How to Teach Your Child to Read


How to Teach Your Child to Read

by Anne E Thompson

 I wrote this article several years ago. Now that many parents are forced to implement some kind of home-education, I thought it might be useful. There are some practical ideas, as well as a little educational psychology to explain why some things work better than others. I hope it’s helpful. Please share with people who will find it useful.

If you want to teach your child to read, as a primary school teacher, I am tempted to say: “Don’t!” There are lots of things, like tying shoe laces, identifying birds in the garden and cracking an egg into a cup, which are easiest taught at home and which you will do so much better than a teacher. When teaching to read is done badly, it is actually possible that you might delay your child’s reading or cause problems that can take years to undo.
However, as a mother, I know that teaching your child can be rewarding and fun, and we want to do it. This article therefore aims to give you some helpful hints on the sort of things that you might do at home with your child. It also lists a few of the problems that can arise.

Firstly, the most important thing that you can do is read, and let your child see you reading. Children are great imitators, and if they see both their mother and their father reading, then they will want to. You can read anything: books, newspapers, recipes, instruction manuals. What is important is that your child sees you reading. Young children who never or rarely see their parents read are less likely to want to themselves because it does not seem important. They are at that stage where they think everything you do is wonderful, and will want to copy. (Unfortunately, this stage does not last long. By the time they are teenagers they will think everything you do is wrong, so make the most of it!)

You also need to have lots of reading material in your home. This does not have to be expensive: join the library, or visit jumble sales and buy some cheap second-hand books. If children see their parents reading, and if there are books in the home, it is a natural step for them to pick up a book and turn the pages. It does not matter if they are only looking at the pictures or saying words that are not in the book, the first stage of learning to read is ‘playing’ with a book for pleasure.

You also need to read to your child. Sit them on your knee, and read them a story. They will learn that reading is something pleasurable, that can be done in a relaxed manner and will also start to internalise written language. This can be done at any age (some people even advocate reading to your unborn baby!) It will help your child learn to read as naturally as they learn to speak.

Much of reading is to do with prediction (which I will explain in more detail later) and if they have heard, “Once upon a time…” a few times it will help them later, when they are decoding for themselves.

Let your child see that you turn the pages one at a time, and read the words from left to right, top to bottom. Even before they can read, they will start to copy this behaviour.
If you are a working parent, it can be hard to find time in the day to read with your child. However, it really is important. Try to set aside the same time each day and make it part of the rhythm of the day. It does not matter if it is every day while you eat breakfast, or last thing in the evening when they are in bed. Read to them! It is as important as cleaning their teeth.

Do not rush into ‘proper’ reading lessons with your child. There is an age whereby a child is physically too young to learn to read. The human brain is a wonderful organ and it takes about 21 years to be fully developed. Different parts of the brain have different functions and control different things. It develops from back to front, and inside to outside. You would not sit your child in the driver’s seat of your car and tell him to drive—if nothing else, you can see that he’s not tall enough to look out of the windscreen, and his legs aren’t long enough to reach the pedals. Learning to read also needs physical development, but it is harder to gauge because we cannot see that a child is not ready. There is a substance called myelin, which I do not fully understand (I am a teacher, not a neurologist!) which is essential for a child to be capable of reading. This is the stuff that carries messages to and from the brain, and it coats different nerves as time goes on—so, first a baby can control their large limbs (arms and legs) later, they have finer motor control (can use their fingers). After a few years, it enables the eye to carry symbols to the brain, and for the brain to then decode them into language.
Now, if a child is ‘forced’ to read before they have developed sufficiently, they will use different parts of the brain to decode symbols (the brain is very clever, if it cannot use one pathway, it will make a different one.)For example, they might attempt to memorise, rather than decode. This can then cause problems later, and they will have to ‘unlearn’ what they are doing, which is very difficult. For this reason, some countries will not begin to teach reading in schools until a child is aged seven and they can be confident that the brain is sufficiently developed.

However, some children are ready to read long before then—which is why you are reading this article. My daughter learnt to read when she was aged three. One son learnt when he was four, the other was not ready to learn until he was well over five, and had started school. There is no correlation between when they learnt to read and their long-term academic success. It is not an indication of intelligence; it is an indication of physical development. So do not get involved in competitive ‘parent talk.’ You may just as well be proud of your child’s hair colour, as the age they learn to read.

