Clare Williams asks what can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic about ministry with children and young people?
Children and young people being made welcome as part of regular worship would be widely acknowledged as one of the key indicators of a healthy, growing church. This has long been expressed in a number of ways but has predominantly meant churches themselves providing age-appropriate discipleship opportunities. While this has been – and continues to be – an extremely important part of the Church’s ministry and indeed, what parents often look to the Church to provide, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of something which has been an ever increasing call from those involved in children and youth ministry across the church: faith at home.
In the last decade, churches of all denominations and traditions – whatever they provide in terms of formal children and youth ministry – have acknowledged that even with the most professional and committed provision, children and young people’s faith needs to be nurtured in the home. It has also been recognised that we haven’t perhaps always equipped churches, parents or children and young people to see faith in this way, or given them the tools and confidence they need to explore faith at home, rather considering it best left to the ‘professionals’. However, in recent years the need to respond to this has been more widely recognised, “The best way for young people to become more serious about their faith, is for their parents to become more serious about their faith”1
The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for churches to make provision for faith in the home for all ages. However, this is not a new idea: “They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house” Acts 16:32. Households of faith within the Bible would have included all ages; both children and young people. Where there was preaching, healing or baptism, this would have been for everyone, not just for the adults while the children were entertained with something else. There is a need to ensure that whatever our ministry with children and young people looks like within our church communities, that this involves discipleship through the week with a connection between church, school and home. We also need to find ways of growing faith in adults which equips and encourages them to continue this in the home which, as Ali Campbell puts it has the “vital dynamic”.2 The current situation may have helped us to learn about this dynamic and take steps which can be built on.
The values of working on and off screen
We know that many churches – while perhaps being initially daunted – have relished the experience of going online and have indeed found many new worshippers engaging in this way, “far more people are accessing their services than ever came to the building. What seemed initially to be a devastating blow to churches may actually generate growth.”3
It is not difficult to see some reasons why this is. I have heard so many people talking about the joy of accessing church at a time which suits them and quite often, while still wearing their pyjamas! As ‘Everybody Welcome Online’ also puts it, “last month we were the Odeon, today we are Netflix”4 – another reason why this may be a particularly attractive quality to the younger generations. The move online has been described as an “equalizer” for generations, “It allows older parishioners to avoid driving at night and requires a lower time commitment from younger ones.”5
However, not all the online engagement has been a positive experience for young people, often caused by churches producing a very adult-focused form of worship online. This has resulted in young people expressing “that they are not connecting well with the worship services they are presently participating in.”6 The important emphasis on relational youth work can also be lacking with connections via a screen only. When face-to-face youth work recommences, a re-building of trust and relationships will be a key to maintaining this ministry. We will no longer be able to rely in the same way on well-established programmes or patterns.
We also know the difficulties caused by excessive ‘screen-time’ for many children and young people which existed before lockdown and will no doubt have been exacerbated by an increased need for that kind of engagement. There is something very important about continuing to do ‘real-life’ work with children and young people involving tangible things – and of course, this has been possible, even throughout lockdown, with churches connecting through sending out activity packs and even organising socially distanced outdoor activities as restrictions have allowed. Even with on-screen youth sessions I have always included an activity where the young people are asked to move, write, draw or make.
But online worship has had, and should continue to have, a place in our ministry with children and young people. For many will have found a freedom in worship they haven’t experienced before, others will have sampled different flavours and be keen to see that replicated in their own worshipping community, “Young people of faith have discovered new sources of spiritual nourishment and will be even more disillusioned with poorly done worship and inane theology.”7 There will be a lot for us to learn from their experiences and for many, the way we offer worship to children and young people will continue to include screen-based worship in some form, “the relationships and connection that occur within and around the online sessions are key to ensuring the positive trajectory of children’s faith nurture during this pandemic, and onwards. The scope and prospect of online faith nurture for children is immense”8
The work to be done in engaging all ages in worship
Moving on from the positives and negatives of worshipping via a screen, our experiences of online worship may also have mirrored our previous ways of engaging with children and young people in our worshipping communities. For how many will have replicated the ‘children’s corner’ – expecting parents/carers to entertain their children while watching an adult-centred online service? Some recent research has shown that “much of the web content was passive for the children, which is not a good way for them to learn”9 – this approach will not meet the spiritual needs of younger generations and help them grow in their faith.
There are some wonderful positive examples of where online worship has worked well at engaging all ages, for example, “Times when kids were asked to go get something before worship that they would need for the children’s story excited everyone in the family. Kids began to anticipate something wonderful yet to come. Discovering that your toy boat is just like the boat Jesus stood in to tell the crowds about God’s love changes your toy boat forever.”10 And indeed, we know that these experiences can change the children and young people themselves, forever.
There are many reflections on how online worship could be improved in order to engage all ages well including: keeping it short, prioritising stories and illustrations in the sermon, including open-ended questions to allow worshippers to respond, inviting children to join in with an accompanying activity – not as a distraction but to aid learning, interactive and multi-sensory ways of participating, using well-known hymns/songs as well as rituals which are familiar to the whole church family.11 These points of course relate to worship both online and offline! As ever, we must always be seeking not just to help children and young people learn the stories of the Bible but to invite them to fall in love with that story.
However, in addition, there are two overwhelmingly strong themes emerging from how we can improve worship for all ages. The first is that children and young people have responded most strongly to worship which has included them – or other children and young people – in leading worship, prayers, reading Scripture, participating in music etc. “a variety of worship leaders, including children, was very important to their worship experience”.12 Again, this is nothing new, but this situation certainly has something to teach us about being bold enough to allow children and young people to take a lead in planning and delivering worship and learning in our churches.
The second is the importance of connection which has been created by the phenomenon of gatherings such as Zoom coffee mornings. I will expand on this in the next section.
The importance of building intergenerational communities
Next to worship, churches of course also provide fellowship for all ages. Again, another measure of a healthy church is one which welcomes well and creates a sense of belonging. Through connections created – which may have engaged some for the first time – online, this has also given us something to reflect upon, “through Zoom, church members’ milestones are also being celebrated…and happy birthdays are being sung to the young, the old and every age in between. People even spoke about the window Zoom gave them to the homes of their church friends. Suddenly, questions were being asked about favourite toys, paintings hung on the wall, and family activities evident on coffee tables…and many said they feel even closer to church members because of this invitation to peer in through the window and discover things they never knew before about those they worship with every Sunday.”13
This ‘window’ into the homes of others may be impossible to replicate when church communities return to buildings. However, the scaffolding of intergenerational communities still needs to be provided. It is in this multi-age setting that the faith of both old and young is best nurtured. Older generations can rejoice in seeing their church alive and vibrant with the noise and inquisition of the young. Younger generations can receive valuable mentoring support from older Christians. Building this kind of community both within worship and fellowship is vital and again, perhaps Zoom coffee mornings are here to stay.
In addition to this, we have a further opportunity to reflect on the nature of the opportunities we offer for all ages to learn together – do we have a segregated or intergenerational approach? Is there space for both? “Many churches’ response to this situation – if they have the resources – is to replicate Sunday and midweek activities online. These continue to take a compartmentalised approach: Zoom sessions for youth groups; services and sermons aimed primarily at adults; and a plethora of special activities for children.”14 Where is it helpful to provide age-appropriate discipleship opportunities? And where are there possibilities for intergenerational learning to take place?
The need to prioritise youth work
When lockdown began towards the end of March my social media feeds were flooded with resources for children’s work – both new material and previously available material being made free. Over time this became organised into groups and great seasonal resources appeared as we journeyed from Lent into Holy Week and Easter. While this has dissipated somewhat as time has gone on, this was the virtual equivalent of the best ‘marketplace’ I’ve ever browsed at a workshop or conference.
It highlights the enthusiasm about children’s work that exists within an active number of paid and volunteer workers. This is a wonderful thing and one which needs to be acknowledged, built on and celebrated. What it also shows, however, is the disparity between the volume of resources and workers/volunteers involved in youth work compared with children’s work. There was not the same explosion of ideas and support for those involved in ministry with young people.
