I made this word search a few years ago and included it in a pack of materials we handed out to children on Easter Sunday. Feel free to download and use it in your churches. The words are designed to mostly be new and introduce children to vocabulary they may be unfamiliar with, so definitions have been included as well. Words are vertical, horizontal, and diagonal.
I’ve recently heard from many churches who want to do more all-age worship. For some, this was something they were working on before Covid. For others, it’s been the prayerful response to declining numbers of volunteers – they’re cutting down on Junior Church or even eliminating it altogether, and want to work on bringing children and families more fully into worship.
So what is all-age worship? How can you do it well?
It might help to think about what all-age worship ISN’T.
All-age worship isn’t:
- A particular style of worship. Doing all-age worship doesn’t mean throwing out your community’s identity and traditions. It may require rethinking why we do some of the things we do, and maybe changing or eliminating them as a result of that thinking, but all-age worship can be many things. You can have Anglo-Catholic all-age worship. Charismatic Evangelical all-age worship. Alt-worship all-age worship. And anything in between.
- A children’s service. Too often, people say “all-age” and then only plan for children. As the Revd. Mary Hawes says, “if there have to be children there for it to work, it isn’t all-age.”
- An entertainment programme. It’s about worshipping God, not doing a song-and-dance number to try and keep children entertained. Singing and dancing may be part of it, but the emphasis is on helping people worship, not creating a show.
- A performance by children. If children are involved in leading it, there can be an emphasis on “performing well for the audience,” rather than thinking about what it means to lead worship.
- An opportunity for children to stand at the front holding a picture. Again, to quote Revd Mary Hawes – “if your job can be done by an easel, it isn’t a job.”
- A chance for children to be cute for adult approval/entertainment. Enough said.
- An opportunity to just pass on a simple moral lesson and be done. Worship has space for awe and wonder, not just moral dictation.
- Nothing but happy simple joy, babies and flowers and nothing else. Life is complicated and everyone, of all ages, has different emotions. Worship needs space for this.
So what IS all-age worship? Luckily, the answer here is a lot simpler:
- It is all-age.
- It is worship.
So what does this mean in practice? Does it mean we have to knock ourselves out basically running five services at once, with something for different age groups at all times?
Luckily, no. Here are some things to think about as you plan:
No, not the Australian television show for toddlers – the fact that children move and wiggle and make noise.
Actually, some adults do that too.
Sometimes, adults knit during meetings. Sometimes they doodle in their notebooks. Sometimes adults journal along with a sermon in church.
Hmm, it’s starting to sound like having something to do with your hands could help people of all ages in worship. What if you had packs that had plain paper and markers, or colouring sheets (there are many beautiful Biblical colouring books that you could photocopy and which wouldn’t feel “childish” for adults, but could also work for children, such as this one), and offered them to everyone, regardless of age? Perhaps there could be a place to return something if you want it to be included in a display, after the service? A few plastic envelopes, some paper and markers, and suddenly you could have an all-age art display in response to your service.
You may want to create a children’s corner if you don’t already have one. More on that here.
How can you tell the story? In general, most people like to hear well-told stories. How can your reading and telling of Scripture bring the story to life? You don’t need to dumb it down or make it silly or simplistic or preachy in order to make it work for children. Think about how well Pixar does intergenerational storytelling – they know children will be watching their films with adults, and they will do better if the adults enjoy them too. Pixar films, in general, have a few things in common:
•There is real risk and danger. What are the stakes in this story?
•The story is clearly and simply told
•Not preachy, moralistic, or obnoxious – engages adults as well as children
•Keep to the essentials – detail enriches main point, doesn’t distract.
How can we respond to the story?
Dave Csinos and Ivy Beckwith have done some work on “spiritual styles” – the idea that there are several dominant ways in which people connect with God, and most people strongly connect to 1 or 2 of them. These are WORD (reading, discussion, Bible study), EMOTION (art, music), SYMBOL (mysticism, new ways of imagining God), and ACTION (doing something – either physically or an act of service). These tend to be the same throughout our lives – there may be a 6-year-old who loves to talk about the Bible story, and a 56-year-old who would love to meditate to music about it. If you mix up the ways of responding, people of all ages will be engaged.
Another great all-age response tool is wondering questions. These come from the Godly Play tradition, and are open-ended. They require no extra work from you to prepare different things. Silence is okay, so there’s no pressure to respond. Things like:
“I wonder what your favourite part of this story was.”
“I wonder what the most important part of this story was.”
“I wonder where you are in this story.”
as well as some specifically looking at the symbols and emotions of that particular story, eg “I wonder how James and John felt when Jesus asked them to follow him.”
