Okay, so I actually don’t remember much about Kindergarten, apart from the location of the classroom at Vandercook Elementary in Rockford, IL (which is interestingly, now a Muslim community center). I remember the strange allure of paste (I was a player, not an eater), the utter joy of the playground (remember defying certain death on the merry-go-round?), and tables with toys. If I learned any important lessons there, I have forgotten them.
No, the place where I’ve been learning about church is at my daughter’s Kindergarten class. Which, as it turns out, is a lot like a certain flat church that I know and love.
Here’s what I’ve learned:
Let things be messy and a little noisy. In the school of my youth, the kids sat in desks placed in rows, and the teacher stood up front. Which architectural model mirrors a lot of churches, too. But such order tends to squelch the kind of freedom and play that leads to real learning and growth.
Call each other ‘friends’. In my daughter’s class, everyone bears the title ‘friend’, even the teachers. In our church, we do the same: not pastor, priest, rector, father, or mother. Just friends. Of course, different people will lead at different times, but we grant each other authority based on love, friendship, and mutual respect, not based on education, hierarchy, professional status, or titles.
Listen to kids. Okay, so this point is more literal than metaphorical. But you’d be surprised what you can learn when you stop lecturing kids and start listening to them. Even those who don’t yet have the power of speech. And if they can contribute, imagine what the grown-ups can bring!
‘Explore’. At the start and end of every day, Kindergarteners are turned loose in a kind of organized chaos called ‘explore’. There are multiple activities, places for interaction, and fun games to play. In Kindergarten or in church, opportunities to explore foster experimentation, collaboration, and most of all, creativity.
Have fun. After ‘explore’, the kids circle up for ‘morning meeting’. Which is a place to make some noise, sing a silly song, share some stories, and talk about life. Here, we are reminded to be kind to one another, to listen, and to inspire one another. Here we are reminded that it’s okay to enjoy yourself.Follow your muse. It sounded kinda jive, until I was invited to visit class one day: the friends really are encouraged to follow their own curiosity. So when one child noticed that the class bean plant had doubled in size overnight, she was encouraged to measure that growth, to record it on the growth chart, and to report the amazing findings back to the class . Who all clamored to share ways to measure and record the growth in the other plants. In church, when someone shares something they are passionate about, that passion multiplies.
Open up feedback loops. By listening, we learn what the people around us know, and we hear from the collective wisdom of the group. The day I sat in on Kindergarten, the teacher used some morning meeting time to address the issue of some renegade crayon sketches which were appearing on the tables. They were a lot of work to clean up. “How could we work together to solve this problem?,” the teacher asked. While I silently wondered if a simple directive– “Please don’t draw on the tables”– would have been more efficient and effective, I watched the wonder of the feedback loop open up in front of us. By slowing down and listening to the kids, the teachers were able to discover what the kids had heard (“no, we are talking about drawing on the tables, not papers”), what was understood (“they were not accidental lines, but whole drawings”), to gather intel (which kids got fidgety when the topic was broached?), and brainstorm solutions (“Yes, you could clean it up yourself.”). In church, it is hard to set aside your finely honed homily to hear what everyone else thinks, but everyone will learn and grow a lot more in the process. Churches without feedback loops become echo chambers full of hollow people.
Erect bridges across short spans of attention. Yes, there was a fast pace and a level of constant activity in the classroom. But the students were spending relatively long stretches of time engaged in thoughtful, productive activities. It is popular in some church circles to bemoan ‘the modern problem of short attention spans’, when the real problem is that people are rightfully bored. People don’t have ‘short attention spans’, they just like to be true participants in their communities of faith rather than recipients of entertainment.
Let everyone play. The 5- and 6-year-olds in Kindergarten are Writers, Mathematicians, and Scientists, and are addressed as such. They and their skills are taken seriously. At church– whether we recognize it or not– everyone is a theologian, everyone is a preacher, and everyone is a pastor. Pretending that they are not only hinders their development into the people God has called them to be. The good news is that when you take everyone seriously, everyone becomes a better theologian, preacher, and pastor. And churches with these distributed gifts become much more stable, energetic, and sustainable.