Alistair Birkett shares how rural churches are engaging with young people
As he was nearing the end of his ministry, the evangelist Dwight L. Moody apparently commented "If I could relive my life, I would devote my entire ministry to reaching children for God." It was also Nelson Mandela who said "There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children."
Powerful statements, and frankly as we look at the lack of provision some of our churches make for children and young people in their regular programmes, it probably ought to be seen as a stark challenge to us. Yet conversely, though few and far between, there are also some exciting, hopeful stories of Christian community being shaped around children and young people; stories of church seeking to move beyond the classic pattern of the children going out into a cold, poorly resourced back room or church vestry, while the adults continue with ‘real’ church. Two communities in my ‘patch’ who have recently become part of RM’s network that clearly value their young people, are Waypoint Church in Berwick Upon Tweed, and Village Church in Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire.
Jenny Mackwell who leads Waypoint with her husband Jonathan, recalls the verses in Matthew 19 where parents brought their children to Jesus commenting they were ‘most likely smelly, crying, demanding and loud, they ruined the disciples’ ministry schedule. Yet Jesus chastised the grownups, saying; "Let the little children come to me." Did the parents bring their children to Jesus that day, or were the children leading their parents to meet the one who heals and saves? Our experience of church planting is the latter.’ Jenny goes on to recall her family’s arrival in Berwick upon Tweed in 2016, with a vision to start a vibrant church in the rural border town; "I was six months pregnant and our first child was eleven months old. Smelly, crying, demanding children were going to have to be welcome!"
In a similar vein, Chris Stellhorn who’s responsible for children’s and youth ministries at Village Church comments that "Children aren’t seen as a secondary part of Village Church, but a centrally important part, and much of what we do circles around kids and families. I love kids and think all ages play a role together and benefit from one another."
In thinking about how to engage with children and young people Jenny simply said start with who or what you have, and move on from there. Chris comments that "We just started, and are trying things out and seeing how they go." Jenny went on; "Small churches often believe the lie that we can’t do children’s ministry as we’ve no children, team or resources. Our experience is that as we step out in faith, God provides everything." A particular joy for Waypoint has been their Little Lights toddler group. "We started our toddler group in September 2019, and between then and April 2022, 121 children between 0-4 yr old and their families came along!" Now seeking further support for the Little Lights group to develop, Waypoint have certainly identified a need, and have a great foundation to build on. Village Church also run a Mainly Music group once a week, where families with toddlers get together in a fun environment, which involves interactive musical sessions and food.
Beyond children’s ministry, both churches are also beginning to explore how they might connect with the youth of the area. Village Church is just beginning to look into teens programmes, and whilst not wanting to overstretch their resources, they see a real need in the community. For instance, at Halloween Chris’ family had over 60 teens stop by and hang out together in their front garden, gathered around a fire pit and enjoying hot chocolate! Likewise, Waypoint have recently began a Youth Alpha course and a fortnightly youth gathering. It’s been a real encouragement for them to see the teams grow.
So, what of the future? Chris feels that for Village Church "we don’t quite know yet!" It’s a step at a time, marrying the needs of the children and young people in the community, with available resources, he also feels developing relationships as central and key to it all; "finding ways to facilitate relationship building is very important." For Waypoint, Jenny simply leaves us with a challenge in the form of a prayer. "So church, what’s our plan? Lord help us to start with what we have, invest, and make children a priority like you do, Amen."
It’s often been said that children and young people are the future of the church. Yet surely, as modelled by Waypoint and Village Church, they are every bit the church of today as the church of the future. Children are great imitators, so let’s give them something great to imitate.
Alistair Birkett, Rural Ministries