I was honoured to be asked to speak at St. Martin’s in Shenley for their pet blessing service last Sunday. That’s me in the back row, holding the angry-looking orange cat.
The service was warm and welcoming, and friendly for all ages – we heard the Creation story (with pictures), sang hymns both modern and traditional, and had time to reflect and pray for, and with, each other.
I also learned a fabulous way to add movements to the grace, which I’ll be stealing for my own ministry. It goes as follows:
May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (arms out in front of you)
and the love of God (arms crossed over your chest)
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (hold hands with someone close to you)
be with us all evermore, AMEN. (lift up your joined hands)
Here’s the talk I gave – you’ll need some Play-doh (enough for everyone to have some), but that’s it. Feel free to borrow this for animal/Creationtide services. Thanks go to Sarah Green, the Children and Families Worker at Homewood Road URC, for the idea – the bulk of the credit goes to her.
All-Age Talk on Creation and Pets
Clarify there are no right or wrong answers to wondering questions, and that it’s okay to wonder quietly and not say anything out loud.
I wonder what your favourite part of the story was.
I wonder what the most important part of the story was.
I wonder why God made the world.
I wonder what it feels like to make something.
Somehow ensure everyone has Play-Doh – with large groups, you may want to pass this out ahead of time.
The Bible says we are made in God’s image – that means we’re like God. We can make things, like God. We can love, like God. We can make choices, like God. Our creativity – whether with Play-Doh or paint or problem-solving at work or home or school, or anything else – is God-given. It’s special and important.
Now I would like you to choose somebody near you to take care of your Play-Doh sculpture for you until the end of this talk.
Did you choose somebody you know? Someone you trust? How does it feel to give something you’ve made to someone else to look after?
When God made the world, after allllll that time, he gave it to us to look after. The plants, the air, the water, and these precious animals we’ve brought today to be blessed – they are gifts from God, a sign of his trust.
What does it mean to take care of something?
Now I’d like you to look very very closely at the thing you’re taking care of, which was made by someone else. Can you see fingerprints in it, from where they’ve touched it?
The fingerprints of the one who made something are all over it.
Every one of us is made by God. Individually, uniquely. God’s fingerprints are all over us. And so, because we are like God, we leave fingerprints on the things we touch, and, like God, we have a choice. We can choose to use our hands, to leave our marks on the world – by feeding the animals we love, by watering plants, picking up litter that is hurting God’s beautiful earth, putting things in the recycling instead of the rubbish, by touching animals gently and in ways that are loving – or we can choose to leave fingerprints on the world that are harmful – hurting animals and each other, destroying God’s beautiful creation. We have that choice.
When we bless these animals later, we’re putting our fingerprints on them in place of God, because God’s body isn’t here right now, so it’s OUR job to take care of them FOR God. So I ask you, when you bring your animal to be blessed, or as you sit and watch the animals, think of how the love and care between people and animals is part of the job God has given us, and a way of being like God.
And when you leave this place, during the week to come, I invite you to pause. And look closely. At the falling leaves. At the whiskers on your cat’s face. At your child’s fingers as they sleep. At the arms and hands of the adult who takes care of you. Because when we pause, and look closely at the world around us, we can see God’s fingerprints.
Often, a visual focus can help children engage in worship, or can illustrate an idea or a story. Below are some pictures that might be useful for your groups – all were taken by me, so you’re free to save and use them however you’d like. All I ask is that you credit me (Margaret Pritchard Houston) and if you use them at an event you’re charging admission for, to get in touch and ask about fees (email me). But you can use them without payment for worship, Messy Church, Junior Church, etc.
I’ve included some suggested topics, but feel free to use them for other ideas as well!
To download an image, click on it to view it full size, then right-click and choose “save image as …”
Here are a few from my “journey” folder.
These could be used for All Souls or for other events looking at death and resurrection.
Here are some on “light”:
Some photos of the natural world that could be used for any number of things:
And a few random bits and bobs – ashes, home, water, sheep, etc:
Hope these are useful – and I’d love to hear about the creative ways you use them.
A few months ago, I put together all the random natterings I do in my live training events on “the dreaded ‘shhhhhh'” and it’s been my most popular post ever. You can read it here.
One of the other things I get asked about a lot is COMMUNICATION, and so I reckoned I’d put together all the random natterings I do in live events about that topic as well.