A 4-year-old will respond to these questions in a 4-year-old way, a 34-year-old in a 34-year-old way. All answers are accepted – there are no right or wrong answers. It levels the playing field, allows everyone to be included, and means no extra work for a leader. I’ve done all-age talks that were just a bunch of wondering questions (sometimes finishing with a poem) and they’ve been very effective. All-age doesn’t mean complicated.
What do we have in common?
No matter what age we are, there are things in our life that we are thankful for.
There are things we need to say sorry for.
There are things that amaze and astonish us, which make us go “wow.”
And there are things we need help with.
These map onto the four types of prayer – thanksgiving, repentance, adoration, and intercession.
But everyone understands “Thank you, sorry, wow, help.” These four simple words are universal in speaking to our experience, connect to the church’s traditional kinds of prayer, and are understandable by people of all ages.
Perhaps you can open up prayer to be more sensory, in this framework as well: are there opportunities to touch/draw/write: shaping something, making movements with our hands, blowing bubbles, using stones, candles (battery-powered or real), play-doh, etc. The “Flame Creative Kids” blog has many good ideas for simple but profound sensory prayers.
How do we sing?
All-age worship doesn’t mean entirely changing your musical style. It doesn’t mean – though it can – doing silly action songs.
Think about what sort of music fits with who your community is, but doesn’t require a lot of reading, has simple words, and is repetitive. Maybe this is a traditional hymn with a repetitive chorus. Maybe this is modern worship music. Maybe this is Taize chants. Maybe this is music from Christian communities around the world. Worship Workshop is a good and diverse resource – once you sign up for a (free) account, you have access to backing tracks, sheet music, and words for 96 different songs and hymns, which work for all ages. Pastor Madeleine on YouTube also has a good collection of traditional and modern music, much in a simple style, with the words on the screen.
Children as leaders
Children are not only the passive recipients of the worship we put together. All-age worship is an opportunity for the wider congregation to hear the voices and concerns of children and young people. This gives children and young people a more authentic role in the community, and allows us all to learn from one another. Here are a few ideas for how this can happen:
- A group of children write the prayers. This can be done together, ahead of time, in a youth group or Junior Church setting. Alternatively, you could ask each child to send in one sentence each for “Thank you for …” “Please help …” and “I am amazed by …” and have a volunteer put these all together in a list. This allows the congregation to hear what the children’s concerns and thoughts are.
- Children create art. Whether you have a service sheet or use a screen, children can create artwork to accompany the worship. This helps us see the service, and the story, in new ways.
- Children as worship leaders. Very young children can hand out service sheets or bring up the bread and wine. If you have a bell, young children can ring it with adult help. Older children can do readings, serve at the altar (you can offer yearly server training for adults and children together, to help build relationships), play music, operate the AV system or any streaming you’re doing, prepare and serve the teas and coffees (with adult help), and almost anything else you can think of apart from actually consecrating the bread and wine. If you don’t have time to set out detailed jobs ahead of time you can do what the Revd. Mary Hawes’ church does (I’m quoting her a lot because she’s very wise – follow her on Twitter). They have a laminated set of cards with jobs on them – when people arrive, if they want to do a job, they pick up a card. The cards have words (“carry up the Bible”) and pictures (a book) on them, so they work for non-readers and readers alike.
And ultimately, worship occurs in the context of church. (This is another Mary Hawes quote, but the Revd. Ally Barrett has said it too, so I’m quoting two people here) If your church has ways of creating intergenerational relationships, all-age worship will feel like the natural growth of that. As Mary says – “it’s harder to tut at a child you know.” Where are the opportunities to get to know each other? To share our stories? To do activities together? To become a church of all ages, who live, grow, and worship together?
For an excellent example of building intergenerational community, I recommend the excellent “Old People’s Home For Four-Year-Olds” on Channel 4. (You will need to create an account to watch it, but it’s free). The first episode alone is inspirational, but you may end up getting sucked in and watching the whole thing – and the Christmas specials!
Many of us may be expecting larger than usual numbers of young families in our churches over the next few weeks – school services, crib services, and Christingles mean we have contact with families we may not see at other times. Who are these families? What do they value? Where are they, spiritually? What can we learn from each other?
This is an excerpt from my book, “Beyond the Children’s Corner: creating a culture of welcome for all ages”
Despite a strong cultural narrative of modern life being more isolated than ever before, the idea that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ still resonates with parents, and the church is part of that village. The research into baptisms conducted by the Church of England’s Life Events team found that the biggest reason for parents wanting their children to be baptized was so that they would have godparents.