It can be difficult to know when your child is ready to learn to read. I do not have a fool proof method, so will simply share my own experience.

Firstly, I watched my children. As children develop, they are able to use and control their large limbs first (Swaying an arm to hit a baby mobile) then their smaller limbs (holding something in a fist) then their fine motor skills develop (playing with a thread of cotton and holding it with a fingertip and thumb.) Fine motor skills give an indication of how your child is developing.

Secondly, I played a game with them to discover if they could recognise a symbol. I wrote lots of random letters on a piece of paper (or could be shapes) and wrote one at the top. Then I said, “This is an ‘a’, can you point at the other ‘a’s on the paper? If they could consistently match letters/shapes, I would begin trying to teach reading. If they did not seem to be learning, I stopped, and tried again in a few months.

So, what do you actually do to teach your child to read? I think that you need to understand the different components of reading and give your child experience in all of them. Education is constantly changing, and the methods of teaching and testing reading ability seem to change from decade to decade. However, you are a parent, not a teacher, so you do not have to worry about current policy, you can just give your child a varied reading experience and discover what works for you. Here are some ideas which I suggest you muddle up and use in any order as often as you can. Just be sure that every activity is fun.

Reading is very similar to listening. To listen, you hear sounds, your brain sorts the different sounds into words and you derive meaning. When reading, you see symbols (which in English are letters, grouped into words) which the brain then deciphers into meaning. When you listen, you do not hear every word. Much of your understanding comes from the tone and the context and what you feel makes sense. The same is true of reading. When you read you do not look at every letter—you do not even look at every word if reading fluently and quickly. Again, you use the context, and what is logical, to make sense of what you have read.

Context is very important. You can even ‘read’ things that make no sense, because you will use your understanding of how language works to fill in the gaps. So, if you read:
“Judy loved to blimp. Every morning she went blimping. Whatever the weather, rain or shine, Judy could be found blimping away. When she thought back over her year, Judy realised she must have … a thousand times.”

If you are a fluent reader, you will probably decipher the last sentence as “Judy realised she must have blimped a thousand times. This is with you having no idea what the verb ‘to blimp’ means.

You can teach your child to use the context of what is being read by asking them to predict the end of phrases. Ask them to read with you and when you read: “Once upon …” let them read: “…a time.” Sit so your child can see the words, you read the story but leave some gaps where there are ‘obvious’ words and let your child say them. This is developing their prediction skills and their ability to use the context of what is written. Later, when they are reading on their own, they will also use the pictures as part of the context that helps them decode the text.

Another part of reading is word recognition. There are words which we hardly need to look at, we know their shapes so well. I would teach word recognition as a separate activity to reading. There is, in my view, a real danger that children will focus too much on individual words and not enough on the meaning of the text. We want our children to become fluent readers, not people with amazing memories who can remember thousands of words.

One good way to teach word recognition is to cut up some cardboard, and write some simple words on it. Then play a game of ‘pairs’ or ‘bingo’ with the words. Later, when you are reading to your child, if you come to one of the words that they have learnt you can stop, and let them read that word. Reading then becomes a shared activity, with you reading most of the story and them filling in any words they have learnt to recognise plus any that are obvious from the context. Gradually, they will read more and more of the text themselves.

Children need to see lots of words, and several different types of text. If they are cooking, help them to follow a simple recipe. If you have time, write out a recipe for them, if nothing else they will learn lots of imperative verbs. (Imperative verbs are bossy verbs, like ‘put’, ‘fill’, ‘place’.) Reading a recipe, is still reading.

Some people make word cards, and place them around their house, so every coffee table, kitchen appliance, door, etc is labelled. I expect that this does help children to recognise words (however, I personally would not want to live in that house, so I never did that with my own children. Plus, my children were quite inventive, so would probably have switched the labels around, thus confusing the youngest!)

Magnetic letters on the fridge are a fun way for children to practice making words. Do check them though, one of my children wrote lots of misspelt swear words. He thought that as he’d never heard me say them, I would not know what they were! It was funny, but slightly embarrassing when visitors came.

Another part of reading is phonics (the sounds of letters.) A fluent reader rarely uses phonics unless they are introduced to a new word. It slows the flow of reading and is fairly inaccurate. Most people do not say the pure letter sounds, so ‘l’ becomes ‘le’. If you sound out ‘le’ ‘o’ ‘o’ ‘ke’ ‘e’ ‘de’ it is very unlikely you will decipher ‘looked.’ However, it can be useful in giving children a clue about what a word might be, if they are also using context to decode a sentence.

