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Kenyan churches reopen without kids, causing fear of gap in education

Nairobi, Kenya
Religion Unplugged

As churches in Kenya remained closed for eight months during the coronavirus pandemic, the suspension of Sunday Schools has hampered children’s ministry. Now, churches are reopening gradually, but without kids.

“From the government’s directive, children are not allowed in the church because they are more vulnerable to COVID-19,” said Joe Macharia, who runs a neighbourhood Bible study program for children ages four to 13. “It is hard for children, especially under the age of 10, to social-distance and keep their masks on, the same reasons schools in Kenya remain closed.”

Another part of the challenge of allowing children back to church is the five-foot social-distancing rule that separates congregants in Kenya. Many Sunday Schools are usually crowded, and they lack space and teachers to reduce class sizes by dividing the children up into cohorts of fewer than 15. It will also be hard to ensure that every child has a face mask and that it is worn properly.

A small population of children has been attending church online, but millions of them lack access to the internet, or don’t have televisions, radios or computers that would allow for remote teaching.

Macharia said that some churches are having trouble reinventing Sunday School without children present in person.

“This has cut off an essential part of children’s development. Sunday School plays a big part in nurturing a child socially, emotionally, and spiritually. When children miss Sunday School, it gradually erodes the culture of regular fellowship like other Christians. We shall have a generation that does not believe in one of the anchors of Christianity – fellowship,” he said.

To cater to children who cannot access online teaching, some churches are training parents how to teach their children discipleship. A few churches buy mobile data bundles to help poor families.

Janet Tutu, a children’s pastor at Mavuno South Church, said her church gives parents downloadable lesson plans and videos to watch to ensure continuity of the Gospel message given to children.

“But it’s still a challenge. Some parents say Sundays are busy days so they are unavailable for the children to use their mobile phones for the Internet. Others say they do not know how to access Zoom,” said Tutu, whose online class is smaller compared to what it was before the pandemic, when more than 90 children attended in person.

For the past eight months, Tutu has been using Zoom to teach some 50 children every Sunday. Just like at normal children’s services, she uses pictures to keep the young ones engaged, but does so now through PowerPoint presentations and videos of Bible memory verses recitals.

Abigail Arnold, a children’s pastor at Renewal Church, said her church had to give parents a toolbox for teaching their children at home, which is something they have some experience in, thanks to how services were conducted before the pandemic.

“We run our children’s church differently. We don’t even call it Sunday School because that gives the perception that children are going to a school to sit behind desks. Ours was children having a party with their parents, while learning the Gospel as a family. We used to sit on the floor with our children, we sing, we dance, we eat popcorn, and marshmallows, watch videos and recite Bible memory verses,” she said.

When she founded the church with her husband, Chris Arnold, they realised that “religion in Kenya was a bit rigid”.

“Sunday Schools were boring. Truth is, I couldn’t even attend one. The teachers found it hard to control the children. Children’s services had the lowest number of volunteers,” she said. Being a teacher herself, she trained volunteers for the children’s service at Renewal Church and came up with a new curriculum, one that is more fun.

“I told them to allow children to be children, no rules. We are not strict and parents use this time to reconnect with them. Before COVID-19, children used to drag their parents to church because they wanted to party as they learn how God loves them,” she said.

A significant challenge for Sunday Schools in Africa has been how to adjust their traditions and make virtual teaching interesting to children. Macharia blames what he calls the blanket assumption that children suffer from online fatigue quickly, so that virtual classes cannot be successful.

“Children get bored when they interact with content that’s not engaging. This can happen even in a face-to-face class. Think of how long a child can sit playing a video game or watching a movie. I’m learning from such creations and applying the techniques to keep children in the online Bible school engaged,” he said.

As some churches try to understand how to include children again in public worship, others are reaping the benefits from online teaching. Arnold reported that children from the US and the UK have been joining their online service in Kenya.

Two months ago, Macharia’s non-denominational Bible program, taught through Google Classroom, YouTube and Facebook, attracted children from Pretoria, South Africa.

“In the virtual vacation Bible school, we started with 27 children but the number grew to 128. The teachings have enabled children to grow in their knowledge of God’s word. A highlight for me was when some of them recited Psalms 23 in vernacular languages,” Macharia said.

Some may downplay the role that religion plays in children’s lives, but believers insist that Christian education programs are more crucial than ever to help shape values and beliefs.

“Now that children are at home, Christian values help them to relate with each other and their parents. Above all, Christian education teaches children that there is hope beyond this or any other crisis we may face,” Macharia said.



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