Welcoming the stranger


EDITED: A few changes have been made to the documents, based on readers’ suggestions. Thank you so much – keep the great ideas coming!

Newcomers who aren’t familiar with what happens at church may be nervous and feel unsettled and conspicuous.

I’ve made some simple handouts that you can make available when people come to church.

There’s a version for younger children, with very simple language, and a version for older children and adults, with some more detail. The explanations in the version for older children and adults are designed to be autism-friendly.

There’s also a sheet you can fill in with details about your specific church – where the toilets are, what happens after the service, etc. – to help people feel at home in your building. This is included in the PDF file, but there’s an editable Word version as well, so you can type your explanations in, instead of having to handwrite them!

If there are any improvements you’d like to see, PLEASE do let me know! I want these to be genuinely useful, so I need to know if they’re not.

Please note: when filling in the “Our Church” sheet, avoid jargon!  For example, here are two ways to answer the question “what books or leaflets will I need for the service?”

WRONG: The hymnal will be used for the processional, gradual, offertory, and recessional hymns – the insert will be used for the Psalm. Today’s lectionary readings are found on the insert, while the rest of the congregation’s words for the Eucharist may be found in the seasonal service sheet for Epiphany.

RIGHT: The green book has the words for the songs in it. We call these songs “hymns.” The vicar will tell you what number to turn to for every hymn.  The words we all say together are found in the leaflet with the coloured cover – we use different colours at different times of year.  When there’s a Bible reading, the words for that are on the sheet with the red top that’s stuck inside the leaflet with the coloured cover. One of these readings is a song from the Bible called a Psalm, which we all sing together. If you get confused, feel free look over someone’s shoulder to see what they’re doing, or ask someone sitting near you.

What Happens At Church – both versions, plus Our Church info sheet (PDF)

Our Church (Word)


Why do we tell the story?

I’m working on my talk for our upcoming Storytelling training morning (June 11th at St. Luke’s, Watford – free! Talk to Julie to book your spot, by emailing youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org.)

Storytelling is central to so much of our work, and we often take it for granted. We talk about doing it well, but how often do we pause to think WHY we’re doing it in the first place?

And of course, our theology of storytelling – our thoughts on why we do it – will inform our practice.

These are some of my thoughts on the function of storytelling as part of worship and Christian nurture. Of course, many people will have elements of many of these – they’re not in direct competition with one another. But which ones are most important to you, and why, will probably affect which stories you tell, and how.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.storytelling

Stories pass on meaning.  Stories help us figure out the world and our place in it, the struggles of our lives, our relationships with one another, and – in Biblical storytelling – our relationship with God.  With this theology, the story becomes a gift or a road map – something you equip the child with to help them through their journey.  Central to this theology of storytelling is the idea that we each have to make that meaning for ourselves. We have to struggle with the story and figure out how to apply it to our lives. Storytelling based around this theology will strenuously avoid being didactic. It may focus on the struggles of Biblical characters, and of the whole people of Israel, more than their triumphs.  It will seek to address broad themes, such as belonging, loss, and salvation.

Stories create a group identity. When you come into a new organisation, you hear anecdotes about the people and events that have gone before, and by becoming familiar with these stories of the past, you become integrated into the group.  Storytelling that focuses on this theology may be focused on the stories of “the people” as a whole, rather than stories of individuals.  It may emphasise the historical elements of the stories more than the mythical.  It may focus heavily on the stories of the church since the time of Jesus, and on the saints, looking at the community of believers through the ages and our connections to them.  Part of creating this group identity is telling us where we come from – part of what binds the group together is the claiming of our shared history.  “This is who we are, because this is what’s happened to us.”

Stories create an individual identity.  One place in modern society where this function of storytelling is very obvious is in fan culture. By claiming a kinship to the story – be it Star Wars, Doctor Who, or The Hunger Games – a person makes that story a large part of their personal concept of themselves.  Storytelling that focuses on this theology may be very missional, seeking to change individuals’ concepts of themselves. It may focus very heavily on an individual becoming part of a particular subculture (like a “fandom” with fan fiction).  A personal testimony of salvation may be important to this kind of storytelling.

Stories explain our practice, both in our daily lives and in our worship.  This is rooted heavily in our Jewish ancestry. The Passover Seder is a good example of this – the night is designed to make children ask, “wait, what are we doing?” and providing parents with an opportunity to tell the Exodus story by way of an answer. This has become ritually enshrined in the Seder meal itself.  Joshua leaving the stones at the edge of the Jordan is another example of this – he specifically says, “these stones are left here to make children ask why, so that you can tell them this story.”  We see this in Christian worship most clearly at the Eucharist – in order to explain what we’re doing, the priest tells the story of the Last Supper, every time she or he celebrates Communion.  Storytelling based around this theology is similar to that based on the group identity, but links it specifically to a particular culture of worship.

