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:
This is the liturgy I wrote for admitting children to communion – a church recently asked for one, and that made me realise I’d never put it up on the blog! So here it is – I hope it’s helpful.
We do this right before the Eucharistic Prayer. Children come up at the offertory and stand in a line along the chancel. They stay there throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, so they can see, up close, the elements being prepared, and be a part of it. Then at the invitation to communion, they move down to the altar rail and are the first of the congregation to receive.
We usually gave them a small gift along with their certificate – sometimes it was a book about the communion service (Pray Sing Worship, from SPCK – currently out of stock, sadly), sometimes it was a good children’s Bible, sometimes a cross or icon or a carving or a piece of stained glass to hang. During the preparation classes, we practiced putting down things you were holding so you could use your hands to receive the bread.
My dear friends in Christ, today we come together in special joy as we see these children join us as regular sharers in the most holy, sacred, and wonderful mysteries of communion. A warm welcome therefore to you all, especially if you have come to see N, N, and N, as they reach this stage in their journey of faith.
The priest addresses the children:
In baptism, you were made members of Christ’s family. You come to us now as members of that family. Today you will share with us that meal which he commanded his friends to remember on the night before he died, and which he gives to us as a sign of his living presence among us.
N, N, and N. Jesus calls you by name, and invites you to his table. Do you wish to be admitted to Holy Communion, and share regularly in this sacred meal?
The children reply: I do
The priest addresses the congregation:
Will you welcome these children as communicant members of Christ’s family, and support them with your friendship and prayers?
All: With the help of God, we will.
The priest addresses the parents and carers:
Will you help these children to grow in faith and come to confirmation?
Parents and carers: With the help of God, we will.
The priest prays for the children:
Lord Jesus Christ, you said that we should all become as little children.
We pray today for these children as they receive bread and wine for the first time in your name. Give them such a sense of the mystery of your body and blood that they may know your presence in their hearts and day by day grow to be more like you. Amen.
The priest gives each child their certificate of admission to Holy Communion, addressing them by name:
In the name of God, I welcome you, N., to the sacrament of Holy Communion.
May God bless you as you continue with us on your journey of faith.
The children remain on the chancel for the Eucharistic prayer.
Ash Wednesday is next week. I’ve noticed, this year, a bit of concern around Ash Wednesday and Lent that I hadn’t seen before, in relation to children. In several places, people have expressed reservations about using the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” with children.
My opinion is that, in the right context, these words are powerful. Ash Wednesday and Lent are times when we confront our mortality, and our fear of death, and we acknowledge the ways in which the world is messed up and broken and hard and scary. At Easter, we hear the good news that God’s love is stronger than sin and death.
If we paper over the real fear of death, and the real existence of sin, we provide a faith that is always happy and nice and kind, and we leave children alone with the fear of death and the existence of sin, with no tools to process these challenging topics, and no sense that the church is a place where we can wrestle with these things.
Here is what I did, for many years, at the end of our pancake party. Most of these children would not be in church on Ash Wednesday, so this was a way of moving from Shrove Tuesday into Ash Wednesday, creating the feast/fast contrast, and introducing the season.
Ideally, you will have a small outdoor space to do this in.
ASH WEDNESDAY ACTIVITY WITH CHILDREN:
Large metal cooking pot from kitchen, possibly elevated on bricks
Dried palm crosses
A tiny bit of oil, if needed, to help them ignite
Fire extinguisher and bucket of water
Small bowl and spoon
Inside, in the community space:
Blank paper and pencils/markers
Pictures of “sin” – always communal, and social, eg pollution, violence, poverty. We’re looking at how we as a society fail to create the world God wants, and grieving for it, NOT at personal “failures.”
What I do:
1. Gather everyone by the door. Ask who knows why we have pancakes today. Gather answers from the group. Use the answers to get to the idea that we’re about to start a season called LENT, and that during Lent, we remember all the hard and sad and scary things that Jesus came into the world to save us from.
