11 year old atheists

The following is a reflection by Sam DonahueChildren’s Ministry Adviser for Diocese of London (and co-Editor of the soon-to-be-released ChildrensWork Magazine) reproduced from their latest Children’s Ministry Newsletter with permission (full credit below):

I was reading a book by James Fowler on how faith develops in children and within it he comments on the something they noticed during their research interviews; a group of eleven year olds who had rejected the idea of God. On the face of it this seems an odd stage in life to expect to find this group, odder still when you consider that they came from faith communities, so what was happening to cause this effect?

Fowler’s theory was that at this stage children are beginning to sort stories into those which should be retained as truth and those that are made up and the God ends up sitting on the rejects bench together with the tooth fairy and Father Christmas. They are all dismissed as things that they liked the idea of as children but have rejected now they realise are not true. It’s easy to see what happened to Mr Claus and his fairy friend but why did God suffer the same fate?

For Fowler the explanation is simple; the God the children were taught about doesn’t exist and by eleven they were old enough to work that out. They had been taught about a God who solves all their problems, stops bad things happening, answers all their prayers and arrives at the last minute to save the day if the situation gets really hopeless. To be fair they are right, that God doesn’t exist. Brilliantly Fowler leaves it at this and doesn’t offer any solutions! So I think I will try and think of some as this is all rather depressing right now!

  1. Be real about your experience of being a Christian. It’s not a matter of everything being lovely all the time and we should resist the urge to try and ‘protect children’ from this. Life is messy and things go wrong and we learn that God is there with us through all of this not just the good bits. So don’t be afraid to tell stories, either Bible stories or stories from you own life where things go wrong.
  2. Don’t spin the Bible. I’ve said before that the Bible doesn’t need us to ‘spin it’ so that children only see the highlights package. The stories of the Bible are supposed to be a resource to help and support us through good times and bad. It we only give children the good bits the Bible fails them when they need it most as there is no resource for the bad times.
  3. If it looks like a fairy story it probably is a fairy story. In our efforts to make the Bible more accessible to children we often lose the grit and reality of the stories and make them feel more like fluffy fairy stories and less like things that actually happened. Next time you look at the story of the Exodus why not get a map out and show the children the journey or use some pictures from the Holy Land to illustrate where Jesus was when he was telling his stories. Doing this helps to imbed the stories in the real world and not the fantasy world.
  4. Beware miracles. I’m not sure how I feel about this but there is a school of thought that says that if we major on miracles understand them to be about magic and then they fall into the fairy tale trap. It is suggested that a more healthy emphasis would be on the motivation for the miracle than the miracle it’s self. For example, rather than concentrating on Jesus’ power to heal focus instead on Jesus’ compassion towards the sick.

Credit: Sam Donoghue is the Children’s Ministry Adviser of the Diocese of London. You can read more from him here.

Sign up to receive the Diocese of London Children’s Ministry Newsletter by email.

Lent vs Social Media

It’s traditional to give something up for the period of Lent. Many people do so – even those without any personal religious conviction or understanding of the significance, which puzzles me a little. I usually struggle to know what to give up (if I should bother at all) and many of the things I’ve given up previously I’ve not ‘taken up’ again – mostly notably sugar in tea/coffee.

A number of people suggested that I give up Twitter for Lent. I told them I thought it was a preposterous idea, but they didn’t understand why. In response I suggested that perhaps they’d give up using the telephone for Lent and they didn’t quite grasp what I was getting at. My point was that for me Twitter is more than a frivolous pastime, but rather a tool & a method of communication. I would no more choose to give up Twitter than I could choose to give up email for Lent – both are a core part of my work/ministry tool kit, and my social make-up. I have made some great friends through Twitter (and other social media) many of whom I’ve met subsequently in person; I have received support from (and been able to offer support to) fellow youth workers & ministers in difficult circumstances; I’ve received news, information & resources I might otherwise have missed; I’ve been able to pray for people I don’t know (and request prayer from others too); I’ve been inspired by the work of others; I’ve been challenged by quotes posted by others; I’ve become aware of pastoral situations I needed to respond to that otherwise would have remained unknown to me. The list could go on…