‘A christening gives parents the opportunity to formally involve other significant adults in their child’s upbringing, for advice, protection, support and encouragement, and they will give a lot of thought to choosing good people,’ the research says. It found that ‘the choice of godparents often honours long friendships, and in choosing them, parents are envisaging a relationship that will last at least 20 years, probably a lifetime.’
One parent I spoke with told me, ‘Both times I’ve found myself looking down at a positive pregnancy test, my first thought was, “Oh God, who’s going to help me do this?” Of course I’m lucky in that I have my partner, but in that moment when the reality is beginning to dawn on you, you know you’re going to need more than that. It’s like that quote from About a Boy – two isn’t enough. You need backup.’
This desire – for a community of loving adults – has clear implications for mission and ministry, and for what the church can offer to provide what parents want for their children. And it also suggests we would be remiss to overlook the importance of recognizing the godparent/godchild relationship when families come to us for baptisms.
What else do parents value, when it comes to spirituality? The majority of parents with very young children will be under 40. This is relevant, because recent polling for YouGov shows that for the first time, in the last few years, the number of people under 40 identifying themselves as ‘nones’ – i.e. of no religion – passed 50%.
While this may seem like bad news at first glance, this group is not as straightforward as they seem. Linda Woodhead, the author of the research, writes, ‘Only a minority of nones … are convinced atheists … the largest bloc is made up of maybes, doubters, and don’t knows, plus 5.5% who definitely believe in God. As to what kind of God they believe in, less than a quarter of the nones who think there is a God adhere to the traditional idea of a personal “God”, with the rest believing in a spirit, life-force, energy, or simply “something there”. So the nones are not [a] phalanx of doughty secularists … but they are certainly more sceptical about the existence of God than those who identify as religious.’
But Woodhead’s idea of religion doesn’t end with identification – she then goes on to look at practice, where again she finds that ‘the picture is not straightforwardly secular … A quarter [of nones] report taking part in some kind of personal religious or spiritual practice in the course of a month, such as praying. What they absolutely do not do is take part in communal religious practices … On the whole they do not much care for religious leaders, institutions and authorities, but they tolerate them … The only leaders for whom nones have regard are Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and to a lesser extent Pope Francis. It seems clear that nones dislike being preached at and told what to do; they prefer to make up their own minds.’
Woodhead also found that ‘nones’ are more likely than practicing Anglicans to consider themselves global citizens, and in terms of their attitudes towards personal morality, tend to adopt a ‘live and let live, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone’ attitude.
So families these days form a variety of structures. They may be households consisting of two people or many more. They may have three or more generations living together, may have a single parent, or two parents of the same or opposite sex. A child may spend two weekends a month with mum and two with dad, having obvious implications on their participation in weekend activities like Sunday worship. There may be children with additional needs in the family, and both they and their siblings and parents will be affected by this. The family will likely believe in some form of higher power or spirituality, but be suspicious of organized religion and not keen to label themselves as part of a group. They will be likely to have a strong belief in the rights of other families to live as they like as long as nobody is getting hurt, and desire a community of significant adults around them to help raise their children. They value authenticity and community, but are sceptical about hierarchy, institutions and authority.
And, crucially, they are unfamiliar with church. Under-40s are less likely to have regularly attended church as a child than any generation of parents before them.
So when you have a family coming for a christening, or to a crib service, or even just an ordinary Sunday morning, you’re not just meeting a child who isn’t enculturated into church, but you are likely also encountering adults who are unfamiliar with the routines, practices, language, codes of behaviour and general expectations of what going to church means.
This has long-term ramifications in terms of how we help parents to nurture their child’s faith at home, when they themselves may be only just starting to explore faith, but it has immediate ramifications in how we welcome these families and treat them on Sunday morning.
I moved house a few years ago, and there was an independent bakery on my new high street. I wanted to go in, but for weeks I put it off and went to the chain one instead. Why? Because I wasn’t sure of the rules. Would I have to pay cash, or is card okay? (I don’t normally carry much cash.) Do I order and then sit down, or is it table service? I was worried about looking awkward and out of place.
Imagine how much more magnified these emotions must be if the place you’re coming to is someplace very quiet and reverent, with a lot of unusual practices like singing together, and you also have a restless two-year-old with you, with an unwieldy pram to worry about. Remembering that parents bringing their children to church will probably be uncertain, and nervous about what happens there and what to do, is crucial to creating a culture of welcome.
 Church of England Life Events, https://churchsupporthub.org/baptisms/explore-thinking/importance-godparents/.