Again, I always taught phonics as a separate lesson to reading. It is a natural part of a spelling lesson, and when children have internalised phonics they will use them very naturally when reading. If they are directed to ‘sound out’ words too often, then they start to focus all their attention on individual letters and all meaning of the text is forgotten. It is possible to say all the correct words, and not actually derive any meaning from the text. If given some German to read, I can probably say all the words correctly, but will not have any idea what the text is about. Unfortunately, some children learn to read like this. They are able to say the sounds of the letters to form words, but the words never seem to touch their brain, to have any real meaning. They have to listen to themselves speaking to understand what the words mean, which obviously slows up their reading and is not what they should be doing.

A good way to teach initial letter sounds is to play “I spy”. You can use either letter names, or letter sounds (your child needs to learn both) and they will gradually build up a good knowledge of words that begin with the same sounds. You can always write the letter on a piece of paper, so they also begin to recognise the shape.

I often told The Magic Pens story (see under Children’s Stories at anneethompson.com Link is Here ) It is best told rather than read, and I would tell it to the class whilst writing the relevant words on the white board. The children always, unprompted, joined in by chanting the lists of words, which made a fun way for them to learn phonics. Also, as the initial letter is a different colour, it helps dyslexic readers. It was a great time-filler when waiting to go for lunch or assembly, and the children always enjoyed it, especially if we included some naughty words like ‘bum!’

It can be extended by the teacher returning to the classroom in the morning and making a sentence with the words, such as : “Kit wanted to sit, but a nit bit her, so she had a fit.” You can do the same activity at home. If you write a sentence with the words, put it on the fridge and your child can return to them throughout the day and read what was written. Obviously, change the letters used each time, so the child begins to build up a good knowledge of letter blends. You can also start with initial sounds, such as ‘br’ or ‘ch’ and change the story accordingly.
{Incidentally, I have only ever told the Magic Pen stories in a classroom. If you try them at home, please let me know if they are still fun and if the child joins in!}

Your child also needs to be reading books. Proper, child friendly, story books. It does not matter if they cannot initially read every word, they need the opportunity to explore them and to practice reading. Try to find some simple books that have very repetitive language. Read the story to your child a few times first (Yes, they will remember the words, that is okay, reading uses memory.) If there is a word they cannot read, just tell them. Do not tell them to ‘sound it out’, that takes all the fun out of reading. If they are asking you for help, that is excellent, they are showing that they understand the text has meaning and they want to know what it says.

Do not ever be tempted to buy the books from the school reading scheme. Your child’s teacher will be using them to both teach and as a diagnostic tool to assess your child’s progress. If your child has read them at home, they will give an unrealistic performance (which the teacher will be aware of) and the child will be bored with them, and not want to read them again at school. It is hugely unhelpful and will slow their progress. If your child’s teacher wants the child to practice the school books at home, they will be sent home for you to borrow.

Do not force a child who does not want to read to begin learning. I home-schooled one of my children when we were living abroad, and I found reading a real tension point. It really mattered to me that he should read fluently and he decided he did not want to learn. (This is the child who every day picked up his pen by the wrong end and told me he could not remember which way round it went! Some children need more patience and prayers than others…) I did teach him eventually—mainly  thanks to finding some simple books about a dragon who had a pet cat that pooped everywhere, which appealed to my son immensely! However, he never enjoyed reading. Even as a teenager, he would pay his younger brother to read to him the books set by his school while he did something ‘more interesting.’ I do not know if his personality means he would never have enjoyed reading, or if my daily frustration with his four-year-old awkward self somehow left a lasting impression. If I could turn back the clock, I would tell myself to stop trying, have a rest and start again in six months’ time.

On a similar vein, do let older children choose their own books. Another mistake I made was when my daughter, who had read fluently from a very young age, was about eight. I decided that she should be reading books that would extend her, and gave her lots of the child classics (The Railway Children, Little Woman, that sort of thing.) She just wanted to read simple tales of magic and princesses. After a while, she stopped reading for pleasure completely. She did, after a year or so, begin again but I had made the mistake of taking the fun out of reading. It has to be fun. If children enjoy reading, they will always read. We might enjoy reading Dickens, but we need a few novels in between time too.