I have to admit though, that my use of Twitter is not entirely without frivolity. My use of Twitter sometimes gets in the way of face-to-face encounters and other worthwhile activities, as I discovered as I took a step back and analysed my practice. But that is due to the slightly OCD (obsessive-compulsive) side of my personality. I currently follow 342 people/organisations/projects on Twitter – which means that when they post an update it appears in my timeline for me to read. Due to my OCD tendencies I found it very difficult to simply let these updates pass me by without at least skim-reading them. When I was following 20 or 50 accounts this was less of a problem, but as that number increased so did the time it took to read them. And so the problem grew…

Having realised this, and recognising that some accounts have a higher signal-to-noise ratio than others, I decided to try to focus my Twitter use during Lent. I didn’t want to unfollow lots of users, so I decided to set-up a list on Twitter of the people I felt offered the most value, were most challenging, or were ‘necessary’ for my job (young people, colleagues, organisations, etc which I need to keep in touch with). I set an arbitrary limit of 100 for the list, but actually only added 80 accounts. I then updated the Twitter app on my phone & my PCs to only monitor the new list. This list would only limit the accounts I was following/reading, and I decided that I’d still engage with people who weren’t on the list if they started a conversation with me (as it would be rude not to respond). [I should say that I intended to use the time I wrestled back from Twitter to engage in something which would develop my spirituality, but that’s for a separate post.]

We’re almost at the end of Lent so I thought I’d reflect on how things have been going…

Reflections:

The most surprising realisation is just how much of a chore catching up with Twitter had become. I can only see it now, but it had become something that I felt compelled to do (due to my OCD tendencies) but which often seemingly had little value or reward. If I’d had a particularly busy day, when I eventually came to ‘check in’ with Twitter, it would take a large chunk of time to catch up, and if by the end I felt there was little value to it, it’s hard to see how this constitutes a wise use of my time (Ephesians 5:15-16). With the increase in people/organisations I was following came the requirement for an increased investment of time, but seemingly with reduced value/rewards.

I had intended to use the time I ‘reclaimed’ from Twitter to engage in some reading which would be of spiritual benefit to me. I started to read Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, which is a fascinating exploration of spiritual disciplines. The run-up to this Easter has been a particularly busy time (as it is each year) and so my ‘reclaimed’ time has been spent on keeping up with the to-do list & the ‘day job’, so I’ve not read as much as I’d have liked. But what I have read has been really inspiring and massively challenging, and I look forward to continuing the journey.

Not all the people/organisations I follow provide an entirely wholesome experience. There’s nothing wrong with entertainment & a bit of light relief, but I’m reminded of the words of Paul to the Philippians (4:8): ‘keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly, and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.’ {emphasis mine}

The least positive outcome of the way I’ve changed my Twitter use has been that of reduced conversation. As mentioned previously, a lot of my Twitter contacts have become friends over recent months & years; some of whom I’ve met in person, others I’ve spoken to via phone/Skype, and others only via Twitter. In addition, there is an amazingly supportive & creative community of Youth Workers & Ministers on Twitter who utilise the hashtag #ywchat to engage with one another & the wider community (as it would be almost impossible to follow each of them). Throughout Lent I have felt that I’ve neglected some friendships which I’ve come to value (although many made it to my reduced list) and have certainly been unable to properly (perhaps usefully) engage with my colleagues in the #ywchat community. [I hope to rectify this shortly at #coffeeshopcrawl3 – a series of ‘real-life’ #ywchat get-togethers…]

On a purely technical note, one frustration with my use of a Twitter List for Lent has been that the list function doesn’t include native retweets from the people on the list, only their original tweets. So I’ve missed out on a lot of resources, quotes, & challenges which I’d otherwise hoped to receive. However, this has led to extra time being available – so it’s a mixed blessing. Also, due to the software/apps I use, by following a list rather than a general Twitter stream I appear to have lost some of the conversational functionality. As this is a big part of my Twitter use, I’ve felt this loss keenly (but not wanted to invest additional time in finding an alternative).

