“And a little child shall lead them…” – reflecting on children’s participation at On Fire Mission

A few weeks ago, I went, as I do every year, to On Fire Mission Conference. There was the usual superb blend of the catholic and the charismatic, the spirit-filled and the sacramental, inspiring teaching and life-giving worship. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone, and booking is now open for next year’s conference…

But this year there was something else: children! I brought a box of resources, several parents brought their pre-school children (aged 10 months to 3 years), and God did something rather extraordinary. There were more fabulous, breath-taking, very-obviously-of-God moments than I can mention individually, but here are my reflections on the experience as a whole: 

 

When one of the speakers at Conference asked us to consider “where have you seen God’s glory alive and active this week?” my answer was obvious: here, on this rug on the floor at the front of the hall. The presence of children at Conference has revealed something more of God’s glory, something more of what it is to be fully alive in Christ, which could not have been revealed in an all-adult gathering.

Five years ago at Conference, I very clearly heard a word from God: “renewal, starting with children.” Just that. At the time, it didn’t make much sense. It has since been hugely significant in my own vocational journey, but now I realise that it could be important for On Fire as a whole as well. At the time I had a sense that the next wave of renewal (in a sacramental context, at least) would come from children – not from children’s work, or from adults ministering among children, but from children themselves, and the Holy Spirit working through them. At the time, it seemed too far-fetched even to talk about, except to a few. After experiencing this year’s Conference, it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

One of the greatest joys of this year’s Conference was the spontaneity with which the children engaged  with worship, and the way in which that drew in adults (including some of the more unlikely ones) to play and worship alongside them.

Play, as an aspect of worship and of spiritual life, seemed to me to be one of the gifts the children brought. I wonder how God might be calling us to develop our playfulness, and how that connects with what it means for us to be a sacramental and charismatic community? There is lots more that could be said about play as a gift of the Spirit, and about the sacramental dimension of play. Playing with God could certainly be an aspect of what it means to be “Called to Holiness” (next year’s conference theme).

Another dimension which I felt that the children brought to our worship was a greater freedom and spontaneity. They were, by and large, engaged with almost every aspect of worship but engaged very much on their own terms, which is exactly as it should be. Whether that was searching for sheep-themed stories and toys during the sermon, blowing bubbles for the intercessions, or lying on the floor to wait on the Spirit, it was apparent that they were participating in a shared encounter with God. More importantly, they were doing so as their authentic selves, not constrained by adult ideas of what worship should be like.

It seemed that children and adults together created a sort of ‘virtuous circle’. Because of the sense of openness already present in our worship at Conference – including the relaxed attitude of those presiding, preaching and otherwise leading worship – the children felt able to be fully themselves before God. Because of the freedom, spontaneity and playfulness demonstrated by the children, the adults (some of them at least) felt able to worship more freely themselves.

This was expressed most noticeably by adults ‘borrowing’ bubbles, ribbons, shakers, toys, etc and using them not ‘for the children’ but for their own worship. It was also evident in those adults who chose to join the children on the floor and/or to join in with their play and worship. These tendencies among the adults definitely increased as the week progressed, and they became less inhibited. It would be interesting to see what effect it would have if it were explicitly made clear at the start of Conference that things like bubbles and ribbons can be used by all ages, and that all are welcome to stand/sit/lie on the floor/dance/move around as they choose. I wonder what sort of holy chaos might ensue?!

Tied in with this freedom and authenticity in worship, I sense that God was showing us something important about what it means to be “Anointed for Action” (this year’s conference theme). It was evident in the children – and is equally true for all of us – that their vocation and anointing does not lie primarily in a particular action or ministry, but in being fully and truly their God-created selves. That is something which many of us adults find it hard to grasp about ourselves, and the lived example of the children among us could perhaps help us to understand it beyond any verbal, adult-led teaching on the subject. This might lead us to reflect on the balance between didactic and experiential elements to what we offer at Conference, and in the church more widely?

I feel that the presence of children at Conference this year has been an important turning point for On Fire (and perhaps the church more broadly). Again, as so often before, the phrase “renewal, starting with children” came back to me, but this time with the conviction that this is what it looks like, or at least the first steps of it, and that this is the direction in which God is calling us to travel.

I hope and pray that we can be brave enough to follow this call (in ways which will almost certainly require us to give up some of our adult illusions of being in control), trusting in the Holy Spirit and in what she is doing through the children in our midst.

 

Church ‘upside down’: what if…

Sometimes you read a blog post (or an article, or a book…) which makes you just want to yell “YES!!! This!!! This is what the church needs to hear, this is what the church needs to be.” For me, Rev’d Al Barrett’s post “Church ‘outside in’: what if…” is one such post.

But I want to go a step further. I want to ask another “what if…” question: what if, as well as being turned ‘outside in’, the church were to be turned ‘upside down’?

