All-Age Worship Ideas, Part 2

Today, my dears, we look at STORYTELLING.

In the standard Anglican Eucharist, there’s a looooong section of pretty talky stuff, from the end of the first hymn through to the end of the prayers.  That’s about 30-45 minutes of very verbal worship, including:

  1. Opening collect, confession, and absolution
  2. Three Bible readings of wildly varying length
  3. A sermon
  4. Intercessions, also of wildly varying length

Yes, there’s some music mixed up in there, but overwhelmingly, the expectation is “sit still and listen, and learn orally.”

Anything that can be done to break up this chunk of text is a good thing – not just for children, who, in general, have short attention spans and less social conditioning to hide their boredom, but for adults whose learning styles may vary just as much as children’s do.

Which is not to say that you need to jazz up your service with bouncy castles, a juggling act, interpretive dance, stand-up comedy routines, and a mariachi band, but rather, think about ways in which, while maintaining your church’s tradition, you can perhaps open up the liturgy a bit to some creative new ideas.

The easiest way to do this is by trimming down the Liturgy of the Word – possibly cutting one of the non-Gospel readings – and thinking about how to bring the main story of the day to life in a meaningful way.  Note: THIS IS NOT NECESSARILY THE GOSPEL!

Here are some of the things I’ve done – and some of the mistakes I’ve made. Learn from my failures!

Acting it out.

This is the same Pentecost service I featured in Monday’s post. The children had made flames on sticks in the same Sunday School session as making their doves, a week or two before Pentecost, and had also practiced acting out the story.  We had one final practice half an hour before the service started.  The right-hand picture shows them going out into the “streets of Jerusalem” and telling the congregation the good news – I gave them a line to use: “Jesus Christ is risen from the dead and he is Lord!” if they wanted to actually talk to people but didn’t know what to say.

I was the reader for this lesson, which meant I could pause and nudge them if they forgot what to do – and the general atmosphere was welcoming and informal. They weren’t being judged on a standard of performance; that’s not what this is about. This is about enhancing their understanding of the story through inhabiting it, and helping the adults in the congregation see it through fresh eyes. We’ve all done it – heard the first line of the lesson, gone, “oh, I know this story,” and spent the rest of the reading paging through the notices to find out when the garden party is. If there’s something to look at, something happening, adults are forced to actually pay attention to the story !

If you like, you can also act out the story with adults and children together. The Candlemas story is good for this – choose a matriarch and patriarch of the church to be Simeon and Anna, and teenagers to be Mary and Joseph. If you’re able to have a real baby, even better!

You can also do ad hoc performances, with very little rehearsal. The Moses story on Mothering Sunday is particularly good for this one – with a blue length of fabric and some active seven-year-olds to shake it, you have a river, and then you just need a baby doll in a basket, someone to be Moses’s mother and Miriam, someone to be Pharaoh’s daughter, and, if you have extras, you can have a group of Egyptians and tell them to order around a group of Israelites at the start to establish the social order.

Again, this is usually all done by miming – I don’t give the children lines to read (except for the Passion Play on Palm Sunday). I read the text of the lesson – when I’m directing an ad hoc performance, I’ll take a break, and, with a slightly less formal but still reverent tone, turn from the microphone and give instructions (e.g., “all right, now the Egyptians, you can pretend to hit and order around the Israelites – be careful to only pretend.”).  By keeping my tone elevated, I don’t detract from the importance of the story, or break the mood.

LEARN FROM MY FAILURE: If the story you’re acting out is the Gospel, you’ll need to have the congregation sit for it, against all their instincts, or else they won’t be able to see.

Using Beulah Land

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Unlike Godly Play, Beulah Land is large-scale enough to easily be used in All-Age Worship. You can use the scripts that come with it, or you can use the original Biblical text.

