It is nearly a month since the end of the Faith Forward Conference and the conversation I encountered in Nashville is still untangling itself in my head and through a variety of discussions with friends and colleagues back home.
I keep trying to find ways to describe the conference and a few words keep surfacing:
‘balance’, ‘rhythm’, ‘fairy tales’, ‘community’, ‘contrast’ but above all ‘brilliant’
The conference was titled: re-imagining youth and children’s ministry through theology, story and rhythm.
I didn’t realise it until after the event but the balance of that intention is remarkable.
On the practical side, I have learnt a great deal about running a conference, most especially the importance of space for delegates to process ideas. Each and every speaker was followed by an immediate minute silence for reflection – space for glancing at notes, waiting for questions to crystallise, space to breathe and brain cells to settle. So at the very least, coming soon to a conference near you: expect space to breathe!
More profound than the practical side is the balance that was reached in what was offered to help the conversation about ministry with children and young people that pursues faith formation. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso summarised this balance half-way through the conference: we experience God through the rhythm of ritual, we then have our own story to tell of God and us, only then can we attempt to describe the theology. How much of our practice of ministry attempts the reverse?
I hope to offer a few blog posts with more detailed reflection but here is something of an overview. It was impossible to shorten so scroll to the end paragraph if you are pressed for time…
My aspiration this year is to find a way to encourage ministry with children and young people that is wholly based on enabling their own exploration of faith. It is my opinion that much of the practice in Sunday School, Youth Groups and even All-Age Worship around the diocese is focussed on what children and young people will learn from their short time together each week or month. Attending Faith Forward has affirmed my growing unease about this instructional-schooling* method of Christian education. I am more convinced that we would do ourselves well to lose the term ‘education’ entirely. It is now too commonly understood as the process of infilling knowledge into the recipient. To my mind there is no depth of faith development in an entirely knowledge based approach.
So what do we do instead?
Well that is indeed the question. I have always been quick to ask critical questions such as “why are you running Sunday School?”, “what do you hope to get out of this Youth Group?” and “what could an employed Children’s Minister do that you can’t?”. The reason I ask those sorts of questions is to get individual churches to discover what it is that they are dreaming for the children and young people within their communities. There is such variety and volume of resource available that churches begin to believe the point of ministry with children and young people is at the very least keeping up with what the latest amazing resource that everyone else seems to be using. In some cases it may even be that these curricula materials become the whole story we are telling ourselves about our ministry. The reality is that the US context that calls for and produces much of that volume of material is very far from our context in the UK. Even in America there is a rapidly growing discomfort with the direction that Christian education has taken on the back of this tidal wave of lesson based publications.
I believe that what most churches want for the children and young people in their midst is to simply know God, and if at all possible to experience that knowing as a transforming presence.
If we understand God as something we approach most or only through intellectual knowledge then we have fallen into a one sided and limited theology.
If the story we have adopted for ourselves is that this is only possible through learning about God then we have been telling only a small part of the story.
If we fear introducing any ritual because the younger generations won’t like it, or are wholly tied to the rituals that worked for us or our parents, then we have in both cases forgotten the importance of life-giving faith rhythms.
Faith Forward at its core was and is still a conversation about reasserting, rediscovering and re-imagining faith development and nurture as the point of ministry with children and young people.
Children and young people need adults who themselves are living, free, transformed people of faith, who are able to model how to find the home that describes the place where we are close to God. If we, the grown ups, do not know how to get to that place of home then how can we hope to show children and young people the way. Finding home is not about information, nor is it about having the right curriculum. It cannot be achieved intellectually, or by acquiring enough biblical knowledge. It is simply the ability remember a sacred moment, to enter a sacred story, to decide to be open to God’s ever present sacred presence. This is what I believe we desire for our children and young people – that they would know this living with God instead of just knowing about God.
More to follow…
Posted by Murray
*John Westerhoff’s phrase — book now for Households of Faith to hear him in person!
Highlights reel from the Conference: