Growing purpose in our children and youth
I have looked into the eyes of enough bored church kids on a Sunday morning to know that sometimes something is missing in the way we teach kids. Even though our heart’s desire is that kids really get that following Jesus is THE MOST EXCITING THING THEY CAN EVER DO, it can feel difficult to get that message over to them. True, an annual camp or weekend away is a fantastic way for them to get a glimpse of the adventure of following God, but how do we help them feel that inspired for the rest of the year?
In her book Parenting Children for a Life of Faith Omnibus, Rachel Turner describes healthy discipleship as having three strands:
- Identity – being confident in our identities as beloved children of God
- Relationship – enjoying and developing our relationship with God
- Purpose – discovering and pursuing the unique purposes God has for us
As she says, ‘when identity, relationship and purpose exist side by side, our children can walk in spiritual health, thriving confidently in their relationship with God, and in being an essential part of something bigger than themselves. We cannot and should not teach one without the other.’
In my experience as a children and families’ leader in a local church, most of the teaching programmes I used focussed heavily on identity and relationship but far less on helping the kids discover and exercise their purpose. I found that the kids weren’t particularly excited about their relationship and identity. They were far more interested in doing – helping out on the tech team, being part of the church’s annual community service weekend, volunteering to help out in services. But week by week Sunday groups? They just weren’t exciting.
At one point, I was particularly bothered by this problem. How could I get the kids to really understand that God had a place for them to do stuff for him now, and they didn’t have to wait for the odd special event or until they were grown up? What needed to change? And then I had one of those wonderful moments when you read something and it drops deep into your heart with a satisfying ‘yes’.
A friend had introduced me to a book called Think Orange by Reggie Joiner. He talks about imagining you are going to teach a class on mountain climbing. You sit them all down, ready to enthuse and inspire them. You show them all the details of what it is like to climb a mountain. You have pictures of rock configurations, tell them which footholds to use, show them pictures, describe the experience of climbing for hours and then how it feels to reach the summit with its breathtaking views. They know all about your experience of climbing mountains, but never get to do it for themselves.
But then he poses another way to inspire them. Why not take them to a mountain, give them what they need to get started and take them up the mountain, teaching as you go? Then he asks: ‘So what do you think would be more exciting – going to classes that teach you about mountain climbing, or actually standing at the summit after a hard climb to look at the view? Imagine sitting for several years and listening to someone describe the adventures related to climbing mountains … do you think you would be more or less motivated to climb?’ And a little later he adds: ‘At what point do you think it is appropriate for students to grab some rope and start heading up the side of a mountain? Most churches spend a lot of energy trying to get students to come to programs where they talk about growing as Christian, but they forget the way you grow is by experience.’ (Reggie Joiner, Think Orange, pp 206-207)
So how can we inspire our children and young people to climb mountains, not just learn about climbing mountains? We need to link theory with practice and enable our kids and young people to get out and do the God-stuff, not waiting until we think they are ready but coming alongside to help them learn. And it may be that to do this well, the surfing the waves tool and the six stage circle are your best friends! It will take courage and a bit of extra work to step away from a safe curriculum, but you just might find that adventure beckons and your young disciples are inspired and discover their purpose for that moment.
Step 1: Look out for any waves your group is currently surfing – maybe outrage at some injustice reported in the news or a love of craft. What are your kids or young people inspired by? What are their passions? What has grabbed their attention? What are they talking about? Do you sense any of these are God opportunities? If you can’t see an obvious wave, what value or skill would you like to grow in your group – hospitality? Prayerfulness?
Step 2: Involve your kids and their parents in the process. Talk to the kids about what you’ve spotted in them or what you’d like to grow in them. Talk to their parents too, not just to let them know what’s going on, but so they can support this wave at home. You may also find that some of your parents may have experiences and stories and skills to share as you partner with them - a win win! Also look out for other people at church who may have something valuable to share with you and the group as you go round the circle, this brings with it the added bonus of building multigenerational relationships too!
Step 3: Now start to build your curriculum around the value or skill you have decided on. Using the six-stage circle can help you do this well:
- Model - do your group know what the value or skill is? Help them see it in action so they can recognise it and learn from it. Where can they see the impact of it? Are there other church members who model this well?
- Frame - What teaching do you need to share with them to help them understand the value, skill or wave in its God context? For example, why does God want us to be generous? Or why did God give us creativity and how could they use their craft skills in a way that would serve God well? Why is prayer important and what is prayer? Share your stories, and stories of other people at church, to help the group understand.
- Equip - help the group work out what they are going to do. Run a craft workshop for families? Fundraise for the cause they are passionate about? Hold a 24/7 prayer event? Think through what they might need, including practical support and equipmentHow can they involve God in the preparations? Who else might have the skills and experience to support the group - a parent? Another church member?
- Create opportunities – this is the practical bit – holding the event or tasking them in the value or skill. For example, this is generosity week: these are your challenges and come ready to share stories of where you see God at work next time! Look for others who might come alongside the young people to support and encourage.
- Establish boundaries - help them see the limits which may be: next term we’ll be doing something different / we want you to think about how you use this skill in other contexts, not just here at church / we can only manage to run a big event once a year / now you’ve done this once, it’s over to you!
- Feedback - ensure you both reflect on what they have done. Share any feedback you’ve received from other people to encourage them and help them see the impact they have had for the kingdom. For example, ‘Did you notice that how much that family enjoyed the craft afternoon? Their kids said they’d love to come back’ or ‘Look at this – it says that £80 will provide a family with clean water for life – that means you guys have changed the lives of three families!’ Reflect on how other people became engaged and the difference that made.
Step 4: Reflect on your experience. What have you learned from it as the leader? As you go forward, how can you support parents to see this embedded in their kids’ lives? What might be the next steps for them and for you?