Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reaching Families

I have been carrying a growing inquisitiveness to find out about the conditions that led to the phenomenal growth of the church in the First Century.
I love this quote from Rodney Stark, a secular historian who has tried to answer this very same question:
How did a tiny and obscure messianic movement from the edge of the Roman Empire dislodge classical paganism and become the dominant faith of Western civilisation?

Reading a theology book (Family in the Bible) for the second time in preparation for remitting an academic review of it, I kept coming across footnotes about this Stark book. I hadn't come across it before so last month I read it from cover to cover. Its compulsive reading for anyone interested in the growth of the church and/or with a social science background, as I do (Geography). Stark outlines a conservative estimate of 40 per cent growth per decade in the numbers of Christians and admits that he comes to this figure without any space for signs, wonders and the miraculous. There seems to have been a remarkable increase in figures between 250 and 300 and this is borne out in archaeological evidence of houses being remodelled to fit more worshippers in. It’s interesting to note at this period that persecution had increased under several Roman Emperors most notably Valerian in 253 but by 311 this lessened, culminating in Constantine’s edict of toleration in 313. So from this there may be a lesson for us today: as persecution increased the church grew rapidly, then the governmental leaders realised that they needed the Christians onside (in 311, Galerius realised he needed the Christians to pray for the security of the state).

Most interestingly of all is the evidence for growth well in excess of 40pc per decade that has come to light in Egypt – extraordinary and miraculous growth is shown in the numbers of Christian converts in Egypt (from 0pc Christian in Egypt to 18 pc, in 65 years) – people changed their names to Christian names and this was tracked on papyri.

So 40 pc per decade in the growth of Christianity is called a conservative, given that very few actual records exist. The reality was that vast numbers must have been added at some stages AND the reality was that this thing spread geographically. Imagine what that would look like for your church. But more than that, for your region/area. These numbers were for society as a whole. Sure we have growing churches today, but for every growing one, how many are declining or shutting? This was true societal transformation.

What factors contributed to this?Sociological study on the growth of the Moonies (stay with me!!) – a cult – all of the converts in the study were united by close ties of friendship or kinship e.g. next door neighbours, mothers of similar ages, friends from work.

And so here lies a key principle in reaching families: for conversion to happen, people have or develop stronger attachments to Christians than they have to non-members of Christianity. There is a very interesting sociological principle here on conformity, which is outlined in the book. Suffice to say: strong friendships with Christian group members results in conversions. Simple.

And here we get to the crux of it for us – households. Each member of a household unit has unparalleled opportunities to attract other people into the faith that they hold dear through each of their networks. Note I said networks, not just one's own family. There is no single term for family in the NT.

Oikos, meaning house or household, included the householders family, slaves, and through their network of relationships, friends and neighbours. This was the major network in Rome and when Christianity grew using the same pattern of relating oikos – the exponential growth happened. Those looking in saw tremendous change and reorientation.

So what about talking about ministry to households if the word "family" has negative or painful connotations for people? We have more one or two person households in this country than at any point in history. We have broken ourselves down into smaller and smaller units, therefore I wonder if there is a rise in people looking for "oikos" - community through their networks. And you know what, churches don't just need the keen beans in their 20s pre-children with more time on their hands, churches need business people, teenagers, retired people, parents of young children, empty-nesters, kids.... - for this to really be all it could be means it needs every one. As Banning Liebscher said: don't think revival if going to come through the young. If you have breath in your body, God wants to use you.

Household transformation in the first few centuries - I wonder if I can describe how radical the shift was.

In first century Graeco-Roman times, the man held power over everyone’s possessions in the whole household – he was the paterfamilias. You may not be surprised to know that the Roman Empire had demographic challenges. There was a low birthrate due to abortion and infanticide which was readily practised. Fathers had the right to speak life or death over every newborn child and male children were favoured. There were far more men than women due to the practice of killing newborn females. Children had no status, childhood was seen as something to be grown out of, to just get through into adulthood and full legal status (under Roman law).

Christianity directly impacted the quality of life for wives and mothers. Is it any wonder that women turned to Christianity in vast numbers? Christian teaching directly confronted :

We cannot underestimate the sociological change this brought about. There was an increase in women’s status, standing and security. In the first few centuries there are numerous examples of noble Roman women bringing their husbands to faith. Christian women enjoyed far greater marital security and equality than pagan women – this was attractive to others to see. This drew people to the church.

