Four questions for All Age Worship
- and one church's attempt to answer them...
When my three children were small, I used to take them along to the family service in our local village church.
They were always welcomed warmly, but I felt they were expected to act like the children in this photo.
They needed to sit quietly in their seats and follow the service sheet, which was a simplified form of morning prayer.
In this idealised photo even the two year old can manage it!
The reality, of course, was very different.
My children squirmed and fidgeted. I hushed, glared and distracted. I took along a supply of books, raisins, biscuits and quiet toys to keep them occupied but in the end I felt that as long as they were quiet and did not disturb anyone that was all that mattered. On one occasion they even built a den out of the hassocks...
It certainly wasn't worship...
When a small team was given the opportunity to make changes to our family service, we were very clear about the kind of changes we would like to see.
Looking back it seems that underlying these changes were four questions. At first they were implicit, but over the years we have become much more explicit about what we are doing and why we are doing it.
1 What opportunities are we offering children, young people and adults so that they can engage in worship?
In the beginning
When the children were present we wanted them to be involved. Our original question was "What will the children be doing at this point in the service?"
If the answer was sitting still and listening for long periods we rethought what we did.
We gave them instruments to play during the hymns and introduced a children's Bible reading. When they were in church throughout the service we involved them in presentations and drama.
Here a two year old is holding a pumpkin as part of a presentation on Creation.
Our All Age Services are held in the round so that children (and adults) can easily see all that is going on.
Much of the service is done visually and symbolically – for example we may use stones and water during the confession and the children light candles during the statement of belief. (See Worship Services for other ideas.)
The children still have instruments or ribbons to wave during the songs and the younger ones often dance during the singing.
The words of the liturgy may be simplified, but they are not simplistic, and so can be said with integrity by both children and adults.
2 How does our worship nurture the spirituality of children, young people and adults and bring them closer to God?
In the beginning
Several of us had done a course "Light out of Darkness" by Sister Kathleen O' Sullivan, which has a strong emphasis on prayer and developing spirituality.
"What can we do to encourage everyone, children and adults to pray?" asked one of the team.
Our solution at the time was to make a prayer tree.
When we began we found that it was only the children who wrote prayers. But our vision was that any member of the congregation would feel free to write and share a prayer for the tree.
This took time but now we take it for granted that both adults and children may choose to write or draw prayers that will be read out (or shown) and placed on the tree.
As time went on we thought of other ways to nurture children's and adult's spirituality.
In particular we focussed on the multi-sensory and symbolic aspects of worship.
We often have a visual focus at our All Age Worship. The one pictured here, which included a fishing net, beach and sandals, was for the story of Jesus calling his disciples.
At one service a month we use interactive prayer stations with play and prayer activities. (See Prayer Stations.) The prayer stations may also include smell, taste and touch as well as a visual focus.
3 Do we see children as part of our worshipping community? How does their experience of church reflect this?
In the beginning - and now
It takes a whole church to nurture a child...
In some ways this is the hardest question to answer. I take it for granted that the children are seen as part of our worshipping community. But are they? How many people welcome our children by name as they do the accompanying adults?
During the story or presentation the children's ideas and comments are given the same respect as an adult's. The children may offer insights into the story that have been missed by the adults. Adults and children discussing and reflecting together is not something that has happened overnight, it is still a work in progress.
Even the youngest baby can be seen as part of the church: A year with Penelope was written when I realised just how much baby Penelope was involved in our worship - "the child in the midst".
4 How does what we offer enrich everyone's knowledge and understanding of the Christian faith, including the Biblical narrative, and help them on their own journey of faith?
In the beginning
Our first solution was to take the children and young people out of the service and to provide age appropriate material on the same theme as the adults. This worked fairly well especially when we discovered Godly Play and Young Children and Worship and began to use these with the children. However, none of our small rural churches has much space that can be used for children's groups and noise can also be a problem...
These days everyone is together for the presentation and often for the Bible reading.
The presentations may be a Godly Play story or a reflection that uses pictures, symbols and objects. The questions are open which means children and adults can each access them at their own level.
In both services the children have a brief time out.
At one service they have time for a creative response and at the other they visit prayer stations.
During this time the adults have a talk or adult reflection and intercessory prayers. The adults too get an opportunity to visit the prayer stations and engage with the prayer and play activities.
Our All Age Worship has been evolving for many years – and is still doing so... Our focus for the past few years has been on engaging the children but as they get older we will need to find more ways of working with young people. In a few years time we may have come up with completely different ways of answering these questions!
with thanks to everyone who has been a part of the All Age Worship teams