I have misgivings about the children’s story. It is part and parcel of the services here and it is absolutely taken for granted that I will be overseeing meaningful, yet funny, service interludes aimed at children. In South Africa this would happen twice a year: once at Christmas, once at Easter. My Children’s Church pastor would take charge of that part. Even so, when restricted to high days and holy days it’s not hard to do something for the kids – if nothing else, “What did you get for Christmas?” lifts the luggage quite well.
But here? No, it’s not just high days and holy days, it is Every. Single. Week. There is a slight reprieve in this as I’ve been spared the most recent scourge of the church attempting to stay relevant – that is, Messy Church. Messy Church is a form of church where the vast majority of the usual service aspects seem to fall away in favor of glitter, lollipop sticks, and a story that will engage all; I sense it is as awful as it sounds and nothing any of my colleagues – who, with an air of resignation, attempt to defend this form of church – has said convinces me otherwise.
Do I want a children’s story every week? Absolutely not. Would I rather do a children’s story than offer Messy Church? For sure. I can’t help but think back to seminary when, fresh-faced and eager, we all thought our ministries would be the thing that changes the church and sets it back on a positive trajectory. Onward and upward! Balancing ineptly on a little green plastic chair while dunking stick figures in glitter to reimagine The Transfiguration seems like a fall from grace. Systematic Theology exams be damned!, how are you at scrapbooking?
I’m not aided in Cork, with the children’s story, by the fact that there are other preachers and ministers who are truly expert at this. “You should’ve seen so and so! He had the children marching up and down the aisle! When he re-enacted Goliath by using a balloon above his head and then, in a moment popped it, well! Oh my goodness!”I can’t blow up a balloon, never mind tie the end of one.
Another local preacher moonlights as a magician. He’s been known to pull an endless handkerchief out his sleeve. He has a book that you open and each page has words but then you close and reopen and what do you know? all the pages are blank. Though I have not seen it, I would back him to pull a messianic rabbit out of a makeshift yamalka.
My first children’s story involved bread and toppings. The lesson was simple. We all need the Bread of Life (Jesus! Try to keep up…) but how we consume him, how we receive his grace can be different for each of us: some through prayer (jam); some through fellowship (peanut butter); and some through sports (Nutella). This seemed like a straightforward story until someone made it known that peanut butter has nuts in it (who knew?) which could lead to allergies, which could lead to breaking Health and Safety regulations, which, in turn, could lead to an Incident Report. “And no one wants an Incident Report filed, correct?” A flurry of concerned, shaking heads.
I’m also not convinced that a children’s story meets the needs of the children. At least mine really haven’t and, as with ministry in HMC, I can’t help but wonder who this is actually for. Is it for the children? Is it for the parents of the children? (A South African colleague takes such offense at this. Her argument is why invite the children forward at all? You don’t invite the old people forward during old people’s time, ask them questions and then giggle at their answers do you?)
So it was that I found myself in a trial service not long ago where the preacher preached really well. The only suspect part of the service was the children’s story. The venue was tiny, the congregation small, with three young teenagers occupying the back row and doing what young people do: giggling, elbowing each other, and thinly veiling their contempt at what was unfolding before them. When not misbehaving they took the form of resting zombies.
Is there anything more obvious than a bored teenager? I watched the teenage boy recline stiffly on an upright chair; there is a certain grudging respect that can be extended to a teenager truly committed to their boredom. For this young guy to be lying like this was notable. It dawned on me that his core strength must be incredible as the top of the chair and seated part of the chair dug into his shoulder blades and behind his knees respectively. He looked like as still and at ease as a surfboard leaning against a wall. No doubt his core was strengthened over time through attending all sorts of adult functions that have left him near comatose.
Can I tell you what woke him up? The children’s story. Not enthusiasm for the story per se, but the request that the three of them – near asleep only moments earlier -to now come forward to the front of the church to hear the story. They went from bored to wild-eyed in seconds. They were not going to move. There was a stand-off developing. The preacher in the front requesting, the three in the back abjectly refusing. Those of us caught between watching the to and fro like Wimbledon spectators. Eventually, the preacher (story in hand) made her way to the back of where they were.
This did little to dismiss the terror in their eyes. The mountain was coming to Mohammed. In that instance, the story was something, what it was not – in an otherwise wonderful service – was a raging success.
Mine haven’t been either. The second time I did the Bread of Life story armed with buttered bread and three types of toppings my offer of bread to the children was met with a series of disinterested replies: “I don’t eat Nutella,” “Is that gluten-free?”, “Why don’t you have white bread?” I looked at the bread knife I’d used to butter the bread and was reminded if you’re going to slit your wrists, cut up the arm.