Let Us Play …

This post, and the photos, are shared with permission of J’s parents. J’s dad is curate of a church in Hertfordshire.

J in pulpit
Here is J in the pulpit

J’s dad writes:

So here is J. – he is 20 months old. Since he was about 2 months he regularly comes to church every Sunday but also for some of the Daily Office. On a Sunday he sits near the back, but during morning prayer, and when the church is empty, he freely wanders around the church – access to all areas. He even helps with ringing the bell for worship.

What clearly fascinates him is the crucifer. He points out the cross (which he calls church) and all other crosses.

Recently he also insists on being followed by a book.

There is once small cross he loves to pick up and process around. He loves procession practice and at home he uses a ladle and a book when he plays. Interestingly, books like bibles and hymn books are always preferred to his own books when available. He also likes going into the pulpit. If the church could produce a daily office and gospel board book that would be great!

J processing with ladle
J at home, leading a procession with a soup ladle for a cross.

He also loves hot cross buns, but not sure if that is linked to the cross on the top.

We want to enable him to pursue doing this … but at what age could he help out?

Maybe our next church will have to have a boat boy as there are no youth servers at our current church.

Here are a few thoughts I had when I read this:

  1. I agree it’s interesting he chooses Bibles and hymn books over his own books when they’re available. It shows that even at 20 months he somehow perceives a difference between “holy books used in worship” and “books read for pleasure.” Of course, there is crossover here, but as a basic distinction, it’s important. And there are of course ramifications here for our understanding of when to admit children to Holy Communion – if J can understand the difference between “ordinary books” and “God books,” could he understand the difference between “ordinary bread” and “God bread”?
  2. J has engaged with worship through nothing more than simply being exposed to it on a regular basis. Just like when we take children shopping, or swimming, or on train journeys, or to the doctor, and they begin to explore these experiences through play, J has done the same with church. And the same skills parents use in these other activities – helping explain what’s going on, making sure their children can see and participate – can be used in church.
  3. J’s understanding is age-appropriate. It is not abstract or verbal. It is sensory and imaginative.

    J carrying gospel book
    J carrying the Gospel book in procession.
  4. If J loves processing, why not incorporate that into worship? Maybe get a selection of different small crosses, and once a month, or more often, invite any child who wants to to choose a cross and join the procession. There could be a special basket at the front where we leave our crosses by the altar.
  5. Very small children can help bring up the bread and wine, if an adult or teenager has helped them figure out how to carry it safely, and is available to walk beside them as a second pair of hands, if needed.
  6. These are also the sorts of things children can engage with through play in a good children’s play area in church. You can see some ideas here, and here, and here.
  7. Once children have been admitted to communion – whether at confirmation or before – the canons of the church allow them to serve as Eucharistic ministers and help distribute the chalice at communion.
  8. Now I really want to create a Gospel Book and Daily Office board book!
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The Prodigal Daughter

In 2016, I went to the European Conference of Christian Educators, where I saw Bibliologue storytelling done with chairs – you can find a short summary here.

I then used it when I did Prodigal Son prayer stations with Readers a few weeks ago – you can find a write-up of that here.

Now John Griffiths and Jonathan Evans, of St Cuthbert’s Church in Rye Park, have done a script using the image of a mother and two daughters, and given me permission to share it. They used it in worship on Mothering Sunday.

Note how most of it is simply the Biblical text, with a few small changes – and how the story is stopped at different points to wonder about how characters are feeling at that specific moment. By focusing on each section of the story individually, you might draw out details that would get missed if you saved up the wondering until the end. (However, for some people, it might interrupt the flow of the story, and they would get more by waiting until the end for wondering. This is why mixing up different approaches can be good.)

The Prodigal Daughter

 

Place three chairs by the steps of the sanctuary carpet.  One larger and two smaller and say:

There once was a woman who had two daughters.

Move the ‘younger daughter’ (i.e. a smaller chair) over in front of the mother’s chair. 

The younger daughter said to her mother, “Give me my inheritance NOW
so that I can enjoy it.”

pause

So the mother divided her property between them.

Move the ‘younger daughter’ a little way along the road. 

Place the mother in the centre.

Move the ‘older sister’ off to the side (almost out of the scene).

move to the younger daughter chair and say

The younger daughter gathered all she had and travelled to a distant country

She spent her money on wild parties and having a really REALLY good time.

Move the ‘younger daughter’ towards the ‘end of the road’ (top of the central aisle)

I wonder. What is the Mother thinking?

I wonder. What is her older sister thinking?

 

But the day came when she had spent all the money her mother had given her and she had nothing left. 

Turn the daughter’s chair onto its side.

