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Waking the Children [All In]

All In - Discovering & Following a God Who Goes All In With Us - Waking the Children

Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor • May 01, 2016 • Nigel Berry, Youth Ministry Director & Mary Jordan, Children's Ministry Coordinator

 

Introduction I
Hi, my name is Nigel. I was invited along with Mary Jordan to conclude our “All In” series where we've been exploring some of the ins and outs of what it might mean to be the Church. At the beginning of the year I was looking at my calendar in an attempt to discern where I might spend some intentional time to grow, to learn, and to meet Jesus.  A lot of conferences and retreats were being hosted this year and they looked amazing!  Berlin was hosting the Brony Fair last fall. Mer-fest is just around the corner in North Carolina.  And The Office Convention in Scranton, PA seemed like a great place to sharpen my administrative skills.

I eventually opted for the Faith Forward Conference in Chicago and was joined by five adults and one child,

which seemed just fitting to have a child alongside us at a youth and children’s ministry conference.  So Mary and I are going to share just a little bit this morning about where we envision young people in the life and the work of the church.

This is a significant portion of our strategic plan in the coming months and there is SO MUCH that I want to tell you this morning but I created an outline for all of our sakes.  Mostly for lunch.  I really like to eat and I shouldn’t talk with my mouth full. That’s rude.

 

The “Birth” of CM/YM
So one of the first things we need work through together in our understanding is bring to light just how “new” children’s ministry and youth ministry are within the Church. If we were to take the expectation that every “successful” church in this era is required to have dedicated ministries to youth and to children and we compared that to the lifeline of the Jesus-following movement, we would be extremely new at this.  For scale, if we took 2000 years of Christianity and scaled it down to 20 years, our contemporary exercise of ministries for young people would be a mere 7 months old.  Literally, still in infancy.

 

Now this brings us up into the 1940’s which, even for us amateur historians resonates with World War II. And here, of all places, we find the birth of contemporary Youth Ministry.   By the time the wars had concluded, global opinion regarding the optimism of human advancement had radically declined.  You see, prior to the reality of an atomic bomb, most of the world had been IN LOVE with human technological advancement.  Events such as the World Fairs where things like the telephone, electrical outlets, the Ferris Wheel, and the diesel engine were introduced to the world for the very first time.  In a time where nothing seemingly couldn’t be imagined to be good, the balloon was popped as the world tore itself apart and our great technologies were quickly perverted to kill our neighbors instead of blessing them.

The longing to be taken seriously
The longing to be uniquely themselves

 

 

 

Now, this observation is important to make because it can bring us into two very important questions, the first being “How did we get to where we are today?” and the second possibly being “What does this mean for us?”.

 

Now, where much of our practice of the faith rests is on the commandments that we Love the Lord our God with all or our heart, soul, and strength and that we would love our neighbors as ourselves.

 

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind'; and, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.’"  Luke 10:27

 

And if this idea of the God’s should paint anything for us, I would propose that it offers us a vision for radical inclusiveness because there is NOTHING in this framework that prevents anyone from experiencing the life and the grace and the goodness of God’s Kingdom. You are not excluded because of how much or how little money you make, how healthy or completely wrecked your body might be, how skilled you are, or how old or young you are.  This is a mission of belonging.

And so it was, for a long while, that the Church didn't operate with Children’s or Youth ministry because it didn’t need to.  Now that doesn’t mean that the church wasn’t doing intentional ministry with young people - we created rites of passages within the church that are hundreds of years old that communities would journey through together.  The church played a large role in the establishment and management of orphanages and hospitals which are beautiful

 

And the origin of today’s Children’s Ministry programs have their roots in such a history. As the United States moved into the modern era, we also experienced a radical shift in the way we understood education and the role that education would soon play in a new society.  Education was no longer needed for a career in the sciences but had become essential for specialized skills that would fill a vacuum of spaces in the American workforce. The previous demands in society for skilled workers were primarily met through apprenticeships in small businesses and workshops with college educations being required and available for the exceptional few.  But, moving towards an industrialized society post-Civil War, there were more job vacancies than there were skilled workers to fill.  The majority of Americans at that time had an elementary school level education, and that was only if they grew up in an urban setting and most likely if that urban setting happened to be in the Northern states.  Our country’s first high school wasn’t built until the 1820’s and it took awhile to catch on as an essential part of our educational structure. It would take about another 70 years until the number of public schools equalled the number of private schools in the United States helping us to understand that right around 1900, there were few education resources available for the majority of children while the economy was willing to pay good money for those who could acquire it.