Your child will learn to read at his/her own pace. Just as some children learn to walk as early as ten months of age and others are well over a year, so some children acquire reading skills very quickly and others learn more slowly. Try not to worry and absolutely do not start comparing with other children. You have been given a very special role in raising your child, let them develop at their own speed, they are not like anyone else. If they seem completely disinterested in reading, stop trying to teach them (but do not stop reading to them) and enjoy other experiences instead. If there is a problem, your child’s teacher will alert you but probably your child is just not quite ready to start learning yet.

Watching your child learn to read is hugely rewarding and very exciting. I hope that you will both enjoy the experience and it will be special activity that you share.

More articles, stories and poems at: anneethompson.com

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Prayer doesn’t work


I have to agree when people say, “Prayer doesn’t work.” It doesn’t. At least, not in the way that they usually mean it. When people pray, they are usually asking for something. They usually want God to change something. I’m not sure that this is what prayer is all about. At least, not entirely, not in the way that we are often told.

I can think of two examples of when I prayed very earnestly for something (I have prayed more than twice, in case you are wondering. I often pray. But these are good examples of what I mean.)

Prayer one was a few years ago when someone who I had grown up with, someone who I cared about, had a horrible accident and his son was killed. I knew that I should attend the funeral, I wanted to show my support for him, but I also knew it would be very hard. It would be hard seeing those who I loved, feeling hurt. It would also be hard because my son was the same age. The coffin would be the same size as my son. So I prayed. I asked my church group to pray too. I prayed that even in this nasty situation, I would feel the peace of God, that I would know his presence with me. It was an earnest, heartfelt prayer.

If I am honest (and there is no point writing this unless I AM honest, there are enough people who ‘say the right words’ already) God did not answer my prayer. I have never felt so alone, so abandoned, as I did at that funeral. I felt no peace, no comfort of God’s presence. I felt totally alone. Full of sorrow for the family but no peace. None. I don’t know if my church group had prayed for me – I suspect they forgot (it’s very easy to forget other people’s needs in the busyness of life.) In this instance, I can honestly say, prayer didn’t work. But we should still pray.

In many parts of the world, people are ill or starving and have no access to help. Many of them pray, call out to God for help. They are not bad people, they pray very earnestly. But their babies still die. There is still not enough food or health care or water. Prayer doesn’t work. But we should still pray.

So, what does it mean? Are we getting it wrong? Is prayer a waste of time? Well, our best way of knowing God is to explore the Bible a little. In the Bible, people prayed. Even Jesus prayed. Think of the famous prayer of Jesus before he died. He prayed asking God to, “…remove this cup from me.” He absolutely didn’t want to die. So, did God save him? Did he escape a horrible death nailed to a cross? Well, no actually. Both Bible accounts and secular historical records show that Jesus was crucified and died. His prayer didn’t work, not if we are measuring prayer by ‘getting what we want’.

In the Old Testament, we read that King David gave up food and sleep to pray that his son might live. But his son didn’t, he died. David’s pray didn’t work. You might not believe the Bible, you might not like what you read, but you have to admit it is honest. It hasn’t fancied things up at all. People prayed for things and God DIDN’T act. Not always. Often not in the way they intended. Prayer doesn’t work. But we are told to pray.

The Bible has many examples where people prayed and things changed. Today, people today tell me that they lost their car keys and prayed and God helped them find them. So what does it all mean? Are they lying?

Well, the more I examine it, the more I test it, the more convinced I am that prayer doesn’t work. At least, if we think that we can change God’s plan by praying. If we could, then God would be no more than a genie in a bottle, a lucky charm, a magic crystal. Of course, some people do ‘pray’ to those things, to lucky charms and sometimes their prayers are ‘answered’. Sometimes they find their car keys or their nephew gets well or the weather is sunny. But I think that is co-incidence. I personally don’t think a lucky charm can change anything. Do I think that praying for lost car keys helps us find them? Perhaps, but that too might be coincidence. And I don’t think our prayers change God. God is bigger than that. God is God.

Do you ever change your mind? I do (my husband would say too often.) What do we mean when we say that? We mean that we thought something in the past, then we decided that it was wrong, now we think something different. If you look at that sentence again, you will see there are lots of time-related words. That’s because we are on a timeline – we have a past, a present and a future. But God doesn’t, we read he is ‘omnipresent’ which means he is outside of time. Therefore God, simply because he is God, cannot change his mind. Not in the way that we mean when we say it anyway.