For much of this, I have to thank the Revd Dr Sandra Millar, of the Life Events team, for the basic training she’s given in follow-up and invitation, based on her research and her marketing background. You can find the Life Events stuff here.
I also have to thank Becky Guynn, the Families’ and Children’s Minister at Christ Church in Bedford, who did some stuff on marketing at one of our Getting Started events.
Okay. So, how do I get people to come to church?
You invite them.
And then you invite them again.
I know that sounds simple, and fundamentally, it is. Think about where you’re initially making contact with people, then make sure you gather their contact information (with their consent), and then let them know about what’s going on, that they might be interested in.
Those are the basics.
Here’s an example of how it could work in practice:
When a family comes to you for baptism, you have a box for them to tick on the baptism application, saying it’s okay to contact them about events at your church. Once that application is received and hopefully the box is ticked, you add them to an email mailing list (for example, in Mailchimp).
You also have little sheets of paper at things like Harvest Festival and your Crib Service, which people are handed when they come in, and say something like, “welcome to our Harvest Festival! We’re so glad you’re here. We’d love to invite you to other events – if this is okay, please fill in your details below.”
A sidesperson is on duty to gather in these slips as people leave the church at the end of the service, and pass them on to be added to the mailing list.
When you have an event coming up – e.g. a Mothering Sunday service – you send out email reminders to everyone who’s allowed you to have their details. You may send out one big mailing, or you may change it slightly for different audiences. Send out a reminder maybe a month in advance, another a week in advance, another with 48 hours to go. Having templates or standardised wording can make this as easy as possible. (nb: for privacy reasons, if you’re using regular email and not a programme like Mailchimp, put your own email address in the ‘To’ field and have every other email address in the BCC field, so nobody can see who else the email is going to.)
Okay, so print media is dead and it’s all email now, is it?
Nope! You can also print out leaflets for your events, and, especially if you have a lot of foot traffic past your church, use your noticeboard. Dr. Millar says it takes seven different contacts for someone to take one action. Just think – you don’t book cinema tickets the second you first see an advert on the side of a bus, do you? You note the poster and think, “ooh, that looks good.” Then you see a preview, and go, “oh, yes, I must remember to go to that!” Then you see another poster. Then your friend mentions they’d like to see it, and you think, “yes, I keep meaning to see that!” And finally, eventually, you buy tickets.
If you have connections in the community, with schools or businesses, ask if you can leave leaflets out in their premises. Many chain coffee shops, and some supermarkets, also have Community Notice Boards where people are allowed to put up flyers. You can also, if you have the volunteers, individually leaflet every house in the parish, but this may be reserved for once or twice a year only.
Announce your event at services – and if you have multiple congregations, don’t assume they won’t be interested in each other’s events. If your Sunday morning congregation is doing an All-Age Mothering Sunday Service, your Messy Church families might like to come, and vice versa. Mention your church’s pancake party at your Baby and Toddler Group. Cross-pollinate your events.
Are there any places in the parish that might specifically be interested in this particular event? One church I’m working with is planning their first ever pet blessing service – if you have a veterinary surgery or a pet shop in your parish, get in touch with them and see if they can take leaflets or promote it for you.
A note about leaflets, from Becky Guynn – every leaflet should have your church’s logo on it, and contact information. Ideally, they should all be in the same colour scheme, and roughly the same layout. This will create a recognisable “brand” for people in your community – “oh yes, that church with the red and orange lettering, and the logo with a boat on it – I’ve seen their stuff around.” Our memories are very visual – make it easy for people to remember you and connect you with things they’ve seen before! See below for how I’ve put this into practice with some of our events:
There are also success stories of using paper invitations to invite baptism families back to events. The Church Print Hub has some ready-made ones you can buy and add your own details onto. If you have large numbers of baptisms, a small group could work on writing the invitations so it’s not the vicar doing it all – possibly the PCC could spend 15 minutes of a meeting doing this.
What happens after the event itself?
There’s stuff you can do even at the event itself. Not just gathering in new contact details, but taking the time to mention what you’re doing next, and invite people.
So if you have families who have come to a Harvest Festival, include the date of your Remembrance Sunday service, or your Crib Service, or whatever is your next big thing, in the materials on the day itself, and mention it during the service. You can also pitch your Toddler Group, your Messy Church, or your wonderful Sunday morning services.
