What we can learn from the pandemic about ministry with children and young people.
In the first of two posts on children’s and youth ministry, Clare Williams highlights the importance of the domestic church, and indicates that poor provision for children and young people in church can all too easily be replicated in online worship. She argues that online worship needs to be representative and engaging of people of all ages.
The Biblical imperative of faith in the home
The welcoming of children and young people as part of regular worship is widely acknowledged as one of the key indicators of a healthy, growing church. This has long been expressed in a number of ways but has predominantly meant churches themselves providing age-appropriate discipleship opportunities. While this has been – and continues to be – an extremely important part of the Church’s ministry and, indeed, what parents often look to the Church to provide, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of something which has been an ever-increasing call from those involved in children’s and youth ministry across the Church: faith at home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for churches to make provision for faith in the home for all ages. However, this is not a new idea: “They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” (Acts 16:32). Households of faith within the Bible would have included all ages, with both children and young people. There is a need to ensure that whatever our ministry with children and young people looks like within our church communities, it involves discipleship through the week, with a connection between church, school and home. We also need to find ways of growing faith in adults which equips and encourages them to continue this in the home, which has been called the “vital dynamic”. (1) The current situation may have helped us to learn about this dynamic and take steps which can be built on.
The values of working on and off screen
We know that many churches, while perhaps being initially daunted, have relished the experience of going online and have found many new worshippers engaging in this way. “Last month we were the Odeon, today we are Netflix” (2)– which may explain why online worship might be particularly attractive to the younger generations.
However, not all the online engagement has been a positive experience for young people, often caused by churches producing a very adult-focused form of worship online. This has resulted in young people expressing “that they are not connecting well with the worship services they are presently participating in”. (3) The important emphasis on relational youth work can also be lacking with connections via a screen only. When face-to-face youth work recommences, a re-building of trust and relationships will be key to maintaining this ministry. We will no longer be able to rely in the same way on well-established programmes or patterns. We also know the difficulties caused by excessive ‘screen-time’ for many children and young people which existed before lockdown and will no doubt have been exacerbated by an increased need for that kind of engagement.
But online worship has had, and should continue to have, a place in our ministry with children and young people. Many will have found a freedom in worship they haven’t experienced before; others will have sampled different flavours and be keen to see that replicated in their own worshipping community. There will be a lot for us to learn from their experiences and, for many, the way we offer worship to children and young people will continue to include screen-based worship in some form: “the relationships and connection that occur within and around the online sessions are key to ensuring the positive trajectory of children’s faith nurture during this pandemic, and onwards. The scope and prospect of online faith nurture for children is immense.” (4)
The work to be done in engaging all ages in worship
Our online worship may also have mirrored our previous ways of engaging with children and young people in our worshipping communities. How many will have replicated the ‘children’s corner’ – expecting parents/carers to entertain their children while watching an adult-centred online service? Some recent research has shown that “much of the web content was passive for the children, which is not a good way for them to learn”. (5)
There are many reflections on how online worship could be improved in order to engage all ages well, for example, keeping it short, prioritising stories and illustrations in the sermon, and including open-ended questions to allow worshippers to respond. (6) These points – and more – of course relate to worship both online and offline! As ever, we must always be seeking not just to help children and young people learn the stories of the Bible but to invite them to fall in love with that story.
However, in addition, there are two overwhelmingly strong themes emerging from how we can improve worship for all ages. The first is that children and young people have responded most strongly to worship which has included them (or other children and young people) in leading worship, prayers, reading Scripture, participating in music etc. – “a variety of worship leaders, including children, was very important to their worship experience”. (7) Again, this is nothing new, but this situation certainly has something to teach us about being bold enough to allow children and young people to take a lead in planning and delivering worship and learning in our churches.
The second is the importance of connection, which has been created by the phenomenon of gatherings such as Zoom coffee mornings. I will expand on this, as well as two other learning points from the pandemic, in the next instalment of this article.
Clare Williams is a youth worker and editor of ROOTS children’s and young people’s resources.
- Ali Campbell, ‘Faith in the home is not just for the pandemic’, Church Times (8 May 2020)
- Bob Jackson and George Fisher, ‘Everybody Welcome Online’ (May 2020) LINK
- Tori Smit, ‘Some thoughts on the inclusion of children and youth in online worship’ (May 2020) LINK
- Sarah E. Holmes, ‘Sunday School shutdowns during Covid-19: How will this affect our children’s faith nurture?’, School of Education, Liverpool Hope University (June 2020)
- Holmes (June 2020)
- Smit (May 2020)
- Smit (May 2020)