I believe that God created the world (this needs some explanation because yes, I do also believe that dinosaurs were real, things evolved. At some point I hope to write an article about creation. But for now, just accept that I believe God created the world.) When he did, he put certain rules in place, certain scientific principles. Like gravity. Now, God is God, God CAN break those rules (because he created them) but he doesn’t (except on very rare occasions. We call those miracles.) The world works best if the rules are in place.

So, if I drive my car as fast as I can, straight at a brick wall and pray really hard that God will save me, I doubt that he will. The laws of physics (which God put in place) show that both I and my car, will be smashed to bits.

A child may pray completely earnestly that Mt Everest might move to Germany, because that’s what he wrote in his test paper. But we wouldn’t expect God to move Everest. He could, he is God. But actually we would prefer that he didn’t, that our world remained stable.

Yet we frequently pray asking him, in our grown up way, to change the laws of physics/science. If I eat lots of junk food and rarely exercise, then however much I pray, it is likely that my heart will be trashed and I will die when I’m young. If we pollute the atmosphere, then global warming WILL happen. There will be floods in certain countries, crops will fail, people will die. If we choose to organise our societies so that we don’t pay a fair price for certain commodities, then some countries will be poor, there will be famine and disease.

We know what the ‘rules’ are, if we choose to flout them, then God doesn’t always intervene. Even tiny things, like germs, follow the rules of science. If water is contaminated, people get sick. If cells are subject to whatever causes cancer, then cancer will develop. It is like driving the car at a wall, perhaps without even knowing it but the conclusion will be the same.

So, is there any point to prayer? Well actually, I think yes, there is. Prayer doesn’t ‘work’ in that we cannot manipulate God by praying. But it is still effective. Since writing this I have worried about publishing it, that it might stop someone praying. Don’t stop. I know that prayer is important, I just want people to understand a little more about what it is not. It is important because of this: Prayer changes us. God wants us to pray because that is how we connect with him, that is how we include him in our lives and that is important.

When my children were tiny, I used to love when they sat on my knee and told me things. I remember my daughter sitting on my lap, swinging her legs and telling what she wanted for Christmas. It involved a lot of chocolate. That much chocolate would have made her ill, so I didn’t give it to her. But I loved that she told me, that she shared her hopes with me. My son wanted a crocodile – a real one. He didn’t get that either. But it wasn’t because I didn’t care, it was because I did. I knew things that they didn’t. But I wanted them to tell me, it helped to form a relationship, one that we still have now. They are grown up now but I still love when they tell me things and because they did when they were small, they continue to now they are grown. (My daughter still wants chocolate…)

God loves us like that. He wants us to bring ourselves to him. Not in the hope we can manipulate him, not for what we can ‘get’, but because he wants to share in our lives. Plus, as I said, praying changes us. We start to hear God, to change what we want so it is in line with his will. Praying changes us, it can also change others. Sometimes he does want us to pray for something physical to change, sometimes even a miracle, something that breaks those laws of science. If we aren’t used to talking to him, listening to him, we will never be changed to pray how he wants us to.

The issue is rather confused by the verses in the Bible that say things like, “Ask and you will receive,” and “whatever you ask in prayer you will receive.” Some people have used them to encourage people to pray for money, comfort, health. But they must be read in context. They are part of the whole and the whole says that God will only give us good things. Unlike us, God is outside of time, God sees the eternal picture. We might long for good health, but perhaps there are things that we can only learn if we are in pain. We might pray for a parking space but perhaps walking in the rain means we will meet and speak to someone who needs to be spoken to. We might pray for a life to be saved but God knows that that life will be safer with him, it is time for them to leave their body, to die. We might pray to be free from an addiction but perhaps God knows that constantly fighting that will help us to depend on him.

It is all about trust. Yes, we should ask, take all our desires to God. But to teach that God gives us what we ask for is misleading. Sometimes that is not what is best and God only gives what is best. I don’t write this lightly, I have lost people who I love, I know what it means to have constant pain. Trust is not easy. Life is not easy. Prayer makes it better.

