All-Age Zoom Lent Course

I wrote an All-Age Lent course last year, and several churches were in the middle of trialling it when the pandemic hit. I’ve adapted it for Zoom and you can download it below.

A few notes – these are also included in the download:

  1. Each week, there is storytelling, and then a choice of response activity. Each response activity will be in a different breakout room. Some of the response activities require having various resources – these have been chosen to be fairly cheap and easy to get. HOWEVER, in the introductory section of the course, there is an idea for an ALTERNATIVE for churches for whom making up resource packs every week for different activities would be asking too much.
  2. You will need to be familiar enough with Zoom to be able to put people into breakout rooms manually and not just automatically, to be able to share a screen and share computer sound, to instruct people on Speaker vs. Gallery view, and to feel comfortable reading a book with pictures, using the webcam.
  3. There are safeguarding issues around children being present on Zoom. A link is included in the document to the Church of England’s accessible and straightforward guidance on best practice. Please do read and follow it.

Download the Lent Course here:

Storytelling on Zoom/YouTube, part 2

Now we’ve looked at the props that can be helpful, how do you set up and start doing online storytelling? Much of my approach is a similar ethos to Godly Play, and may be familiar to practitioners of it – however, a lot of what I do is adaptable for different styles of worship.

The Space

I’ve found my videos fall into two main categories – stories and discourses. For stories, you need a setting and characters and events. You’re basically creating a stage. For discourses (eg Matthew 25:31-46, the video for which can be seen here), you’re using images and symbols to illustrate words spoken by Jesus or a prophet. For these, you may just want a circle of fabric, and lay out different objects on it.

An example of a layout for a “discourse” text – the Beatitudes, for All Saints Day in Year A. Items are added one by one as the narrator goes through the reading.

I’ve used different spaces around my flat and garden for filming. During Ordinary Time, I used a green tray to show the colour of the season (the removable top of an IKEA tray table, available here) but at other times, I’ve tried to replicate a landscape more realistically. For parables involving plants, I’ve sometimes gone out to my garden.

The landscape I set up for the Easter story, with basic materials, early in the first lockdown.

On Zoom, the storytelling space needs to be near where you’re sitting for the session, and you’re generally using a webcam instead of a camera to capture it. For this, I’ve set up a shoebox next to me on the table, and covered it with a white cloth. I’ve placed plain cardboard behind the shoebox, and held the cardboard in place with rocks behind it – basically, creating a mini stage. I’ve then brought a table lamp over beside it. Then, at story time, I’ve turned the camera and manipulated the figures on this stage.

With Zoom, you also have to be aware of interruptions. Having a different “storytelling stage” and encouraging participants to switch to speaker view and mute themselves until wondering time, can help reinforce the “set apart” nature of storytelling time and help them enter more fully into the story.

If you don’t live alone, you have more options, as long as one of your household members is willing to play production assistant and/or camera operator.

The Structure

Consistency and familiarity are key here, for two reasons. One, children enjoy ritual and repetition, and it helps learning. Secondly, if I’m re-inventing the wheel every week, it’s more stressful for me.

I’ve structured my videos as follows:

  1. I begin every story video by lighting a candle and saying “we begin by lighting our candle, to remember God’s light is with us, wherever we are.”
  2. Then, if there’s any context needed for the story, I give it. This means reminding children where this story fits in the broader sweep of the Biblical narrative, or else introducing a new season of the church year and therefore a new focus of the stories. For example, the video from Advent 1)
  3. Then I tell the story. I try to keep it simple, but without sacrificing richness.
  4. We spend some time wondering about the story – this means the story can be interactive, even though it’s virtual, and children’s thoughts and reflections are valued.
  5. Finish by blowing out the candle.

Depending on your skills and preferences, you may want to include movement, or singing, or something else, as part of your structure. And of course you can tweak it as you go. But I’ve found keeping a fairly consistent format works well – people know what to expect, it feels like church, and I don’t have to start from scratch every week.