 

At this point some of you may be wondering, what on earth?!  Hang tight with me - the story has more to tell.  As I mentioned earlier, schools to give children competitive edges in life were more prevalent in Northern states and in urban settings.  So what about the rest of the country?  Enter the church:

 

Access to education became a justice issue for many American churches and this birthed what we’ve come to know today as “Sunday School”. Sunday school classes were implemented by churches in under-resourced communities as a means of offering our children what our government was unable to offer - a meaningful and tangible opportunity for education. The children would attend classes as the adults socialized and then they would participate in the liturgy, the worship and message, together.  So Sunday school became popular as a response to injustice and this model only grew in popularity as the years marched on.  Meanwhile the education system continued to expand and improve in one of history’s most incredible ways.

To illustrate, the graduation of students from high school in 1910 was only about 10%. By 1935, HS graduation rates had expanded to 40%, and in only five years increased to 1/2 of all students graduating high school by 1940.  That sort of growth was, and still is, phenomenal!  And if you’re wondering about today’s graduation rates, they seem to be resting between 80 and 85%.

 

Youth Ministry
And this was a time of fear.

 

Yes, the war had been won by the American’s accord but how could we prevent the past from repeating itself?  How could we prevent the rise and rule of another Adolf Hitler?  Many at the time had given up hope for their own generation and began to cast their hopes and fears on the next.  The church, forgetting its prophetic role of denouncing and responding to injustice, responded to cultural urgency to emulate the highest of character traits by producing quality “Americans”.

This, coincidentally, is when American flags began to appear in churches.  This is when much of the church shifted from ministries to programs.  Children’s ministries also followed suit, pulling children out of the sermons so that they could be indoctrinated in classrooms.

And so, to speed things along to today, I crudely summarized where we were with Childrens and Youth Ministries. And if I could summarize where we are today, I would suggest that our ministries have not, for the large part, stepped out of the molds that they were created in.

 

And this puts us at a unique juncture for the legacy of the church, knowing both the advantages and becoming more aware of the disadvantages of distancing youth from adults in the Church.

 

And I believe that it is time that we start thinking outside of that mold, for their sake and for ours.

The Millennials
Towards that end, there were two highlights that I wanted to share with you from our time in Chicago.  Three if I tell you that I ate my fill of Chicago-style pizza.  Ok.  That’s three now.

Much of the conference was full of good reminders for me.  One of those included the incredible amount of information we now have on child and adolescent development. So many studies began in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s that we’re just new really beginning to benefit from decades of social, developmental, and phycological studies.  And through this research, we’ve been able to pinpoint more of the specific needs and desires of our kids. The Search-Institute has an incredible list of 40 Developmental Assets for Children and Adolescents which is some really incredible stuff.  The link is in the message notes if you picked up a copy.

 

Chap Clark, however, has a good summary in his book, Hurt, suggesting that the primary longings

 

The longing to belong

The longing to matter

The longing to be wanted

The longing for safe places

 

 

of our youth include the longing to belong, to matter, to be wanted, to be safe, to be taken seriously, and to be uniquely themselves.  And he goes as far to suggest that if the church is unable or unwilling to meet such longings, our children will find those longings fulfilled elsewhere.

 

 

Now in a perfect world we would sit here together until late tonight where we could give each of these longings proper consideration in light of what we offer, what we model,

 

and what we value as these pertain to our young people.  But you really need to hear from Mary and you need to pick up your kids if you brought them today and you probably need to cut some grass or do something else today so I’ll attempt to keep it brief and rest for a moment just on the idea of safe places.