Sometimes, God does act as we ask. As King David said, “Who knows whether the Lord will be gracious?” Whether this is because God, who is not restricted by time, knows from the beginning of time what our prayers will be or because he directs us to pray for what he intends to give, or because he listens and acts, I don’t know. I don’t need to know. We are just told to pray and to trust that God’s way is best. So much easier to write than to do…..

Of course, asking for things is only one kind of prayer. It’s easy to forget about the others. They take a bit of effort and we prefer to pretend that we don’t have time. Perhaps because we don’t really believe they will do any good, alter us in a meaningful way. Or perhaps because we’re just lazy (I know I am.)

We should thank God for things. Not because he needs to hear our thanks but because (again) it is good for us, reminds us that God is good and he made good things.

There is also praise – this one we ignore mostly. Praise isn’t saying thank you, it is saying what, who, God is. It forces us to recognise his God-ness. Again, God doesn’t need us to praise him – he already knows who he is, but it helps us to remember, heightens our awareness of the different aspects of God. It helps us to know God.

Then there is saying we are sorry, actually voicing the things we have done wrong. Bit awkward that one, we would so much rather just ignore all our misdemeanors, move on quickly when we realise we’ve been bitchy or nasty or jealous. But that’s not good for us. What is good for us is to recognise those things, to actually say them aloud and to ask God to forgive us. Then we can move on, hurry away and not look back. But the confessing is important.

I think there is also listening involved. Being still and thinking about God but not speaking. Pausing for a minute. I find it’s better if I actually physically kneel down for this one. Otherwise I start planning meals and writing shopping lists. It would be embarrassing if someone spotted me, so I try to avoid being near a window, have to pretend I’ve dropped something if someone comes into the room, but I find it helpful. It is not very British but maybe we should do it more often. God never forgets that we are physical, I don’t know why we behave like our bodies don’t affect what we are doing spiritually.

In the Bible, when Jesus’ friends asked him how to pray, he gave them the Lord’s prayer (the ‘Our Father who is in Heaven’ prayer – the one you probably learnt as a child.) It is very simple. I used to find that frustrating, I felt Jesus hadn’t really answered their question, he had just given a very simple example. But maybe that is what we need. All this ‘understanding how prayer works’ stuff is very complicated. It is too big for me. Perhaps it is beyond what we can hope to understand, perhaps we have to just trust and come to God with the simplicity of a child going to a parent, to just say what we feel, whether that’s anger, confusion or happiness.

The second example of when I prayed earnestly for something (you thought I had forgotten, didn’t you!) was when I had to have surgery. I was terrified and I wanted God to be with me. I asked other friends to pray. I know that they did because they told me they did. When I walked into that operating room, God was so near that I could have reached out and touched him. The whole time I was in hospital, I was aware of God like I never have been before. His presence was tangible, solid, real. Was he there because I prayed and if I hadn’t prayed I would have been lonely? Or would he have come anyway? I don’t know. I can only tell you that I prayed and God was there. God knows that we are better, happier, more complete, if we depend on him. Prayer is the beginning of learning how to do that.

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“I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”


“I don’t have to go to church to be a christian”

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     Sometimes, people ask, “Do I have to go to church to be a Christian?” The short answer is clearly, “No.” I am a Christian, I have a relationship with a living God and if I were stranded on a desert island or in a country that did not allow churches, then I would still have that relationship with God. I would still be a Christian. However, the answer is not complete if left there.

     I think we first need to think about why you might ask that question. Imagine a teenaged boy describing his friendship with a girl. What if he said, “She invites me round and I go because she cooks nice food. But I tell her before I go, ‘I will come but we’re not going to talk’, so I don’t have to speak to her when I’m there. She doesn’t seem to mind.”? Frankly, that is appalling! We should not treat other people like that! Now compare that to how you might be treating God. Understand this, God likes you. He wants to have a friendship with you. That involves some effort on both sides.

     Maybe we first need to think about what is a Christian. What makes someone a Christian? “Ah,” you might say, “Well, I believe in God.” Let’s look at that for a minute. I have been reading the book of James in the Bible. I love that book – he is so rude to people! I’m sure you know that Mary gave birth to Jesus (what we celebrate every christmas) but you may not realise that after she had Jesus, she and Joseph then had other children. One of these was James. He grew up with Jesus and yet it is thought that for a while he didn’t believe that Jesus was special. There is even a story about Jesus preaching to people and his family coming to try and stop him because they thought he was crazy! That gives me hope, when I get things wrong I know that so did the people who wrote the Bible but they had a second chance at getting it right. Later, James did come to believe what Jesus was saying and at some point he wrote his book. In that book, he discusses what it means to be a Christian and he talks about people who say they believe in God. First he says, “Well done!”