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I told the story by moving the feltboard to lean on the front of the altar. After I was done, I moved it to the back, where it was still visible, but not in the way of the altar.  This feltboard shows a story from Harvest Festival, showing the people of Israel remembering how the Lord had saved them from slavery in Egypt, and offering him sacrifices of thanksgiving in return. The Beulah Land stories don’t cover that particular reading, but the pieces are so flexible that with a little imagination, they can be used for stories that aren’t in the manuals. (Our Diocesan Office has the first two Beulah Land sets, and these can be borrowed – email youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org for more information)

Beulah Land also has a script for the Apostle’s Creed, so you can use it for that as well as for storytelling.

LEARN FROM MY FAILURE: If you’re reading the script AND telling the story, make sure you have a good microphone and that you’re confident enough in the words to be mostly off-book. If someone else is reading, make sure you practice with them ahead of time so they know if there’s a place where they need to PAUSE to let you finish putting up some pieces!

Using Props

I’ve done this once, and it was actually an unqualified success, so I don’t have a “learn from my failure” lesson here – and the reason it was a success is because I’d done it before, at a conference, so I’d had a chance to practice. So that would be my tip.

The story was the commissioning of the 70 Disciples – they’re sent out in pairs, told to bring nothing with them, and return to Jesus astonished at the power they’ve discovered in themselves, from him.

I’d been at a conference (see below) where the commissioning of the 12 was told in this way, so it was easy to adapt.  ecce

I took 5 chairs, labelled 1 “Jesus” and the others “Disciple,” and brought them onto the chancel at the start of the reading.

I read the Biblical text in sections, and moved the chairs around – when the disciples were sent out, I moved them away from Jesus, and wondered aloud how they might move and where they might go. “Maybe some of them stayed close to Jesus. Maybe some rushed straight out. Maybe some turned around at the door to look back,” all the while moving the chairs.

In a congregation more inclined to get up and move around, I would have invited congregation members to join me in moving the chairs – “how do you think they might have moved?”

When the Disciples went out among the people, I moved them into the congregation, right up close to people. “I wonder what the people in the villages thought when these strange new people arrived? What did they think or feel when they started telling them about Jesus?” And then I’d go back and read the next section of the Biblical text.

The chairs idea is very flexible, as it can be used for any story in which individual characters (as opposed to “the people” collectively) are important to the narrative.  But there are a few other easy ways to use props:

If you’re doing the story of Creation, you can use props to build a world as you tell it (some pot plants, stuffed animals, blue fabric to be the water, lamps to be the lights, a pop-up tent as the firmament if you’re feeling ambitious …

If you’re doing the Christmas story, you can start with an empty crib and add the figures to it one by one, wondering as you do so what each of them thought and felt at crucial moments of the story.

Blue fabric can be water or sky, red fabric can be flames.  An electric fan can create wind. A party popper, hidden in your palm and popped with no warning at “HAIL, O FAVOURED ONE!” can create a genuinely surprised reaction to the appearance of Gabriel in the Annunciation story.  Hiding an object under a blanket can create tension and suspense for any story that involves waiting for something to be revealed (e.g. the giving of the Ten Commandments – you can paint cardboard ones and hide them – Christmas, many of the Parables of the Lost.)

Items placed in the pews and brought up during the story can be useful – if you’re doing Noah’s Ark or the Peaceable Kingdom, you can place stuffed animals in the pews and have them brought up and create a safe place for them all and for any children who want to join them.  If you’re doing Harvest Festival and are dealing with some bit of Deuteronomy about giving our duty to the Lord, you can have images of the work we do in school and in our offices/workplaces/homes set about the church and brought up to the altar.

Puppets and Videos:

You may notice I haven’t said a word about puppets or about videos – two other very popular forms of storytelling.  This is because I have no experience in these methods myself – I’m not a puppet person, and the church I served doesn’t have video screens (though I have used videos in Sunday School and Assemblies).  This series is focused on my own experiences, not general rules – I do mention puppets and videos in my wider All-Age Worship training.  Please feel free, if you have personal stories of using these or other methods, to mention them in the comments!