2. Ask what are some of the hard and sad and scary things in the world – gather responses. If some of them match the pictures, you can hold them up and show the group. (Here we can think in generic terms about things we all do as individuals – like being cruel to each other – and also things we all do as a group, or as humanity – like war, and poverty.)
3. Explain that Lent is 40 days long, because when Jesus was just starting out his work, he spent 40 days in the desert all alone with God.
4. Explain that before we start this sad time, we like to have a really good party! And that in the old days, people used to give up some special treats, like sugar and eggs and meat, so they celebrated right before by eating all these things. And nowadays, we might want to give up a treat, or take on an extra job, to help us get closer to God, and think about what it was like for Jesus in the desert, without special treats. Or we might want to try giving up a bad habit, or something we do that hurts God’s world, or ourselves, or each other.
5. Pass out the blank pieces of paper and pencils. Ask people to think about EITHER something they might give up/take on for Lent, OR something in the world that’s hard or sad or scary, that they want Jesus to help with.
6. Go outside and form a circle around the pot. Have people put their pieces of paper in the pot, along with the palm crosses. As far as possible, clear people away from the direction of the wind.
7. Set everything in the pot on fire. Ask people to think about how we’re burning the parts of ourselves we want to give up, or the hard/sad/scary things in the world. We’re turning them to ash. And we’re remembering that at the end of Lent, we remember Jesus dying to save the world, and that we will someday die too. But we know that Easter comes after that, when Jesus rose with new life to share with all of us.
8. When enough of the papers/palm crosses have burned that you have sufficient ash, put a few drops of water on it to cool it off (Note: it’s been pointed out to me that apparently it’s dangerous to cool ashes with water, and they’ll burn. I tested it on myself first, and, both on myself and with children, over many years, have never had an issue. I have no idea why mine were fine and others’ reports are different. Perhaps the large volume of paper – the ashes are, at the end of this, more paper than palm – is what made the difference. Regardless, it’s definitely worth testing an approximation of your mixture in advance.). Gather some ash into the small bowl with the spoon, and ash the person next to you. Have people practice the words “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” and have people go around the circle, ashing the person next to them. Finish by inviting the children to ash you. Being ashed by a group of children, reminding you that you are dust, is unfailingly an incredibly powerful experience for me.
9. Wash your hands. They will still be filthy, through the end of the next day. It’s seasonally appropriate.
Today I visited The Knitted Bible in its latest host site of Hampstead Parish Church. While St. Albans Diocese has an impressive fondness for knitted Bible stories – our cathedral’s large knitted Nativity, the smaller knitted Nativity and Noah’s Ark available to borrow from our Resource Centre, and many other knitted Bible sets around the Diocese – this goes beyond even our impressive yarn-based Biblical efforts.
It consists of around 35 scenes, from Creation to Jesus’s breakfast on the beach after his resurrection, each painstakingly re-created in yarn and stuffing, often with ingenious sets made of everything from kitchen roll to upside-down flower pots. (Please note: it does include the sacrifice of Isaac, without a huge amount of material provided about that story apart from “God wanted to see if Abraham would obey,” which is a simplistic reading that can be damaging to children’s ideas of God, and scary for them. Rabbis I have spoken with tend to interpret that story more as Abraham misunderstanding God, thinking God wants human sacrifice like the pagan gods of the time, and God stopping Abraham, clarifying he does not require human sacrifice. You may want to remove this scene from your display or provide additional material to give it context.)
The Knitted Bible was created in 2008 by over 40 people at St. George’s URC in Hartlepool. It is available for churches to borrow without charge – however, it’s booked up very far in advance. If you’re interested in borrowing it for your church in late 2021 or even 2022, contact information can be found here.