     Few people would dispute that just as there are good things in the world, so too there are evil influences. In the Bible these are called demons or Satan. Now, when people tell James that they believe in God, he says, “Well done.” He then adds (a little sarcastically perhaps) “So do the demons!” You see, the Bible is very clear that these evil forces believe in God and are terrified of him because they recognise his power. Clearly demons are not Christians, so there must be more to being a Christian than just believing that God is real.

     Think about when your computer freezes. Something has gone wrong, nothing works properly and pressing ‘escape’ or ‘control and delete’ makes no difference. Sometimes, the only option is to shut it down and restart. Well, that is what becoming a Christian is. It is realising that we’ve made a mess of things, something is not working properly and we need to restart. You have a ‘restart’ button, you just need to ask God to press it for you! It really is that easy.

     There is nothing that you can do to make things right with God, you are not big enough, clever enough or good enough. So God did it all. He became a human (in the form of Jesus) and he died and was separated from the God bit of himself, which means that we don’t have to. Jesus rose up from the dead (what we celebrate at Easter time) to show that he is stronger than death, that everything is sorted out for us. We just have to ask God to press that ‘restart’ button to set us right.

     Actually, this can be quite hard to do. We like to be in control, we like to think that what we do makes a difference, that somehow we can become good enough for God. Well, I have to tell you, the Bible is very clear, there is nothing that you can do to be acceptable to God. You are not good enough. So God did it for you. You do have to be prepared to accept that gift though, you do have to want that ‘restart’ button to be pressed. If life is going well for you, that can be a bit scary. We are worried that it means loss of control, that we wont be ourselves anymore. Let me remind you of what I said at the beginning: God likes you. Really, he does! He doesn’t want you to become a different person, just a better version of yourself.

     You don’t have to be a ‘bad’ person to need God. Everyone needs him. I have travelled to lots of different countries, met rich people and poor and I can honestly tell you, people are people wherever you go. I have stayed at the Savoy Hotel and been driven to St James’ Palace in a fleet of silver mercedes to have dinner with Prince Charles (this is due to who I married, nothing to do with me, in case you are mistaken into thinking I am great in any way.) I have also stayed in a mud hut in Zambia with a couple who were HIV positive. I have visited China, Singapore, Dubai, India, Italy, America and most of Europe and there is one thing that I can tell you. People are the same. They might be culturally very different, but deep down, we all want the same things, we all love, we all have fears, we all make a mess of things. We all need God. It is that simple.

     So, what comes next? After we have admitted that actually we might not be perfect and we want to include God in our lives, what do we have to do now? Well, you do not have to do anything (including go to church.) However, if you really have ‘restarted’ (and not just said the words to yourself as a sort of magic chant or insurance policy), if you really do want to include God in how you live, then that will make a difference to how you live.

     A baby is alive after he’s born, but he doesn’t grow into a healthy child and adult unless he eats and exercises. So, just as we need to spend time with people and chat with them to develop a friendship, so too we need to spend time with God. No, this still does not have to involve going to a church! We chat with God by praying (saying things to him, either out loud or thinking them in our heads.) We listen to God by paying attention to our consciences, reading the Bible (where he has given us lots of hints about what he is like) and by listening to other christians. Ah, now we get to the church bit. How can you listen to other Christians, hear their story and share yours, if you never meet any?

     It is a bit like supporting a football team. I can say I support Crystal Palace. I can buy a scarf that’s the right colour, I can check the results in the newspaper, I can even watch a match on television. But it would be hard for that knowledge to touch my emotions. However, if I attend one of their games, if I stand with other supporters and cheer when they score, then just the volume and shared excitement will begin to affect me. I am helped along by other fans’ enthusiasm and I actually feel part of what I say I am involved with. It is hard (and a bit boring) to be a football fan in isolation. It is the same with being a Christian.

