Thinking big as kids come back from isolation

The last few months have seen the most significant disruption to our churches in living memory. Churches not only pivoted to survive the catastrophic effects of COVID-19 – as businesses and schools had to do – but executed the complex acrobatic feat of taking a precious face-to-face community of learning and growing in Christ, to one that was in the cloud.

New technologies were tested as churches experimented with livestreaming or pre-recording services, and Zoom was used for small groups to continue to meet. But providing programs for primary-aged kids was one of the most difficult tasks, considering the range of ages and abilities – from pre-school to Year 6.

We should embrace this unanticipated experiment as an opportunity to transform and re-think our children’s ministries.

Despite the many hurdles encountered, many churches and families proved to be adaptable, agile and innovative. One example of this was a collaboration between St Thomas’ North Sydney and St David’s Forestville (also in Sydney), that led to them creating an online Kids Church Channel. Many of the youth and children’s leaders were mobilised – with their phones – to produce highly engaging creative learning moments. They helped the children of these churches – and others who tuned in – to engage with God’s word and develop a deeper understanding of what it means to have Jesus as their friend and saviour … all done in isolation and with COVID restrictions. But this example is just one of many online initiatives which either grew out of coronavirus changes, or came into their own thanks to the distance we all had to adhere to.

However, not all churches across Australia had the resources or skills available to larger churches. Yet they tried their hardest to engage their youngest and most vulnerable in the best way they could.

For all involved, this has been exhausting.

Although Melbourne and other parts of Victoria have gone back into shutdown and New South Wales is one state bracing for that possibility, many churches have been able to meet again together – in person.

As restrictions have eased and many churches work out what it means to return to face-to-face ministry, now is definitely the time to reflect on what this might look for children’s ministry.

What lessons can we learn from the isolation we all experienced? How could things be different from the way they were? What new skills are needed? How do we ensure that our kids’ ministry in churches does not take back from parents the role of primary spiritual carers of children, which has been a benefit of isolation?

We should embrace this unanticipated experiment as an opportunity to transform and re-think our children’s ministries.

Many of you already are likely to have started to learn lessons from COVID-19 shutdown and what they mean for serving the youngest members of your congregation. Sarah Lancaster is the Kids and Families Minister from Christ Church Gladesville, Sydney, and her church community realised their pre-school kids were the ones that suffered most from this year’s widespread isolation. “We’ve been very keen to bring kids back together to see each other and connect with their leaders.”

Christ Church Gladesville made the decision that their youngest families were the first ones to be invited back onsite while parents went and watched the livestream being filmed. They also had an hour of kids’ church each Sunday for K-6, reflecting the biblical exhortation to care for those who are most vulnerable.

To varying degrees, people are returning to their churches and recommencing children’s programs with an attitude of thankfulness and relief – because one of the great lessons of this time has been to see the importance of community and meeting together.

As we recommence our children’s programs, we must ensure that they are good quality programs that help children to develop deep understanding of biblical truths. One way to do this effectively is to employ thinking routines. Thinking routines are short, easy-to-learn mini-strategies that extend and deepen children’s thinking. They have been developed by Project Zero at Harvard Graduate School of Education and are widely used in schools.

The great benefit of using these routines is that they are widely accessible for all learners, regardless of age or ability, and help children to go beyond surface learning. They are easy for leaders to use and may be used in a range of contexts.

This Thursday, 16 July (between 7-9pm), will provide an online opportunity to connect and reflect on what it can look like to go back to face-to-face children’s ministry.

The online conference that will be in two parts. The first hour will have a Bible study by Simon Manchester, before five interviews with Children’s workers reflect on lessons learned during isolation – and what they think will be important as they return to face-to-face programs.

There will be time for attendees to share their thoughts on these questions.

The second hour will be about using visible thinking routines, and how to develop a tool kit of fresh ideas, approaches and skills to help meet this new stage of your Children’s Ministry.

Paul Dudley is chaplain at Shore School, Sydney.

Barnabas Schools Ministry began in the early 1990s when delegates at a conference of religious educators felt the need to encourage one another in their specifically Christian ministries in schools. The name Barnabas means “son of encouragement” (Acts 4:36), and Barnabas conferences seek to encourage those in Christian school ministry to continue to find good ways to promote the truth, beauty and goodness of the Christian faith in a shifting cultural landscape.   

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