Sometimes, we do things that can make very little sense at all…  Sometimes, we do those things unthinkingly, because “It’s always been done that way…”.  Sometimes, it’s only when we are challenged to really think about it, that we realise that there might be a better way… That’s the journey I’ve been on when thinking about the way that we organise our children’s work at church…

Imagine if, as an adult, when you had arrived at church last Sunday the person greeting you on the door had asked “How old are you?” and had then directed you into one of a number of locations based upon your answer.  The person you came with might be older or younger than you and so had ended up somewhere else.  You would then have had a wildly varied programme, trying to appeal to the various learning styles and interests of the others in your age group.  Some of it might have appealed to you, most of it won’t have.  The person leading the group was really good at leading some of the activities, less so at others…  Would you be keen to come back next week?  Apart from the comedy value of it all, probably not…

So why do we do this for our church children’s work? We meticulously separate children into under 3’s, 3-5’s, 6-7’s, 8-9’s and so on all the way up to, and in some cases including, our youth work.  Whatever the learning style of each child (watching, listening, doing), whatever they might like or be good at, whatever their ability, whether they have additional needs or not… if you are six, you are in the group with all the other six and seven year olds.  I’m sure historically it stems from the education system, which rigorously moves pupils up by year group.  But for some time in the education world it has been common at times for classes to be mixed up by ability, interest etc. across several year groups.  We haven’t generally caught up with this in the church context yet!

I was asked to speak at the ‘Hand in Hand Children’s and Families Ministry’ conference earlier this year on ‘Investing in a peer community: How can we initiate and encourage a positive, supportive peer network for our children and young people?’  This got me thinking about how we organise our children’s work at church…  Is there a better way… a way that encourages these supportive peer networks to develop across all ages; to be supportive for all, including children with additional needs?

William Corsaro, Professor Emeritus Department of Sociology, Indiana University, Bloomington; author of ‘The Sociology of Children’, and ‘We’re Friends, Right?’ says that: “Children and youth are members of peer groups (i.e. children and youth of relatively the same age, although the age range can vary), whereas children and youth collectively produce their peer cultures.” (and this can cross over age ranges).

These cultures spring from shared interests, shared values, shared ways of learning or doing things.  We already do this in our adult work, offering different groups that appeal to different demographics within the congregation (sports ministry, dance ministry, men’s breakfast, etc).  What if we started to look at our church children’s work in the same way?  Offering children choices of learning style, or activity groups based on their interest, instead of their age?

Some might enjoy and learn better through storytelling, creatively re-telling the big story of the Bible in engaging and exciting ways, maybe including through drama.  Some will like to get stuck into doing creative things, whether it’s a carefully thought through craft activity that includes the teaching, or through drawing and painting, or even through Lego (have a look at the ‘Brick Bible’ both in book form and on video!)  Others will learn through worship focussed activities, maybe encouraging those that can play instruments, sing, learn to use the AV and sound desk equipment etc.  There will be many more options to choose from based on the children we’re working with (how about a ‘tech’ group that recreates Bible scenes in Minecraft for example, and did you know there is a Minecraft Bible?) … and we can position our leaders and helpers based on their skillsets too, rather than expecting them to be able to do everything!

Lego and Minecraft

This model can work really well for children with additional needs too…  If we can help them to learn in a way that appeals to their preferred learning style they are more likely to remain engaged in the activities, and if they are in a mixed age group there can be ready made ‘buddies’ to help and support them too.

Many children with additional needs prefer structure and consistency week by week, and so offering them this through access to a group that regularly does the things they enjoy will be helpful.  And there is no rule that says that children must stay in the same group every week… if someone who is usually in the ‘creative’ group wants to try the ‘storytelling’ group for a change, then why not?  Peer culture is rarely developed through rigid rules, but evolves and grows by being flexible and agile.

People can fear change, and children’s workers can be no different to anyone else in finding change challenging.  A different approach to children’s work requires some careful thought, planning and prayer, maybe even a trial in a holiday club, but offers the opportunity to revolutionise and revitalise our children’s work… to break us out of the old ‘age group’ mould…  Why wouldn’t we give it a try?  See the testimonial below from a church that has done just that this year and has seen great results!

Mark

15th December 2017
(An earlier version of this blog post was first published on 6th February 2017)

Image rights:  Header © VivaLing, ‘Temple of Jerusalem’ © Kieran/Jackie Potter, ‘Abraham and Isaac’ © Ed Beamish/Beamish family, ‘Minecraft’ photo © Mojang, Minecraft Bible © Garrett Romines & Christopher Miko/Lion Hudson Publishing, Brick Bible © Brendan Powell Smith.

Testimonial from Hitchin Christian Centre, a church that has adopted the ‘interest group’ approach to their children’s work during 2017:

 “Just had to bring you up to speed with our children’s work as we head towards the last one before the Christmas break… 

 We have been working with the arrangement of children’s work being structured around interest groups instead of age groups and this has worked so well and especially for those children with additional needs.  What I have noticed, though, is that the children’s understanding of what we teach them is greater when they can translate the message for themselves.  We have heard some awesome things from our children that make you want to cry.  Children hear God’s voice so much better than we do and this was like witnessing the voice of God speaking through so many.  Needless to say, we are sticking with this method and are looking for different ways that we can bring in more ideas.

 If you’re down this way some time next year, I would love for you to be able to see what we do with our children and how Urban Saints Additional Needs Ministry has changed our children’s ministry.  I hope this brings a smile to your face and encouragement to your heart, but thank you so much for your gift that you bring to others.”

Bekkie Woods-Stark, Families & Children’s Pastor – HCC
11th December 2017