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Want children in church? Put them in charge

by
27 August 2021

They ought to be included in every aspect of church life, argues Margaret Pritchard Houston

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A FEW years ago, in doing research for Growing Faith, members of the Church of England Education Team found a difference between churches and church schools. In school, children were on school councils and worship planning teams. They were involved in hiring new teachers, even headteachers.

At church, those same children were often put in a corner and told what to do. But many churches are looking for ways in which children can meaningfully participate — most commonly in worship, but also in other aspects of church life: the church’s wider ministry, and even in governance and decision-making.

Children being worship leaders is good “in their development as people, but also as Christians”, the Rector of St Matthew’s, Bethnal Green, the Revd Erin Clark, says. It means that they’re “embodying the liturgy in ways that aren’t just repetition by rote”. Dr Clare Dowding, a Reader at All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London, agrees. Having a job helps children to “understand that all of us are involved in worship, not just those in robes at the front”.

The Revd Elizabeth Green, the Assistant Curate at St Alban’s, Gossops Green, and St Mary Magdalene’s, Bewbush, who is a former youth worker, points out that playing a part in worship “gives children a sense of being invested in the church, and they like being trusted”. It is also “especially good for children with additional needs who don’t always get a lot of confidence shown in them”. While not every child will feel comfortable getting up in front of the congregation, children can serve as greeters, make and serve refreshments, create art, or get involved in tech.

Many churches use a rota for children, but both St Alban’s, Gossops Green, and St Mary with St Alban, Teddington, have a family service with a “pick a job when you show up” system, with each job printed out on a card by the entrance. The Associate Priest at Teddington, the Revd Mary Hawes, who is also the National Children and Youth Adviser, believes that it is important that these jobs are real ministry. Children should not just hold things — “if your job can be done by an easel, it’s not a job,” she says.

The benefits of involving children extend to the family and congregation. “Parents take pride in their kids,” Ms Clark says. “Sometimes, a kid being on rota will be the thing that gets the whole family to come to church.” In my book Beyond the Children’s Corner, I quote a teenager who says, “It encourages the older generations to see what you can do. And it’s nice for them to be able to see the younger generation enjoying being part of the community.”

And “a mixed-age serving team”, Ms Clark says, “provides chances for intergenerational support and mentoring.” It creates an informal “guild of training, support, and fellowship in faith”.

IT CAN be challenging. People I spoke with mentioned children not showing up, the admin being an extra burden, and added chaos from lockdown. But children have grown in faith through being ministers: “They pick apart the liturgy, and ask the best questions,” Ms Clark says. Ms Green talks about children becoming involved in planning worship as well. “Adults involved pay attention to the young people, and the responsibilities of the adults are to guide, empower, and resource the young people.”

Children can also be involved in the wider ministry of the church. Including children in charity and social-justice projects, in planning and leading social events, and in community engagement, creates opportunities for intergenerational relationships, which then also has a knock-on effect on worship. “It’s harder to tut at a child you know,” Ms Hawes says.

Including children outside of worship also models a Christian life that goes beyond one hour on a Sunday morning. At Dr Dowding’s church, a variety of charity fund-raisers are held throughout the year, and “members of the youth group are often involved in helping to set up whichever hall we’ve hired, serving food, and persuading people to buy raffle tickets.”

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The church where I served as a children’s worker included children in running social events, in carolling for Christian Aid, and in a charity’s annual “Sleep Out For The Homeless” event.

These are all meaningful jobs that genuinely need doing — the young people are playing an important part. And it’s important to note that there’s scope for a variety of talents and interests in these jobs.

But there is also a step beyond this, in which the project being done is, in its original idea and development, one that includes the ideas and priorities of children and young people. Can they be involved in selecting the charities that are being supported? Can they be involved in planning the fund-raising events?

A useful guide for participation is the “ladder of participation”, which was developed in the late 1960s as a tool for measuring relationships between the powerful and the powerless in community development. In this case, the powerful would be adults and the powerless would be children.

At the lowest level of the ladder, children are tokenised, or manipulated, or used as decoration; although they may be present, their presence actually serves to maintain the status quo. In the middle (which is where many churches are, in my experience), children have important parts to play, and are informed of them, or they are consulted and then informed of the results of the decision.

At the top level, children and adults share power, and children’s ideas and voices are considered as important as those of adults. For this to happen, it helps to find ways to include children in decision-making.


PARTICIPATION in decision-making can be tricky. Several people I spoke with said that it had been difficult to try and engage children and young people in governance. “Teenagers who are regular worshippers,” Dr Dowding says, “are encouraged to join the electoral roll when they turn 16, although not many have taken up the invitation.”

The Assistant Curate at Holy Trinity, Aldershot, the Revd Dean Pusey, who is a former diocesan youth officer, says that including children and young people in decision-making is “about being asked, about being authentic, and about welcoming. It’s saying, ‘We need to hear from young people and be intentional about it.’ So be aware, if you’re lacking, of the contribution of young people.

“Create space for it. Our stewardship committee invited a young person on there, and I thought ‘That’s pretty pukka’; he was young, Black, and he had a contribution to make. And he didn’t feel that he couldn’t contribute.”

The Assistant Director of Education at Bath & Wells diocese, Tony Cook, has some suggestions for making children’s contributions work. “Explain to them what a PCC is, and what it does,” he says. “And plan the PCC agenda with the children.”

He recommends changing the format of meetings so that there is a mixture of discussion and activities (the website Learn to Listen has activity suggestions) — and this may be helpful for some adults who are better at activities than discussion. While people cannot serve on the PCC itself until they’re 16, it is possible to have a children’s council that reports to the PCC and whose opinions and ideas are taken seriously.

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Ms Clark suggests that, in including children in a project or a decision, you “try to incorporate them in the process from start to finish”. And it’s important to “ask their input and actually take it”, she says.

Inviting someone into a room without being willing to let them change what happens in the room runs the risk of participation being tokenistic. “It’s about examining power,” Mr Pusey says. “Who has the least power? And who speaks the most in the room? And people being aware of those power dynamics that go on, particularly by adult-facilitated things.”

While, sometimes, it may be that children’s ideas are still overruled, Cook recommends that it helps if the group has “a good process in place for feeding back after decisions are made, and explaining why certain decisions have been taken”.

Mr Pusey says that the part played by significant adults is crucial. “You need to have an adult who can create space for the young person and also control the other adults in the room, so that the young person doesn’t have to fight all those dynamics. So, you need that significant adult who’s prepared to say, ‘I think there’s something we could have missed here — I’d like to ask X what they think.’”

Not every child will want to be involved. Particularly for those under pressure in other areas of their lives, church may need to be a place where they simply show up, with no expectations, to be loved. But, by providing opportunities for meaningful participation, children can be empowered to fulfil the promise made at their baptisms: to “take their place among the life and worship of Christ’s church”; to be not just the future of the church, but the church’s present, with gifts and insights to offer now, making the whole church richer and more complete with their presence.

“It’s about skills and development,” Mr Pusey says: “about a sense of purpose, finding your purpose and your shape in the community, and a sense that the shape is not complete unless you have all participating, which includes children and young people.”

Forthcoming Events

20 September 2021
Online book launch: Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer
Author Jarel Robinson-Brown in conversation with Rev. Winnie Varghese.

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

More events

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