Some General Guidelines:

  1. Don’t succumb to the temptation to get cutesy or twee.  Take the stories – and the spirituality of the children and adults hearing them – seriously.
  2. Unless you have a really really good reason, stick as closely as you can to the point of view of the original. Feel free to wonder about what different people were thinking and feeling, but you don’t need to re-write the story of the Baptism of Jesus to be all about the dramatic backstory and life-changing conversion of some random Galilean who happened to be at the river that day.
  3. Allow openness of interpretation. Don’t finish with, “and what that story teaches us is …” or expect to receive instant summations of neat moral lessons from your congregation in response to your telling.  Allow time to “hear, mark, learn, and inwardly digest,” and for your congregation, including the children, to make meaning of it for themselves, over time. You’re giving them the gift of a story – let them explore it in their own time and in their own ways.
  4. If children are performing, remember, at all times, that the story they’re telling is more important than how they’re telling it. If you’re rehearsing, keep the focus on the fact that you’re doing an important job in telling God’s story to others – yes, you need to make sure they’re on at the right times and doing the right actions, but the message is more important than the performance skills.
  5. If you’re stuck with a random or dull story (see: Harvest Festival readings all about agricultural practice in Palestine 3000 years ago), spend some time thinking about what that story meant to the people who wrote it down, and where it fits into the overall story of salvation. Don’t be afraid to add a bit of context at the beginning – you can explain that the people were about to enter the Promised Land, that Moses was about to die, that he was telling them all about how to be God’s people and the promises they had made to God and God to them, and so on. Moses constantly reminds people of the Exodus in these readings, so you can act out that part of it and then act out the sacrifices the people were supposed to bring God. This can lead to wondering about how we show God that we’re thankful for what he gives us. Are we good at it? Do we remember to do it? Does God abandon us when we don’t remember to say ‘thank you’ to him? These readings, with a bit of context, can easily be brought around to broad questions of the relationship between God and his people, and our stewardship of the earth and of each other.

Next time: All-Age Worship maintaining themes and symbols THROUGH A SEASON – I know it’s August, but the best photos I have are of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter, so that’s what we’ll do. I’ll try to get some good photos of Advent and Christmas this year and share those for next year!

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All-Age Worship Ideas, Part I

So it’s Monday morning, and I’m going to treat you all to an easy post full of pretty pictures.

A few people have been asking for ideas for All-Age Worship, and I think photos and concrete ideas are one of the best ways to get inspiration. While you may not want to, or be able to, reproduce these ideas exactly, I hope this at least gets you thinking in exciting new directions.

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This is Pentecost – we made doves and flames in Sunday School and the children and young people carried them in procession as we started the service.  You could do similar things at Christmas, with children carrying the figures for the crib scene, or at Candlemas with lights – or lots more! When all else fails, give them musical instruments.  (Just have a basket on hand to collect the instruments as soon as you’re done.)

The adults often comment after the service how much their experience of worship is enhanced by this visual element – an example of how something can be BOTH “for the children” and truly “All-Age.”

Two more examples of ways to enhance processions.  On the left is All Saints’ Sunday – we made a banner of our patron saint at a family event the day before, and carried it in procession.  Later, we made more banners of saints and added them. We’ve also made pew ends – paper figures of saints that I’ve stuck onto the ends of pews with Blu-Tak, so each pew has its “patron saint.”

On the right is Palm Sunday – we’ve started having a real donkey now, but we also have banners that children can carry, and I have a couple donkey puppets I hand out as well. The Palm Sunday banner reads “Come, Follow Me,” and the children made felt versions of themselves and their families to stick onto it.

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After some trial and error, we found it helpful to have most of the children at the front of the church for the Liturgy of the Word, and return to their parents at the Peace. Having the children involved in the procession helps with this, as they can then naturally sit down at the front at the end of the first hymn – we don’t have to awkwardly “invite them  forward” and wait until someone’s brave enough to get it started.  We have blankets, and a volunteer to sit with them and help guide them through the service via liturgical whispering (“this is the sorry prayer, and next we’ll hear how God forgives us!”) and help them learn to navigate their service sheets.