While that may seem far away, it’s definitely worth considering if this is something you might be interested in doing. I spoke with the stewards on site, the church’s administrator, and with the Rev. Jeremy Fletcher, Vicar of Hampstead. The stewards and the administrator told me they’ve received a marked increase in foot traffic in the church over the ten days the Knitted Bible has been in situ. The stewards said it’s been a wonderful point of engagement with the local community – the church school has brought several classes to visit, it’s been out during worship for people to look at and explore, and people of all ages have engaged with it.
Rev. Jeremy said, “lots of people have told me they expected to be charmed by it. And that they were surprised to find that they were both charmed and moved by it.” He suspects a lot of what’s so moving about it is the detail. Every person and animal is an individual, and has their own story to tell, and little details in the setup – from a steward in the act of pouring wine at the Wedding at Cana to the little foil tip on a Roman soldier’s spear – draw the viewer in and inspire wondering and imagination.
Visiting the Knitted Bible could serve as a springboard for follow-up activities as well, in schools, or church children’s/mixed age groups, such as:
- Make your own 3-d versions of Bible stories and display them alongside the knitted ones.
- Choose a character from one of the scenes and write the story from their point of view.
- Put together an assembly, or a presentation to the congregation, about your visit and/or one of the stories.
Here are some more photos. Maybe you’ll be inspired and create a knitted Bible – or at least a few scenes – of your own!
LIFE OF JESUS:
Think about a story or book that meant a lot to you as a child. What made it so special?
I ask this question at some of my workshops, to start a discussion about telling Bible stories in our groups. Often, the answers are very similar from one group to another – some of the most common are:
- There were characters I identified with.
- I loved the world it was set in and I wanted to live there.
- It gave me hope, or inspiration, or got me through a tough time.
- My grandmother read to me, and being in her lap and having her read me a story is a special reminder of our relationship.
- The person who told/read me that story clearly loved it, and their passion for that story was contagious.
All of these things about stories can help us think about how we pass on the stories of the Bible to children in our groups, and how we encourage parents and carers to read Bible stories at home. I have a Pinterest board of good Children’s Bibles or Bible stories – many of them are designed to be read aloud. The ones that work for under-5s can be given as gifts to Christening families if your church has the budget, and parents/carers can be encouraged to read a Bible story at bedtime. That special time with a beloved adult, hearing the stories of God’s people, will be treasured.
It’s also a reminder that the relationships we form, as children’s ministry leaders, are important. If we know, and care for, the children we tell stories to, our storytelling will have more impact, because it will come from a relationship of trust and love.
Another thing I take from this is how important it is that the Bible is full of diverse characters, and we need to include a broad range of them, for children to identify with. If we portray all Bible characters as perfect, obedient, brave, etc., we limit children’s ability to connect with the stories.
Moses was far from obedient to authority – he was a troublemaker for Pharaoh and other oppressors. Joseph went on a journey from arrogance to reconciliation. Ruth showed bravery and faithfulness in a new country not her own. Esther stood up and spoke truth to power, risking her life. Daniel stayed true to his own conscience, no matter what. Peter could never remember to think before speaking. John wasn’t afraid of having strong emotions. James was trying to follow Jesus while also feeling responsible for his little brother. Mary Magdalene wasn’t believed by her own friends when she told them what she’d seen. All of these are traits and experiences that children can relate to – let’s remember that we’re talking about real people in our stories, not idealised cardboard cut-outs!
The power of stories to get us through tough times, or give us hope, is also clearly relevant to our Biblical storytelling. The stories in the Bible are full of loss and pain, exile and despair – they tell the story of people who, in the words of the Beulah Land feltboard storytelling set, “lied and cheated and stole from each other, they fought and hurt and killed each other, and trampled the poor, and spoiled God’s earth, and worshipped gold and silver instead of God.” But the Bible also tells us that God never stops loving us, God never stops trying to save us, and that God has fought death for us, and won, and invites us to share in that new life in a Kingdom where death and suffering and cruelty are no more.
