Fishers of people: lessons in evangelism from our children

At Ark, my Sunday morning children’s group, we follow the lectionary, so today we were looking at Jesus calling his first disciples to be fishers of people. (We avoided the translation which renders this as “I will make you fish for people” which has led to some confused mental images of mermaids or fish-with-legs in the past!). Once we’d established that Jesus didn’t want us to actually catch people in a fishing net, and demonstrated why that wouldn’t work, our small group (age 4-12) had a great discussion about what he did mean.

We established that Jesus wants us to follow him, and get other people to follow him too. But how? “How do you get people to join in with your game in the playground?” I asked the children. And based on their answers, we came up with this list of things we need to do to get people to join in with something, whether it’s a playground game or following Jesus.

TELL people that there’s something going on.

EXPLAIN what it is and what it involves.

INVITE them to join in.

SHOW them that it’s a good (fun/enjoyable/worthwhile) thing to do.

Not bad as a strategy for evangelism, I’d say. Well done, Ark! Now I wonder if we can get the grown ups joining in? It’s not so complicated when you look at it, is it? Tell people about Jesus. Explain what it means to follow him. Invite them, or rather pass on God’s invitation to them. Show them how following Jesus transforms our lives. Not rocket science. No specialist training or tools required. Even a child, perhaps especially a child, can show you how. So let’s do it! 

Children and Communion

Earlier this week I saw a tweet which got me thinking (and replying multiple times). “Baptised children receiving communion – where do you stand on that issue?” asked Mary Hawes (@revmaryhawes). As anyone who knows me at all will know, the short answer is “very much in favour”, but on reading the question several reactions sprung to mind at once, and I tweeted them. I was surprised by the strength of my own feelings on the matter. Here I’m going to lay out in a bit more detail what I meant by each.

[For non-Anglicans, wondering what on earth I’m on about, a very quick overview: Since 2006 individual parishes have been able to choose to allow baptised children to start receiving communion before they are confirmed. About 15% of parishes have chosen to do this so far. The church where I am Children’s Minister is one of them.]

These are the responses I instinctively gave on Twitter, and a bit of an explanation of each:

“Baptised children receiving communion – where do you stand on that issue?”

“Frustrated that it isn’t more widespread and better understood” This is a fairly recent, and fairly big, change to the church’s practice, and represents a major shift in how children are treated and perceived, away from “Christians of the future” to be educated and “retained”, and towards seeing them (rightly) as full members of the body of Christ, with all that that entails. So why isn’t anyone talking about it? Why are we talking endlessly about some big issues in the church’s very slow progress towards inclusivity, but not this one?

And why have so few churches started admitting children to communion? 15% – that’s really not many. Is it that the rest are opposed to it? I don’t think so, or not entirely. I think it’s often just that it hasn’t even crossed their radar. Or if it has, a decision has been put off in favour of more “important” (for which, read “urgent”) matters. Because this is important, really important. It’s about how some of the most marginalised members of society (because children are marginalised) are recognised and valued as members of the body of Christ. It’s also about how we, the church, carry out some of Jesus’ clearest instructions to us (of which more later). So let’s start talking about it.

“And angry that people set the bar higher for children than adults (“but they don’t understand properly” etc)” When people express doubt, uncertainty, or even outright opposition, to the idea of children being admitted to communion, the most common thing I hear is “but they won’t fully understand what’s happening in the eucharist”. My response? Well, no, they won’t. Nor do I. Do you? That’s why we call it a mystery.

Sacraments are not (thankfully!) reliant on any of us fully understanding what is going on. They are signs and outworkings of God’s grace and, just as we understand God imperfectly, we will always understand the sacraments imperfectly. Just as our understanding of God changes and matures and grows, so will our understanding of the sacraments. But let’s not wait for perfect understanding, or we’ll be waiting an awfully long time!

Incidentally, I think many children have a much greater understanding of the eucharist than many adults. Children inherently “get” the sacramental because they are less inclined to try to fit everything into neat boxes of understanding, and more ready to enter wholeheartedly into mystery.

“And disheartened by lack of resources appropriate to Anglo-Catholic context (have developed my own)” Oh yes, the resources. Because once a church has decided to admit children to communion, we have to decide what sort of preparation is appropriate. When I came to do this, I could find nothing I liked which expressed a sacramental understanding which was appropriate for our, broadly Anglo-Catholic, context. There was a lot of “we do this to remember Jesus”, but no acknowledgement that there might be something else going on here, something bigger, something mysterious, something transformational… And so I created my own resources, which is perhaps a subject for another post.

