Witnessing to Children and Young People

by Graham Kings

Date added: 28/07/2023

Witnessing to Children and Young People

by Graham Kings

A Response to Vicentia Kgabe’s paper

‘Evangelizing and Witnessing in a church where young people and children are not excluded or left behind’

Mission Theology in the Anglican Communion Conference

Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas

 29 May – 2 June 2018


Within a holistic view of mission, Kgabe draws on various works by theologians of mission and gives some contextual examples from South Africa. She provides a perceptive comment concerning her memory of being a young person in church:

We were welcomed only to window dress and entertain but not valued as partners in the mission of God, witnessing alongside the adults and exploring what a Christ-centred church looks and feels like.

Also helpful was the quotation from Vineeth Koshy about young people who have ‘a quality of thinking, a predominance of courage and an appetite for adventure.’

It was encouraging to hear that the number of young people coming to church in her Province has increased. I would have liked to have heard more about the Guilds of St Agnes and of St Bernard Mizeki, and the newly established Girls and Boys Friendly Societies and how these, as Kgabe longs, could be involved in evangelism as well as church activities. It may be that evangelism and witness amongst young people and children should be interactive, interrogative, intriguing and imaginative.

When I served as Bishop of Sherborne in Dorset, England, I led a service celebrating 50 years of village church primary school building. The previous one had burned down, following a sad accident with an oil heater. I pointed out the irony of the first hymn, ‘Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning’.

As part of the sermon, I took questions from the children and these, as usual, were a mixture of the personal and profound. The most searching question was: ‘What was God doing before he made the world?’ I dared not mention Augustine’s tongue-in-cheek jest in 397 AD - that he said he would not give to such a question: ‘He was preparing hell for those who pry into mysteries’[1] (Confessions Book 11) - but I did say ‘He was loving.’ I developed this briefly in mentioning the eternal love between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

This taught me the importance of church schools in evangelism and witness, the depth of some children’s thinking, their willingness to articulate it, and their delight in asking questions.

Jesus, when he was 12, was found by Mary and Joseph ‘in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.’ (Luke 2:46). Perhaps we need to provide opportunities for children and young people to do the same.

In both State and Church secondary schools in Dorset I used to take part in ‘Grill-a-Bishop’ sessions with 16-18 year olds, where no question was out of bounds. There were so many questions that these would often be followed up with ‘Grill-a-Bishop’ half an hour sessions, live online on the Diocese of Salisbury website.

For these online sessions, the students, with a teacher, would be in the classroom and I would be in my study or a café. They would type short questions and I would attempt to answer them and provide hyperlinks to other resources.

One sixth former asked, ‘When does life begin?’ I replied, ‘After the first cup of coffee in the morning’, but then went on to discuss the underlying question of abortion. There were sometimes up to 30 questions and I would manage to give brief answers to 10 or 12, in the half hour, and follow up on the others in my own time. I learned theologically and profoundly from these experiences and had to rethink some issues. As usual, the good news bounces back, with joy and challenge, on the person sharing it. The BBC Radio 4 Today programme heard about Grill-a-Bishop and on 20 January 2011 broadcast short interviews with some of the sixth formers, with the title, ‘Did God plan the creation of nuclear weapons?’

In retirement, I am serving a multicultural inner-city parish in London, St Matthew’s-at-the-Elephant, just south of the River Thames, and we have recently appointed a part-time Director of Music. He is also a young composer and singing teacher in a school.  He has started a children’s choir, with 14 members, and has already written a new Kyrie and Gospel Acclamations, which the children have taught the congregation. The children are encouraging their friends from the council local estate to join them and have distributed leaflets about the church. So the children are involved in teaching and evangelism. After preparation classes, four children were confirmed in April and another four admitted to Holy Communion in May.

In the Anglican Communion, Archbishop Justin’s evangelism and witness initiative, ‘Thy Kingdom Come,’ includes young people and children in its focus for prayer between Ascension and Pentecost each year. In England there were Beacon events in 37 Cathedrals at Pentecost. The Church Times reported on 25 May 2018:

It was the third instalment of what is now a global, ecumenical prayer movement, which invites Christians to pray throughout Ascension-tide. Several thousand young people in St Albans on Saturday evening listened to Archbishop Welby and the US Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, fresh from their involvement in the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Weddings are good news. This Royal Wedding, at Windsor Castle, was broadcast live to 1.9 billion people around the world. Michael Curry rose to the occasion in his sermon to share the holistic good news of God with so many people.

Kgabe cites a fine quotation from Pope John Paul II and it may be worth drawing also on Pope Francis’s major apostolic exhortation of 2013 Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)[2], where a key repeated phrase is ‘missionary disciple’. He mentions young people in paragraphs 105 to 108:

How beautiful it is to see that young people are “street preachers” (callejeros de la fe), joyfully bringing Jesus to every street, every town square and every corner of the earth! (Para 106)

Young people call us to renewed and expansive hope, for they represent new directions for humanity and open us up to the future, lest we cling to a nostalgia for structures and customs which are no longer life-giving in today’s world. (para 108)

Pope Francis also wrote about the vocation of theologians:

I call on theologians to carry out this service as part of the Church’s saving mission. In doing so, however, they must always remember that the Church and theology exist to evangelize, and not be content with a desk-bound theology. Universities are outstanding environments for articulating and developing this evangelizing commitment in an interdisciplinary and integrated way (para 134).

To draw on earlier ages concerning the possibility of witness, it may be worth contrasting Plato, the philosopher in Athens, with John Chrysostom, the bishop in Constantinople.

Plato (d. 347 BC), in his Timaeus, wrote:

But the father and maker of all this universe is past finding out; and even if we found him, to tell of him to all men would be impossible.[3]

John Chrysostom, (d. 407 AD), in his sermon on Acts 9:10-12 about Ananias, who prayed for Saul in Damascus, preached:

Say not, “it is impossible for me to induce others (to become Christians)” – for if thou art a Christian, it is impossible but that it should be so. For as the natural properties of things cannot be gainsaid, so it is here: the thing is part of the very nature of the Christian. Do not insult God. To say, the sun cannot shine, would be to insult Him: to say that a Christian cannot do good, is to insult God and call him a liar. For it is easier for the sun not to give heat, nor to shine, than for a Christian not send forth light: it is easier for the light to be darkness, than for this to be so.[4]

So, evangelism and witness involves living and articulating the good news of the Kingdom, in the power of the Spirit, to a world in need, by a Church in love.

In particular, we are called to help children and young people realise that they matter to God because they matter to us.



[1] St Augustine, Confessions (London: The Folio Society, 1993) Book 11 Chap 12, p. 216.

[2] https://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/apost_exhortations/documents/papa-francesco_esortazione-ap_20131124_evangelii-gaudium.html

[3] Plato, Timaeus 28 C, in R. M. Hare and D. A. Russell (eds) The Dialogues of Plato translated by Benjamin Jowett Volume 3: Timaeus and Other Dialogues (London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1970) p. 234.

[4] John Chrysostom, Homily XX in Philip Schaff (ed.), A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church Vol XI, Saint Chrysostom, Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), p. 134.

Graham Kings

Graham Kings

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