Also, we often include wondering questions in our talks at All-Age Services and children tend to be less shy about speaking up when they’re in a group of friends.

Of course, some children still prefer to sit with their parents and we’d never dream of stopping them!  Parents are also welcome to come forward and join us with their children on the blankets if they like.

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This was for the Confession at our Harvest Festival. We were doing a unit on Creation and the Fall in Sunday School, and the children made two murals. The green one was all the hard and sad and scary things in the world, all the ways in which it’s not how God wants it to be – you can see “bullying” and “war” written on the banner, as well as pictures of graves and pollution and so on.  As we confessed the ways in which we have not cared for God’s earth, and for each other, we held up this banner.  Behind it is one we’d made that shows the world how God wants it to be – beautiful nature, joyful cities, people taking care of each other – and at the Absolution, the banner of our “sins” was released, crumpled up, and “buried” under the altar, and the second one was revealed.

If you don’t have time for the children to make murals, you can print out and enlarge photos of sins – I generally use: 1) a gun, 2) a polluting factory, 3) a clip art image of one child bullying another, and 4) a picture of people walking past a beggar on the street.  These can then be crumpled up and buried under the altar, and a lit candle brought out at the Absolution.

This illustrates two things – one, the complexity of Mothering Sunday, and two, how to get reluctant Traditional Anglicans to do prayer stations.

Traditional Anglicans are a shy people. They are reluctant to leave the pews. They will hesitate if called upon to do Liquid Worship or move freely about the space, and may write a Strongly Worded Email to the vicar later on.

However, there’s one point at which they unknowingly participate in this form of worship, and that’s at Communion. They leave the pews,  get up, walk to the front, and may even stop at the candle stand on the way back.

So for Mothering Sunday, we set this prayer station next to the candle stand – and it actually got used (as you can see in the right-hand photo), without causing much of a change in routine.

One woman and her two surviving children gathered around it and together wrote the names of the two other children from the family who had died at birth eleven years ago.

Another family wrote the name of a beloved  grandmother who had recently died.

The atmosphere around the station was informal but reverent – people were choosing colours, drawing baby feet or flowers, drawing hearts around names, talking in low voices. The organ was playing softly, which added to the atmosphere.

You may also notice the pink hearts on the tree.  This is the other way to get Traditional Anglicans to try a new form of prayer – hand something out to them as they come in. They won’t leave their seats during the service to get a pink heart, but if they have one in their pews, and there’s a specific time to use it, they will.  We started the prayers that day with a minute or two of silence (with music) for the congregation to think of, and pray for, everyone who had played a mother’s role in their lives, and write their names/draw them on the pink heart.  They held on to it during the prayers, and, at the start of the Offertory, put it in the basket along with their Gift Aid envelopes. During the Eucharistic Prayer, I took the hearts and hung them on the tree.  The tree was then brought out and blessed, along with the banner of names of those children/mothers we love who have gone before us, at the end of the service.

Recently, we pushed the boat out even further, and did Lego Prayers (minus the “get out of your seat” bit at the end) with the whole congregation, which ACTUALLY WORKED.  It would NOT have worked 6 years ago when I started – I’ve built trust over the years, in doing All-Age Worship that feels familiar and reassuring enough to them that I now have a bit more  leeway to push them out of their comfort zone.  And the new things that I do are still well in keeping with the Traditional Anglican style that I love too – they’re just a bit fresh and new as well!

We also make sure, at Mothering Sunday, to pray for: adoptive and foster mums, stepmothers, those struggling with infertility, mothers in poverty, mothers separated from their children, those trying to discern whether to become mothers, bereaved mothers, those who have suffered from abusive mothers, those whose mothers have died, and, in thanksgiving, for all those men and women who have played a mother’s role in a child’s life. We remember that we are all called, as part of Mother Church, to play a mother’s role to one another.

