Theology out of the classroom

messy church

Pilgrim Theological College adjunct lecturer Beth Barnett practises what she teaches, which is why you might find her students entering a church building on their hands and knees to view the surrounds from a child’s height.

This is one of the observational tasks included in the intensive unit Children and Families Ministry: Core issues in diverse contexts. Ms Barnett will teach the unit in two three-day blocs in February, leaving students the rest of the semester for assessment tasks.

While there is a more formal essay component, the unit’s observational tasks include the aforementioned crawl into a church building (Ms Barnett doesn’t recommend doing this during a worship service), sketching a plan of a home and street to highlight where the kingdom of God can or could be seen and identifying the theology that informs depictions of children in church and secular communications.

“One of my passions is thinking of the best way we can go about theological education,” Ms Barnett said.

She believes asking students to do the traditional 2500-word essays or a 25-minute sermon reinforces a particular way of thinking about theology.

“When we assess in that way we tend to end up with doing our theology that way or delivering our content that way out in churches and in public,” she said.

“With children and with families you want people doing things together out in the community. People aren’t going to stay and listen to a half hour of monologue.

“What we want is engagement and discussion. We want people interacting with their environment to understand the messages of the context. What are the theological messages of shopping centres, schools and parks, green spaces and commercial spaces that children are part of everyday?”

“What are we telling them about their world and how can we help children expand their place in the world? We need to be able to have those discussions with children in their own terms.”

Ms Barnett thinks the traditional model of Sunday school may not be helpful. She suggests some older congregations need to be more adaptive rather than looking back to their own youth.

“They remember the Sunday schools of the 50s which were 200 children and a very educative model,” Ms Barnett said.

“They hold that as an ideal and they miss that there are other ways of children being present, we don’t always have to treat them as little learners and like they’re school children.

“Learning is part of the task of childhood but just playing is part of the task of childhood. Loving, caring, just ‘being’ is part of the task of childhood and the church has often missed those and assumed what we need to do is school our children.”

Mr Barnett said while the old model suited some academically inclined children, some kids just aren’t wired to thrive in the classroom environment.

“They aren’t saying ‘the spiritual life, the engaged life, the reflective life, the ethically responsive life, the life of justice and love isn’t for me’,” she said.

“They are just saying the life of being treated like a student again is not for me. And rightly, as soon as they are old enough, they have walked out the door, but we haven’t given them any other options.”

Ms Barnett said that in a tertiary environment setting a long essay might not be the right way to help equip some of those who are working most effectively with children living in the margins of society.

“Often those people are not confident academically but are really switched on about thinking through the really gritty issues. We want them as part of our colleges,” she said.

“They speak back into the institution as well.”

She thinks that is especially important because “sometimes people within churches have a very rose-coloured or sanitised view of what we think we mean by children’s ministry or children and families ministry”.

“They think it’s Colin Buchanan songs or Sunday school colouring in. Actually children’s and families ministry can take you right to most confronting areas, children are where there is suffering right across our society, they bear the brunt.

“To work in children’s and families ministry is to move into the cancer ward and to be alongside families who are seeking asylum, are in domestic violence, who are not the mum, dad and 2.5 kids but are the mixed families and blended families, same-sex parent families.

“Those discussions of whether we can have those families are already done and gone in children’s and families ministry, we are already working with those shapes of families. The question is, are we keeping up?”

In the wake of last year’s royal commission and new laws, one area where the church has been confronted and challenged is to update its practices in guarding against child abuse.

Ms Barnett said the church’s first response to the issue could be characterised as “panic and mortification”.

“We’ve gone from not wanting to talk about it all to suddenly a type of hyper-vigilance,” she said.

“We’re almost afraid of children in the church now, we need to have all these forms and protocols. We need to be careful we don’t ostracise children in that process.”

The upcoming intensive unit covers the legal framework of new child protection laws but also looks at the theology, philosophies and attitudes behind them and previous practices.

Ms Barnett said it is crucial for children to have agency and to have their voices heard.

“Churches find that really difficult, so there’s lots of work to do in that,” she said.

The Children and Families Ministry: Core issues in diverse contexts intensive unit runs at the same time every year and is intended to equip and qualify chaplains, children and families ministry leaders, ordained clergy and others such as community development workers.

There is still time to enrol in the upcoming course, which will have two teaching blocs conducted over the 14-16 and the 19-21 of February. Find out more here.

Image: Dank Spangle/Flickr

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