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.