     “What constitutes a church?” you might ask. Does it need to be in an Anglican Church building or does the church that meets in my local school count? Well, if we look back at the Bible, a ‘church’ was actually just a group of people who believed the same thing. The first Christians were actually thrown out of their synagogues (the equivalent of our church buildings) and tended to meet secretly in houses. A church is not the building, it is the people. Sometimes buildings can be helpful. I cannot stand in a huge cathedral like St Paul’s without thinking about God, all the architecture has been designed to make me feel like that. However, the building is not essential. Three people meeting in a field to talk about God, to pray and study the Bible together; that is a church.

     Some people might say they don’t need God, they are wrong. I think this is why Jesus talked about it being hard for a rich person to know God. When we are healthy and comfortable it can be hard to acknowledge that we need God, we think we are ‘okay actually’. Some people think they are too bad to know God, they are wrong too. God is able to press the ‘restart’ button for murderers, thieves, adulterers and even that nasty gossip from down the road! The Bible calls all that ‘sin’, but it’s not a word that tends to crop up at the dinner table so I have tried to avoid using it. None of us is good enough, certainly I’m not. That’s another reason for going to a church – it will help you to realise that you are not the only bad person who God likes!

    Have you ever read ‘Screwtape Letters’ by C.S. Lewis? If not, buy a copy. It’s a brilliant book, very funny but with some really poignant truths included. He talks about all the strange and ordinary people who attend church.

    “Ah,” you might say, “But churches are religious. I am a Christian but I don’t believe in religion. Religion just causes trouble, look at all the wars that have been started by religion.” You are half right. Religion does cause trouble. That is why Jesus did not start a new religion, he just pointed people to God. He refused to set down lists of rules, he just gave people principles to live by. When churches start making lots of rules, when they are more concerned with religion than with God, then they are missing the point. Christianity is meant to be about relationship, not rules.

     I am often told that “church is boring.” Yes, sometimes it is. If it always is, then maybe you are going to the wrong church. I would also ask you, when you go to church, what are you expecting to get out of it? If your answer is “nothing” then you are probably right, you probably will get nothing from attending. However, if you dare to go hoping that you might hear God speaking to you, then that is much more likely to happen. Sometimes it is something the speaker says, sometimes it’s something in the reading that week, or a hymn that’s sung, or even what the person giving out the hymn books says, but usually, if we expect God to speak, we hear him. I would also say that just like a growing baby, we grow in faith very slowly. Sometimes it is much later that we remember something that was said in church and it helps us. But if you weren’t there, you wont hear it.

     If church is a collection of people, then try to find a church which has people like you in it. If you are a teenager, try to find where other teenaged Christians meet. If you are a retired person, then try to find somewhere that older Christians meet. If a church caters for all ages that is wonderful but in my experience it is rare.

    Do we have to go to church on Sundays? I guess not. If you attend a school Christian Union or something similar, then that is really just another form of ‘church’. We are advised though that we need one day a week that we keep as a holy day, a day to rest and where thinking about God is part of our routine (I think God knew how bad we would be at including him, so suggested that it should become part of our schedule!) That is hard to do if we attend ‘church’ on a week day.

    What about other religions? To be honest, I don’t know. As I said, christianity is all about that ‘restart’ button, about including God in your life and having a relationship with him. I don’t know if people can find God in other religions. I do have a sneaky suspicion that when I get to Heaven there will be a lot of people there who I wasn’t expecting! Whether or not people have a relationship with God is between them and God.

    What about Hell? Again, this is something that I don’t know much about about. If being with God makes us complete and fulfilled then I guess Hell must be the opposite of that. Sometimes people ask about who goes to Hell and what about people who try but never knew God. I cannot say, that is between them and God. But the Bible is pretty clear that if people decide that they don’t want to include God when they are physically alive, then God will respect that after they have died. That’s what free will and choice is all about, even if it means terrible consequences.

    So, have a think and decide what you believe. If you haven’t ever asked God to press the ‘restart’ button in your life, maybe now is a good time to do so. There aren’t any magic words, God is God, not a genie in a bottle! You might say something like:

   “God, I believe that you are real. I know that I make mistakes and I’m sorry. Please will you forgive all the things that I’ve done wrong. Please be part of my life. I want you to be my God.”

    Then, you should tell someone. We are physical beings and telling someone will help you to believe what you have done and not forget about it. Then go and find some other christians! In England you could look for somewhere that runs an Alpha course (they tend to be churches that welcome new Christians.)

    Do you have to go to church if you are a Christian? Not unless you want to grow……