There was a severe famine in that country and she was hungry and poor.
So she went and hired herself out. To a pig farmer. Who made her look after pigs.

She was so hungry that she would have been grateful if she was allowed to eat what the pigs were eating; but no one gave her anything.

 

Then she came to her senses, she said to herself

“All my mum’s maids have plenty to eat, but here I am dying of hunger!

I wonder What is the younger daughter thinking?

 

I know what I’ll do. I will go to my mother, and I will say to her, “Mother, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your daughter;  could you give me a job around the house?”

Move the daughter on the road towards the other two chairs

So she set off to return to her mother.

Move the mother down the road towards the daughter, say:

While she was still far off, her mother saw her and was filled with compassion;

Her mother ran and put her arms around her and kissed her.

Move both the mother and daughter close to one another at the bottom of the aisle say:

Her daughter said to her, “Mother, I have sinned against you; 

I am no longer worthy to be your daughter.”

But the mother said to the staff, “Quickly, bring a dress – my very best one  – and put it on her; put a ring on her finger and my favourite shoes.

Remember her favourite meal? – go and make it, and let’s eat and celebrate;
for my daughter was dead and is alive again; she was lost and is found!”

And they all began to celebrate.

Move the mother and daughter’s to the centre of the sanctuary blue carpet

When the elder daughter came home, she heard music and dancing.

She called one of the maids and asked what was going on.

The maid replied, “Your sister has come home, and your mother has made her favourite because she got her back safe and sound.”

But the older daughter became angry and refused to go in.

 

What is the older daughter thinking?

What is the mother thinking?

 

Move the mother to the back of the carpet in front of the elder daughter, say:

Her mother came out and began to plead with her.

Twist away the elder sister and say

She said to her mother, “Listen! For all these years I have been slaving away for you, and I have never disobeyed you in anything; yet you have never given me a single night in with my friends.  But when young madam went off and played the tart and wasted all your money comes back. YOU treat her like a princess!

Move to the Mother chair, and say

The mother said to her, “Oh Darling, you are always with me, and everything that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate, because your sister was dead and has come to life; she was lost and now she’s found.”

What was your favourite part of the story?

What was the most important part of the story?

Which person in the story did you most connect with? 

String Prayers

Ball of household string on white

I tried this prayer idea with a group today that ranged in age from 6 – 14 – and all you need is a ball of string.

I held one end of the string and told the group we were going to pass the ball of string around the whole group, one at a time, and make a web of prayer. When we held the ball of string, we could say a prayer out loud, or silently. We would the hold on to our place in the string and pass the ball of string to someone else, until everyone had had a turn.

I happened to have a very quiet group today, so no reminders about how to PASS or gently TOSS the string to the next person were needed – if some of our more boisterous members had been there, I would have taken a moment to do this.

When everyone had had a turn, we had a moment of silence with all of us holding our place on the string, connected to each other in prayer, and then we sang “O Lord, Hear My Prayer” twice.

To finish, I asked them to think of something that was worrying them, or making them sad, and when I counted three, to release their place on the string as they released that worry to God.

It worked well at providing a visual and tangible element to our prayers, and helping some of the little ones fidget less than being asked to just sit still does.

This could also work in All-Age Worship – maybe with groups of 20 or so at most. Under-5s might need some help thinking about what to pray – “what would you like to say thank you to God for?” or such like.

“Shhhhhhhh!!”

I’m preparing Reader Training for tomorrow evening, and one of the topics we’re addressing is children in the worshipping community.

One of the questions I get asked most often on this topic is about the dreaded “shhhhhhh …!” and how to address it.

What is “the dreaded ‘shhhh'”? What harm can it do?

Imagine you’re a young parent with a two-year-old. You’ve got up on a weekend morning, dressed and fed yourself and your child, bundled them into the pushchair or car, gone to church, figured out where to sit and what to do, but you’re feeling conspicuous and nervous in this reverent environment. The sign outside said “ALL ARE WELCOME,” but … does that really mean you? It’s so peaceful and contemplative here. Everyone seems to know all the rules. And here you are, in the back pew, shoving raisins at your kid, trying to get them to sit still and be quiet. Your child stands on the pew (is that allowed??) so they can see, looks at the stained glass windows, turns to you, and says, “daddy, look, I see a sheep!”tumblr_nlsbr2viEL1u08yodo7_500

In front of you, heads turn. Three or four people are staring at you. One of them says “Shhhhh!!” A few others tut and not-so-subtlely roll their eyes.

How do you feel?

Will you come back?

What message have you and your child just received about your place in God’s house?