After the event, you begin again – add the new contacts to your mailing list, print off new leaflets for your next thing, and start getting the word out.
That sounds like a lot of work.
It may take some time to make sure it all gets set up – to create a basic leaflet template, set up a mailing list, brief the sidespeople on gathering in contact details, figure out how to use Mailchimp. But once the system is in place, it’s simply doing the same thing over and over again for each event. It becomes much more routine.
If you want a short video tutorial on how to use Mailchimp, you can find it here.
Do I have to know all about Facebook and Twitter now in order to get people to come to church?
Social media is useful, but not essential. However, here are a few ways you can use it that might be helpful:
If your local area has its own Facebook group, where people get together routinely to complain about potholes, ask about car boot sales, get recommendations for plumbers, and publicise their Pilates studio, why not join it? Don’t just use it to post adverts for your church and run – engage in conversations about other topics, and when your church is doing something, post about it there. You might get some sarcasm in the comments section, but people have endured worse.
If your church has a Facebook page, use it to promote your events, but recognise it will mostly be seen by people who already “like” it. You can make the most of this by setting up Facebook Events from your page, inviting everyone who likes your page, and encouraging them to invite others. You’re most likely to be reaching parents, not young people themselves, on Facebook.
Twitter is useful primarily for conversations and connections, rather than to flog a specific event. If you engage with it regularly, and reliably, and get to know people, and build a following, you may find you start getting an audience for when you do post information about events – but this is a long-term strategy, not a quick win.
What about our website?
For most people under 40 – so this includes a lot of parents – they will Google you before they contact you. This means your website is your new front door.
Make sure the front page – the VERY FRONT PAGE – has:
Where you are and how to find you.
Your service times.
Any upcoming special events – and I don’t mean your Holy Week schedule from 2011.
The contact details for getting in touch with the vicar or parish office.
You get bonus points if you have a photo on your front page that has people in it, and not a beautiful panoramic image of an empty building.
And you might want to consider including a “first time in church?” page, easily accessible from the main page. Ally Barrett’s blog has some tips on how to make a good one.
Your weekly newsletter, and the 10,000-word essay on the history of the church building, can be a few clicks away. They’re not what first-timers need.
Okay, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. This seems like a lot to do. What do I do first?
Establish a system for INVITATION, COLLECTING DETAILS, and SIGNPOSTING, which you can then repeat ad nauseum every single time. This checklist might help.
So you have a family-friendly event coming up! Hurrah! Have you:
BEFORE THE EVENT:
Made a leaflet, with the church’s logo, and basically the same layout and colour scheme as all your other ones, and contact details?
Sent an initial “hey, we’re doing this thing!” email to everyone on your mailing list?
Distributed the leaflet around your community, to every business/organisation/school you have a connection with?
Put it up in coffee shops, supermarkets, your noticeboard? If people hire your church hall, will they see it when they come in and out?
Sent a second, follow-up, “hey, we’re doing this thing!” email?
Sent paper invitations if appropriate?
Announced the event in all your services and groups?
Prepared “we’d love to contact you” sheets for people who come to the event to give you their details?
Figured out what your next family-friendly event is, after this one?
Sent a final “we’re doing this thing, really soon!” email?
AT THE EVENT:
Briefed the sidespeople, so they know to pass out and collect back in the “we’d love to contact you” sheets?
Announced the next event after this one?
AFTER THE EVENT:
Added any new contact details you gathered from the event to your mailing list?
Started the process again for your next event?
This is simply a question of building habits. Once you get used to it, it will become routine, and people will get more used to hearing from you, which means you’ll be higher in their minds! Good luck, and be persistent!
The rules were so simple – you mixed up the cards and set them out, face-down. You took turns turning over two cards; if they matched, you got to keep them. If not, you had to turn them back over. It’s gently competitive, hard to cheat at, can be played over and over without new equipment, and boosts memory and concentration skills.
It’s also a great way to reinforce the imagery of Bible stories.
But why not make your own? With card, an internet connection, a printer, scissors, and some glue, you can make unique concentration games for any Bible story or festival that has a variety of interesting images.
Here’s the set I made for Christmas:
If you want it to last longer, you should laminate the cards.
