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April 07 - Church Army

Church Army’s Sheffield Centre researcher Claire Dalpra shares her journey of discovery into the world of children’s ministry in the church – and the challenge of nurturing spirituality in our young children

I never saw it coming. Before the birth of my daughter Natalie two years ago, I had a feeling that being a mother would be hard work, and that deep down something incredible was about to happen. What was so very unexpected was the instantaneous u-turn in my attitude towards children’s ministry in the church.

I hadn’t realized the limitations of the existing model of church – which was no longer catering effectively for children under five and their parents – until I had experienced it first-hand.

You see, since giving birth, I have had little or no opportunity to listen to a sermon on a Sunday morning. Now that I have Natalie, I always dread church. When I do go, I go for the company and to show loyalty, but keeping Natalie happy and quiet, even IN all-age services, leaves me completely drained. I need all of my concentration to make sure she doesn't run off, hit her head or make noise at the wrong time.

I began to realise just how many mothers have had to juggle spirituality and motherhood and have often struggled to maintain a balance, especially in traditional church environments where young children are in danger of being overlooked or marginalised.

There is mounting evidence to suggest children might be born with innate spiritual awareness but all-age worship, while effective for older children, is often limited in what it can do to nurture spirituality in children under five. This can even keep young families away.

Many churches run well attended midweek groups for under 5s and their carers, but there is a danger that churches will miss the opportunity to spiritually connect with non-churched parents and children if they wait around for families to cross the divide between midweek parent and baby/toddler groups to Sunday worship.

I spent nearly a year researching different churches to discover how they were catering for the spiritual needs of under 5s and their families. I was aware that our Encounters on the Edge series (examining different types of fresh expressions of church) hadn't featured any churches planted out of work with young children, even though we were hearing of more and more examples. 

As a new mum myself, I was keen to experience some of these examples of work with under 5s first-hand. Writing a booklet was an obvious thing to do; I felt that what I discovered was too important to keep to myself.

The number of children in this country who know the Christian story is still frighteningly low. The wider Church must act upon this, not just for the continuation of the Church in the future but, more importantly, because of their responsibility to take the spiritual nurture of young children seriously and resource ministry among them, just as they would any other people group in society.

I think it is crucial for churches to think carefully about their ministry to under 5s and their families, and think beyond either an all-age worship service or a community toddler group as the only answer for spiritual nurture. Children, even the smallest children, have the right to engage with the Christian faith in ways appropriate to who they are. Tired parents shouldn't have to dread church, especially when this time of life often prompts a more serious search for answers to spiritual questions.

There is just as much need for mission-shaped church thinking for children's ministry as there is for adults, and Small Beginnings - Church for Under 5s offers some practical advice on where to start – exploring examples of gatherings such as Mini Mass in Ascot and Manna Munchers in Sheffield.

Natalie and I are now regular members of a fresh expression of church for under 5s and their carers which is like a breath of fresh air. We can relax and she can be herself. I never realised how spiritually enriching it is for the parents as well as children, to engage in a short, simple act of worship with your child. Natalie is encouraged to grow in a healthy spiritual environment where she can learn all about Jesus with mummy.

Adults are also finding this kind of spiritual nurture helpful, which suggests learning to encounter God through imagination, wonder and play is a gift for life not just early childhood.

Can we really afford to ignore the potential that fresh expressions of church hold for the spiritual development of our under 5s and their families? They have taught me lessons that will last for the whole of my life … what about your church?

  • Claire Dalpra is research assistant to George Lings at Church Army’s Sheffield Centre and the author of Small beginnings - church for under 5s, which explores what it is to nurture spirituality in young children under five.

Encounters on the edge 31, Small Beginnings, is published by the Sheffield Centre and costs £4 per copy or £15 for an annual subscription. To order copies, contact the Sheffield Centre on 0114 272 7451, or e-mail

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