"I love that young people are in church, not for a specified purpose, but just to “be.” Just to hang out. Just to be bored. Just to poke around... They form relationships, they form their own community."
As the Director of Children's Ministry, I take great pride in our well-structured church programming. But what about time that's not programmed? Unstructured (but well-supported) time at church creates a great culture for “feral church children.” You may ask: what, or who, are feral church children? They are those young people who, without direct adult supervision, lurk in the youth room, slink through the halls, goof off in the parish hall, ride the elevator at will, and scavenge food from the church kitchen. I love it when I see kids doing these things!
Invasion of the Feral Church Children
Feral church kids always manage to entertain themselves. They band together, despite age differences. They sneak donuts. They play foosball. They make up games with foam noodles and Nerf balls. This summer, a group of our teens brought roller skates and, on numerous occasions, roller skated in our parish hall for hours. (I repeat: teens hung out at church for HOURS). So long as it's not destructive (and yes, we did make sure the skaters weren't leaving marks on the floor), kids generally love being left to their own devices.
I love that young people are in church, not for a specified purpose, but just to “be.” Just to hang out. Just to be bored. Just to poke around. Just to get to know one another and be bored together. They form relationships, they form their own community. Like many, kids in our neighborhood are over-scheduled and super-structured. Parents work hard at keeping track of their kids, keeping them organized, and keeping them safe. "Constant vigilance" seems to be the watch word for parenting! If parents view the church as a place where they can relax their guard just a little bit... well, I figure parents probably need that break. I’ve taken it on as another aspect of ministry.
Don't get me wrong - safety is ALWAYS a concern. It is very important to convey to parents that they remain responsible for their kids. I lock areas where I don't want anyone to go (we had an issue with kids getting into our nursery school rooms and making a mess of craft supplies). But a little unstructured downtime can be a gift for our over-scheduled families and especially for the kids. My own feral church kid daughter (who is about to go off to college), will tell you that times spent hanging out in the church are some of her most treasured memories. And she’s well on her way to becoming a church lady like her mother.
How to Cultivate Feral Church Children
I tell families, of course you should worship with your children. By all means, bring your kids to Sunday school. But, if you can swing it, find the time after the service to just “be” at church. Parents, take time for another cup of coffee. Assist with the altar guild or worship team. Linger a bit longer after a parish meal. Attend an adult education offering. While you're taking time to be a member of your church community, know that your kids are hanging out at church, and getting something out of it.
The Benefits of Kids at Church
At church, kids will form relationships with each other, outside of the pressure-cooker of comparison and competition that exists in our schools. They will have the chance to interact with kids who are older and younger, who come from different schools or different communities. Knowing that the world is a bigger place than the insular world of a particular school can be liberating.
At church, kids will form relationships with caring adults who are involved in children and youth ministry who have no expectations of achievement. We aren’t looking at a kid to determine their academic, athletic or artistic ability. We aren’t evaluating them. We welcome them as a child of God. We are always glad to see them, no matter what is going on in their life.
At church, kids will learn an alternate life narrative to that which is glorified in mainstream culture. Certainly achievement and accomplishments can be very good. But learning that happiness and self-worth can be measured by metrics other than material and financial success is a valuable lesson and one that doesn't get taught many places.
At church, kids won’t just learn about God in a book, they will experience God in relationships and in community. They will know how it feels to seek and serve Christ in others; and they will feel the light of Christ in their own heart.
When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them,” I’m pretty sure that he was talking about feral church children.
Lisa Brown recently accepted a position as the Director of Digital Ministry with Membership Vision. Building on her work in Children’s Ministry and Communications at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh, PA, she helps churches connect to people and to God in the digital space. An active member of Forma and Girl Scout leader, Lisa is passionate about enriching the spiritual lives of people. Her book “The Best Do-It-Yourself VBS Workbook Ever” will be published in early 2017.