Imagine, if you would, a river in full flow. You are standing on the grassy bank and gazing at the field and hills on the other side. Looking up and down river, you search for a bridge – there is no bridge that you can see. Swimming is out of the question; the current is too strong (besides, you left your rubber ring and armbands at home) . . .
OK, now imagine you are stood there with a crowd of eager looking 10 and 11 year olds. You have to get them across, what are you going to do? Oh, and they are going anyway (dipping their toes in the water, daring each other to just dive in)! Then you notice, on the river bank next to you, a pile of stuff – you and the kids had better get building . . . Alright, I will end the metaphor there!
The word “transition” literally means “a crossing over” and what has been taxing my brain – hence this article – is how we help children who are finishing primary school and, consequently, finishing with our children’s programmes at church and kids club, transition into the next stage of life for them – namely, secondary school and the youth work at our church? How do we help them cross over without losing them in the swirling waters of contemporary culture, or seeing them dragged downstream by something apparently more attractive than what we are offering, or just see them quietly vanish as they realise church was a phase they have now grown out of?
I once had a conversation with a Vicar who rang me in desperation and said, “we have a load of 10 and 11 year olds – what are we going to do!” I asked, “Do you have a youth group?” and he replied, “No”. I said “well, you do now!” We were on the phone a while as it sunk in – the need to start something if the church wasn’t already providing it – and the need to recognise that these children were going to need a different level of engagement, activity, teaching and equipping as they continued to grow and mature. We can’t slam the brakes on and have a “Never Never Land” approach to our work, where kids never grow up.
We know this. Yet, a load of evidence suggests at the point of transition (despite the fact we know it is coming) the church in general does a pretty poor job of hanging on to children into their teens. We need to get much better at the transition! According to Christian Research+, the church will have lost 1.1 million children between 1990 and 2020. 2010 was six years ago, 375,300 children under 15 were attending church – in just 3 ½ years from now we are expected to have lost 48% of those children and young people.
For anything that is going to be solid and useful, and hopefully last, it needs great foundations. This “bridge” we build might start out great, but go all wobbly if there are different values and different priorities between the children’s work and the youth work. So, before we can look at transitions, we need to ask if the same things are underpinning ALL the work with children and young people. Get this agreed amongst all those who work with children, young people and families. For what it is worth, these are my core values for work with children and young people, use these as a starting point, or develop your own.
To start with, I don’t believe that we work (first and foremost) with an age group. We work with people. That work does not begin when a child turns five and it does not end when we wave them off as they join the youth group. It would be weird to have such a significant relationship with children, built over the years, to just “end it” dramatically because they are no longer in our “age group”. It is not about whether we “do” youth work or not. That child is a person, we know them. The first thing I think about the children in kids clubs I have run is not, “oh, they are nearly nine”, it’s who they are, their character and personality. We need to be liberated from the lines drawn that “vacuum pack” our work with people!
Secondly, there are some things that we all “need”. A guy called Maslow created a “hierarchy of needs” in the 1940s. He did this by studying the healthiest and most successful people he could find. Typically shown as a pyramid, you can work through this bunch of needs from the most basic requirements for life (food and shelter) to becoming the people we want to be and realising our potential as human beings. In terms of the church and our programmes with children and young people, I have come up with my own set of “needs” for those that those we work with (including all the adults involved in the work too) – we all need four things. Acceptance, Love, Guidance and Significance. You might come up with other things, but – it is not how much money we put into a programme or how many people we can get to commit to something that will make a difference to the lives of our children and young people, but the values that underpin all that we do with them.
These values should be the same, whether we are working with children, young people or adults. So, ask yourself this question, “Do you, the youth worker, the vicar and the diaconate or PCC have the same values?”
Obviously, agreeing the values is not the same thing as putting those into practice throughout the children’s, youth and adult ministry – but at least you can be on the same page. As you help children transition there is then some common ground on which to build.
OK, we are back on that grassy bank I started with, here are my top ten tips for helping children navigate what comes next :
// Focus on individuals not the group. This won’t apply every year, but if you have a little crowd of Year 6 that will be moving up it can be tempting to treat them as a “crowd”. Yet within that group there might be 4 kids all going to the same Secondary school and one who is not; kids in a solid friendship group and others not; kids who are the oldest in their family; others who are about to join their older brother or sister; you might have four girls going up and one boy. Each child is an individual, it is more time consuming, but think about what might make the journey easier for each child – their individual fears, hopes, challenges.