Timing

I try to keep the story to four or five minutes and the wondering questions to around two minutes, so the videos are 6 – 7 minutes total. Assuming people are pausing the video to respond to the wondering questions, this means the story and reflections will take 10 – 15 minutes. This is designed to fit well within a half-hour family service, or a full all-age Eucharist.

Do you have any top tips, or experiences to share? Let me know in the comments!

Storytelling on Zoom/YouTube

I’ve spent the last ten months making weekly storytelling videos for YouTube (you can find them all here) and so I’m thinking I’ll do a few blog posts about things I’ve learned.

A few caveats –

First of all, the videos I’ve made have been pre-recorded. I’ve done a bit of live storytelling over Zoom with children present, but not a huge amount. Making something pre-recorded is different from doing it live.

Secondly, I’m fairly comfortable with the writing/language part of it – sometimes I use a script (we have the Beulah Land and Godly Play scripts and I can send these to you if you’re in the Diocese), and sometimes I’ll use the text from a children’s Bible, but in general I’m happy reading a Bible passage, making a few notes, and then improvising turning the text into a story that’s accessible to children, trusting that I can make the language and the story arc work. If that’s something you struggle with, and you have big questions on “how do I even connect with children,” that’s a bigger post that I haven’t quite got planned yet.

But the first thing – and the subject of this post – is, what do you need?

Spot the Production Assistant.

There are lots of Bible storytelling videos out there that use Lego, so if you have a lot of Lego, that’s a good starting point. But I found myself stuck at home last March, suddenly having to use only what I had to hand. Here are the things I’ve used over and over, which form a good basis for most stories. I store them all in a basket under my desk, so I can just get them all out at once and put them all back easily when I’m done.

  1. A fairly neutral olive wood Nativity set. I use one of the Kings for Jesus, the Mary figure is many female characters, the other Kings, shepherds, and Joseph take on other roles, and also “the crowd” as needed. If you have a second, smaller set (I happen to have one), it’s very useful for providing “children.” The sheep, cow, and donkey provide generic animals for stories and backgrounds. A more realistic Nativity would be recognisably, and specifically, those characters. A neutral wood or stone one provides more flexibility.
  2. Plain fabric for creating backgrounds and landscapes. White, blue, green, and brown. I use a blue shawl which is dip-dyed and therefore has shifting blue on it, which makes lovely water. The white can be ripped up to make tablecloths and, for the Lazarus/Easter story, gravebands. You can spread them across tables to create the ground or hang them from walls/over radiators to create sky. My living room was already painted blue, which was lucky, so I can use my wall as the sky.
  3. Wooden blocks. For building houses, walls, and tables.
  4. Play-doh or Plasticine. For making small versions of things like food.
  5. A small plant in a pot. Again, for landscapes – lots of stories have trees in them. Wrap fabric around the pot to blend it into the landscape.
  6. A collection of rocks and shells. It’s astonishing, when you start looking at it, how many stories have references to stones in them. They also create landscape detail, and you can use them to mark out roads and paths for your characters to travel – the Nativity story, the Prodigal Son, etc.
  7. A bird. I use a dove Christmas tree ornament. Useful for stories where the Spirit appears, but also as a symbol to add to a layout when Jesus is talking about peace.
  8. Generic-looking coins. Useful for a lot of parables.
  9. A candle. Again, useful for stories where the Spirit shows up as fire, but also to light and extinguish to mark the beginning and end of a story or session.
  10. A sense of humour. My cats have wandered into the shot sometimes and I’ve kept going, or they’ve started yowling and I say “I think he has something to say about the story!” I’ve knocked figures over, set fabric on fire, and made my phone shut down due to overheating by holding it over a candle while filming.
  11. A moveable light. Helpful for obvious reasons.
  12. A phone stand. I’ve been holding the phone with one hand and moving figures with the other for ten months, and it’s ridiculous. I’m going to buy one of these, which I should have done ages ago.

