Family fear – how can churches hope to take root in the hearts of the young?
Many of us who are parents have probably been there. In church with a fractious child, our stress levels rising with every tut and pair of disapproving eyes boring into the backs of our heads. Feeling judged for poor parenting skills and wondering, frankly, why did we bother?
Those disapproving vibes might be imagined, but the feelings are very real. Amy Wheeler, Families Leader at the Callington Cluster is on a mission to change that. “We talk about youth, the missing generations and how to reach them – but we’ll only do that if we reach the parents first. And we won’t reach them if they don’t feel welcome in our churches with their children. Our vision is to make church as comfortable as a home from home.”
“We talk about youth, the missing generations and how to reach them – but we’ll only do that if we reach the parents first. And we won’t reach them if they don’t feel welcome in our churches with their children. Our vision is to make church as comfortable as a home from home.”
Amy joined the team at the Callington Cluster in September last year, and has spent most of the time since then watching, waiting on God and getting to know the particular characteristics of each of the churches within the cluster. She is often asked, “What is it you actually do?” and recently answered with an article in their local parish magazine:
“Good question – but it’s very complicated!” Amy breaks down her role into different parts: to attract new families to church; to keep them; improve the resources churches have; support families and better connect with schools and colleges. Most importantly, Amy believes that “As Christians, we need to be fearless in our approach and allow God to shape the way we perceive and support families.”
An essential strategy if the churches, not just in Callington but across Cornwall, are to grow and take root in the hearts of our young. Our children’s faith doesn’t start in church, but with their parents. So, if the church is to reach our children, it has to make a connection with parents first. Rob Parsons of Care for the Family has a lot of very useful things to say on the matter, but one of the most striking things is not what our children don’t hear from us but what they do. For example, our cynicism, how we might grumble about what happened at church, the dreadful music, the tedious sermon, being nabbed by so-and-so again over coffee afterwards. As he says, children, especially younger ones, hear our every word and take their lead from us (even if they don’t think they do!).
Families Leader not Youth Leader
That’s one of the reasons why Amy’s job title is Families Leader and not Youth Leader – if we don’t reach the parents we haven’t a hope of reaching the children and sustaining them in their faith when they’ve grown out of messy church and all the other ways in which we try to make church accessible.
Amy’s task is wide. It stretches from re-designing their website to make it brighter, more inviting and appealing to parents who are internet savvy, to making sure all services are family friendly, not just on one day a month. “I have a thing about services, especially family ones – I don’t want the older members of the congregation switching off in the family services (or going somewhere else). I would love it if the services worked on different levels – a bit like a family film! The children love it but the adults are engaged too because they get the jokes and nuances that go over younger heads!”
“Reaching young people isn’t just about appealing to them with cute stories and action songs, it’s about offering something relevant to the whole family.”
Amy believes that it’s not impossible for a service to do something similar. That can be from engaging children, who’ve reached the limit of their patience, with toys and activities away or aside from the main event, to speaking into family life. “Reaching young people isn’t just about appealing to them with cute stories and action songs, it’s about offering something relevant to the whole family.”
Parenting is tough
Being a parent is tough, whether that was ‘back in the day’ or in today’s digital maelstrom. “Parents need so much support. Parenting courses are a great way of reaching out, offering practical non-patronising support and showing our churches to be active, engaged and caring.” Amy has a programme planned but is also focusing on men and women’s groups, where people can talk and share freely.
“We really want families to know they are not on their own, no matter where they are on their journey.”
Church for the un-churched
Part of Amy’s plans include Friday night church for the un-churched. “To be a place for the whole family to experience church in a different way, breaking down the usual awkward barriers. We won’t be holding it in a church building and it will be a mix of a kid’s club, an Alpha course and a meal at the end of the evening to bring everyone together to share what the children and parents have learnt in their separate groups.”
It is often said that we are (as churches) pretty good at helping to put people back together when they fall off the edge, but we need to be better at attending to the fences that stop people from falling in the first place. And that surely starts with helping families.
If you’re doing something in your part of Cornwall that is successfully changing the landscape of your congregation, and we know many of you are, be that in church or out in the community, please let us know so that we can share it. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the whole of Cornwall was known as the diocese that bucks the trend in children (not) going to church – no matter how noisy they are!