This article appears in the current edition of Scottish Christian Broadcast magazine.
It was an interesting ‘quinquennial’ visit from the Presbytery (for those not familiar with Presbyterian church procedure, quinquennials are five yearly visits from the local presbytery to see how the local church is getting on). Why don’t you have family services? Because we don’t have any children! Maybe you don’t have any children because you don’t have family services? It struck me that it was a somewhat superficial suggestion. Be that as it may from that date (and without holding ‘family services’) St Peters Dundee has had a continual flow of children to the extent that our crèche and Sunday school are overflowing. It is something for which I, as the minister, am very thankful, and it has caused me to think a great deal about how the family (in its many shapes and sizes) can relate to the Church.
The sociologist, Professor Callum Brown, once told me that he considered the whole Sunday school movement in Scotland would be effectively dead by 2011. Whilst there are still some lively Sunday schools, his prophecy of doom has largely been fulfilled. The days of double decker buses of children heading out from the city of Dundee to the country parks of Crombie and Monikie are long gone. Most churches will do well if they could fill a minibus. Of course many churches still have lots of youth organisations (Brownies, Scouts, Guides etc.) but they are organizations that use the church building and have little meaningful contact with the real church, the people of God.
What’s Gone Wrong?
Society has changed. The days when there was nothing to do on a Sunday and sending the kids off to Sunday school was an attractive option, have long gone. Sunday is now the day for children’s sports and shopping. Besides which there is the Internet, computer games and social media. Who wants to go to boring old Sunday school? Or even the hip, new trendy, Sunday club?
The schools have changed. We have moved from a basically Christian education system to one that has become ‘neutral’ in theory, but in reality in many cases anti-Christian, instilling atheistic secularist principles in our children.
The whole concept of the family has been undermined. The sexual revolution, decline of Christianity, the atomization and individualization of society, and the teaching of philosophies that fundamentally attack the Christian understanding of the family, have resulted in many broken families. I remember taking one camp just outside Dundee and of the 20 children present I could only say to one, ‘go home to your mum and dad’.
And the Church has lagged behind. Too many churches have worked on the premise that if you get the children then you will get the parents as well – a failed mantra which has had disastrous consequences. Yes, for years we were able to hold our holiday clubs, children’s nights and outreach events – but we were never really getting to the heart of the problem. Now that the children have better things to do and the parents more babysitting options, even these are becoming more difficult.
What’s Gone Right?
This is thankfully not true in every church. There are churches with many families and young children, where the children play a vital part in the life of the church. What are they doing right? I would make the following general observations.
- They take the family seriously – They care about families, recognizing that in Gods plan the family is the basic building block for society. They avoid the mistake of idolizing the nuclear family (thus alienating the extended family and all single people) and they challenge the cultural attitudes and practices that so undermine the family.
- They take children seriously – Children are not pests. Nor are they little idols. They are human beings made in the image of God who need to be brought up in the love and fear of the Lord. Churches who recognize that Sunday school is not a babysitting agency will invest in quality teachers, quality resources and quality prayer. And Sunday school is only a small part. Family worship (remember that?), youth bible groups, catechism, and children’s/teen apologetics (answering the questions the children are asking or being asked) are all essential.
- They take church seriously – The church is a family. In that sense the children of the Church belong to everyone in the church. You don’t need a massive youth organization or Sunday school in order for children to belong. I have noticed that if the parents take church seriously, the children are much more likely to. In this respect let me give one example from my own experience. Parents who bring their children along to the evening service (and not just morning Sunday school) are in general far more likely to see them continuing to follow Christ, than those who do not.
- They take the Bible seriously – They do all of this because they actually believe the Bible. It is not a pick ‘n’ mix book out of which the nice bits and the cute stories are to be selected. It is the Word of God which needs to be taught, learned, discussed, shared and wrestled with.
In all of this or course, they are only following Christ. He took the family seriously, he took the bible seriously and he took children so seriously that he warned that those who caused them to stumble deserved to go to Hell. Perhaps as those who profess to follow Christ, we should have his attitude. ‘Let the little children come to me, do not hinder them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. ‘
Click Here for an example of what we do in St Peters.