With this fairly basic set of props, you’ve got the building blocks of most stories. Yes, you’ll occasionally find yourself having to track down “something to symbolise ‘I was a prisoner and you set me free'” (I used keys), but this is the “capsule wardrobe” of your storytelling kit.

Dealing with hard stuff with children

This is a topic I got asked about a lot, even before coronavirus.

So many Bible stories touch on topics of illness and death, injustice, violence, and loss. How do we address these topics with children? And now, when illness and death, injustice, loss, disappointment, uncertainty, anxiety, and so much more have become more a part of our children’s daily lives than we wished, what do we do, as church leaders?

It feels false simply to cheerlead them through sessions about how happy we are because God loves us. In normal times, many children’s lives are not simple, straightforward, and happy, but now even the safest and most secure child is dealing with a world that may seem scary and chaotic. So we can’t just pretend everything is okay. But we don’t want to make things worse, or offer just doom and gloom. And of course it’s all harder in that much of this is happening over Zoom, instead of in person.

Here are a few tips from my own experiences. Please do add your own thoughts in the comments.

  1. Create space for conversation. Don’t fill the whole session with activities – allow room for discussion. Children will be bringing things to your session; experiences, questions, thoughts, and so on. Make room for that.
  2. Make the conversation open-ended and safe. Establish ground rules – “everyone’s ideas are okay.” This may mean you create a system for taking turns on Zoom (raising hands, reaction buttons) and you can make it routine that you mute yourself if you aren’t speaking. Use “I wonder …” questions. (“I wonder what your favourite part of the story was” / “I wonder what the most important part of the story was” / “I wonder what part of the story is for you” / “I wonder what Jesus’s friends felt when that happened” etc.)
  3. Use story. Often, people of all ages find it easier to talk about their own feelings if they have a story to talk about it through. Talking about how the characters feel, what the ending means, and so on, can help you talk about what’s going on in your own life, without revealing really personal stuff. A child who responds to the Baptism of Jesus story by saying “I liked when Jesus heard God’s voice, because maybe he’d been feeling really alone, but then he knew God was with him” may be saying something deeply personal, but because it’s done through the story, it’s easier to talk about. I’m making weekly story videos of the lectionary, which you can find here. If you’re dealing with a bereavement, I have a Pinterest board of children’s books about death, which can be found here.
  4. But also, allow children to process feelings in different ways. Some children will find it easier to express their emotions through drawing or making something. Some things I’ve done include, “make a Play-doh sculpture to show how the story made you feel,” “go find an object in your house that represents something that’s been sad or disappointing this year and we can pray about it,” and “draw what you’d like us to pray about.” Don’t force children to share their drawings/objects/etc if they don’t want to.
  5. Acknowledge emotions. We want to reassure children and make them feel safe, and this can sometimes lead us to dismiss what they’re feeling, if what they’re feeling is uncomfortable. If a child says “I feel like there’s no hope,” we want to instinctively say, “oh, I’m sure it isn’t that bad.” Unfortunately, that can lead the child to feel dismissed, and to trust us less. Acknowledging the feeling – “that sounds very hard. I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. Thank you for telling us. Has anyone else in the group ever felt that way? What did you do that helped?” can acknowledge the emotion as real, while also pointing the child to look for coping mechanisms.
  6. Keep it small – that’s where the power is. “Can you think of one thing that made you smile this week, and say thank you to God for it?” “Can you think of three things you’re grateful for?” “What’s one thing you can do this week to help somebody else?” All of us, but children especially, feel better when we’re able to feel useful and helpful and like what we do matters. Giving children opportunities to reflect on gratitude and small blessings, and then to think of what they can do to make a difference, can be very helpful. This can be a way to close your prayer time.

Do you have any other thoughts on how to acknowledge difficult times and support children’s emotional wellbeing? Please share them in the comments!

Opening for Advent worship – lamentation

I wrote this as part of a longer all-age piece, which never ended up going anywhere. This was intended to be done with 5 teenagers as the readers, and one cantor.

