I hear a great deal of talk about the lack of children in our churches, and the concern about the long-term effect on the viability of our churches and chapels. It is borne out of the fact that most of our congregations are 'aging', so there is fear of what will happen to the church in say 10 - 20 years' time. One person was asked 'what will happen to our church when we're no longer here' to which they replied 'it will probably remain an aging congregation' - implying that people will continue to seek out a deeper meaning to life in their later years (I hope they're right!).
Yet we can't escape the knowledge that many of us were brought up at a time when Sunday Schools were thriving, where churches invested a great deal of time, energy and resources into the nurturing of children and young people. Children, for instance, on our council estate were 'rounded up' by a lady called Shirley Lawson, who took her own children to the village chapel, and encouraged others to join them - and I was one of them. If it happened now it would probably be referred to as a 'walking Sunday School bus'!
The times, though, are a-changing (and they were long before Bob Dylan sang about it). In years gone by, church / chapel / Sunday School were one of only a few activities that were available on a Sunday - probably one of the reasons that some boast going THREE times a day and not just for an hour...! Nowadays we appreciate that there are so many things to attract children and young people whether out and about or stay at home with electronic gadgets, or, with some, the need to visit a parent on a Sunday.
These are very different times. I recall an occasion when children associated with the local church wanted to join a popular amateur dramatic group, which started half hour before Junior Church finished. We requested that the children be given permission to arrive a little late to give scope for attending church first, but the request was turned down. I was horrified that these children were put a position that they had to choose.
Having acknowledged though that we find it difficult to compete with these many different demands, I wouldn't want to despair about where we find ourselves, but rather than see it as a challenge. Churches are, for instance, discovering a different way of 'doing Sunday school' especially as an after-school club. This is one of the reason why 'Messy Church' is so popular providing various activities; readings; singing etc on a Biblical theme and having a meal in the bargain. They're popular because they're fun and available at a time when it suits parents as well as children.
I can also refer to the success of 'Open the Book' where volunteers take a school assembly, sharing a story from the Bible in word and dramatic form, that goes down exceptionally well with staff and children. They always include an invitation 'for those who would wish' to join them in a short prayer at the end. It always amuses me that a volunteer can be spotted in town by a child who might point them out to a parent and identify them with their latest Biblical character!
Recently a Year Six class were reflecting on some of the horrors that are occurring around our world in an activity that sought to confront the effects of both good and bad choices. They were reminded of the 'rippling effect' whereby a stone is thrown into a pool of water and the ripple extends far beyond its initial impact. Towards the end of the lesson, the teacher suggested that they spend a few minutes in silence, and take the opportunity to reflect on what they had been discussing. It is suggested that every child in the class bowed their head, closed their eyes, put their hands together, and quietly offered their own prayer.
This gives me encouragement for the future that children have the capacity to understand the need and power of prayer. Jesus said 'Let the children come to Me and do nothing to prevent it, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these'. I personally think that the teacher was doing just that - allowing the time, space and opportunity for them to approach the eternal throne. I'm sure it's happening in all sorts of other maybe small ways, but let's take heart that acorns are being planted and must surely grow in the things that are of the Kingdom. We might sow and nurture, but it is God does the rest and our future - and theirs - are in His hands.