Response:

I’m still trying to decide on the best way to engage with Twitter once Lent has ended. Clearly I need to reduce the amount of time I had been spending on it previously, but not in a way which diminishes the level of engagement with people . I’ve considered the use of subject-related lists (pastoral, geographical, organisations, resources, etc), but I don’t wish to diminish the level of interaction with people, and I fear that will be the case.

The biggest issue I face is overcoming (or more likely, managing) my OCD tendencies and getting better at allowing things to pass me by.

I expect that my eventual solution will be a combination of unfollowing a large number of accounts, and employing the list-based system outlined above.

Challenge:

  • What strategies have you employed to cope with increased ?
  • Do you have any tips to share?

Post your thoughts in the comments below…

10k Success

On Sunday 4th March I ran in my first 10k race as part of the Milton Keynes Festival of Running. Primarily I did it to raise funds for my role at Spurgeon Baptist Church – more of that here. But it has also been a personal ambition to complete a 10k, for about the last 10 years! So, to quote the esteemed President George W. Bush: Mission Accomplished!

At the start of January when I decided to start training for the 10k, my biggest fear was that I’d be training though the winter. I worried that if it was raining (or worse) I wouldn’t stick to it. But I’m pleased to say that apart from a couple of days of snow, we’ve enjoyed almost spring-like weather since the start of January. Oh what an irony then to wake up on Race Day to discover that it was raining heavily. People said ‘don’t worry – it will soon pass’ – but it didn’t. It rained heavily throughout the race. By the time we were just 3k into the race I’m confident that I could have gone swimming and not got any wetter. It was grim! [but at least it wasn’t snowing – which it was by the time the runners finished the MK Half Marathon about an hour later!]

The start of the race felt a bit slow for me, so I jostled to get a better position and soon settled down into a good rhythm. I was passed by a steady stream of fitter runners who had started further back & who were travelling past me at a good pace which was quite disheartening. The cold from the rain was making my leg muscles tighten, which was a bit of a worry so early on! I found myself following a guy with a silly hat and a woman in an orange jacket who both seemed to be paying great attention to their watches and sticking to a predetermined pace. As the pace felt comfortable for me too I decided I’d stick with them for as long as I could. Before I knew it we were at the ‘feeding station’ and then at the half way marker. At this point (still raining, of course) I decided I still had a bit of pace left in me and decided to over-take the ‘orange lady’ (no idea where the guy with the silly hat had gone by now) and pulled away a little bit. Shortly after that someone ran up behind me and patted me on the back and gave some encouragement: it was Rev. Andrew Gale (Chaplain at Oakhill STC). We had been together on the start line but had separated. He pulled about 20 yards ahead. Then at the 7k mark we were at the lowest point of the race and the finish line was at the highest! So we hit the hills…

I’ve always thought of Milton Keynes as being particularly flat. Which sounded great because all of my training had been alongside the canal, with a total elevation of about 5m at the lock. But at the start Angie Horn asked me if I’d been ‘training for the Fishermead hill?’ To which my reply was a very definite ‘no’! She looked a bit worried for me.

The first hill wasn’t too steep or too long – but it took a lot out of me. I had managed to work hard and pulled back a bit of distance from Andrew. Then it was flat again for a little while before another hill – worse than the first: longer and steeper (a bad combination). Then immediately after that we turned a corner and hit the Fishermead hill – which is slightly shorter and not as steep as the last, but coming on the back of the others it felt like hell! I tried to power through it and nearly killed myself in the process. At this point we were only 1k from the finish line, but that final kilometre felt like five. There were two encouragements for me amongst the hills, the first was that I managed to over-take and stay ahead of Andrew, the second was the supporters I saw.