// Move them Early. Bearing in mind the above, think about the best time to make the “move” happen. I have done this at different times in the past, straight after Easter or the Summer half term. Moving early means they are not doing all the change stuff at the same time, they have hopefully settled into the group before summer hits and it does not feel like a challenge to attend a group they are already familiar with in September. Also, if they are more than ready to go, and don’t want to be in with the “kids” anymore there could be a case for moving them before you lose them! However, this needs to be tempered with asking the question, “should our kids get to move groups simply because they want to?” Anticipation can be a great thing; patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Handled in the right way, delayed gratification might be the best option.
// Start Something! You might be in the situation where there has not been much of a youth group for a few years, it might be that your crop of Year 6 kids will make up the greatest proportion of the youth group – or, they might be the first youth group ever! Start something. It might be that the youth group, what’s left of it, is a bit tired or there is currently nothing. Start something over, or start something fresh.
// Go Together. If we work with people and not an age group, why not move with them? Go together, the young people and a leader. If there is a leader who has particularly invested in the older crop of children maybe they would be up for continuing the journey with them? They know the kids already, the kids know them. However, this needs to be the right leader . . . the kids are growing and changing, the leader needs to be someone able to grow and change too, sharing this journey – not someone who constantly reminds them of the embarrassing snot incident when they were 7. For some kids, they want to feel and be more grown up, and don’t want a Sunday school reminder hanging out with them.
// Prepare the receivers. The existing youth group needs to be ready to receive the newcomers in a way that is welcoming and warm, rather than a shrug of the shoulders. The youth leader should be teeing them up to be friendly and thoughtful, willing to help and guide the new crowd, without being patronising. The youth leader needs to be doing the same!
// Parent Participation. This is crucial, regardless of the faith of the parents. If their children are involved in something, it is natural to want to know what is going to happen, when it is going to happen, the expectations and what will be different from what their children have already being doing in church or the kids work. It is surprising how often this doesn’t happen! The Year 6 children will be visiting Secondary schools with their parents, getting the low down together on what comes next. This should be true in the church as well. Start the youth group journey as you mean to go on, with great communication with the parents of the children. The nurture of children and young people is a partnership between children’s and youth workers and their parents – in which we are the junior partners. We need parents onside, confident about what we are doing, able to support and pray for, ferry kids backwards and forwards etc. Be proactive about involving them, especially around the transition time for their children.
// What are they ready for? I have encountered quite a few situations where the new young people have arrived full of enthusiasm in a youth group, only to find out later they are either listless or have left. The youth leaders need to know that they are getting new young people that already have a faith story, gifts and talents, bible knowledge, a desire to serve etc. They are not starting from scratch! Yet, this is often not appreciated – conversation about where the young people are “at” is vital. What are they ready for? What do they know? What can be built on rather than going over old ground?
// Continuity of Activities. A danger, in our culture (but also in the church) is to expect children to grow up too quickly. An emphasis on play and having fun together is a key component on much of the children’s work I see – but, this can be replaced with a “time to get serious” attitude in a youth group. Regardless of age our children and young people love to play! There need to be enough activities they are familiar with as they move that recognise the reality that they are still children. Activities that, regardless of age, everyone in the group can join in.
// Attendance Awareness. We can be a slave to “attendance” figures – it is hard not to if we work in a church where the question asked first is “how many did you get?” rather than, “What did God do?” With this we need to be aware that as children are transitioning, they are not yet in full control of their diaries. A dip or sporadic attendance does not mean they are leaving. Family circumstances might have changed. Some children are with their dad one week and mum the next, over the summer they might have broken into the first team and now be playing football on a Sunday morning. We can also communicate to our children and young people that attendance at Church is the same as commitment to Christ. It isn’t. Pressurising kids to turn up at stuff is only adding to all the other pressures they feel. If the youth group doesn’t meet on a Sunday, we might also be expecting them to roll up mid-week on a night when they are expected to be in bed by 8.30pm. Do not give up on these young people, pay attention to who is and isn’t coming – not to monitor the numbers, but to be aware of the people. Doorstop visits can be a great way of saying to a young person, “Hey, I know its tough to get to group, but you are not forgotten.”
// Celebrate! Celebrate the time the young people have had in the children’s work, throw a party when they leave, throw a party when they arrive in the youth group! What have they left with the children’s work, what example were the Year 6 to the younger children? How can you celebrate all they are and what they have brought to the group? Marking it also tells them “this matters”, this is a significant time for you and we want to recognise that.
The above tips are intended to help you put some kind of walkway across the foundations you lay for your work with children and young people. They are not the answer, but hopefully, as we stand on the bank thinking about how we might help our young people “cross over” they provide you (and me) with a bit of extra hope and expectancy that getting there safely is possible.
+ Christian Research Data gleaned from Evangelical Alliance Website (http://www.eauk.org/idea/the-child-exodus.cfm) and fits with statistics used in Mark Griffiths book, “One Generation from Extinction” available from Monarch Publishing.