Many churches open worship in Advent with the Advent prose. This takes 3 verses of that and intersperses it with words from the Hebrew scriptures that are a mixture of lamentation and cries for justice.

Doing it online may require recording it ahead of time, as some of the spoken words overlap, and this is difficult to do over Zoom. Each person can record their speaking or singing separately, and then you can mix them together. It can be used for all four Sundays in Advent – even if you’re meeting together in person again after the first – so one bit of work can then pay off for the whole season.

Cantor: Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness

All: drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness

Cantor: Be not wroth very sore, O Lord,

neither remember iniquity for ever:

the holy city is a wilderness:  Sion is a wilderness,  Jerusalem a desolation:

Our holy and our beautiful house where our fathers praised thee.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness

All: drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness

Reader 1: How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

Prophet 2: Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord?

    Awake, do not cast us off forever!

Why do you hide your face?

    Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

Cantor: Behold, O Lord, the affliction of thy people,

and send forth Him who is to come;

send forth the Lamb, the ruler of the earth,

from Petra of the desert to the mount of the daughter of Sion:

that He may take away the yoke of our captivity.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness

All: drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness

Reader 3: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

And are so far from my cries, and from the words of my distress?

Reader 4: A voice is heard in Ramah –lamentation and bitter weeping.

Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children,

    because they are no more.

Reader 5: On the willows of Babylon, we hung up our harps.

For there our captors asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

The following overlap, repeating, rising in speed and urgency:

Reader 1: How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever?

Reader 2: Lord, why do you forget our affliction and oppression?

Reader 3: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Reader 4: Lamentation and bitter weeping –

Reader 5: How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

When they finish, silence for a moment.

Cantor: Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, my salvation shall not tarry:

why wilt thou waste away in sadness?

why hath sorrow seized thee?

Fear not, for I will save thee: for I am the Lord thy God,

the Holy One of Israel, thy Redeemer.

Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness

All: drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.

All Hallows Eve on Zoom

You may want to have a party of some sort on All Hallows Eve with your families. You can send sweets to families for the parents and carers to give to their children, have an online pumpkin-carving competition, and more.

Here is a liturgy that you can do on Zoom as part of this. It takes about 20 minutes – 11 minutes of that is a film, a portion of Disney’s Fantasia that explores the journey from a scary night to the dawn of God’s light in the morning. It helps put All Hallows Eve in its context – yes, death and evil are real, and yes, the world can be a scary place. By dressing up as skeletons or ghosts or zombies, children take charge of those fears and, through play, achieve mastery of them. In the morning of All Saints Day, after we have confronted our fear of death through the symbols of All Hallows Eve, we are comforted by the reality that we do not become ghosts or zombies after death, but saints, given new life in God’s Kingdom by the one who has defeated death, and who invites us to follow him into new life with the saints who have come before us.

Once we’re in more normal times again, the liturgy can be easily adapted to be done in person, not over Zoom.

All Hallows Eve liturgy:

Approximately 20 minutes, on Zoom. Appropriate for ages 5 and up.

Leader: The night is far gone

All: the day is near.

Leader: Let us then lay aside the works of darkness

All: and put on the armour of light.

Leader: As the earth turns towards autumn, darkness and cold, and the year dies, we remember that all living things will die, and we face our fear of death. We may dress up as ghosts, or skeletons, or vampires, or zombies, in this dark autumn night. We play with spookiness, as we confront symbols of death and darkness. And we acknowledge that the world can be a scary place, and we need bravery and courage.

But we remember that death does not have the final word. The night of All Hallows Eve passes, and with it, the ghosts and skeletons and vampires and zombies. And the dawn breaks on the day of All Saints Day, when we can remember that after death, we become not ghosts or zombies, but saints. We remember that in the battle with death and darkness, we have on our side Jesus, who has fought death for us and won, and who invites us to follow him through death into new life that lasts forever in God’s Kingdom.

If you have a decorated pumpkin, you can light it now. Otherwise turn off all the lights except one, or turn off all the lights and light a candle.

