CHILD-FRIENDLY CHURCHES FOR HOLISTIC CHILD DEVELOPMENT
Dr. Jesudason Baskar Jeyaraj
Today, children are one-fourth (25%) of the world population. They are the future leaders in families and society. UNO gives importance to children and their development through its programmes and financial support. Christian children are also members of the Body of Christ and they are served to develop their spirituality through Sunday Schools and Christian Education programmes. Some churches do not have Sunday Schools or VBS to nurture them regularly. Some churches do not budget for the ministry to children. Many churches are not child friendly to develop children holistically - spiritually, socially, psychologically and educationally.
I can list many characteristics of a child friendly church but I emphasize only a few of them below looking into the context of South Asia.
1. Giving importance to children as full member
Children do not get importance in families since our families are conditioned by Patriarchy system. Father is the head of the family and his wife and children are his property. Male preference to female child is still dominant in our families. The same social setting reflects in the structure of our churches in India, Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh. Men are in the upper hierarchy, women below and children last in churches. Till they complete confirmation and cross the age of 21, children are a lesser category in churches and they are not consulted or allowed to be part of the decision making body in churches. How many Pastorate Committees in churches have ‘growing-children’ as their members or invitees avoiding the requirement of getting elected? Their presence can challenge the elderly members to be role models in discussions and conducting themselves. They can also give valuable suggestions from their side and for their needs. Unless children are integrated in all the aspects of the life of the churches, they remain marginalized.
2. Love, Care and Respect
Children need love, care and respect of the ministers and other members. In some societies, children are addressed with respect. The elders do not use abusive language and degrade children. They correct children not in front of others but counsel and guide them privately. Pastors and Sunday School teachers should understand each child fully particularly, their background, parents, relationship within the family and school, attitude, physical health condition, social and psychological needs. Since children are told about their caste by their parents and taught to maintain caste difference, careful attention is needed to shape each child to come out of this mind-set and see it as social evil and wrong to maintain it. The social, racial and material differences can cause ill-feelings among children if ministers or members express publically or practice it. Favouring children from upper caste and rich families and discriminating poor and lower caste cannot promote friendliness and equality among children. Love and care should unite children. Children of all background whether they are rich or poor, upper or lower caste should feel the churches as friendly and encouraging them to come up in life. Preferential option to lift up children of widows to study or get trained in technical school can help them to stand on their own feet later and take care of their widowed mothers, kith and kin.
3. Prayer and social support
A child friendly church prays for children and goes one step further to help a child in truma or poverty or in financial need for his or her education. When they come to know that the members and leaders are praying for their studies, exams and needs, they are encouraged and gain more confidence in God and church. They feel one with the congregation and love the church. They are prepared to do anything for the church because they are attached to the church in their emotions and reasons. Small financial grants to needy children for their education, training and clothing help them to get educated and feel normal than coming to the church with inferiority complex and hopelessness. They start questioning God’s care and love for them when they suffer but strengthen their faith in God when helped economically.
4. Nurturing and Curriculum
Each child needs to be rooted in the Word of God. Preaching high sounding academic sermons cannot reach children. They need to be taught biblical truths in the way they can understand. When they raise questions in Sunday schools, the teachers or pastors need to be patient to listen and answer. Their doubts are genuine. They are seeking truths at their level. If the pastor and teachers are doubtful about the Scripture and do not believe certain texts in the Bible, children begin to doubt the bible. Child friendly church nurtures children in truth and train them to hold on God’s word to lead their lives. The Christian Education curriculum should be designed to lead children to believe the Bible, divine values and broaden their perspectives about environment, gender equality, peace and harmony, handling crisis situation and to keep good relationship with all. They need to know the meaning of the rituals, symbols, imageries and traditions true to the Bible. Christian nurturing is not limited to imparting knowledge but enabling them to practice what they learnt. In doing so, leaders need to avoid threatening method or indoctrination approach or forcing the child to accept their views but to teach them the truth in love.