 Interesting question to ponder: what do those three figures have in common? Does your church share those traits?
 Woodhead, Linda, ‘The rise of “no religion” in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority’, Journal of the British Academy, 4, 245–61. DOI 10.5871/jba/004.245. Posted 8 December 2016. © The British Academy 2016.
 For those who like numbers: 83% of Britons fell at the more liberal end of this scale, 92% of lay Anglicans did, and 100% of the ‘nones’ did.
Yesterday, my church celebrated our Dedication Sunday. Our vicar preached with gratitude and love for all that we had done together to keep the church’s mission and ministry going during the pandemic. But he did mention something that many other churches have asked me about over the last few months – our volunteers have quit, in alarming numbers, over the last 18 months.
Why is this happening?
For some, it’s that committing to regular volunteering in uncertain times feels impossible. We don’t know if we might have to suddenly self-isolate with no notice, and we’re worried about letting people down if we do. We struggle with quickly responding and adapting to changing regulations – planning a Junior Church session is fine, but planning six different versions of it, depending on what we might be allowed to do, and then writing a detailed risk assessment, is too much. Or our own responsibilities multiplied over the pandemic – home-schooling, working from home, caring for relatives – and we just can’t stay on top of the church gardening as well.
For others, it may have been that we were close to burning out before the pandemic hit, and it just became an easy way to naturally stop something we no longer had the energy or enthusiasm for, but felt we couldn’t quit.
Or we may be in a group that’s particularly vulnerable to Covid, or live with someone who is, and we’re trying to minimise risk, and leading Toddler Group just feels like a step too far.
So now we as a church are trying to figure out a way forward, and all the children’s ministry stuff we used to do – Junior Church, or Messy Church, or Toddler Group, or schools ministry, or any number of things – and not only does it feel like the families have distanced themselves, but you also don’t have the volunteer support you used to have.
What Can You Do?
The simplest way of encouraging people to volunteer is to ask. Definitely in a general way, from the front, but also personally. “People like to be asked,” a vicar told me the other day, reporting on an elderly gentleman who she asked to help with a project, and who told her, emotionally, he hadn’t been asked to do anything at church for years. “People like to feel useful.” The personal touch can help. And in thinking about who to ask to help with children’s ministry, don’t just think about young parents (and especially not just young mums) – people of all ages can have a gift for ministering with children. Extra grannies and grandpas can help form deep faith, and create nurturing inter-generational relationships. And if there are admin or organisational tasks needed to help run your children’s ministry, people can do those, even if they’re “not good with kids.”
And think about changing trends in volunteering – an NCVO webinar I attended a few years ago pointed out that people these days tend to like volunteering for shorter, time-limited events, rather than ongoing commitments. So someone may not be happy to lead Junior Church every other week, forever, but they might be happy to organise the Crib Service. Or a half-term holiday club.
But there are bigger questions raised by this slump in volunteer numbers.
Going Back To Normal?
It is tempting to think “how can we make it so that things can go back to normal? How can we find the same number of volunteers we had before, so we can do the same things?” But it may be that God is calling you to a different way of doing things, a different way of being.
Perhaps the lack of volunteers is an opportunity – instead of doing separate things for children, which require a number of specialist volunteers, your congregation can think about ways to further integrate children into what the rest of the church is already doing. What if you stopped trying to do Junior Church every week, for example, and instead did it once or twice a month? The other weeks, use simple techniques to integrate children further into worship – I asked a few parents and clergy for easy ways to do this the other day, and here’s what they came up with:
- Provide everyone, of all ages, with paper and drawing materials. Encourage people to draw or write in response to what happens during worship.
- If you have a children’s area, can you make it larger? With things for toddlers but also for older children?
- Encourage children to come up and sit around the altar during the Eucharistic prayer.
- Keep children in church with clergy. Send everyone else out to self-guided groups with some discussion questions for part of the service.
In the longer term, can you make it a goal for the whole church to take seriously the idea of welcoming children and families, and including them in worship? What would it take for this to happen? Would it be more or less work than trying to re-launch separate programmes from scratch? Would the families you used to have be interested, or would they only be interested in coming back to the same thing they used to do?
Outside of Sunday morning worship, are there opportunities to include children and families in things that are already happening, so you need fewer volunteers?
For example, if you have a “tea and a chat” club for the elderly, is there a way of combining this with a toddler group, for at least part of the time they’re together? Yes, you would still need volunteers who were good with families, and volunteers who were good with the elderly, but you’d only need half as many people to set up, do the refreshments, tidy everything up, if you were only doing it once! The toddlers could have some time on their own to begin, then everyone could meet together for a while, and then the elderly could have some time on their own to finish.