SING:

On Zoom – participants mute themselves. Leader shares their screen and clicks the “share computer sound” box in the bottom left of the “share screen” popup. Everyone sings along at home.

He, Who Would Valiant Be.

OR

For All The Saints – missing a few verses.

Shorter version, but includes the “when the strife is fierce, the warfare long” verse that’s cut above, which may be pastorally needed this year.

Shorter version, with verses 1, 2, and 8 only.

WATCH:

Fantasia – Night on Bald Mountain / Ave Maria (11 minutes)

Wonder:

I wonder what your favourite part of that film was.

I wonder what the most important part of that film was.

I wonder where you are in that film.

I wonder where God is in that film.

I wonder how that music made you feel.

Turn on the lights again.

Leader: Let us remember the promises made at our baptism, or look forward to promises we may make when we are baptised.

Do you turn away from sin?

All: I do.

Leader: Do you reject evil?

All: I do.

Leader: Do you turn to Christ as Saviour?

All: I do.

Leader: Do you trust in him as Lord?

All: I do.

Leader: With the help of the saints who have run the race of life before us, and who now rejoice in the new life of Christ, let us go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

All: Amen!

A liturgy for admission to communion

This is the liturgy I wrote for admitting children to communion – a church recently asked for one, and that made me realise I’d never put it up on the blog! So here it is – I hope it’s helpful.

We do this right before the Eucharistic Prayer. Children come up at the offertory and stand in a line along the chancel. They stay there throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, so they can see, up close, the elements being prepared, and be a part of it. Then at the invitation to communion, they move down to the altar rail and are the first of the congregation to receive.

We usually gave them a small gift along with their certificate – sometimes it was a book about the communion service (Pray Sing Worship, from SPCK – currently out of stock, sadly), sometimes it was a good children’s Bible, sometimes a cross or icon or a carving or a piece of stained glass to hang. During the preparation classes, we practiced putting down things you were holding so you could use your hands to receive the bread.

The Liturgy:

My dear friends in Christ, today we come together in special joy as we see these children join us as regular sharers in the most holy, sacred, and wonderful mysteries of communion.  A warm welcome therefore to you all, especially if you have come to see N, N, and N, as they reach this stage in their journey of faith.

The priest addresses the children:

In baptism, you were made members of Christ’s family.  You come to us now as members of that family.  Today you will share with us that meal which he commanded his friends to remember on the night before he died, and which he gives to us as a sign of his living presence among us. 

N, N, and N.  Jesus calls you by name, and invites you to his table.  Do you wish to be admitted to Holy Communion, and share regularly in this sacred meal?

The children reply: I do

The priest addresses the congregation:

Will you welcome these children as communicant members of Christ’s family, and support them with your friendship and prayers?

All: With the help of God, we will.

The priest addresses the parents and carers:

Will you help these children to grow in faith and come to confirmation?

Parents and carers: With the help of God, we will.

The priest prays for the children:

Lord Jesus Christ, you said that we should all become as little children.

We pray today for these children as they receive bread and wine for the first time in your name.        Give them such a sense of the mystery of your body and blood that they may know your presence in their hearts and day by day grow to be more like you.    Amen.

The priest gives each child their certificate of admission to Holy Communion, addressing them by name:

In the name of God, I welcome you, N., to the sacrament of Holy Communion.  

May God bless you as you continue with us on your journey of faith. 

The children remain on the chancel for the Eucharistic prayer.

Churchyard Prayer Trail for All Saints/All Souls/Remembrance

Many people have used churchyards more during the pandemic, as a way of getting outside, getting exercise, or finding a place of peace.

These prayer stations are designed to encourage people who may not attend church, or pray much, to use your churchyard for spiritual reflection, and become familiar with the season of All Saints, All Souls, and Remembrance. They can be used be people of all ages.