5. Developing the Skill and Talents of children
Many churches minister to children to learn the Scripture. But this is not enough. Many children need guidance and help to develop their skill in drawing, music and playing musical instruments. Churches can provide tuition and instruments to poor children to develop their talents. Some find it difficult to learn English and languages by paying for private tuition. training in languages can be offered to such children. Church building or a hall can be left open with lights for the village children to come and study at night time and do their home work. Youth can help them to do their home work as a voluntary service.
6. Educating and training the congregation
Special effort should be taken to create programmes to educate the parents, elders and ministers in the churches about the rights of children and responsibility of parenting and caring them. Many pastors, elders and parents do not know the biblical laws and universal documents like Convention on the rights of Child (CRC) to protect the rights of children. My eyes were opened when I exercised re-reading the laws in the Old Testament about the protection of children particularly female child. It is important that the churches take these laws in Ex. 20-24 seriously and teach them to the congregation. The CRC document can be studied by leaders, teachers and parents together. The newly emerging Child Theology is influencing churches to look critically into their age old doctrines about children written in colonial period and the structure of the Department of Children and make changes in the policies, doctrines, sacraments and budget to be friendly to children.
More opportunities are coming up to train parents, pastors and teachers through Holistic Child Development educational programme in bible colleges in India and abroad. Christian Forum for Child Development (CFCD-India), a common forum has developed the curriculum for HCD education and training faculty members of colleges offering MA and M.Th in HCD through Distance mode to be practitioners. HCD is a professional course for those parents and ministers to work among children. Churches can send their elders, Sunday School teachers and child care workers to get trained in HCD.
7.Child Friendly Church campus
Usually churches provide facilities for adults. Many churches in rural areas conduct their Sunday School under trees on campus or roadside without facilities to show audio-visual presentations. In many towns and villages, mothers sit outside the church building keeping their kids and protecting them from running to the road. Since they do not have a room or kids corner to leave their children and participate in the worship, they miss a lot in singing and hearing sermons and could participate fully in the Sunday worship. Urban churches have parish hall for children to assemble and learn. Providing facilities of drinking water, proper toilets for children, play ground are lacking in many churches. Parents feel uneasy when their children cry during the worship service and afraid of pastors or a member sitting near could scold them. Some churches spend huge amount in decorations and printing and for committee meetings rather than providing needed facilities for children and mothers.
8. Celebrations friendly to children
Children love celebrations like birth day parties and fun. Moses instructed the Israelites to celebrate Passover, Feast of Tabernacle, harvest including children. The main reason is to teach the meaning of these celebrations to children because they are to be connected with their history of liberation from Egyptian bondage, wilderness wandering and staying in tents as pilgrims and thanking God for granting a good harvest and food. Celebrations are not merely fun but to teach history and the religious traditions born out of their historical experience and became a belief. Usually Christmas, New Year and Easter are celebrated by adults and children to enjoy cakes, briyani and ice-cream. Our religious festivals and secular festivals such as Independence Day and Republic Day or Pongal are celebrated with children but not theologized to teach them to integrate history and faith. Harvest festivals in churches are celebrated for raising funds for constructing building or missions. Children get some food out of sale on that day. May Day as Labour Day never challenged us to stop child labour in our institutions. Children do hard jobs in many homes belonging to Christians. Can our celebrations bring more joy and meaning to children?
Churches which give importance to children and develop them are growing and producing men and women of God for the families and nations. When children are left uncared, they find their places in clubs, bars, cafes and hooked to the influence of mass media. Some of them may become violent and end up in prison. Others may cause a lot of problems to their families, schools and society. It is not for the sake of churches to have members and sustainability but for the sake of that individual, families and society, we must evangelize children, nurture them in Christian faith and teachings and develop them as good leaders. Their relationship with the local churches and enabling the children to enjoy the goodness of the Kingdom of God here on earth depend on the attitude and action of leaders in Christian ministry and families.