I had encouragement from Andrew & Angie at the start line, and it was great to see Keelie Lingard who was there to support her Mum, Yvonne, who was also running. Then at about the 2k mark I noticed Neil McGill at the side of the road – although I appreciated his support, his shout of ‘come on, keep going, you can do it!’ felt a bit premature as I was still feeling comfortable at that stage. Then there was a long stretch with no personal supporters, and only a few ‘randoms’ who were clapping anyone who passed. But at the top of the first small hill (the hardest part by that point) it was a real encouragement to see Gareth Chapman & Dee Stevens standing there, looking like drowned rats (as we all did!) and cheering me on enthusiastically. Then at the point which was without doubt the hardest point for me, the top of the Fishermead hill, I saw Terry Horn waiting. I shouted to him before he saw me and his surprised smile lifted my spirit no end – enough to see me through to the final corner almost 1k later. At that point a crowd of supporters had gathered. The first people I noticed were Simon & Nicci Bradley, accompanied by Keelie & her grandparents; they were quickly followed by Gareth & Dee again who had magically appeared at the finish.

I picked up my pace a little as I rounded the final corner, at which point Andrew Gale passed me with another message of encouragement. I decided to sprint (I say ‘sprint’, it was intended to be a sprint, but I was limited by the inability of my legs to respond to what my brain was saying). So my first 10k ended with some friendly competition and honours even as Andrew and I crossed the line together before shaking hands on a race well run. Most people rushed to get out of the rain, but I figured I wasn’t getting any wetter so I decided to welcome in the other runners I knew: Angie Horn, Yvonne Lingard & John Kennedy.

Before we started Angie said she expected me to finish in 57 minutes. I said I’d be delighted with anything under 1 hour 10 minutes – especially as I knew I’d struggle with the hills. For me the 10k was never a competitive endeavour; my aim was to run it all and to finish it. But I can’t deny that I was delighted with my official time: 57 minutes 02 seconds. According to the official results I finished 182 out of 461. I’m happy with that – but Andrew has suggested we aim for the top 100 next time. [next time?!]

On medical advice from the Senior Race Steward I decided to have a quick change of clothes then grab a coffee at Costa and warm up before heading home. Believe me – he didn’t have to tell me that twice!

A massive thank you to everyone who has supported, sponsored & encouraged me! But fear not! Because there’s still time to sponsor me if you haven’t already. You can do it online here (have currently reached 68% of my online target) or if you’d like to increase your sponsorship through Gift Aid, get in touch and I’ll send you a form.

Simon Bradley took a photo of me rounding the final corner and tweeted it in the afternoon:

You can take a look at my stats online at RunKeeper which will also let you check out the route, elevation & my pace at each stage. If you have a particularly strong stomach, you can check out my official ‘finish photo‘ [you have been warned!].

Heaven’s Gates Swing Wide

Last Friday as  I was doing an 8k training run I was listening to ‘Awakening: Live from Chicago’ by Jesus Culture. The track ‘Break Every Chain’ has a fantastic chorus:

All sufficient sacrifice
So freely given
Such a price
Bought our redemption
Heaven’s gates swing wide

 
The last two lines stuck in my head as the run continued. When I got home I posted the follow on Twitter & Facebook:

 
Over the weekend my brother posted a great, simple question: ‘what does that mean?

I guess it was a bit too abstract to stand on its own. So, in short it means that: redemption is available to all & that the gates of heaven are ready to welcome any & all who have been redeemed.

I know, that needs a bit of explaining too. So here goes, stick with it…

When you’re given a voucher for your birthday for your preferred shop the voucher you’re given is inherently worthless: it’s a piece of plastic & ink with a magnetic strip (remember when they were just paper?). It’s probably worth about 25p max. But when you hand it over the shop will honour the promise which has been made previously (when the voucher was purchased) and will exchange the worthless voucher for something of value.

Think of redemption as the exchange of something which is worthless for something which is expensive (priceless even!).

Sinful man (Romans 3:23) was separated from God (Genesis 3) but God made a way for the relationship to be fully restored (John 3:16 & 1 Peter 3:18). The way was open to everyone to return to a full & rich relationship with God forever (Romans 10:9 & John 3:36)

To massively over-simplify for the sake of brevity: God exchanged His Son, Jesus, to pay for the voucher which anyone can claim for themselves, and which will buy their place in heaven.