There is a sign for the entrance to your churchyard and then there are four stations:

  1. All Hallows Eve – confronting our fears
  2. All Saints – remembering those whose lives inspire us in faith
  3. All Souls – remembering our own beloved dead
  4. Remembrance – honouring the sacrifice of those in war, and praying for peace

These can be put anywhere around your churchyard that is appropriate. However, one suggested way is:

  1. All Hallows Eve – by graves that have imagery (angels, skulls, cherubs, etc) to explore
  2. All Saints – by something with a saint’s name on it (your church’s sign, or a statue, if you have one)
  3. All Souls – a memorial bench
  4. Remembrance – a commonwealth war grave, or your war memorial (if outdoors)

What do I need?

The stations can primarily stand on their own without resources. However, you will need to laminate the pages so they’re waterproof, and, if possible, provide the following and ensure they’re checked and topped up regularly as needed:

  1. A basket of stones, to go by the sign at the entrance
  2. Rosemary and myrrh for the fourth station (these can be in waterproof plastic containers – you may want to provide hand sanitizer here as well)
  3. There is a space on the third prayer station for you to add a sticker with contact details for someone to talk to about bereavement

Download the stations here:

Crib Service on Zoom

This was both a wonderfully joyful and creative, and heartbreaking thing to write. If you’re thinking of using it, you may feel the same.

If you want to skip straight to the downloads, which really contain all you need, go right to the end of this post.

If you want to ease yourself in with some information (most of which is repeated in the downloads), so you have some idea of what’s going on before you wade in, read on:

The service is designed to last about half an hour. There is an opening section with a brief prayer, and some text from John 1, followed by the Christmas story in three parts (Annunciation, Nativity, Shepherds), and then closing prayers which everyone participates in.

There are also Christmas carols. Notes are included on singing – you’ve probably done singing over Zoom already yourself. I’ve found the best way is to find a version of the hymn on YouTube, and have everyone mute themselves and sing along. With the voices on YouTube, you don’t feel like you’re the only one singing, as you would with an instrumental backing track. I’ve included links to YouTube videos of each hymn, but if you have a choir, you may wish to have them do recordings – just remember to add lyrics to the video so people can easily sing along.

Anyone who wants to is encouraged to draw along with the service and share their drawings (or Play-doh sculptures, or whatever) on the church’s social media page. You may want to have a specific album for them to share to – you can put the link to that in the chat.

Children are also encouraged to come to the service dressed as a character from the Nativity story – they will join in the prayers at the end based on what they’re dressed as – eg all the Maries read one bit, all the shepherds read another. If you have non-readers, you may want to do “repeat after me” with the prayers.

The stories are told using PowerPoint presentations – these are available to download in this post along with the order of service. In two of the PowerPoints, there’s something to discuss at the end, so people can join in and share their thoughts with each other.

Families can also be encouraged to create a “Prayer Space” by their computer – with a nativity set, or decorations, or anything they like. Everyone will need a candle (or an LED candle, or string of lights, or something like that). If you know a family doesn’t have one, and can’t access one, do find a way to provide one for them.

Here is everything you need for the service:

Here are the three stories you’ll need:

And here are the closing prayers that everyone joins in on:

War memorials

With Remembrance Day coming up, one activity children can do at home is to design a war memorial. They can use whatever materials they have at home – items from the recycling bin, play-doh, Lego – whatever you have. These can then be photographed and sent into church and collected in a Facebook album.

Encourage them to think about the following questions:

  1. How would you want people to feel as they look at your memorial?
  2. What shape do you want your memorial to be? Do you want there to be words? Pictures?
  3. Who do you think might visit this memorial? Soldiers who have been in wars? Families of people who have died? People who are praying for peace?
  4. Could there be an interactive element to your memorial? A place for people to leave names, or prayers, or draw or write something? Will your memorial have moving parts to it?
  5. Where is God in all this?

A few memorials for inspiration:

Does your church have a war memorial? Can you visit it?

The “Animals in War” memorial in Hyde Park, London

The Vietnam War memorial in Washington DC (includes a video about the design)

7 Unusual War Memorials (includes the street plaques in St Albans)

Another list from the same blog, of 9 more unusual memorials.