Amber O’Neal Johnston is an author, blogger, and world-school mom. A world-school mom is a mom who practices homeschooling with the world as her classroom, specifically the cultures and people of the world. I had the pleasure of meeting her at our Exploring Homeschool special event in April. She opened a brand new box filled with her brand new book that evening. I purchased two then and have purchased multiple copies for colleagues and friends since.
A Place To Belong: Celebrating Diversity and Kinship in the Home and Beyond offers amazing insight for those of us in ministry with children and families specifically to set the table of ‘belonging’ for today’s families in a family of faith. The five pillars of practice on which our ministry with children and families stands are Worship, Grow, Serve, Belong, and Tell.
“Every child longs for a place to belong. A place where cultural awareness, self-acceptance, celebration, and kinship are the norm. And this natural yearning for affiliation and attachment is best satisfied within the context of home and family life. Home is where lifelong attitudes are rooted and affirmed, where children learn the values that will inform how they move through the world.” p. xvi
Amber writes about curating a diverse library of books, exploring culturally-rich art and media, and significant, life-giving history. Reading her words through a children’s ministry lens, how can we ‘set the table’ for belonging for all children in the local church? Here are a few ideas I’ve implemented….
Speak and teach that our identity and worth comes from the God who created us as His image-bearers in the world. The first books of Genesis matter because it sets the tone for every child’s value no matter how they feel in the moment. God knew them before they were born and He sent His one and only son Jesus to invite every child into the family of God through faith and trust in Jesus. “I do hope that my children always feel magnificent in their skin. Not because they’re convinced that they are somehow more special than others, but because they embrace their differences while recognizing that we’re better together.” p.8
“Given the opportunity to be themselves in a safe space, people will gladly show you all of who they are.” p. 19 We are a Safe Sanctuary church. We annually evaluate and consider the best practices and systems possible in our local context to provide spaces safe from harm. We are beginning the evaluation process of teaching, training platforms, and considerations this fall to implement next spring which will be the 25th anniversary of what the United Methodist Church knows as Safe Sanctuary. When was the last time your church pulled out the Safe Sanctuary guidelines? Who will sit at that table to discuss best practices to reduce the risk of harm in your local church now?
I want to make resources and conversations easily accessible to parents so they become the ‘askable parent’ for their kids. “Our goal, as parents, should be to become our children’s number one go-to person when they aren’t sure how to process things or when they want to know more about something they’ve heard or noticed.” p. 27 We recognize that kids need a safe space for working through their private thoughts aloud. We’ve secured a new Sunday morning curriculum which includes a major parenting piece from a Biblical worldview to encourage all kinds of conversations for families wherever they are because we all know we typically can’t schedule those sacred, pivotal conversations.
“Children who spend all their time gazing at themselves in the mirror risk entering adulthood with an incomplete view of the world and an overdeveloped sense of self.” p. 73 One of the given standards for living as a Christian is to live as ‘I am no longer my own’. The apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “You are not your own; you were bought at a price.” Paul’s audience had a reputation for claiming spiritual superiority over one another, suing one another in public courts, disrespecting the communal meal, and accepting all kinds of misbehavior unbecoming of one who follows Jesus. Each Sunday this summer, we’ve invited Titus 2 men and women in our local church (bigs who have been following Jesus longer than the littles) to tell their story of their dependence on God and their prayer habits. I also take time to frequently speak of biographies I’m reading of real people doing remarkable things for Jesus in weekly large group and the children’s moment.
Amber’s writing was easy to hear in most places, but difficult in others. I was ready for it and grateful for her tenderness. Want to learn what belonging could look like and what it doesn’t look like? Read the book or listen on Audible.
Christian education for how to live as a family AND how to live as the set-apart family of faith in Jesus will have the most profound impact when practiced at tables, with art pads and pencils, among a variety of people and cultures as well as in the community of those where we can relax and not have to work so hard. Moms and dads, grandparents, and the local church are commissioned to go and make disciples of Jesus and we are better together, intentionally setting the table for belonging in an anxious, fearful, awkward world desperate for authentic connection.
“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.” Revelation 7:9a