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Navigating inter-generational traffic

   
 


Elsie Rempel, Director of Christian Education and Nurture at Mennonite Church Canada

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February 1, 2008
- Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Elsie Rempel is eager to navigate some confounding spiritual intersections.

The mother of three adult children and a former elementary school teacher with 13 year’s classroom experience gets excited about finding the intersections of theology and practice, and is keen to apply this knowledge to the spiritual development of children.

Her work as Director of Christian Education and Nurture at Mennonite Church Canada helps connect what she describes as “pragmatic Sunday School teachers and superintendents” with theologians, whom she says, rarely focus on children.

The fifth child in a family of six and the first to be born in Winnipeg, she had to negotiate the intersection of her family’s formative years in rural Southern Manitoba, with life in the city. Later she navigated a cultural intersection when she and husband Peter worked with Mennonite Central Committee in Germany.

The bilingual grandmother of two with degrees in German literature and education has recently completed a Master of Theology degree and a thesis on children and communion in a Mennonite perspective – an often uncomfortable intersection for the church. Examining children’s involvement in communion is one way to contribute to a Mennonite theology of childhood, explains Rempel.

Until recently, maintains Rempel, books from leading Mennonite writers emphasized adults’ responsibility to teach children about faith, with little recognition that children  experience God in authentic ways and have experiences of God that are instructive to adults.
 
“We’ve given kids ways to recognize God in their head space, but not in their heart space,” she says. “Some people even say that if you get it all into the head without working on the encounter with God, that you can inoculate children against faith.”

The idea that adults might find a child’s Christian spirituality informative is counterintuitive to some, but this is where Rempel feels most at home. As a grade 3 teacher in a Mennonite school, Rempel recalls helping students keep prayer journals and leading them in meditative, silent worship.

“The way these children worshipped and wrote in their journals taught me so much about the depth of children’s spiritual life that I became passionate about wanting to share that with the broader church,” says Rempel. To supplement childhood wisdom and testimony, she stays on top of current knowledge by reading up on general brain and learning theory, and by learning from children’s spirituality experts such as Jerome Berryman, Sophia Cavaletti, Catherine Stonehouse, Bonnie Miller-McLemore, and Joyce Anne Mercer. Discovering how people learn and grow in faith as they mature is a fruitful study, observes Rempel.

Adult attitudes toward children, church, and faith are beginning to change, says Rempel, but there’s still significant ground to cover. “We’re recognizing that children have an honoured and special place in the life and worship life of the church, but we still talk about life with Christ as beginning at baptism. Do we consider the whole childhood experience as this long pregnancy that precedes the birth? We haven’t really validated the faith of childhood or adolescence. We need to take that apart and look at it critically, and reclaim it as something children can commit to as important parts of the journey of faith.”

Few people expect children to participate in worship, says Rempel, so it is important to honour Christian Education Sunday – though she is more comfortable broadening the focus to include children’s ministry.  “It reminds us that we’re all on a journey of faith, regardless of our age. Getting to know God better is never over.”

Rempel offers some helpful questions for adult worship planners to consider on Christian Education Sunday – or on any Sunday, for that matter: “Can we deliberately focus by asking how a child’s concern becomes part of the prayers we speak? How is a child’s problem a good model for the sermon point I’m making? How is the experience of a child connected with the imagery of the songs we are choosing for worship?”

She also suggests transforming the popular children’s feature into authentic worship, and “… redeem it from what is too often entertainment for adults.”

She asks, “Can we take the image of Jesus having the children on his lap, and affirm the place children have on the lap of the church, in a way that parallels how we put out booster seats at our dinner tables and include kids in our family conversations?”

While Rempel used to draw strength and satisfaction from her students’ obedience, love, and maturation, Rempel now feels best about her work when resources she has helped develop make a difference in the life and vitality of the church.

“Most exciting of all is when I’m working in a congregation and I get to see or participate in that dynamic intersection between the Holy Spirit, the material, the children, and the teacher or preacher.”

Sidebar: Planning worship with children in mind

Elsie Rempel offers a few practical tips and questions adult planners of church activities and worship can consider:

  • What difference does this learning make to children and adults?
  • Does my local Mennonite school partner have something to offer?
  • Bring together the dynamic life of the children that happens in the church basement, with the sanctuary upstairs, where there is often little adult-child interaction.
  • Take a whole Sunday service and focus it on the children. Ask them to help plan it.
  • Create a safe informal environment in which to ask children when they feel or have felt close to God, and have adults tell of similar experiences.
  • Ask the children to tell adults what they think adults need to know about loving God during an “adult feature.”
  • Think differently about integrating teens and adolescents. They face the holy task of examining faith critically, evaluating and reshaping it so it will serve their adult life.
  • Reclaim and restore the home as a centre of faith formation.
  • Access the gifts already present in the Gather ‘Round Sunday School curriculum (example –use the Gather ‘Round At Home resources), the Mennonite Church Canada Resource Centre, and Mennonite Church USA’s Menno Source.
  • Invite Elsie or another denominational resource person for a seminar or weekend workshop on children’s spirituality.