So half term is over. My kids are back to school, and grumbling about it already.
Back to 'boring learning' in 'The Cage' as they lovingly call it.
Half term with my two 'spirited' kids leaves me feeling like I need a holiday. Much emotional energy is expended trying to enthuse my boys, aged eight and 10, to do things they don't want to do. Especially when it comes to visiting museums. I blame the Suffragettes Tour of the Houses of Parliament a few years ago: an amazing opportunity to inspire the next generation of men was lost because the guide had an amazing gift of squeezing the life out of potentially life-changing stories.
Since then my boys wholeheartedly agree with the article in The Telegraph listing '21 Reasons Why I Hate Museums' which includes: 'You only go because you are told to. You would be happier doing something else. The atmosphere is funereal, and you have no idea what you are looking at.'
They sadly feel these apply to their experience of church as well.
This half term we took them (under duress – they had to be physically peeled off the iPad) to the Somme Memorial Museum. With expectations low, protestations high, yawns stifled and little hands rummaging in my pocket for my iPhone – the tour began.
But wow. The guide was the Jedi master of storytelling. He morphed into a convincing ( and slightly scary) army recruitment officer and invited us to join him on an adventure.
A hush fell over the children and their unblinking eyes widened.
He led us, Pied Piper-like, to sign up, get suited and booted, and board a ship to France. After disembarking the temperature dropped, we smelt smoke, we heard bombs explode, and we nervously clambered into the trenches. Stepping over wounded soldiers, bandaged faces lit only by oily paraffin lamps, we felt the dark heaviness in the air.
We sat in silence and stared at the bleak reality of No Man's Land. The horror, loss and futility of war was laid bare. Mud and mangled wire mixed with ragged boots and smashed helmets. No one moved a muscle.
This was uncomfortable viewing and it was tempting to divert our gaze, or distract ourselves. But the discomfort was powerful, profound, and communicated more to all of us in five minutes than weeks of school lessons ever could. Beyond facts and figures, this unveiled the faces and feelings of war. This felt raw, real and was incredibly moving.
The journey was transformational. We left it with fresh eyes and touched hearts.
We talked for the next few days about sacrifice and suffering, pain and loss.
It has been said that 'Museums are the new churches.'
What would it look like if we, the church, embraced this experiential learning to stir the souls of the next generation?
Not in the sense of turning our buildings into re-creations of epic biblical scenes, or dressing up in Moses sandals and beards – but rather, creating contexts outside of our 'business as usual' to awaken the senses and give a fresh perspective.
Do our church programmes enable us to 'taste and see' the amazing, life transforming story in a way which moves beyond head to heart, shifts our emotions, and stirs our souls?
Or are our stuffy structures and predictable programmes stifling our opportunity for fresh insight, and growth?
Could we be better at embracing all aspects of our story? When we sanitise the gospel message, we patronise the next generation and stifle their ability to deal with discomfort and challenge, and ultimately to grow. The John 1 'Life in all its fullness' which Jesus offers means experiencing the fullness of risk, discomfort, sacrifice, pain, and loss too.
Greg Robinson, author of Adventure and the Way of Jesus, makes the case for the church to embrace a more experiential approach to spiritual formation.
He says, 'How we teach the spiritual life is as important as what we teach. Many may teach the right things but in the wrong way. The result is a faith that has the right content but no experience. I have become convinced that place and context are very important parts of waking up and growing our spirits.'
Museums have clocked this in a way the church has yet to.
I have been grappling with how we can ensure the next generation are heart-connected, not just knowledge-filled? My husband and I have been exploring different contexts in which our children can connect more meaningfully with Jesus. Being outdoors, on the move, with others, is where their spirits and senses are awakened.
We gather monthly with others for 'Adventure Church'. We head to the woods, the beach, or a river to explore some aspect of journeying with Jesus. We've found simple practical challenges have illuminated hard-to-grasp ethereal concepts. Being blindfolded crossing a stream following a guide's instructions helped us grasp what trusting God and taking a leap of faith feels like. Building a fire and considering its essential components helped us explore the Father, Son and Holy Spirit relationship. Creating a shelter in the forest to explore God as our refuge and dwelling place, and building a raft to discover what it means to have God as our guide, have provided special times of learning together.
Something unique happens when we step out of the familiar setting. We relate to each other differently, as adults and children are on a level playing field, journeying together. The story takes on a different dimension as we physically journey into it. We find that our senses and spirits are awakened by the setting, and we connect with God's story in a fresh way.
Museums of Great Britain – well done in bringing the past to life.
Churches of Great Britain – we really do need to get out more.
Esther Stansfield is a freelance writer and blogger who has worked for Tearfund and Scripture Union.