Something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. [source unknown]

Jesus sacrificed His life through excruciating death on a cross in order that you (yes you) could receive the gift of eternal life, at no cost to yourself.

So you will be saved, if you honestly say, “Jesus is Lord,” and if you believe with all your heart that God raised him from death. [Romans 10:9]

Here’s the full song from Jesus Culture:

Check out these two Gospel presentations if you want to know more:

Trinity Analogies

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, the day when preachers cower and hide away from the challenge of trying to explain the Trinity (God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit).

I felt challenged by a few updates on Twitter yesterday. The first read:

Well, I’ve been invited to preach at a local church next Sunday and as they didn’t have a Trinity service yesterday, and because I’m feeling brave (or stupid), I’m going to preach on the Trinity.

The other tweets read as follows:

If you’ve been going to church for a while I’m sure you’ll have heard some of the many analogies used to help explain the Holy Spirit. Here’s my incomplete list – just from memory:

  • Egg: shell/White/yolk
  • Water: ice/steam/liquid
  • Jaffa Cake: sponge/chocolate/orange jelly
  • Man: worker/husband/father
  • Apple: skin/core/pulp
  • Human: body/soul/spirit
  • Three blade propeller
  • Three leaf clover

So:

  1. How would you critique these analogies?
  2. Would you add any other analogies to the list?

But my main question is this:

Is it helpful to use these analogies, even knowing that they are imperfect representations of the Trinity?

Discuss…

#LoveMonday

you are lovely...

Source: Becca Dean

Have you ever felt discouraged? Like life is tough and there’s little support around? Or perhaps you’ve felt that life is just a bit dull and ‘samey’ sometimes, but it starts to get you down. I’m sure we’ve all be there.

But have you ever been encouraged? I mean actively encouraged. Not just that something has gone well or life is good for a while and it feels good, but that someone has taken the time and effort to speak to you or do something for you to lift your spirit. Have you experienced that? Doesn’t it make a difference?!

There’s a guy in the New Testament called Joseph (a good Biblical name if ever I heard one!) but Jesus’ apostles called him Barnabas which means ‘son of encouragement’ (one who encourages others) after he sold some land and gave them the proceeds to support their work/ministry. He also encouraged the Apostle Paul whilst everyone else was still (rightly) suspicious of him, encouraged the Church in Antioch and stood up for the young disciple John Mark when Paul was critical of him. He’s the kind of guy you’d want to count among your friends; he made a huge difference to the people around him.

How much like Barnabas are you? I wonder if your friends consider you a ‘son/daughter of encouragement’… Why not take the opportunity to encourage a friend, colleague or family member and brighten someone’s day?

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up.1 Thessalonians 5:11

There’s a small but steady ‘movement’ on Twitter to use Mondays as a specific opportunity to encourage others. It’s called #loveMonday and it works like this. You send an encouraging message (public or private) to three other Twitter users, and invite them to encourage three of their friends/contacts/followers. Don’t forget to include #loveMonday in the message. Simple. Of course, it doesn’t have to just be via Twitter. Feel free to do the same but on Facebook, via email, or even offline (send a postcard, leave a message scrawled on a post-it note, etc.).

Imagine for a minute that I encourage three people, and they each encourage three people, and so on. That’s twelve people encouraged (and we know what Jesus was able to do with just twelve people!). If that continues for another five cycles, that would result in almost three thousand people who have been encouraged (assuming none of the encouragers were then encouraged by the encouragees – are you still with me?!). What a difference that could make!

If you want to join the revolution movement, you know what you have to do: choose three people to encourage, do it and encourage them to do the same.

If that Monday feeling has got to you, you’re feeling a bit grumpy and not in the mood to encourage others (yet!), check out some of the ways that others have been encouraged today and have your faith in humanity restored. Go on – I dare ya!

Hat tips: @martinsaunders, @stevecampion & @beccadean
Image Credit: beccaislearning.com

EasterLive Reflections

On Palm Sunday, at the start of the Easter(LIVE) project, I shared my critical thoughts and fears about approach the 2011 approach was taking, and suggested an alternative project to support. There were some great comments on the post and via Twitter: many in support of my critique, and some from people who wanted to reserve judgement (participants & skeptics alike).