“Denying children communion = putting barrier between them and Jesus. Pretty sure he had something to say about that…” And this is the heart of it. There are lots of things Jesus isn’t at all clear about (and wouldn’t it be helpful if he was!) but the place of children in God’s kingdom isn’t one of them. Nor is the fate of those who, intentionally or otherwise, put barriers between children and Jesus.

“Let the little children come to me and do not stop them.” Luke 18.16

“Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 18.3

“If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Mark 9

This is serious stuff. Welcome children. Become like children. Do not cause these children to stumble. It couldn’t be clearer that Jesus wants and loves and values children, and that he sees them as believers, as heirs to the kingdom, and as examples of discipleship for the rest of us to follow. We would do well to remember that before we start trying to decide whether we should “allow” them to receive communion.

Because in the end, it is not ours to allow or disallow. It is Christ’s body and blood, given for all, that we might enter his kingdom. And it’s quite clear that Jesus includes children in that. So who are we to tell children this isn’t for them?

If a child reaches out their hands in faith to receive the body and blood of Christ, and we tell them “no”, what is that if not a stumbling-block? Woe to us who think we know better than Jesus who should and should not be invited to his banquet. Woe to us who think age is more important than faith, or that there are limits on receiving God’s sacramental grace. Woe to us who think we have more important things to do than welcoming these little ones to God’s table.

I would be very interested to hear other people’s experience of admitting children to communion (or not admitting them). Please feel free to comment below.

Christingle Acrostic Talk

I see from my Twitter feed that some people are looking for ideas for Christingle talks for tomorrow, so thought I’d share mine in case it’s any help. Feel free to borrow and adapt!

I write each of the letters of “CHRISTINGLE” on a piece of paper and put them under chairs in advance. At the start of the talk I ask everyone to look under their seat and bring up their letter if they’ve got one (or, for shy grown-ups, give it to a nearby child to bring up). With the letters held up in random order I ask the congregation to guess what it spells.

Then arrange the letters into the right order, and speak about each in turn. I’ve never written down what I say, so it’s up to you how you make the links and how much emphasis you place on each. But the basic idea is and introduction to what Christmas/Christingle is all about (CH), an outline of the story (RIST) and then the “so what” – what does the story mean for us? (INGLE) The words I use for each letter are:

C – child

H – holy

R – riding on a donkey

I – in a manger

S – shepherds

T – three wise men

I – incarnation

N – nativity

G – God

L – light

E – Emmanuel

A couple of practical notes (from experience!):

1. bear in mind that if you’re aiming for about 7 minutes then, once you’ve done the letter-finding and word-guessing, you’ve only got 30 seconds or so per letter.

2. if, like me, you do it without using notes, writing the word on the back of each letter is helpful, but make sure you’ve got your two ‘I’s the right way round.

3. try not to miss out any letters which have been run off with and/or eaten before you get to them!

Whatever you do, have fun!

Epiphany: The end is a new beginning: returning by another way #adventbookclub

In today’s passage (Matthew 2.12-23) we see both the wise men and the holy family returning by another way. There are no neat endings to the nativity narrative because it isn’t an ending at all, it’s a beginning. A beginning of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. A beginning of a new chapter in God’s relationship with humankind. The beginning of the new covenant.

But let’s pause for a moment to look at this returning by another way – the end of the beginning, if you will. No-one returns from their encounter with Jesus the same way they arrive. The shepherds go on their way praising God. The wise men return by another way. Mary and Joseph flee to save their young son. Everyone is changed by their part in the nativity story. Everyone is changed by their encounter with Christ.

And so are we. We do not go on from an encounter with Jesus in the same way we came to it. We are changed, made new, transformed. We seek Christ and when we find him, that is not an ending of our journey, but a new beginning.

5th January: Kings and gifts #adventbookclub

It seems to me that today’s reflection is another one about looking for Christ in unexpected places (see yesterday’s post). Or rather, looking for Christ in unexpected people. Because the magi are really not the sort of people to whom you’d expect the Messiah to be revealed. Gentiles, for a start. Foreigners. Probably mixed up in all sorts of magic and ‘false’ religion. And not really terribly sure about where they’re going or what they’re looking for. But God thinks differently, and makes the magi a key part of his plan to reveal himself to the world in the person of Jesus.

And in doing so, he challenges us to look at the most unlikely people, and seek out something of God in them. Often moments of deep encounter with Christ come when we meet him in the people we least expect. I quite frequently hear people exclaim in amazement that a child has shown them something of God. They had dismissed the possibility, simply because the person they are talking to is ‘only’ a child. But God works through everyone, regardless of age, class, gender, race, disability, sexuality, religion or anything else. His ways, after all, are higher than our ways, and his thoughts than our thoughts. He sees in each person his own image, even (perhaps especially) when others cannot. 

