school,” the children’s mission enabler for the diocese of St Albans, Margaret Pritchard Houston, says.
The big difference for children of today, compared with the experience of their grandparents, is that “Sunday school is church for them. In the old days, the two were different, and church was often a foreign country.” Indeed, the term “Sunday school” is often no longer used, having been replaced by such titles as “Junior church” or “Sunday club”.
What happens for children in church on a Sunday matters, however, she says. “It needs to be different from weekday school: it’s worship, not school. It’s to do with a child’s sense of awe and wonder. Children have an innate spirituality. God is already making himself known to them; they have powerful spiritual experiences. What we need to do is give them space to explore, and a vocabulary to express themselves”.
The UK national director of Godly Play, Dr Rebecca Nye, says that Sunday school is not a matter of leading the children out to a vestry or church hall and doing something different. Most churches have been designed for maximum visual experience. “Let children experience the space,” she suggests.
When it comes to children learning at Sunday school through play, she says, it should not be pseudo-play — “20 things the adults thought up, and letting the children copy” — but needs to be genuine. “With paints, bricks, or a box of dressing-up clothes, they can play out a story in their own way,” role-playing their response to thoughts about God or a Bible story.
There are several sources of advice to turn to for help. There are organisations such as the Scripture Union and the Bible Reading Fellowship. There are websites such as Great Commission and Hope Together, and across the country there are diocesan children’s advisers whose job it is to offer practical help to churches, and often to arrange the training of volunteers.
The Church Army’s evangelists are also highly experienced in children’s ministry and working with young people.
The Scripture Union produces Sunday-school material broken down into age groups, holiday-club resources, sports-club material, all-age lectionary services, all-age service starters, and Christian holiday experiences. It is also possible to connect to regional groups to get support for children’s work.
The youth organisation Urban Saints also produces age-appropriate teaching material through its database, and offers searches on books of the Bible, themes, Bible characters, seasonal activities, and so on. It also runs Christian holidays that can be booked by individuals, or that can be tailored to suit individual church groups.
The children’s and youth-work adviser for the East Riding archdeaconry, Jon Steel, says that the Curbs Project “is offering an approach that is intended for urban children, but which makes it actually relevant for most non-church children”.
THERE are also several well-tried models of children’s ministry which have been designed to be adopted and adapted by churches. One of the best-known models with an international profile is Messy Church. It is now a core ministry of the Bible Reading Fellowship.
Another successful form of children’s ministry is the Kidz Klub, which started in Leeds more than 15 years ago. On Saturday mornings, several hundred children are picked up by bus from the inner-city estates for a morning of frenetic activity. The atmosphere is more Butlins than “church”, full of noise and messy games.
St Mark’s, Gillingham, Kent, runs a Kidz Klub and Splat! on Fridays and Saturdays respectively. “They are focused on the non-churched and dechurched families,” the Vicar, the Revd Saju Muthalaly, says.
Another approach is Godly Play, “a non-coercive way to encourage children to move into larger dimensions of belief and faith”.
Dr Nye says that meeting the spiritual needs of children in church involves much more than just finding a package of resources to suit your own congregation. “There is need for radical thinking, not tinkering at the edges. There has been a ridiculously small amount of work on child theology.
“Jesus made a good start, but not much has happened in 2000 years. We, as adults, have to relate to childhood again, learn from children who have a way of knowing things which we as adults have forgotten how to use.”
THERE is a paradox at the heart of the challenge of drawing children into faith. Although church should be as little like weekday school as possible, at the same time the experience cannot be so different from what children are used to that they are put off by it.
“Think about the lovely contemporary school classrooms many ordinary children experience five days a week, with computers, bright, colourful walls, clean toilets and floors, nice food, latest sports equipment, after-school clubs, and so on,” the children’s adviser in Chichester diocese, the Revd Irene Smale, says.
“Now think about the ancient, cold, austere, church buildings and parish church halls . . . with adults sitting in rows in front of them, and a language and culture that is alien to them.
“Think about movies such as Star Wars, The Lego Batman Movie, The Avengers, superheroes, also PS4s, Nintendo 2DSs, Xbox, mobile phones, tablets — all the things ordinary children enjoy, but are told to turn off when entering a church.
“Think about all the clubs, music, facilities, cinemas, theatres, bowling alleys, sports complexes, cafés, and restaurants that children enjoy at weekends. What does church offer?
“The problem is the chasm is ever-widening, particularly in the past decade, because ordinary children have far more of an exciting social life and far more material possessions than ever before. How should the Church respond? Ask the children.”
Children are now natives of the new digital world. “Adults are recently arrived immigrants,” Mr Charter says. With this idea in mind, the Scripture Union has developed its own computer game to introduce Bible stories, “Guardians of Ancora” (News, 10 July 2015).
Perhaps Sunday school in the future will be a room of children playing spiritually orientated computer games.
OR MAYBE it will take the form of a sports club, Mr Charter imagines. Lucy Moore, of Messy Church, has written Sports Fun for Messy Church. ”There are some elements of competition for those who enjoy competing, some elements of creativity for those who like constructing, some elements of healthy eating, healthy spirituality and healthy ‘being’ for those interested in the holistic nature of health,” Mrs Moore says.
In Bradford, Captain Andy Milne, a Church Army evangelist and keen skateboarder, got to know the area’s young skaters. His contacts resulted in the 2004 launch of the youth church Sorted. Many of the skaters became founder members of the church, in which skateboarding remains one of many activities.
“We need to reconnect with children by learning from children,” Dr Nye says. “We need to enter uncharted ways of thinking about children, and that includes people who consider they are good with children. Childhood itself is changing.”