Our Story & the Children’s Talk

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This is the second in a three part series.  Read the first entry here:.

Ivy Beckwith, in her excellent book Formational Children’s Ministry: Shaping Children Using Story, Ritual and Relationship, talks about the importance of not only of sharing God’s Story and the Church’s Story with children, but also telling the story of the local church.

She writes:

“No one can refute that our own stories, our own personal histories, and the way we tell them to others and ourselves shape who we are and how we act. Our memories provide our lives with context. Our histories help us to know who we are and explain ourselves to others. Our histories give us our identities. Because I believe faith communities play a large and important role in the spiritual formation of children and that stories of all kinds have the power to transform, it stands to reason that the particular stories and histories of a child’s faith communities have the power to shape children into children who love God and follow Jesus.” (49)

The children’s talk provides a good forum for sharing these stories.

Anniversaries & Images

Our church is looking ahead to celebrating the 90th anniversary of our foundation and the 40th anniversary of the rebuild after a fire destroyed the original church structure. A good part of our first planning meeting was taken up discussing how we would share these stories with the children and young people in the church. We talked about posting pictures in the entranceway, creating videos, interviewing the seniors who were there in the days before the fire and during the rebuild…Obviously, with these special anniversaries looming, we will have lots of occasions to tell and re-tell our community story.

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Photos of the fire that is part of our story.

But the most natural place to engage children with our local church story, on an annual basis at least, is on our parish’s feast day or anniversary Sunday. Again, as we have screens, it is easy for us to display photos from different eras of our church’s past. In other church contexts, it might be more appropriate to print a few, scanned digital images, show them during the children’s talk, and then post them on a bulletin board in a highly visible place where Sunday school meets.

Meet and Greets

I like to do interviews from time to time with members of our church, to allow those who participated in our parish history to tell their story and for members to tell children the story of the unfolding faith and life of our community.

A lot of this is testimony, which is about witnessing to what God has done or is presently doing in our lives. A former Bishop of mine, Philip Poole, used to call these Now Testaments, a term I absolutely adore and have re-purposed in my own context.

Now Testaments provide a powerful reminder that God continues to speak into and act in our world today.

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Our caretaker, telling his story.

Because Now Testaments can be on the long-ish side, I tend to put those in between scripture readings once the children have gone down to Sunday school.

But I like our children and teens to hear these stories too, and those I handle in the children’s talk in the form of an interview.  Why an interview?  The interview allows me to control the length and direct the content.

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One of my fave interviews

Let me give a few examples of the kinds of interviews you can do in the Children’s Talk.  When nine of our older children went through our local formational program, I interviewed one of them, asking him to describe the highlights of the course and his accomplishments. He talked about learning to pray and his pride in reading through the Action Bible, from cover to cover. On another occasion, I interviewed a young tween about her decision to ask guests at her birthday party to bring canned for the local food bank in lieu of gifts for herself. She spoke powerfully about God’s call to care for the poor. In another instance, I interviewed our retiring caretaker and he talked about his ministry cleaning and caring for the building. Praying for him, and giving thanks, then made a lot more sense to the children. On still another occasion, when we were talking about praying for the sick, I invited a senior who had been sick in hospital to come forward and tell his story. He talked about what it meant, while he lay in his hospital bed, to know that the church community was praying for him.  (He was still very frail that day, so we had him sit for the interview. In a totally unscripted but melt-worthy moment, one of the shyest kids in Sunday school spontaneously came over and climbed onto his lap, sitting quietly there right through the whole interview).

Again, I cannot tell you in any statistical way what real impact this is having on kids’ lives. There is always a mix of kids paying close attention, kids poking their neighbour, kids looking bored to tears. In short, kids being kids! But I keep plugging away at it, because there is plenty of research that confirms the importance of mentoring in the faith formation of children and teens.

As Beckwith says: “When kids meet people who talk about their stories of faith, how God works in their lives, and how they live out their faith every day, they have models for their own faith development. They see people other than their immediate family, who make positive choices about loving God and living in the way of Jesus.” (53)

Church Story & The Children’s Talk

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I’m going to be honest: I have mixed feelings about the Sunday morning children’s talk. On the one hand, I have low hopes for it as a significant formational moment for either children or adults. On the other, I value the place of children in worship, and support the notion of creating identifiable space and time for our little ones in gathered worship.

So how do you make the most of the children’s talk as a teaching opportunity?

Story and the Children’s Talk

Ivy Beckwith’s book, Formational Children’s Ministry, is one that has helped me with creative and research-based approaches to the children’s talk. One of Beckwith’s emphases is the importance of story in the spiritual formation of children, an insight that research in the field of psychology confirms.

Now, when we think of “story” and “children’s talk”, our minds go immediately to the biblical narrative, which is right and appropriate. Connecting children with God’s story is most important. But sometimes the gospel reading doesn’t lend itself to a simple children’s talk. Or maybe there is a special feast day being celebrated in worship – All Saints, say – and you want to somehow draw the children into conversation with that communal moment.

This is an opportunity to draw children into the Church’s Story.

Beckwith writes:

“Knowing the stories from church history is an important piece of the positive spiritual formation of our children. Helping children understand they are part of a movement that has been alive for more than two thousand years in places all around the world is an important part of their spiritual development and spiritual memory. Helping children meet and know the characters from church history who have followed Jesus in harrowing, life-threatening, and life-ending situations is a way to begin to capture their imagination for what it means to be a person who loves God and follow Jesus no matter what the cost. These brave and faithful men and women are great models for our children of what living according to Kingdom values looks like.” (41)

In my own ministry, I tell the Church’s Story during the Children’s Talk about once every four to six weeks. So for example, in January, I told the story of Martin Luther King Jr. on MLK Sunday. In February, we celebrated Black History month, and I told the story of Harriet Tubman. This coming Sunday, with St. Patrick’s Day right around the corner, I will talk about St. Patrick and his desire for people to learn about Jesus. In June, when we mark the National Aboriginal Day of prayer, I may talk about St. Kateri. And so on.

There is some work involved in incorporating the Church’s Story into your children’s talk.

First, I do a bit of research about the person I am presenting, and ask myself: What good example of the life of faith does this person offer, in particular?  Next, I sort out what part of their story I will tell, in a way that is brief and simple enough for children to understand. Then, I look for photos or portraits so that the children can capture of visual image of the person being discussed. I’m lucky to be in a context with screens, so I can easily project the photos so everyone in the congregation can see. (For those without screens, another possibility is to print an image, although I realize that introduces additional cost and hassles. Posting the image somewhere in the entrance to the church means that adults will have a chance to at least glance at the image, before and after service.)

At the end of the Children’s Talk, I give thanks to God for the life of the person we have remembered, and ask God to help us, like them, grow in… [insert the commendable quality being held up.]

How is it working in my parish? Honestly, I haven’t heard any feedback on these Church Story moments, either positive or negative. But I keep plugging away at it, because I know that the witness of the lives of fellow believers is a source of encouragement and hope to children and adults alike. As Beckwith says: “Familiarity with the history of the church helps [us] to see that the work of God in the world did not end with the last page of the Bible. Having an understanding of the history of the church…helps [us] see the continued work of God over the centuries and assures [us] that God’s will continue through [us] as well.”