As ever, this sector remains under-resourced and prioritised, despite the fact that the wellbeing of young people is much more likely to have suffered under these conditions and the need for pastoral and spiritual support is increasing, rather than decreasing, among the young people of this nation. “Youth ministry involves entering young people’s world in order to plant the gospel and the church there – it is not a bridging strategy but a genuine commitment…It is not a temporary way of holding them in church until they learn to worship properly like the rest of us.”15 With questions about financing the Church for the future, how can we ensure that resources for youth work and paid youth ministers are a part of that future?
The need to recognise children and youth ministry as a vocation
We have seen the lament of clergy who have been unable to function in the normal way – providing pastoral and sacramental ministry to their flocks. However, there has been little coverage of children and youth ministers, for whom this time must have involved a similar lament – being separated from the creative and relational interactions with children and young people they are so used to as part of their life and ministry. From my earlier point in this article, this cannot be because those who work with children and young people are lacking in our churches. It is my conclusion that the absence of lament seen from these voices is because they are so often not empowered to see their ministry as a vocation.
The other side to this story is the immediate furloughing of children and youth workers, again in opposition to the overall treatment of clergy. Out of 184 salaried children and youth workers recently surveyed; 25% were on furlough with a further 5% seeing either furlough or redundancy as a likely outcome. Anecdotally I believe the number of children and youth workers who have been furloughed to be much higher. While recognising the financial strain the Church has been under, I do have to question the priorities implied by furloughing children and youth workers in this way.
Finally, there will be an enormous task for society, churches and many other organisations to be involved in rebuilding community in a new way from now on. All of our lives will have been changed and affected by the pandemic and the lives of children and young people at such formative stages are likely have even more lasting effects. Those involved in ministry with children and young people are going to have a vital part to play.
For many, some of these points may simply reinforce previously held beliefs, there may be others for whom this perspective has raised something new. However, for all of us, we have been functioning in new and different ways and can learn from that. So, this is a natural point to consider how we move forward as the Church. It is my prayer that this will be a moment for the Church to evaluate children and youth ministry:
– Not losing sight of the new insights we have gained about faith in the home
– Redressing the balance of online and offline provision
– Learning from our experiences about engaging everyone in all-age worship
– Taking forward an intergenerational approach to worshipping communities
– Raising the priority of youth work in our churches
– Recognising and supporting those who have a vocation in children and youth ministry by valuing and increasing its workforce.
Clare Williams works in ministry with children and young people. She lives in Walsingham and is member of the Council of Forward in Faith.
1 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Oxford University Press 2010
2 Ali Campbell, ‘Faith in the home is not just for the pandemic’ Church Times 8 May 2020
3 Bob Jackson and George Fisher ‘Everybody Welcome Online’ May 2020 https://www.cpas.org.uk/download/3591/
4 Bob Jackson and George Fisher ‘Everybody Welcome Online’ May 2020 https://www.cpas.org.uk/download/3591/
5 Nandra Perry in, The distanced church: reflections on doing church online, ed. Heidi Campbell April 2020
6 Tori Smit ‘Some thoughts on the inclusion of children and youth in online worship’ May 2020
7 Rev. Dr. Michael Piazza in, The distanced church: reflections on doing church online, ed. Heidi Campbell April 2020
8 Dr Sarah E. Holmes ‘Sunday School shutdowns during Covid-19: How will this affect our children’s faith nurture?’ School of Education, Liverpool Hope University, UK, June 2020
9 Dr Sarah E. Holmes ‘Sunday School shutdowns during Covid-19: How will this affect our children’s faith nurture?’ School of Education, Liverpool Hope University, UK, June 2020
10 Tori Smit ‘Some thoughts on the inclusion of children and youth in online worship’ May 2020
11 Tori Smit ‘Some thoughts on the inclusion of children and youth in online worship’ May 2020
12 Tori Smit ‘Some thoughts on the inclusion of children and youth in online worship’ May 2020
13 Tori Smit ‘Some thoughts on the inclusion of children and youth in online worship’ May 2020
14 Ali Campbell, ‘Faith in the home is not just for the pandemic’ Church Times 8 May 2020
15 Graham Cray, Youth Congregations and The Emerging Church, Grove Evangelism Series 2002