All of us have people or groups of people in whom we are reluctant to see or to seek Christ. Let’s begin by examining those prejudices and asking God to take them and challenge them in ways we cannot even imagine. It might be scary, it might be uncomfortable, it might turn our world view upside down. But it will surely bring us closer to God’s kingdom.

4th January: Born in a borrowed room #adventbookclub

Looking at the start and end of Jesus’ life. Borrowed rooms and the kindness of strangers. The stable and the upper room. There’s something about living in places not one’s own which implies traveling light, leaving a shallow footprint, holding loosely the things of this world.

Is that how Jesus is? Well, it sort of is and it sort of isn’t. In the world but not of the world. Traveling light but dwelling deeply. But to view Jesus as nomadic, passing through, not rooted in place or property, shouldn’t mislead us into thinking he’s less that totally immersed and steeped in what it is to be fully human, fully alive, fully part of this world.

And that’s how we should be too. Fully engaged in the reality of the world around us, but not trapped by attachment to particular places or possessions. In the world but not of the world. 

The thing about being a bit nomadic, about living in borrowed rooms, choosing to root ourselves in Christ instead of a particular place and community and home, is that it can get a bit lonely. Whether it’s moving around, or choosing not to join in with the latest craze, or speaking out against the prevailing attitude, we put ourselves on the edge when we choose not to conform to the dominant culture. It would be easier to go with the flow. But the edge is where God calls us to be. It’s where Jesus met people. It’s where we meet people. It’s where we meet Jesus. And suddenly it’s not lonely any more.   

I’m reminded of Adrian Snell’s beautiful song “Fierce Love” which I’ve been listening to a lot in the last couple of months (be warned – the video will make you cry):

“This is where I seek you, in the margins not the centre.” Appropriate for a Saviour who spent his life in borrowed rooms and the homes of outcasts. May we seek and find Christ in the most unlikely places.  

Five-finger intercessions for All Age Eucharist

Whenever I need intercessions at short notice which have some interactive element but don’t require any preparation (and don’t make adults cringe!) I tend to use these. Feel free to use and adapt if helpful.

Now as we pray together, I invite you to hold one of your hands in front of you, in a fist.  As we pray, we’re going to extend each of our fingers in turn, to represent the different types of prayer we’re praying.

First, I invite you to hold up your thumb, as we thank God for all the good things in our lives.

Lord God, we thank you for giving us all that we need.  We thank you for our friends and families, and for all the good things that have happened this week.

Now, stretch out your index finger as we point our prayers towards situations of particular need.

Lord, we pray for all places where there is war, conflict, famine, or natural disaster. We pray too for our local community and, at the start of this new term, we pray for children and young people returning to school or college and for teachers. 

Next, hold out your middle finger, which is your strongest finger, as we pray for people in positions of power and responsibility.

Father, we pray for the leaders of the world, that they may act with wisdom and compassion in the best interests of their people.  We pray particularly for peace in the Holy Land, and for all who have the power and responsibility bring about reconciliation in that place.

Now, hold out your ring finger, as we pray for the Church, which is the bride of Christ.

We pray for your Church throughout the world.  We pray for our archbishop Justin, bishops, Alan and John, and for our life together here at All Saints.  We pray for all Christians around the world who are in danger because of their faith.

Next, stretch out your little finger, as we pray for all those in need, in positions of powerlessness, or vulnerability.

We pray for all who are sick, lonely, depressed, bereaved or anxious.  We pray for those whose names are on the News Sheet, for those known to us, and for those who have no-one else to pray for them. We pray also for those who have died, giving thanks for their lives.

Finally, as we join our prayers together and offer them to God, I invite you to hold out both your hands, palm upwards, as we lift our prayers to the Lord.

Loving father, you have promised that you will hear us when we pray.  Draw near to us now as we lift up our hearts and our prayers to you, in the name of your son, our saviour Jesus Christ. Amen

All Age sermon for Epiphany (Year A) Matthew 2.1-11

Sermon for All Age Eucharist tomorrow. The 8am BCP will be getting the same, but without the participatory bits [in brackets]!

Lord, may the words that I speak be the words you want spoken, may the words that we hear be the words you want heard, may they draw us ever closer to the one true living word, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I wonder who here gave someone a present over Christmas? [ask what did you give and why] We give presents to show we care, to put someone else’s needs before our own.