 

Now, I self-identify as a Millennial.  And if you read the news headlines, I’m the generation that can’t seem to move out of our parent’s houses but can master a new cell phone in less than an hour.  Society seems to have pegged us as being simultaneously brilliant and stupid, which depending on the particulars of any given day in my life, may be more accurate that I want to confess to myself, let alone several hundred people from a stage. But anyways, my generation was probably best defined by two horrific and violent acts - the school shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 and the destruction of the Twin Towers a mere two years later.  Both events occurred while I was in high school and the predominant message it sent my generation is that we don’t have an ethic of vulnerability.  We don’t know what it means to be vulnerable because leaders in our government and in our churches told us that we’re not supposed to be vulnerable. And so they advocated to respond to violence, with violence, to teach others that violence is not ok, all the while neglecting to answer the questions of our hearts - Does my life mean anything in a world where tomorrow isn’t guaranteed?  Because it seemed like folly to find our identities in our careers, in our future families, and in our accumulations.

 

Our longing for safety became a deeper hole than the generations before us.

 

And, now, in light of Charleston and Sandy Hook, the hole became deeper for the generation behind mine.  In fact, a week ago today in Pennsylvania, a man was shot in the chest at a church over an argument about reserved seats.  What does it say when safety in the church stops at skin color and reserved seats? Would we blame anyone for believing churches might not be safe places for passions or for questions or for uncertainty or for doubts? Why put hope in the church?  For those of you wondering about the decline in attendance in mainstream churches, you’ve arrived at the iceberg.

 

So my question became, does the Church have anything to say about these longings?  And, if not, we’re going to have to do some serious soul searching about why the Church should matter in 2016 and beyond.  Now, just to make it clear, I believe the Church not only has something to say about the longings of our hearts but I also believe that the Church’s ability to meet these needs is overwhelmingly better than what our world offers us.

 

The world’s counter offers disappoint and we don’t have to look very far to see that we’re hungry for something better.  If anyone here has been sitting with Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade, which dropped last week, you’ll pick up these threads of longing that are woven throughout her album, especially as they pertain to relationships and her need to matter, to belong, and to be safe.  They’re the same needs you and I have and they have been perpetually neglect for women and children of color.  And we need an approach to children’s and youth ministry that has something to say about that.  Oh, and if you don’t know what a visual album is, just grab a millennial after the service and they can clue you in.

 

Here’s my second takeaway from the conference and it touched on this theme.  Mary and I took an afternoon to hike to the Chicago Institute of Arts and their featured exhibit was titled “Van Gogh’s Bedrooms - Let yourself in”.  Now my initial reaction was, “Well, this sounds voyeuristic; and creepy.” And then my second reaction was, well if even an art novice like myself recognizes the Van Gogh name, it’s probably something I should make myself go and see just so my more cultured friends don’t call me a dummy for saving $6 and skipping the exhibit.

And so as I entered the exhibit hall,

 

I began to wander through the collections of sketches and inspired works of  Vincent Van Gogh and the thing that struck me the most wasn't his artwork in particular, it was the words which were printed on a painted wall alongside a 15 ft map of France which denoted all of the locations Van Gogh had resided.  The exhibit intro read like this:

 

“Van Gogh’s life was short and nomadic. By the time he died, at the age of 37, he had lived in 37 separate residences across 24 cities, mostly as a boarder or a guest, dependent on the hospitality of family or friends. In 1888, he finally moved into the only home he truly considered his own: his beloved “Yellow House” in Arles. Of his many bedrooms, Van Gogh immortalized only the one from the Yellow House—three times in fact…. This exhibition brings together all three versions of The Bedroom for the first time in North America, offering a pioneering and in-depth study of their making and meaning to Van Gogh in his relentless quest for home.”

 

A relentless quest for home…. And isn’t that what we’re all looking for in the Church? A home?  A place of our own?  A place where our voices are heard and our needs are met and our longings are fulfilled?  A place where we don’t have to leave once we turn 18? A place that always welcomes us back if we should wander?

 

And this, is ultimately what we are working to build for our youth a children - their own “yellow home”.  And each of us will have a role and a responsibility to our children regardless of our family status or life stage.  And this is where I’ll leave space for Mary to share more about herself with you and to offer a story that invites us to imagine what our relationship to our church’s children might look like.

 

One reflection on Mary that I would like to share with you that I’ve perhaps come to admire most about her is that her greatest gift to children is that she is a dancer first, and a pastor second. And it is an incredible gift to the Church to have someone on our staff that can teach us how our bodies and our souls move together to pronounce beauty and wonder in our world.  Where pastors fail, artists thrive and I could not think of a better person to both inspire and pastor our children.