Regular readers of this blog will be unsurprised to hear that what I’m thinking about here is the position of children in the church. Al writes: “I have a hunch there’s something significant here about children too.” Too right! But I’d go further. I have a hunch that in re-imagining the church ‘outside-in’, in dreaming of an ecclesiology which radically disrupts the accepted flow of power, we need to start with children.

Church is adult-centred. Church is built on the assumption that adults are better, stronger, more mature, more knowledgeable, wiser, more capable than children. Church is (in common with most of society) a structure which creates what adults need – or what it believes adults need – and then (hopefully) tries to fit children in, either by adding something on, or by adapting the ‘adult stuff’ to include them.

Some churches are more obviously like this than others. Some may be reading this and thinking “not my church, surely not!” If that’s you, I would ask you: who is your furniture designed for? whose head-hight are your notice boards at? who is on your PCC (or equivalent)? who wrote your last parish profile? I’m guessing it’s not children.

Some churches are very good at including children. That is not the same as centring children.

What would a truly child-centred church look like? I don’t know. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to catch glimpses of it, bubbling away beneath the adult veneer of “church”. I’d like to get closer to finding out what it could really be like. In the meantime, here are some of my “what if”s…

What if adults viewed and treated children as spiritual equals? A lot of churches and a lot of adult Christians have (thankfully) moved beyond seeing children’s contributions as “cute” to realising that God speaks to us profoundly through the words and actions of the children God has placed in our midst. But is there a danger that “deep” has become the new “cute”? That rather than adorable soundbites we are now looking for profound soundbites from our children. When we really see someone as an equal disciple, a fellow-pilgrim, we look holistically at who they are – not just what they can teach us or what we can teach them. What if relationships between adults and children within the church were less about who can teach what to whom, and more about what we can all learn together from, and about, God? More about being-together, more about recognising God in each other and in the space between us.

What if children, including the youngest children, shaped the worship of the church? I am very fortunate that my worship is often, to some extent, shaped by the children with whom I worship. Recently, I was worshiping in a predominantly adult congregation, alongside a 10 month old friend. He was lying on the floor watching an older child blowing bubbles during a contemplative part of the service. So was I. When the service moved on, I thought we should sit up and ‘join in’ – but he didn’t (and, as he was lying on me, nor did I). That part of the worship hadn’t finished for him yet, and he didn’t feel compelled to move on when everyone else did. If worship was shaped by children, I think the whole pace and tone would be very different – freer, less constrained, more chaotic, more ready follow the promptings of the spirit, and in less of a hurry to explain or put into words the mysterious experience of the Divine.

What if we all became a bit more like children? It’s what Jesus says – “unless you change and become like one of these little ones, you will never enter the kingdom”. But we adults find that change so very hard to make. Perhaps it is because children don’t value the things we have come to value – intelligence, experience, knowledge, power, privilege, responsibility… And if we don’t have those things, those ways of measuring ourselves (and others) how will we know who we are? We’ll have to fall back on the realisation that who we are is nothing to do with any of that after all – that being human is being made and loved by God, in God’s image. Full stop. Which is, of course, exactly what we need…

What if we cared less about adult ways of doing things? “Am I doing this right?” is a question which occupies a lot of our time as adults, and one which we impose on children at an alarmingly young age. But if you look at my 10 month old friend lying on the floor in the middle of worship, I’m pretty sure it’s a question that has never crossed his mind (and long may that continue). I also see little or no evidence that it is a question with which God is greatly concerned.

What if the church could let go of its adult anxieties and embrace uncertainty? “But we can’t do that – it would lead to chaos” is one of the objections I hear most about any steps to make the church more child-centred. I suspect it is a frequent objection to anything which disrupts the flow of power. Sometimes I have made changes which lead to chaos. More often I have been too afraid or too constrained by expectations. We need more of the holy, God-revealing chaos which shatters our illusions of being in control.

What if all this was reflected in the structure of the church? Returning to the original topic of Al’s blog post, I reckon an ‘upside down’ church would necessarily be an ‘outside in’ church as well. Among the many criticisms which could be leveled at the current ‘inside out’ model, it is very definitely an ‘adult’ way of being. I can’t see relationships which flow from “the powerful”, from “the centre” outwards, having any place in a church which takes seriously Jesus’ teaching about the place of children in the kingdom.

Church, at its best, puts Jesus in the centre. And Jesus, in one of his clearest pieces of teaching, puts a child in our midst, and tells us “change, and become like this”. A church which truly followed that teaching, a child-like, child-centred (dare we even imagine child-led) church, would radically disrupt the structures of power within and beyond the church. It would break down all our adult-centred notions, of “them and us”, of “how things are done”, of “what works” and “what’s possible”. It would tell a new story, sing a new song, about who we are and who God is. It would be a Magnificat sort of church – raising the humble, putting down the proud, and proclaiming the glory of God.

Come, Holy Spirit…..