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Think about children as worship leaders as well.  Children and young people participating in liturgy should have jobs that genuinely need doing.  Children and young people can:

  1. Act out the story (either with rehearsal or ad hoc with help from a leader)
  2. Play music (not shown in this image: the 75-year-old on the flute – this was an orchestra of three generations!)
  3. Write the intercessions
  4. Read the lessons and/or the intercessions (this has the added benefit, pointed out to me by a parent, of increasing their confidence in public speaking, by giving them practice in a place where they’re safe and loved)
  5. Sing (either solos or groups)
  6. Contribute to, or even, with adult help, lead the talk after the Gospel (we had our Youth Group write and deliver a sermon, with my assistance and the vicar approving it before it was given)
  7. Serve at the altar (with training)

For those who may be less inclined towards being looked at in public:

  1. Hand out service sheets as people arrive and greet them with a smile.
  2. Bring up the bread and wine (this is also good for very young children to do, with help)
  3. Help take up the collection
  4. Bake something to be shared at coffee time after the service
  5. Create art to be included in the service sheet

Next time, I’ll be looking specifically at STORYTELLING in All-Age Worship – there are fewer photos of this, unfortunately, since I’m usually involved in some way and therefore don’t have my camera!

Play – and revolution?

On Monday 25th July, I had the privilege of attending a study day with other Diocesan Children’s Work Advisors, led by Professor Joyce Mercer of Yale Divinity School, on welcoming children, and the theology of play.

My notes are below. I hope they’re helpful.54ordinarioB25

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The ways in which we welcome children in church and in other places – are they the same?

What are the frameworks in which we engage with children?

Much of current educational practice – focused on economic outcomes. Is this also the way we see children in church? Not as whole and complete people in their own right, but only as potential?

Bible study on Mark 9:33-37.

What strikes you about this passage? What word or phrase?

The Greek word used for “gathered” has maternal connotations, and therefore feminine ones. Jesus’s actions there affirm the importance and centrality of nurture, which was, and still largely is, considered “women’s work.” Jesus is raising up not just the child, but those who nurture the child – usually the women.

The word also has connections to the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah towards the angels. The reader would have understood this.   Jesus uses a child to explain that hospitality, and anchors the child in “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

Children in Jesus’s time were literally property – they were possessions, and they belonged to their father.  They were the lowest of the low. Jesus was saying – “if you seek God, look among the lowest of the low.” (links to Matthew 25)  This comes right after the disciples had been arguing about status and position!

What are the cultural norms about children in your church culture?

(Some of the responses: support is there, but the focus is on measured, numerical growth, more than nurture. Children are wanted to ease our anxiety about the future of the church, not for their own sake. We feel helpless, and like we’re failing. Children are seen as guests at an adult event, not worshippers in their own right. Children are there to be educated or entertained. Our words don’t match our actions.)

Mark would have been read mostly by village cultures of Jewish Christians in Palestine, not by Gentiles.  The readers would have been dealing with three different levels of colonialism in their daily lives:

  1. The appearance of local rule by appointing native collaborators into puppet positions.
  2. Economic oppression through high levels of taxation, with torturous consequences for disobedience or rebellion.
  3. High levels of Temple taxation.

Under the Pax Romana system, in which strength is everything, the reign of God coming through a powerless young child and the feminine actions of Jesus, the lowest of the low, was radically counter-cultural. It puts the Kingdom of God essentially in conflict with the existing power structure.

With that in mind, look at the stories in the Gospels that feature women and children. What does this say to us about power?

These are not cute stories about having Children’s Sunday. They’re about overthrowing power structures, via the last, the least, and the littlest.

(Margaret’s own note: every canticle sung by a pregnant woman in the Bible reflects this revolutionary theme, from Hannah to Mary – “he has cast down the mighty from their thrones …” etc.)

Jesus is providing a counter-narrative to the prevailing cultural model of children’s roles: power comes through serving, family does not equal blood relatives, faithful discipleship means engaging in the struggle of the oppressed, and doing this brings new life both here and in the world to come.

In welcoming children, we are called to empower them and to challenge the power structures that oppress them.

In this new context, how can we tell what “welcoming children in church” looks like?