Often, we are afraid of some of these stories – and, in many cases, for good reason. The Bible is also full of what seems to be God-sanctioned genocide, and patriarchy, and the deaths of children as revenge for the sins of their parents. So we shy away from the tough stories, and give our children only the parable of the lost sheep, and the creation, and a sanitised version of the Christmas story without the politics of occupation and oppression. But that means we’re depriving our children of the very heart of the Gospel – that evil and oppression and cruelty are real, but that God’s love is stronger than them, and God will never abandon us. (What we leave out, and how, is a difficult question, and one that deserves more space than I can give it here.)
And let’s not forget to leave space for awe and wonder. I’ve heard this spoken in many ways in response to my question – and about books from The Famous Five to the Narnia Chronicles. That longing to be in that world, with those people, the way a book fires our imagination and gets us wondering. Creating that space for a child to explore the story for themselves, to make meaning out of it, and to play with it, is very important. This means we don’t need to draw a moral lesson from every story – the story itself can be the gift we give to children. Open questions like “I wonder …” questions can help your group explore what the story means without closing off the power of imagination. And providing response time that isn’t just reading comprehension or creating an identical craft can also encourage children to enter deeply into the world of story, and make it mean something to them.
For expansion on these ideas, I recommend Rebecca Nye’s “Children’s Spirituality: what it is and why it matters,” Gretchen Wolff Pritchard’s “Offering the Gospel to Children,” or Elizabeth F. Caldwell’s “I Wonder … engaging a child’s curiosity about the Bible.”
Oh, I wish there was one. However, I’ve found a few programmes over the last few years which have actually been very useful, with information, inspiration, and ideas that are easily related to what we do with children and families in church.
The first is “Babies: Their Wonderful World” – a three-part series in which famous studies in development are re-created and discussed, and a few new experiments are tried, with children up to 12 months. Unfortunately, the full episodes aren’t available at the moment, but a few good clips can be found here, and a fascinating bit about how some aspects of morality may be innate can be found here. (And yes, I asked on Twitter if they re-created the experiment with the blue square/yellow triangle roles reversed, and they confirmed they had, and babies chose the blue square when it was the “good” puppet.) If our sense of good and bad is innate, then that suggests our spirituality may be innate – what researchers like Rebecca Nye and John Westerhoff have suggested. In which case, what we’re doing in church is not filling up an empty vessel, who knows nothing about God, but helping a child understand and express a relationship, and a set of ideas about right and wrong, help and harm, which they possess from birth. This clip can be a good way of starting those conversations with your church groups.
Channel 4 thankfully keeps their programmes available on catch up for longer than the BBC, so you can still watch full episodes of their incredible “Old People’s Home for Four-Year-Olds.” This inter-generational experiment, in which a group of two-to-four-year-olds came into a residential care home, is a model of how mixing the generations helps us all. The parents get more adults who love their child, the elderly residents show benefits in physical and mental health from contact with children, and the children get love, care, and wisdom from older people. The implications for churches are obvious.
There is also a series called “The Secret Life Of Four-Year-Olds,” which now has expanded into series about 5- and 6-year-olds as well. It’s a lot of detail about a very narrow age group, but if this is your speciality area, it’s well worth a watch. You can find all 25 episodes here.
This isn’t a programme, but a useful clip: The Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney gave some children video cameras and they filmed what worship is like for them. An eye-opening “child’s-eye view” of an Anglican service. What do you notice?
And finally, sadly, there is “Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret.” It makes for harrowing watching, but it provides a vital glimpse into how church culture helped cover up the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball, and his abuse of young people in his care, and reminds us of how vital our Safeguarding responsibilities are. Watch it if you can, but if you know you can’t, that’s also fine. (Any current or historical Safeguarding issues relating to St Albans Diocese can be reported to our Diocesan Safeguarding team. You will be listened to and taken seriously.)
Are there any useful programmes I’ve forgotten?