So as both projects have ended, it seems right to reflect on them in light of my original comments & my experience.

Easter(LIVE) 2011

Initially I feared that the Easter(LIVE) updates would swamp my Twitter stream (because at least 10 of the people I follow were participating in the project). This fear was realised. After a particularly frenzied start, the posts in my Twitter stream calmed down a little, to an almost manageable level. My twitter stream wasn’t completely overwhelmed, but was considerably busier than usual, which made catching up a chore and took much longer than usual.

I decided that I would try to follow two users’ Easter(LIVE) updates, and try to ignore the others. It didn’t feel right skipping over the majority of the updates (due to my slight OCD tendencies), but it was necessary, otherwise my productivity would’ve taken a serious dive last week.

Even though I was following just two versions of the story, I found the experience very confusing. One user created a story using a vast array of characters and tweets; the other used one or two characters and far fewer tweets. But I found the two stories following different time lines and the events they were describing not aligning with each other. This detracted from the overall experience. On Good Friday and Easter Sunday the updates (predictably) reached a peak, creating a ridiculous amount of Twitter updates.

During the course of the week I ‘overheard’ discussions on Twitter between two participants who were niggling about their different interpretations of the project (too many characters & updates vs single character and fewer updates).

Of the participants I followed, very few made use of anything other than text updates. The project had encouraged the use of other media too – video, images and sound. I recognise that text updates are easier and require less preparation which probably explains the proportion of text to other media (that’s not to rubbish the amount of time and creativity expended by everyone in creating their stories). I saw a few uses of images, and heard about one user who created a number of videos for the project.

So my fears about the project’s approach in 2011 were entirely founded. But of course that’s based on my own experience – I can’t speak for anyone else. But the team behind the project retweeted a number of messages on Sunday & Monday which expressed how helpful they’d found the project and thanking the team for their work. So it was clearly of value to and appreciated by many.

As I said previously, the number of participants and updates generated is clearly testimony to the fact that the project captured people’s imaginations. I still appreciate the project’s use of Twitter as a vehicle for such an innovative project, and still question the downside it had (for me at least).

I look forward to seeing what they have planned for future projects, but hope they tweak the approach to eliminate the downsides. I also hope they don’t simply keep innovating for the sake of it. If a project works well (as it seemed to last year – one creative telling of the story, great story-tellers, and a more cohesive approach) stick with it, making tweaks along the way.

The Passion Experience

At the end of the original post I suggested that people support the Passion Experience project as an alternative. It was following a similar approach to the EasterLive 2010 project, but encouraging users to sign-up to text updates on their phones (at no charge), or to receive them via email.

I signed up to receive the updates via text, and followed the instructions they sent back. Unfortunately, despite the process reporting that everything was OK, I didn’t receive any updates via text. I received them in my Twitter & Facebook streams, and by email. But not via text message. I had been relying on the text messages to break into my busyness during Holy Week and Easter preparations, providing a constructive disturbance and a chance to remember & reflect. The lack of updates detracted for the overall experience for me personally. However, I had encouraged others to sign-up (and 23 did via our Church affiliate link) and they successfully received text updates and found it really valuable.

So I received the updates via other means, and loved the content and found it really helpful (if not timely).  It provided a manageable number of updates from one source, resulting in a more cohesive way that the Easter(LIVE) project.

On reflection, I think more people would’ve signed up if they realised they could follow in the Facebook stream (this didn’t appear to be made clear), rather than the slightly more complex text/Twitter sign-up process.

Conclusion

Both were innovative projects, attempting to use a new method for retelling and old story, and are to be commended. Both had weaknesses, but in spite of these, they were hugely valued by those who followed them. Each to their own ;o)

Questions…

  • Did you participate in Easter(LIVE)? What has the feedback been like from your followers?
  • Did you follow any Easter(LIVE) stories or the Passion Experience? What was the experience like for you?
  • If you could make one suggestion for an improvement to future projects, what would it be?