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…..