 

Introduction II

My name is Mary Jordan, and I have been the children’s ministry coordinator here for the past four months. In these past few months, I have met amazing people; kids and adults. I have gotten to talk to children about their growing faith. I had the privilege to attend a conference with Nigel and many passionate volunteers, and start a garden outside with some of our awesome elementary kids. I also get to do this working side by side with my fiance, Julius, which is awesome :)

 

Working in and being a part of this awesome community, I have seen so much love, growth, and life. I have experienced these three themes in myself, in our volunteers, and members of our community, including the children we are experiencing Jesus with. Of those three themes, I’ve been struck most by life. What does it mean to be alive? How do we recognize life?

 

As I have wrestled with these questions, I want to invite you to enter into the story of Jesus' interaction with a young girl, as I believe it may have some important things to say about how we hope to approach a children and youth ministry at our local church. The story starts with a man named Jairus seeking Jesus' aide to heal his sick daughter. As Jesus is on his way, he gets sidetracked helping and healing a woman with the issue of blood. I can imagine Jairus was in a bit of a rush, as his only daughter was dying. The story is recorded in Luke 8 and continues like this:"

 

Resurrection of a dead girl

While Jesus was still speaking, someone came from the house of Jairus, the synagogue leader. “Your daughter is dead,” he said. “Don’t bother the teacher anymore.”Hearing this, Jesus said to Jairus, “Don’t be afraid; just believe, and she will be healed.” When he arrived at the house of Jairus, he did not let anyone go in with him except Peter, John and James, and the child’s father and mother. Meanwhile, all the people were wailing and mourning for her. “Stop wailing,” Jesus said. “She is not dead but asleep.” They laughed at him, knowing that she was dead. But he took her by the hand and said, “My child, get up!” Her spirit returned, and at once she stood up. Then Jesus told them to give her something to eat. Her parents were astonished, but he ordered them not to tell anyone what had happened.

 

My reaction to this story is to ask more questions: If this girl was alive, how did nobody notice that she was only sleeping? Or, was she dead, showing no signs of life, while Jesus refers to death as “sleep” as he did with his friend Lazarus?

 

Jesus seems to define life differently than we do in this story. He comes to the girl, whose family had come to mourn, who had been declared as dead. But Jesus is interacting with this girl in the lense of the Kingdom, which is greater than the powers of death.

 

Not only does this story address my initial question of “what is life?” It also invites us to consider children within the kingdom.

 

I feel like this story has become metaphor for how many churches have come to view children’s role within the kingdom. Do we see our children’s ministry and our children as “dead?” As something that does not serve a real purpose?

 

Maybe your initial reaction is to push back. But sit with this for a little while longer. What I’ve been asking myself is, what vital signs are evident to know the children are alive within our community?

 

When a loved one dies, we express hope that we will one day see them again in a life to come. It is that kind of distant hope, the hope that takes time to be fulfilled. Do we hold that same type of hope for the spiritual life of our children? Just like we hope to see our loved ones that have passed, alive again, we hope our children will one day “come to life,” and be purposeful, active members in the kingdom.

 

If we enter back into the story, we experience this great flip where the crowd labels Jesus a fool for not being able to recognize death, and then Jesus reverses it, making them the fools for not recognizing life.

 

I think there is so much life in our children. These children are alive and full of passion and purpose now. We do not have to wait for them to “come back to life” when they become adults. If we laugh at Jesus and declare them “dead,” we become the fools in this story.

 

Our children are actively seeking out the kingdom every sunday. This year we invited children to experience the sacrament of baptism with the greater church. That very morning I had several kids asking questions about what baptism means, asking about my own baptism, and expressing excitement at their own future baptism. This is life.

 

Just last week, Christopher, one of our mission outpost interns, led our elementary students in planting a garden outside. We used this activity as a parallel to our own spiritual journey in the practice of evangelism. The shared their own stories of who shared Jesus with them, and who continues to share Jesus with them. Together, they came up with ways they can “be Jesus” to those around them. While outside, after taking ownership of the garden and planting seeds that they chose, they prayed over the land. This is proof of an active spiritual life in our children.

 

So what has Jesus described in this story? What is He inviting us to do?

