Reaching the Third Audience


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by Martin Sweet and Steve Palmer

It is great to have feedback that shows children enjoy and value the time we spend in their schools. For example...

"Occasionally as I arrive at a school a card or a letter will be waiting for me, having been dropped in by a parent or a child.   During our recent series entitled 'Happiness is...' a parent dropped in a scrappy piece of paper with a line drawing of a dog with a big smile and the word 'happy' written around it multiple times. On the back, it simply said 'For Stephen, assembly, from Sophie'. "

Do you remember when Happy Days was on TV? It declared “Happy Days is filmed in front of a live studio audience.” The actors enjoyed the reaction of a couple of hundred members of the public to laugh at the jokes and cheer when Fonzie walked through the door. 

Through the magic of film, the show complete with audience response was sent through the air waves to millions of homes around the globe. The people in the studio were only the tip of the iceberg as far as audience goes. 

In each school Spinnaker visits there are not one, not two, but three audiences: children, school staff and… parents! Here’s one story we heard: 

"A teaching assistant heard her child singing in her bedroom. It was a song we use in our assemblies. She peered through the half-open door. The child had set her teddies and animal toys in a semi-circle around her and was singing to them. Intrigued, the mother asked what her daughter was doing. She replied that she was doing an assembly like the Spinnaker person does."

This captures our aim over the past thirty years: to present Christianity in an appropriate and engaging way to children. If we have this opportunity, and if schools are open to appropriate input, and if churches are keen on what we are doing, how much impact can we expect to see? 

Our audiences

Spinnaker aims to visit each school regularly, mostly on a fortnightly basis. This enables us to fully complement the social, moral, spiritual and emotional education of children. Hopefully our presentation of Christian stories and information supports the school’s need to present ‘values’ to their children. 

The first audience that Spinnaker meets is made up of increasingly unchurched children, ignorant of what we as Christians take for granted, so we value the opportunity to step into this gap and bring Bible stories and teaching alive.

"A Spinnaker worker was in a hospital waiting room. A family arrived, and the two children looked at her. "You come to take our school assemblies". By then the whole room was alert so she said, "yes, I love coming to tell you Bible stories". Then they were called for treatment and the conversation ended, but a group of people heard that schools still have assemblies based on the Bible."

The second audience is the school staff – not least those who sit through our assemblies. Some say they value our input, not just because it fits well into the given educational parameters of collective worship, but because the children vote with their smiles!

The best commendation is that schools continue to invite us in, often for many years. But it can go deeper – such when a teacher confessed to a Spinnaker worker how the recent assembly had challenged them about their own behaviour, or the time a head teacher tearfully prayed in their office with a Spinnaker worker. 

This is because we are ‘in their world’, which is perhaps where the church needs to be, as schools face increasing pressures on both management teams and classroom teachers. We are grateful for every opportunity to build a strong relationship with staff and to be in a position to offer support and prayer. 

The third audience, however, we don’t often see. They sit, not in the school hall or classroom, but at home as they encounter what their children unpack from their day at school. It is a sobering thing to discover that you are talked about! But what do we want children to be saying?

'While walking out of one school Steve was a few steps behind a mum and her 6-year-old son from the class he had just been working with. ‘Suddenly the boy spotted me, whispered something to his mum and scuttled ahead up the road. The mum then turned to me and said, "He thinks you're amazing! He loves your lessons, they are wonderful!" We chatted about how often he son spoke about me at home and then I reached my car. It was a lovely encouragement after a tiring afternoon.’ 

One thing we might want them to say is that we care about the challenges they face. Dave Roberts of “Children Matter”  proposes that the faith formation of children in schools is impacted by the way the church models the compassion of Jesus in response to the needs around us. 

We know that children today face a challenging future, but instead of bemoaning our limited resources (both as church and society), perhaps we need to see things differently. Perhaps children themselves are a key ‘resource’ that we have overlooked.

Jesus did not tell us merely to teach children, he told us to become like them. His ‘lead’ example of spiritual life was the child, not the adult: the kingdom belongs to those who are actually like children.

I think Jesus was saying there are characteristics of children that must not be lost in adult life – like simplicity, trust, spontaneity. Can these qualities still challenge an older generation? I am convinced that, while we have a great opportunity to engage with children through education, we need to acknowledge that children themselves have an important role as they bring parents into the process. Most commentators warn us that the parents of this current generation are probably the most removed from the church that we have ever experienced. 

I am left with the conclusion that our work visiting primary schools, is more complex and cross-generational than it might appear. With this potential of children to reach their parents, perhaps the church needs to review the importance we give to children.

Can we reach them? Can a mere assembly-taker in a school make that much difference? I have carried this question in my heart for thirty years. A traditional African proverb says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ reminding us that every aspect of our community plays a part in forming a child’s character. And yet it is the children in our schools who get to speak to a big chunk of the adult village that equally needs teaching.

So are we ready to believe that God will use and empower this generation of children to model faith to their parents – parents the church may never meet any other way? Dare we at Spinnaker believe we can reach some of this third audience through our work?

It is time for some fresh, creative and risky thinking about how we can empower our children and give them a voice to be agents of change in our broken world.