Looking ahead to the forthcoming church year the Presbyterian Church in Ireland has issued guidance to its ministers regarding youth work and children’s ministry in a new resource it calls ‘Blended’.
With the summer gone, the start of September marks the beginning of the new church year for PCI. At this particular time, it’s 500-plus congregations across the island would normally be restarting their mid-week meetings and Sunday school activities after the summer break, along with youth ministry and outreach programmes. But it’s not a normal year.
The impact of the Covid pandemic has affected every area of life, and church life with it. Sunday gatherings for worship effectively ceased at the end of March, resuming tentatively in July, with many congregations only now returning within strict government guidelines. Much of church activity – including children and youth activities – went online where possible, requiring a new way of doing things and learning new digital skills.
Rev David Thompson, Secretary to the denomination’s Council for Congregational Life & Witness, which is responsible for supporting and resourcing youth and children’s ministry, highlighted the reasons for the guidance and the joint phased and blended approach that it recommends over the coming autumn and winter months.
“As life edges back to greater normality, an important part of this process has been the enabling of a safe and successful return to school, which began for many families this week. If this can be managed successfully, it will be a significant step towards a return to regular routines in many areas of life, including church activity, which is why we have recommended a blended and phased return to youth and children’s activities.”
David Thompson explained that this approach would allow children and young people to settle into school during the first half of the new term, enable congregations to prioritise their patterns of Sunday worship, take stock of overall activities and reduce the pressure on youth and children’s leaders.
“For the church to play our part in this effort we have strongly recommended that the kind of regular, through the week programming of physical meetings for children and young people should not begin until next month at the earliest and that planning should be for a gradual phased return during the autumn as circumstances allow,” he said.
Rev Thompson was keen to point out that all of this need not mean that children’s and youth ministry should be put on hold, but acknowledged that while challenging, there were also opportunities. “Every congregation will be different in terms of its routines and activities and the new reality that we find ourselves in will require a different approach.
“Many teams will already have had the experience of having moved from regular face-to-face meetings, to digital contact with children in the early days of the pandemic and over the summer months, when restrictions prevented the usual holiday Bible Clubs and other activities,” he said.
For example, in June, Rachel Haffey was part of the team at Maze Presbyterian Church who organised this year’s Holiday Bible Club, which was called ‘Down on the Farm’ where local farm animals where used as a backdrop to talk about the gospel message. “It was pre-recorded and went out on the Maze Facebook page, website and YouTube channel every Friday night, finishing with a special online service on Sunday, 28 June. Each week there were challenges and activities and worksheets for the children to take part it and send in. It was a great time for the children to feel a part of something in these difficult days, and most importantly, to hear God speak into their lives.”
Bushvale Presbyterian’s young people’s week was called the ‘Late Late Breakfast Club’ using the Zoom conferencing platform. Mark Adams explained that each night they looked at ‘Lockdown Legends of the Bible’. “Noah and his family; Silas and Paul in the Philippi jail; Anna in the temple; and the worst ever lockdown being broken with the victory of the Lord Jesus over death.
“There are many restrictions in using Zoom, but one benefit was that we could have people join us through the evening with little hassle on their part. While it wasn’t like being in the same room, it did open up opportunity to teach and connect,” he said.
Meanwhile Knock Presbyterian Church in Belfast has been running socially distant games with young people in the church grounds since the end of June. Paul Brown, director of youth ministries, said that it had provided vital connections for young people, respite for families and opportunities to hear the gospel.
Looking ahead to the autumn and winter, David Thompson said, “Moving forward, we have recommended a blend of ministry activity – predominantly through digital contact, supported by a limited number of physical gatherings, which maximise opportunities for being together and keeping in touch, while respecting the necessary restrictions that keep everyone safe. Hopefully as the threat of coronavirus subsides, we will be able to build children’s and youth ministry activity back to more frequent and regular patterns of church life.”
To help and support congregations, the Blended resource offers both advice on crafting this blended approach to programming, along with video clips showing what some congregations have already done in developing digital ministry and safe, socially distanced gatherings. While stressing the need to stay safe in the ‘real’ world, guidance is also provided on safeguarding in the virtual world, as the need to stay safe online is just as important.
“The next season of children’s and youth ministry will be different. As we plan and prepare for it, I would like to pay tribute to everyone who has continued to find ways to bring the gospel and fellowship to young people and children over the last six very challenging months and encourage those who are just about to start to plan.”
Rev Thompson continued, “In all that we do and plan, it is important that we remember that God goes with us and ahead of us as we set out on this ongoing journey. He was with us and the children, young people and families under our care in the confinement of lockdown. He will be with us in the refinement of our programming over the next few months, and He will be with us when Coronavirus is a thing of the past.”