Okay, but sometimes a child is screaming …

I’m immensely grateful to Carolynn Pritchard (no relation) from the Spiritual Child Network for clarifying the distinction between SOUND and NOISE.

We all make SOUNDS when we worship. There might be the 35-year-old who forgot to turn down their Lady Gaga ringtone, and the intercessions are interrupted by the first notes of “Bad Romance.”

There might be the 84-year-old gentleman who is in denial about needing a hearing aid and is consequentially two beats behind everyone else when they sing.

There might be the 5-year-old who whispers observations to their friends about what’s happening during the service.

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All of this is different from NOISE, which is genuinely disruptive.

NOISE would be if your phone rang and you took the call instead of turning your phone off or going outside.

A toddler having a screaming tantrum in church is noise, and there needs, if possible, to be a safe warm place within the church building for parents to take children who need some time out. (They also need to be clearly told that we would prefer for them to COME BACK when their child is ready!)

So yes, of course, disruptive noise needs to be kept to a minimum in church. And yet, often, people react to any SOUND made by children – shouting “AMEN!” at the end of prayers, calling their carers’ attention to something in the building they’ve noticed, playing with a Bible-related toy like a Noah’s Ark or a Nativity set – as though it were NOISE.

Why?

The Unholy Trinity

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In my experience, I’ve generally found that this hostility towards children in church who are anything other than silent and invisible comes down to one of three reasons.

  1. Pastoral reasons. For some people, the presence of children might be upsetting. You might have just found out that your sixth round of IVF didn’t work. Your grown children might have told you that they don’t plan to have children, and you’re grieving the grandchildren you always thought you’d have. You might be a parent whose child has died. In this case, “I’ve noticed you seem upset when children are around – are you okay?” can start a conversation about this behaviour. Often, when people feel able to express their emotions in a positive way, the passive-aggressive behaviour, and acting out, diminish.
  2. Fear and defensiveness. “If we start getting more young families, this church is going to turn into a three-ring circus of bright colours and loud noises and simplistic dumbed-down worship, and everything I love about my church, my spiritual home, will disappear.” In this case, the person has a particular image in their head of what “child-friendly worship” is, and it’s somewhere between an episode of Peppa Pig and a children’s birthday party. For this, I would recommend:
    1. Making changes in a slow and careful way (and using the phrase “we’re going to TRY x,” rather than “we’re going to DO x”).
    2. Making changes that are in keeping with the existing tradition of the church. Don’t immediately go from being a high-church Anglo-Catholic community with a professional choir to having screens and guitars and cafe-style church. It won’t work.
    3. Demonstrating what the presence of children has to offer US, as well as what we have to offer THEM (“wow, that music the children sang was wonderful, and enhanced MY worship – maybe this isn’t so bad”), can help reassure these fears. But it is a slow process, and there will be setbacks.
  3. An unexamined, mistaken assumption about what church is. For this, I have to thank Gretchen Wolff Pritchard (there is a relation there, unlike with Carolynn), who pointed out that almost everyone, including parents and children themselves, comes into church with the unexamined assumption that when they come to church, children are “guests at an adult event.” This was driven home to me when I was at a rehearsal for my amateur dramatics group, which I automatically categorise as an adult event, and I got annoyed by the sounds made by an actor’s 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren, who had come along.

When we think of church as an adult event, as opposed to a family event, that creates different assumptions about the role of children. Children, in that context, are supposed to entertain themselves quietly so they don’t disturb the people this event is REALLY for. And when this is internalised by non-childed worshippers, parents, and children themselves, this is what happens:

  • Non-childed worshippers think – “children are disrupting an event that’s for me.” They may be more accepting at family events or other occasions where they understand it’s for everyone.
  • Parents think – “my children are misbehaving and bothering the people who this is for. I’m embarrassed and I need to make them behave.” The emphasis then becomes not disturbing others, rather than engaging in the event. Watch these same parents at a children’s puppet show – they behave differently. They engage their children, they make sure they can see, they whisper about what’s happening, they make the experience sensory … Carolyn Carter Brown has an excellent article on Whispering In Church which can help parents with this.
  • Children think – “this is not for me. I have to sit down and shut up instead of being actively engaged, and wait until I’m set free at the end.”

So what can be done?

In addition to the tips and links above, here are a few ideas – I put the question “how do people answer complaints about young people making any noise in church?” to the Spiritual Child Network Facebook group, and here are a few of the replies:

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How have you tackled this thorny topic? What has worked? What hasn’t?

Mothering Sunday Write-Up

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A reader in our Diocese has shared a wonderful All-Age Mothering Sunday service they did yesterday – please do take a look, and share it if it’s useful to you.

Many of these ideas could also be used at other festivals throughout the year.