 

Although Jesus does the miracle, by simply speaking life into the girl, the adults are not void of responsibility. He tells them to get her something to eat. She still needs care. Just as Jesus tells Peter to feed his sheep, we see here Jesus tell us to feed the children. He will awaken the sleeping, but we have so much responsibility in feeding and caring for these little ones. He will awaken her, but he tells us not to let her die again.

 

The thing with feeding though, is that it has to be consistent. We don’t feed our children when it is convenient for us. We can’t only feed them when they are starving. We feed them consistently, so they can continue to grow.

 

A consistent presence is the best way to form relationship with the children. A consistent presence is how we communicate the consistent, foundational, and truly unconditional love that Christ has for these children. When we fail to be consistent, when our service is conditional, how are we communicating the love that Christ calls us to share? If a child comes to church, and is not known by name, will they truly believe that the God of the universe, who created all things, knows them deeply and intimately, by name?

 

Who does the Kingdom belong to?

Let us not forget who Jesus names as significant shareholders of the kingdom.

 

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Matthew 10:13-16).

 

Like the story before, this one also raises questions for me about children.

 

Why did the disciples try to keep the children away from Jesus? Was it because they saw the children as unimportant? As an inconvenience? As too loud? As people lacking in purpose, like the dead girl in the story?

 

Again, Jesus flips the norms upside down.

 

The culture saw children as unimportant, but Jesus saw them as the most important. Jesus goes so far as to say the kingdom belongs to them. That is a big deal! At that point in time, children owned nothing. For a child to own a kingdom, that is revolutionary. But is our culture today much different?

 

I’m dreaming of a church community where kids aren’t at risk of being viewed of as inconvenient. We’re dreaming together of what their ownership in the church looks like as we empower them to walk alongside us as we work for the kingdom. How amazing it will be to have a church where the children teach us as much as we teach them! I’m excited to invite you to dream these dreams with me,

 

because if Jesus says the kingdom of God belongs to such as these, they have an extraordinary purpose. Their purpose is to grab heaven with two hands, and bring it down to earth. Because they have this extraordinary purpose, we have an extraordinary responsibility to help them receive it.

 

Practical Tips:

  1. Much of our time behind the scenes is working just to make sure the programs happen.  Most specifically, we screen, train, and assign volunteers to partner with us as we aim to create spaces as we’ve described.  Right now, we are short on help which often leaves us scrambling to find replacement helpers and threatens our hope for a foundation to build upon.  So a practical tip today is to pick up at application for Children’s Ministry at the front of the sanctuary and join in! Not only will you get to teach and lead some amazing children, but you will also learn from and be blessed by them. Completed applications can be given to any staff member wearing a black name badge.
  2. One of our takeaways from the conference was the reminder to engage better with our community so that we avoid having a “rogue staff”, forgetting to hear the stories and needs of the very people we’re honored to serve.  Towards that end, we’ll be hosting some roundtable conversations here at the church that are open to anyone currently volunteering in our children and youth ministries, parents, or those who are just generally interested in learning more about what God is doing in the lives of our young people.  We’ll be scheduling a few of these in the coming weeks and so a second practical tip would be to participate and share your voice, your hopes, and your needs so that all things might be considered as we discern how to best love one another.  Keep checking back in on our paper bulletins and social media outlets for those opportunities.
  3. My purpose for speaking to you today is not to “sell” you children’s ministry. The purpose of my speaking is to ask you to invest in our children, inside and outside their classes. A third practical tip would be commit to learning the names and stories of our youth, whether or not you serve in youth or children’s ministry.
  4. Last but not least, we know that children thrive best when they are surrounded by safe and healthy relationships.  One way we can nurture that beyond Sunday mornings is through our Life Group opportunities here at the Vineyard.  A life group is what is sounds like - it’s a group of people that are committed to doing life together!  We’d love to see new and diverse Life Groups form around young families and intergenerational values.  If you would be interested in partnering with a family to host a Life Group or you’ve survived the raising of your own children and have encouragement to pass on, we would love to explore what doing life together could look like with you.  Simply reach out to our main office at mainoffice@annarborvineyard.org or speak to one of our staff members and we’ll help get the ball rolling.  A list of currently meeting Life Groups is available just outside of the gallery in the carpeted hallway.
 
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