People often say to me: there was so much about children in the Gospels, what happened in Acts? Acts sees the power of the Holy Spirit poured out which propels the church forward; Jesus words elevating children were the necessary platform for the move of God throughout households in Acts. I wrote a little more about this here, please do read in conjunction with this post if you have time.

So to see a return to household transformation requires:

1.a return to releasing each other to be “fully present” in our networks of friends, families and neighbours instead of always out at meetings. Or maybe even (shock horror) cutting our work hours.... Stop being so bloomin' busy!

2.A deliberate strategy to build attractive models of oikos in our local churches – and may I suggest that at least some of these ways encompass all of the generations........I had an amazing journey with this between 2006 and 2008.

More in the next post.

Acknowledgement: Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the nt Religious Force in the Western World in a Few Centuries (Princeton University Press/Harper Collins, 1996/1997).

Monday, September 12, 2011

Upcoming Event

If you are in the Central Belt, (or even further north!), maybe you might like to gather with me and others across denominations as we seek God for his empowering, his strategy and his presence as we prepare our churches for welcoming more and more children and their whole families into the Christian faith.

If you know me or have been following this blog for some time, you will know that I cannot separate children and teenagers from their families. I have been reading and researching the first four centuries of church growth as preparation for the chapter on children and families in the New Testament in the book I am writing.

I have re-discovered much that is making my heart beat faster, my faith levels increase and an increasing, "awakes me at night" deep hunger for the good news to spill out into the community. Like an infectious disease, (!) my plan was simply to facilitate a time for others to catch it too by drawing folks together to worship and pray. I'll teach a little bit on what I see in the Bible that underpins and highlights the rapid transferral of a life-changing belief in the person of Jesus from one person to another through the extended family and social networks of the day - sociologists like Rodney Stark have concrete evidence for a 40% growth rate every decade from the time of Jesus resurrection to the end of the fourth century. Close study of actual death records in Egypt over one time period showed this growth rate to be modest - it was in fact far higher than this for the one specific area records existed for.

The reasons for this rapid spread of Christianity are varied and complex but there is consensus that the different way of life (witness) of the changing family had such an impact that people WANTED to re-orientate their lives towards Jesus - babies were born without the fear of exposure/infanticide, women were treated well and grew in their own giftings and leadership; marriage was honoured, slaves were treated well, families grew and thrived. In short - people were attracted to what they saw in the lives of Christians. Wow.Wow. Wow.....oh Father, how we want to see more of that in our time!

So this evening of prayer, worship, teaching and preparation to go and love and serve is on Monday 26 September at 7.30pm. Email me on children.pastor@gmail.com if you would like more information.

At the moment I am serving on the ministry team of an ILSOM (International Leaders School of Ministry) and have been reminded by the internationally-travelled speakers of the incredible growth of the church in South America, Africa, China, Indonesia, Korea....in short - in every continent bar ours and North America......

But something is stirring. Hunger is rising. A month ago, 15,000 young adults gathered for a conference in Chicago - Jesus Culture Awakening. I was privileged to watch a lot of the talks live and I urge you to listen to them - they blew me away.. You can find out about them here

I do believe that hunger is stirring in our nation too - to get "out there", to love and serve local communities, to love our cities, towns and villages. There is a rising dissatisfaction I have observed with just "doing church". Yet we mustn't rush ahead without spending time with the Father to just rest and listen; to hear his strategies and plans, just receiving from him because we're simply his beloved! Its hard enough to get out there without crashing and burning(interestingly I read this today and I wholeheartedly agree with Mike Breen's (initially tough-sounding) post.

And so the plan for Monday 26 Sept is that we too will gather to ask the Lord to enlarge our hearts to love the ones who are in front of us, maybe even related to us (!) and to believe that once more God can change a nation by impacting one who impacts another who then impacts another. We need the fuel and fire that comes from sitting at the Father's feet and drinking in the Holy Spirit's power and plans rather than relying on our own strategies and thoughts.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Dealing with challenging behaviour

I'm often asked how to handle difficult behaviour.
I think everything in the notes below sums it up!

Some causes of challenging behaviour

(for the first part of this posting, I'd like to reference SU's Top Tips series on handling difficult behaviour, although I have added some other factors in due to my own knowledge, practice and experience)

• general learning difficulties

• specific learning difficulties (do you have completed registration and consent forms? Do volunteers know about the relevant information?)