Stories tell us who God is.  Think of how often God begins a discussion with his people by saying, “I am the Lord your God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who brought you out of Egypt …”  The Judeo-Christian God doesn’t take authority from abstract philosophical principles, but from a relationship – and a relationship is built on stories.  Storytelling based around this theology will focus very heavily on the character and nature of God, and his relationship with his people. It may focus on emotion and symbolism rather than facts.  The nature of the Trinity, and the ways of knowing God, will be central to this type of storytelling.

It’s important to note that storytelling serves almost all these same purposes within FAMILIES. Stories of your parents’ and grandparents’ lives provide a narrative of where you came from and a group identity, and stories that focus on particular family traits (“that Wilson sense of humour again!”) help family members build an individual identity that includes membership of that group as a dominant trait.  Stories of “why we always use real candles on our Christmas tree” or “why we always go to the same place for holiday” explain our practice.  When family members form new romantic relationships, telling the old family stories is a key part of bringing that person into the group and making them feel like they belong.  Storytelling in church is God’s family doing all these things.



Book review: The Art of Curating Worship

curating-worshipMark Pierson’s book is subtitled “reshaping the role of the worship leader.” Based on years of experience in ministry, including founding new churches and supporting artists, he proposes an approach to worship that is democratic, interactive, and based on the principle of “curation” – arranging items and experiences in a meaningful way, to create worship.

Given the way this book has been received, as revolutionary and groundbreaking, I was surprised by how familiar and traditional much of it seemed.  I suspect that’s because I’m Anglican, while Pierson’s audience is much more on the Baptist/Methodist side – much of what he suggests draws on ancient liturgical practices that Anglicans have never really discarded. But he does reframe them in a new and thoughtful way, and suggest useful guidelines for incorporating this particular type of worship planning into your community, whatever their style would be.

There is very little that is explicitly about children (and what is there is disappointing – he once suggests a separate “children’s station” during worship, with “colouring in, etc.”, rather than thinking about how a children’s element could be added to all the stations).  However, it’s easy to see how his principles could be applied to worship that includes children, given how rich, interactive, and multi-sensory his approach is. He also regularly reminds readers that the theology needs to come first – this is something that’s easy to forget in children’s ministry, as we latch on to a great new idea or activity without necessarily thinking first about what it says or why we’re using it (yup, guilty as charged!).

What Evangelicals might like: The focus on reaching out, being missional, engaging with public spaces, and trying bold new forms of worship.

What Traditionalists might like: The affirmation of the importance of ancient forms of liturgy, with inspirational thoughts on how to adapt them to modern times without losing their soul.

Pray and Play

Another wonderful Pray and Play corner, from St. Andrew’s, Bedford. Here’s what Children and Young People’s Activities Coordinator Becky has to say about it:

“There are some of the Lent calendars and some other worksheets/colouring and plain paper for the children to let their imaginations flow. Plus there are some stickers (they always love having stickers so I try to put some out every now and then, I have used some I got from The Word bookshop but the current ones are from Baker Ross with the words of faith).

“The activity bags are Bible story bags, like story bags you get in schools but each is Bible story. They contain a book of the story, some toys that can be used to act out the story and some colouring/worksheets relating to the story as well as a pencil case with colours, etc. I think the current stories in the bags are Jonah and the whale, that has a small plastic doll/figure, a whale toy and I think a boat, there is Moses in the bullrushes, with a small baby doll and basket, Daniel and the lion’s den, with a small doll/figure and small toy lions, David and Goliath, with a large figure (actually one of my sons old wrestling figures but with a tunic on!) and a small figure with a sling shot (that is actually one of the knee pads the wrestling figure used to wear!). I try to update them every now and then with different stories.

“I am also working on making I-spy treasure sensory bag toys with Bible themes (Google search I-spy treasure bags and look on images and you get the idea), these are Autism fidget toys but I think will work well with others too. I currently have collected everything I need to make Holy Week themed ones and one of the lovely ladies at our church is going to sew them for me. I will then work on other Bible stories/Christian symbols/Christmas ones for the rest of the year.”


Thy Kingdom Come

Now that Holy Week is over, it’s time to enjoy the 50 days of Easter and look towards Pentecost, celebrating the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York are inviting Christians around England to join in a week of prayer leading up to the day of Pentecost itself, 15th May.  They’re calling this week “Thy Kingdom Come,” and you can find out more on their website.  The week will culminate with “Beacon Events” around the country, mostly in cathedrals – the nearest one to most of the Diocese will be at St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, though for some parts of Bedfordshire, you may be closer to the Coventry one.

pray-and-play14Why not take that week to explore prayer with some of the children in your church, school, toddler group, lunch club … or even at home?  While the website doesn’t specifically include prayer resources for children in churches (!!!) they do include some ideas for children in schools, which could easily be used in church or other settings. Find them here.

