Marilynne Robinson on children’s ministry

I have never read a better description of my approach to the catechesis of children than this short paragraph from Marilynne Robinson’s essay “Psalm Eight” from the collection The Death of Adam.

The patient old women who taught me Presbyterianism taught in parables. God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, Pharaoh dreamed a dream of famine, Jesus said, Take up your bed and walk. We drew of colored pictures of these events, which were, I think, never explained to us. No intrusion on the strangeness of these tales was ever made. It was as if some old relative had walked me down to the lake knowing an imperious whim of heaven had made it a sea of gold and glass, and had said, This is a fine evening, and walked me home again. I am convinced it was this reticence, in effect this esotericism, which enthralled me.

Church Consumption, VBS, and Art

photo 3In June our church departed from the tradition VBS-in-a-can format and ventured into Art Camp, a week long exploration of the seven days of creation through visual art. We hired a local artist and gallery-owner (who we paid by the UMC standard living wage) and she put together a weeks worth of art projects. We did yoga, played on the playground, chalked outside, and drew still life. We used the Ignatian spiritual practice of praying through creativity to imagine ourselves in the middle of each day of creation.

Each day we worked on two projects. The first was a “complete that day” project. The second was cumulative – faux batiks. Kim, our director, had the idea of taking fabric, tracing a picture, retracing in glue, covering with paint, and then washing out the glue with hot water. Several of our church sewers then assembled these into banners – one for each of the days of creation. They are now hanging in our sanctuary.

There were several reasons I wanted to try an alternative to the traditional model of VBS. The first is that there are very few options to photo 1choose from. I feel like every church in town is doing Everest right now. So I don’t get the sense that the need to reproduce that format is a need in our area.

On a personal note, I don’t like chaos. I think there are times for rough play, times for kids to run wild. I also know that children long for spaces that are more contemplative. Instead we give them more – more sugar, more stimulation, more to process. There are a million incredible spaces for wild, exciting play and activity. Again, the question for me was: what do we have to offer that is uniquely “us” as a church.

There’s also something about the current format of VBS that doesn’t sit photo 4well with me. I will save you my Marxist critique of VBS, except to say that I struggle with any time our church trains children to see church as another site of consumption. One of the greatest challenges of pastoral ministry is pushing back against this way of thinking – that our tithe is a payment for services rendered, that if someone doesn’t like a church decision they’ll take their check and leave. I wonder if the way we do children’s ministry today, the way we form children to know the life of the church, is the seed of church consumption later in life. It’s a theory.

When I thought about VBS I asked myself a few questions. What would it mean to create a space where children produced, and where that production was “useful” only in so far as it contributed to our ability to witness the beauty of God’s creation and to worship God more fully? What if we created a space where children invited us into their imaginative world? How does our ministry over the summer fulfill our mission of “making ministers” of our children, of inviting them to participate in God’s life? photo 5

It could be that VBS is perfect for your context. It may be an incredible service to your under-resourced community. It may be that there is energy and enthusiasm, that the love of God pours out onto some kids who desperately need love this summer. You may not have the financial resources of our church (art camp was not cheap). You may feel VBS is a perfect fit.

Rock on, ministers.

It’s also good to go back and ask questions about why we do the things we do, how our ministry forms children over the long haul, and what our particular contexts have to offer our neighbors.

Hymns children want to sing

This past Sunday our worship was a hymn sing. We kept the structure of our regular worship, but let hymns carry us through the prayers and liturgies.
For our Pew Project I asked children to either write their own hymn, or to write or draw the subject of a hymn that we don’t usually hear about. I looked up their request and this is what I found, noting that some are incredibly obscure:
1. Sharks
‘Tis folly all – let me no more be told – Madame Guyon
2. Bicycles/Cars
The Chariot! the chariot! its wheels roll in fire – Henry Hart Milman
(general wheels/chariot reference was as close as I could get)

3. Dance
Lord of the dance – Sydney Carter

4. Birds (So many hymns!)
The birds in sweet chorus are singing away – E. E. Hewitt
Savior, like a bird to Thee – George Doane
Sweetly the birds are singing – E.W. Chapman
5. Flowers
When spring unlocks the flowers – Reginald Heber
As flowers in the morning sun – Irvin Mack
6. Time machine (I am stumped on this one, although I have found this)
No change of times shall ever shock
7. Sisters
Let us, brothers, let us gladly Give to God of all – Henry Bateman
O sisters, come and tarry at the blessed mercy – Nellie Brush
8. Animals
All things bright and beautiful – Cecil Alexander
9. Sunshine
All creatures of our God and King – St Francis