 The wise men brought gifts for Jesus, gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh [volunteers to hold gifts]. Their gifts each had a symbolic value, they each tell us something about Jesus.

[Gold box] Gold tells us that Jesus is a king, because kings wear gold.

[Incense – sniff] Frankincense tells us that Jesus is holy, because in Jewish worship at that time, incense was a symbol of prayer.

[Wooden box] Myrrh tells us that Jesus is going to suffer and die on the cross, because myrrh was used to prepare dead bodies for burial.

So here we have symbols of kingship, holiness and death, all important aspects of Jesus’ mission on earth. But the gifts were also of great value, the best the wise men could afford. And why did they want to give the best gifts they could? Because God had given them the very best gift he could, in Jesus.

And that’s a gift God has given us too. Jesus is God’s gift to each of us, the best gift God could possibly give us: himself. And what gift can we give him in return?

On Christmas morning, some of us read this book [The Perfect Christmas Present by Alexa Tewksbury] which is a story about a shrew called Small who sets out to find the perfect Christmas present for God. He considers several options, but nothing seems good enough. Finally his wise friend the tortoise tells him “It’s you. It’s me. It’s everyone living on the earth… God’s given himself to the world by sending His baby Son [Jesus] to live here. The only present he wants in return… is us.”

I wonder what is the most important present the wise men gave? Gold, frankincense or myrrh? I don’t think so. I think the most important gift they gave Jesus was themselves. Their time and talents and perseverance in following the star. Their worship when they saw Jesus. “They knelt down and paid him homage” – this too is a gift the wise men give to Jesus.

The best gift God could give us is himself, in Jesus. The best gift we can give God is ourselves. But how do we do that? Normally when we give someone a present we wrap it up. Let’s try that [wrap up child].

No, that’s not going to work, is it? So how do we give ourselves to God? By putting him at the centre of our lives. By living the way Jesus taught us. By putting others first and going out of our way to help them. By worshipping God with our whole selves. By praying. By receiving communion or a blessing when we come to church.

It is God’s generosity to us, in giving himself to us completely in the person of Jesus, that makes us want to give ourselves to him, just as their encounter with Jesus brought the wise men to their knees in worship.

It’s the start of a new year and perhaps some of you have already made new year’s resolutions [ask for examples]. If you only make one resolution this year, I urge you to make it this, and keep making and re-making it as often as necessary: Put God first. Put Jesus at the centre. Everything else will follow.


3rd January: Double-edged prophecy #adventbookclub

I have long since lost count of the number of times I have said “Jesus changes everything”. I’ve said it in sermons, assemblies, small groups, to visiting brownie packs, over coffee in the church cafe, and on this blog. And it’s true. But today’s reflection on the prophecy of Simeon and Anna in the temple reminds us that it both is and is not that straightforward.

Anna’s response, praising God and telling others that the Messiah is here, is the straightforward part. But what of Simeon’s prophecy, with talk of rising and falling, opposition, and a sword that pierces the heart? Perhaps it seems to put a bit of a damper on the rejoicing at Jesus’ coming. But actually, what Simeon says takes in the deeper, more complicated truth of what Jesus has come to do.

Because salvation both is and isn’t straightforward. Jesus comes to save us – that much is clear. But the arrival of the infant Jesus in the temple does not immediately make everything OK. Perhaps that’s what the people who had watched and waited in the temple for the Messiah with SImeon and Anna were expecting. But how could a tiny baby make everything OK for all these people? Simeon is onto something important when he speaks of pain and trouble to come. The presentation of Christ in the temple is more like a promise. Jesus has come to save us. But he will also be with us through times of trouble and pain and uncertainty, holding out the promise that this is not all there is. More is to come. Better is to come. Salvation is promised. All shall be well.

2nd January: Shepherds and wise men #adventbookclub

Thinking about the contrasting experience of the shepherds and the wise men. The shepherds rushing, responding immediately, rashly leaving their flocks. The wise men planning, calculating, waiting, patiently following. Rough and ready, or refined and respected. Sudden revelation or gradual unfolding. Heart or head.

And of course, in our own drawing-near to Christ we need both. Perhaps each of us needs them in different proportions, but the one without the other would be missing something. Faith which is purely intellectual will fail to engage our whole being. Faith which is nothing but a series of sudden emotional and spiritual highs will leave us with nothing for the between-times. We need the patience of the wise men and the impulsiveness of the shepherds. The understanding and the un-knowing trust.

I wonder how we balance those within ourselves? How we find ways of valuing both in each other? How we create a place for both in our churches?