Losing Sleep Over Michaela – why children aren’t coming to church

One of the small pleasures in my life is the ticking and chiming of the eighteenth century grandfather clock, made by John Darke of Barnstaple, which stands in the hall. The 5am chime is the signal for me to get up and if I hear 10pm (or later) I have stayed awake too long. Early on Wednesday morning this week I heard the clock strike twice. I know exactly why I was awake then. The third Wednesday in August is the day schools can download their GCSE exam results. For the eight years I was a Headteacher my long-suffering deputies would stay up late that night, download the results as soon as they were able to after midnight and collate the figures. They would ring me in the early hours and I would ring the equally long-suffering Director of Children’s Services to tell her the news. Even now, as Director of Education, these are anxious days as I wait for news from colleagues and friends.

This year I was particularly anxious. It was the first year that pupils from Michaela Community School in Brent, founded five years ago, would have results. I don’t suppose the very cool and utterly brilliant founder and Principal of MCS, Katherine Birbalsingh, lost any sleep.

Michaela’s success is important to many of us in education who have been singing its praises wherever we can. Twitter and the education pages of the press report on the amazing results from Michaela (Guardian, Telegraph).

I have written about Michaela several times:

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Teachers – a review, Towards a New Paradigm
The Michaela Way: texts and notes
My Visit to Michaela Community School

I would also recommend reading Frances Ward’s latest book, my review is here:

Knowledge, learning and fullness: reviewing Frances Ward’s ‘Full of Character’ – a Christian theology of Education

See also my blog post “The easier we make it the less attractive it is

In today’s (23rd August 2019) Church Times, I draw a small parallel between developments in education and what we do in Church. That parallel could be drawn much wider. Data in the diocese of Liverpool shows that in the last year we have information for the number of under 16s attending our churches declined by a staggering 8.9%. Like everywhere else there weren’t that many to start with. In my Sunday cover and visiting preaching around the country I am often the youngest person in Church (I was 54 in July).

There is no magic bullet that is going to lead hordes of young people to our doors. There are many factors that keep young people away and stops so many of those that do come from continuing to do so when they reach adolescence. I believe that we have to address two key areas if we are to evangelise the young. The head and the heart. Young people want an intense spiritual experience. Much of what I write about in this blog, speak and talk about is how we can nurture that intensity of experience and how it is our living intensely that will show Christianity to be attractive. That will be contagious.

However, we live in experience obsessed times. Faith will only be sustained if the heart is balanced by the head and if young people are given the intellectual tools they need in a highly secular culture. When there are children in church they are often taken away to participate in activities designed specifically for them. Generally I am appalled at the low level of work they are given. At those moments in many churches where children present their work after Communion I have never yet been given anything that if I were a class teacher I wouldn’t put in the bin or send back to be done again at a higher standard. The most embarrassing pieces of work are generally those of the children at the older end of Primary school age who at school might be studying Shakespeare or the Lady of Shalott but in church are presented with colouring and sticking. And then we wonder why they stop coming as soon as they are able to make a choice.

There are signs of hope. The Understanding Christianity material produced by the Church of England’s education office with RE Today for schools is superb. The frieze of the whole sweep of the biblical narrative from creation to the new Jerusalem is a wonderful resource. Just imagine if there were a copy in every church and children could make the link between what they learn in school and the living faith of the christian community. Diddy Disciples (I should admit to being on the advisory group for this) produced by biblical scholar Sharon Moughtin-Mumby provides excellent material for young children.

Obviously what happens in church on a Sunday (and that may not be the best time to teach children the Christian faith) is not ‘school’, but we have underplayed the importance of ‘teaching’ in Christian life. Jesus is directly addressed some 90 times in the gospels, on 60 of these occasions he is called ‘Teacher’. What Michaela has proved – and this is a movement, there are many other schools doing this – is that knowledge-rich, content-driven teaching works. Many years ago, when I was teaching Year Six pupils (ten – eleven year olds) each December we would play ‘bible detectives’ and study the three narratives of the nativity to see what we could discover about their authors and sources. Children relish being taught that the bible is a complex text; they need to be given the tools to read it well.

There is much that all of us who have a teaching and preaching ministry in the church could learn from Michaela and the schools like it who are changing the face of education and changing the options open to children in some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country.

“Children want more commitment not less.” Wrote the bishop of Chelmsford in the Church Times (2nd February, 2018). I agree wholeheartedy. But I would add that they also need the knowledge to sustain faith and that the easier we make it the less attractive it is.

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