You can also find great prayer ideas at Flame Creative Kids.

If you’d like to create a prayer space with your kids as part of this week, check out the Diocese’s Pinterest board of prayer space ideas.

Thy Kingdom Come suggests praying regularly for five friends – this is a great, concrete way of helping children start learning to pray, and they have some ideas here.

Don’t forget to register your church’s prayer activities on the Thy Kingdom Come website!  And do let me know how you get on, so I can share your experiences with others.


Let the children come to me.

When was the last time you went someplace that intimidated you?

Maybe it was a party where you didn’t know anyone except the host.

Maybe you were taking a toddler to a restaurant or a family wedding.

Maybe you were starting a course, and had to navigate a classroom and classmates for the first time in a while.

Whatever it was, can you remember how it felt to walk in? Can you remember some of the questions that went through your head?

What if nobody talks to me? What if I do something wrong, and obviously wrong, and everyone can see I don’t belong? What if my kid doesn’t behave? What if they need the toilet? Where will I put the pram? Will I know where to sit? Are there unspoken rules that I won’t know?

That’s what’s going through the minds of many young families as they come to church.  Just think of it – the service might be new and unfamiliar, the people are strangers, the atmosphere might be hushed and reverent (and they have a toddler!), and yet their desire to be a part of it, and for their child to know Jesus, is strong enough for them to brave crossing the threshold into your building.

And what happens next?

Do they find a place that puts their fears to rest? Or do they find a place that extinguishes whatever spark brought them there in the first place?

While no church is going to be the right fit for every family that visits once, there are some things you can do to help make new families feel welcome from the start.

  1. Have somebody in your welcome team every week whose job it is specifically to be there for children and families. They should know, by name, the children who come regularly, and greet them. They should know where the nappy changing facilities are, where Sunday School meets and when it starts (if you have Sunday School) and be able to inform parents of any special provision you have for kids – worship bags, a Pray and Play corner, etc.
  2. Have space available in the church for small children to move around. A toddler stuck in a pew will wiggle and make noise and it’s likely that without intervention, this will escalate to a point where the child will need to be taken out. This means the parent will miss part of the service AND feel self-conscious about their child’s behaviour. If you have a children’s corner in the church, parents can move there at the start of the cycle, and nip the escalation in the bud. Ideally, the children’s corner should have a sightline to the altar, and should be filled with spiritually imaginative toys, not secular ones. But if you have no money and all you have are Thomas the Tank Engine toys, start with that – it’s definitely better than nothing!
  3. Many parishioners who seem unwelcoming to children fit into one of two categories. Either there are pastoral reasons why the presence of young children is upsetting (for example, someone who desperately wanted grandchildren and is coming to terms with not having them) or they’re worried that the presence of children and families means the church is going to lose something they value and love, and that is important to them, spiritually (e.g. a strong choral music tradition, a sense of peace and tranquility). When you receive a complaint about the children “making noise,” try to find out what that parishioner is really saying, and minister to that. It may at times be necessary, however, to address the common unconscious belief that many people have – including parents – that children are, primarily, “visitors at an adult event,” who are welcome “as long as they behave.” This thinking causes some parishioners to resent every noticeable sign of the presence of children as taking away from “my” worship experience, and it also has the effect, when parents internalise it, of causing them to focus on getting their child to “behave” rather than helping them actually engage in worship.  This article on Whispering in Church is a brilliant starting point for helping parents engage children in worship rather than just try to get them to be quiet.
  4. Try and make sure that new families who stay after church for coffee talk to someone other than the vicar.  Research from the Christenings Project has shown that meeting even one parishioner other than the vicar significantly increases the chances of a family staying involved with the church. Maybe there are one or two people in your church who are very good at small talk and networking, and they can be unofficially “on duty” to welcome new people, find out a bit about them, and introduce them around.
  5. Does your church speak a different language?  Do you talk, during worship, about the chancel, the narthex, the legilium, the absolution, the sacrament, the Gospel, and the offertory without some indication, for newcomers, of what that all means?  When you say, “talk to Jo for tickets to our quiz evening,” does Jo stand up and wave, or is everyone expected to know who she is?  How user-friendly are your service sheets?  If aliens crash-landed into your service, would they leave knowing something about why you worship as you do and what it all means?  In other words – is the liturgy made for man, not man for the liturgy?
  6. And finally, but perhaps most importantly: what is the mood? Is your church confident in who they are, open to newcomers without feeling threatened by the possible changes they will bring, or are they closed-in and defensive?  If it’s the latter, how can you begin to change that culture?