(some answers: they are related to as if they matter, their value is not contingent upon their utility, they’re allowed to have Communion, they are leaders as well as recipients, their questions are taken seriously, they’re not talked down to, they’re included and safe and helped. When children were asked this, they said: if there’s a place for us to run and shout if we need to, if there’s food and drink for us and not just for the adults.  What also came out of this discussion is that if everyone else is welcomed – people with disabilities, the homeless, etc – then that’s a sign that children will also be welcomed.)

This is where we took a break for lunch! When we came back, we talked about PLAYING.

What is play?

“I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.”

Play is part of God’s desire for us. It’s part of our vocation – vocation here meaning “living into our true selves.”

Play is elusive to define, but here are some signs that play is happening:

  1. Play involves pleasure.
  2. But play can be serious (e.g. play therapy).
  3. Play is unnecessary, yet meaningful. It’s not goal-directed. This means that the culture of children having to basically work on their CV from birth is directly antithetical to playing.
  4. Play holds structure and freedom at the same time. For example, games have rules (even pretend games you make up as you go), but within those rules you’re free to explore and improvise.
  5. Play involves repetition, but it’s also creative.
  6. Play invites both individual engagement – entering into the play world yourself – and social engagement – connecting with others.
  7. The self is fully involved in play, but it’s also un-self-conscious.
  8. Play requires the consent of the players. You can’t COMMAND someone to play.
  9. Play involves a paradox. It both is and isn’t what the players purport it to be.  You take on the role, and when you drop it the play ends. So in that sense, you’re not yourself. But when you’re in the role, you’re also very much yourself. This creates a form of virtual reality.
  10. Play places us in liminal space  – not in one world or the other.  This alters the normal arrangement and power structures. Time and space are suspended, and participants engage in a re-creation of their own personhood and their relationships.

What happens if play is proscribed or virtual?

What happens if there are no big blocks of free time for something to unfold?

What happens to our humanity when we cannot play?

The opposite of play isn’t work, but depression. We have an innate need to enter into imaginative worlds not of our own creation.

So where is the Holy Spirit in this?

What is the Holy Spirit?

  1. The form in which God comes out to play.
  2. Co-eternal – it has always been there.
  3. God’s way of being with us today.
  4. The answer to separation anxiety of us to God.

So what does it matter? How does this affect our daily lives?

Play is a way of encountering God. And it is a way in which children attend to their calling.  Serious things happen in daily life – play doesn’t mean a lack of seriousness.

Children’s play often involves a triumph of good over evil. It enables them to:

  1. Act out situations
  2. Manage complex emotions
  3. Rehearse for the real thing

In this understanding, the entire liturgy is play.  We are rehearsing for our real death, acting out what God has done for us in the past and will do again, and being given a suspended, liminal space in which to manage the complex emotions of being human.

When we practice something, we get the opportunity to be good at it.

How do we invite children into that free space of playing and wondering?

  1. Education is always social (Vygotsky). Education occurs in the space between the student and the teacher, not in one or the other.
  2. There is always a cultural context. Learning and development occur in response to expectations of cultural communities about what’s appropriate.
  3. Knowing involves imagination and is played.

The Bible gives us a world to enter and imagine.  It gives us God’s vision of what the world should be. We are invited to play with/in that world.

Doing and knowing are held together – thinking and acting are held together.  Integrate everyone into what the church is already doing, and create space for intentional reflection on it. Don’t separate theory and practice. Learn by doing.

Education forms and re-forms us into different identities (there are many Biblical models of this!). All learning is about becoming someone – it’s an identity thing.

Christian nurture: Formation of an identity within a community shaped by story and symbol. Stories and symbols make us who we are, they affect how we see and perceive and make sense of the world. This comes about, largely, through guided participation in practice.

How do we do that?

  1. Populating children’s imaginations with the stories that shape a worldview, and symbols that point to something larger than them.
  2. The poverty of much of our religious education is that we have failed to provide the stories and symbols that give deep meaning.
  3. We see the ordinary world through the lens of our stories and symbols, and the practices that are involved there.