If you have a group who works on a local issue of justice – homelessness, or a Foodbank – could they meet in an evening, include prayer and pizza, and make this group open to older children and teenagers who also care about these issues?
There may still be places where we want children to be just with children. This provides the opportunity for them to make friendships more easily than if their parents are right there, and it allows us to tailor things for different ages or interests. I’m not saying get rid of everything children do on their own. But if we start shifting our thinking from “how can we get lots of people to run all the programmes we used to run for children” to “how can the whole church move to open up what we’re already doing, so children and families can be more included?” we may find, with time, that our intergenerational relationships, worship, and ministry are flourishing in unexpected and wonderful ways.
UPDATE: In a discussion on social media, Wendy Claire Barrie, a children’s ministry expert from the USA, said the following, and gave permission for me to add it to this post:
A few thoughts from the other side of the Atlantic:
1. While young children remain unvaccinated, they are at risk and raise the risk of others, so it may not yet be time to match them with elders or have them stand around the altar.
2. Nimble is the word and mindset we’ve adopted. We are back in worship and with some programs here in NYC but have to be ready to pivot on a moment’s notice.
3. I am long past ready to reframe what parishioners do at church/for church events as volunteering. This is how church happens: we do this work together. What the lack of parishioners being willing or able to participate in this way must mean is fewer programs, events, classes, not that already overburdened staff take on more responsibilities.
As we start to (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic, lots of churches are using this opportunity to re-evaluate many aspects of mission and ministry.
I’ve found this to be a helpful tool for meetings, to start conversations about the future. You may find it useful to limit the number of things people can write in each box – 3 or 4, maximum, for example – so that you don’t end up with the answer, “everything,” in some of the boxes, which isn’t helpful.
The next step for discussion after this, of course, is, “of the things we think are valuable and should keep/restart, what is needed to make them happen? In terms of time, talents, and treasure? Do we have those resources? If not, can we reshape some things – less Junior Church and more All-Age Worship, for example, if we have fewer volunteers?”
The matrix is available at the bottom of the post in a Word document, so you can download it and share it with your PCC/ministry team/working group.
|What have we stopped during the pandemic, which we should pick up again?||What have we stopped during the pandemic, which should stay stopped?|
|What have we started doing during the pandemic, which we should keep?||What have we started doing during the pandemic, which we can stop once it’s over?|
There is a second matrix that we’ve used in our Toddler Group Leaders’ group as well – the “Value/Effort” matrix. This can help narrow down the “OMG WHAT DO WE DO FIRST???” spiralling, and help decide on actions and next steps. I’m afraid I only have this one as an image file, so it can’t be written on, but you can either re-create it, or encourage people to talk/use the chat function, about each square in turn, and share ideas that way:
For years, as a Children’s and Families Worker, I did an event on the morning of Good Friday, a brief Stations of the Cross for children and those who care for them. You can find the service leaflet from one year below. It lasts about 30-45 minutes.
We didn’t have permanent stations of the cross in our building, so we used posters. At each station that we used, I set up a candle, seating for about 10 people (usually the adults) and space for children to gather so they could see the picture. The final part of the service took place in our Easter Garden – we had plants, and a doll wrapped in grave cloths, at the final station, which children took in procession to the Easter Garden. I also used a portable CD player for the music (how old-fashioned) – but there are many ways of doing this.
After the service, we had art activities available in the church hall, along with hot cross buns.
We would regularly get a few families I’d never seen before each year, so I started bringing pieces of paper for them to write their name and email address on, with permission to add them to our mailing list.
This service can also be found in my book, “There is a Season: celebrating the church year with children,” along with activities that can help children prepare for it, and help them respond to it.
There are places where it says “we wonder about the picture”
Generally, the wondering questions I’ve used are:
I wonder what you can see in this picture
I wonder how this picture makes you feel
I wonder why the artist chose to use those colours
I wonder what’s happening in this picture
And you may want separate ones for individual stations, eg, “I wonder why Jesus died,” for the station where he’s on the cross, or, “I wonder how Jesus’s mother was feeling,” when he meets his mother, or “I wonder what it feels like when someone you love dies.”
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 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.”
- 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)
- Then I tell the story. I try to keep it simple, but without sacrificing richness.
- 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.
- 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.
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!
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?
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Wooden blocks. For building houses, walls, and tables.
- Play-doh or Plasticine. For making small versions of things like food.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Generic-looking coins. Useful for a lot of parables.
- 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.
- 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.
- A moveable light. Helpful for obvious reasons.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!