• developmental disorders – ADHD, autism, dyslexia, dyspraxia

• low self-image (vicious circle)

• fragmented home situations and unsettled relationships with parents

• lack of boundaries in the home

• physical demands – what I call the Saturday night sleepover sydrome...!

• group dynamics - who's the strong leader amongst the children, for example

• the organisation of your session - it might be our fault!

• (teenagers?) alcohol/drug use

Types of behaviour

• childish irresponsibility

• behaviour linked to age and stage of development

• challenge to authority

Hebrews 12:6
"My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”

Don't be afraid of discipline!!

Some thoughts:
Children and teenagers, like adults, are made in the image of God, imageo dei, so like us they matter to him. Have a God-focused approach towards them.

• Children are so valuable to God that He commands us to protect them (1Sam 20:42, Ezra 8:21)

• God wants to have a genuine relationship with His children – He describes how children may enter His presence and enjoy His company (Ps 8:2, 34:11, 103:13, Mal 2:15, Matt 21:15, Mark 10:13-16)

• God loves young people enough to ensure they receive discipline. It is a reflection of His passion for a child’s well being.

• God enjoys the nature and personality of children – attributes such as sincerity, humility, naïveté, vulnerability and simplicity. He treasures these characteristics.

Towards Change…….

1.Working within the church community and communicate clearly
Be aware of Child Protection policy and any written guidelines your church has and use a large dollop of common sense. I had written a discipline policy that was disseminated once a year to volunteers so that they knew what was minor behavioural issues and what was major (everyone has different standards and expectations therefore a team of volunteers need help to establish the base level - is interrupting a leader who is talking ok? Some leaders say it's fine, others cannot tolerate it. If this example is a major issue for your team, decide what you will accept, and disseminate this information amongst the team, preferably in writing and LET CHILDREN KNOW! Setting boundaries publicly to the children and showing that you work as a team yields such fruit. Appy your decisions simply and consistently and soon it won't be an issue any more. I can testify over and over again how well this works).

2.Working with parents/guardians
Parents/guardians are our first port of call. How can you consult with them? You may need to invest a little time in speaking with them. Always speak with the relevant leader as s/he may have relevant information to give you. Find out about parents’ expectations of their child’s/teenager’s behaviour as you may find the root of the problem right there!

3.Working with other children/youth team members
Everything written so far needs to be applied to a team context – we need to work together. Children and teenagers spot tensions and differences between adults and will play us off one another. This underlines the need for written policies/clear communication. It's the one strong similarity between church and school. I was gathering up to 175 and 160 children together in two churches; the size of a small primary school! If your church has 10-30 children, the scale may be different but the need is still there.

4. Prepare thoroughly and vary the style
I've spent many years working with and watching children, and now I observe a growing tendency in some (many?) leaders to just turn up to help at a kids club or Sunday school, assuming that all the preparation has been done by the main leader of that day. That may be very well if they are pouring juice or doing toilet runs but if they are answering questions about God and teaching something from the Bible it's just not enough. The best way to address this is to raise it as a training issue - and then monitor.

I instigated a "send-out-by-Friday" email and planning grid of who was doing what, with the Bible passage, relevant small group questions and heart prep to be done in advance of the Sunday session in both of the churches I have worked in. A good rule of thumb is that we should personally spend at least twice the amount of time on the passage that the children will spend thinking about and interacting with the Bible. This word is living and active - therefore we who teach it (whether it be to adults OR children) must spend time on and with it. Don't give out stale bread! Tastes awful....

Vary the style - this is worth a whole other posting....

Suffice to say we often teach people in the style that WE prefer, so if we like reading and thinking, we take children into a lot of reading the Bible out loud and group discussion. But leading group discussions with children requires highly skilled individuals, so the best way round this is to watch the time allocation for this part of the programme and make sure there are opportunities for the kinaesthetic (doing) - making something, acting something out, trying out a new skill.

Children engage in low level misbehaviour most often when they are bored and unstimulated. Allow them to EXPERIENCE God's presence, his working and moving amongst the group, the answered prayers, his holiness when a song finishes and you stand in silence, his tender care in moments of quiet soaking in his presence.

Just some thoughts from the past decades!