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/ 13 March 2019

Creating space

Children at St Paul's Cathedral

This article is the follow-up to one I wrote recently about a moment of awe and wonder when an 8-year-old child blew our tiny minds in an all-age fresh expression of church we host. As I said, it was a rare moment that is not part of our usual experience, but did fit within the wider context of children making meaningful contributions in our group all the time.

What I didn’t want you to think is that this was fluke or that the child in question was especially gifted or precocious, but rather is the effect of some pretty concerted work that we have done to create a space where children and young people feel empowered to speak for themselves and to tell us what they think.

In essence, all children have insights to share with you that will deepen your understanding of the Bible and your faith but we are not always very good at creating the space to hear them. However, here are some things we do that help. As a final disclaimer I should mention that while in our group we don’t use Godly Play, I have been profoundly influenced by the thinking behind it by Jerome Berryman and we only operate the way we do because of his work and insight.

  • Use open-ended questions that don’t have a right or wrong answer. Try and draw people into a conversation so that people can join in even if they can’t remember the characters names or where they were travelling to.
  • Listen to and learn from one another. We never have a sermon where a Bible passage is explained but after a story or a passage from a Psalm or a New Testament letter, we encourage everyone to feel free to join in. This means adults need to know these rules in advance: “We need your insights but we need them in three sentences.” After all, this is the most a child is likely to share. Being prepared to keep asking ‘why’ is really important too, so that we get a sense of where thoughts come from and how they connect to the story. However not sharing is fine too.
  • Develop one another’s ideas. Someone might take an idea and develop it by: drawing in another Bible story to go deeper, linking it with their idea to make something bigger or even linking it to an experience in their life. The adults can be a great resource here so long as the spirit it is done in is not to correct but to go deeper, so phrases like: “I love that thought – it reminds me of…” go down well. We don’t always get this right and I’m sure that sometimes someone’s ideas have been misunderstood and developed in ways that they didn’t like but we are trying to all be part of the conversation together.
  • Value all responses. One of the weird things you encounter when you first see Godly Play is the way in which the storyteller responds to the children’s ideas. They ask the open-ended wondering questions and whatever the child’s response they say ‘thank you’ irrespective of what it is. Those of us who have been working with children any length of time are so used to responses that seek to affirm the good stuff such as “Wow, that’s great!” or a more British “Yes, well done.” Obviously, it’s more fun to watch people try and be affirming when the answers come from more ‘left field’ – here we say stuff like “That’s good but it’s not what I was looking for” or “Are you sure Geoff Capes was actually in the story?” An affirming response is sometimes automatic, but consider this: it does risk telling someone thinking something different that they are wrong; if we start telling people their response is wrong then we people will be less willing to share as there is a fear factor to being seen in public to be wrong. Simply thanking people for their contribution keeps the space open for others to join in.
  • Keep at it. Creating these kind of spaces takes time, you need to build trust and for people to get used to contributing all the time and not just when they feel they really know the answer. This can be tough, especially is they have been used to being asked more closed questions that have right or wrong answers. So stick at it, be encouraged by the wins but don’t beat yourself up when it’s not so good.

About Sam Donoghue

Sam Donoghue is Head of Children and Youth for the Diocese of London, a keen cyclist and a supporter of Everton FC.

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