As always, when working with images, it’s important to keep a few things in mind. First of all, I’m not an expert on “fair use” of images – obviously, nobody’s making money off this set I made, but if you want to be on the safe side, use Wikimedia Commons for pictures that are free to use, or get a subscription to a clip art or stock photo site.
Secondly, I deliberately used photos for many of these to make the images more vivid – paintings are wonderful (see my previous post for some ideas on using paintings in Junior Church) but photos can help remind us that these were real people! (As can paintings that creatively re-set Bible stories in modern settings … but I’m getting off topic). The image of the shepherd is a modern Palestinian shepherd, and Mary is from the film The Nativity (it’s the same actress from Whale Rider.)
Thirdly, I included a few images they won’t already be familiar with, in the hopes that this game will inspire questioning and learning. The rose is not something we normally associate with Christmas. The blog, “The Jesus Question”, has a wonderful explanation of how rose imagery is used at Christmas by both Catholics and Protestants – with pictures, song lyrics, video clips, and more. The writer there says:
“There does arise one cohesive ‘Christmas Rose’ image: A plant (the Tree of Jesse, …), springing up from Israeli soil. God is the seed, Jesse and others (Abraham, Moses, David, etc.) are the roots, Mary is the stem, and Jesus is the crowning blossom. All the people in the lineage of Christ helped bring him into the world and make up this giant, leafy, flowering plant. And now non-Jews are being graciously grafted in (Romans 11).”
This game could also be included in a children’s corner in church, or as an activity in Messy Church, or as a prayer station in All-Age Worship …
What other festivals could you make concentration games for? What images might you use?
We had our Harvest Festival at my church last Sunday, and we added a few prayer stations. Some were inspired by Mina Munns’s work on Flame Creative Kids .
This is a congregation that doesn’t get up and move around. So we’ve learned that if we want people to engage with prayer stations, we need to find places where they’re already naturally walking past them in worship. We had:
An All-Age Prayer Station at the entrance to the church. This created a visual focus as people came into the church – something to signal a) a shift from outside towards sacred space, and b) the theme of the service. The rug is one we use in our Under-5s Sunday School and our toddler groups; it’s from Hope Education.
2. An Under-5s sensory prayer table in our Pray and Play area. There are touch-and-feel books about Creation, a tub full of plastic toy animals, and some bread and fruit to try. (There was a bin discretely present, as well, as toddlers don’t eat neatly.) We used a low table, so they could reach.
3. An All-Age (in practice, it was mostly 5-to-15s who used it) prayer space near the candle stand. People walk past the candle stand on the way back from communion, and often pause to light a candle. We’ve found people will sometimes engage with another prayer station in this space, at that time. It’s also near where the children sit together for the Liturgy of the Word in our All-Age services, so they used it a lot during that time, when “sitting still for talking” became too much and they needed something to do with their hands to help them engage.
The tree outlines and the leaf stamps are from Baker Ross.
Recently I had the privilege of doing a workshop on Starting Children’s Ministry at the Diocese’s “Leading Your Church Into Growth” conference, and also a lecture on “From Childhood to Maturity” in BELIEF Bedford’s “stages of life/faith” series.
The slides for both these talks are below.
The LYCiG slide makes reference to a few “rules” when it talks about communication with families. Since I don’t explain those on the slides themselves, here’s a short summary:
The First Date rule: you can find more about that here. Basically, the idea is that after a first contact, like a first date, SOMEONE has to make the call to see if you want to see each other again. With the church/family relationship, that might as well be you! The family might be nervous about approaching the church, or just might keep forgetting to get around to it. Send them an invitation to something – make it as easy as possible for them to come back.
The Debenhams rule: I stole this one from Sandra Millar’s Baptism Matters talk – when you go to a shop and buy something, if you give them their email address, they will keep you on their mailing list until YOU ask to be taken off. They will never say, “oh well, Jane Smith hasn’t been back to Debenhams for two years, guess she’s not interested, let’s take her off our list.” The church, however, often does just this – and when many families say they come to church for Christenings but then won’t come back regularly until their children hit school age, this is really self-defeating.
The nightclub lesson: Another one from Sandra Millar. We who are used to going to church, and feel comfortable there, need to remember how scary it is for people who aren’t familiar with the culture and what happens there. You might feel unsure of yourself going into a betting shop or a hot new nightclub (or maybe not – I don’t judge), so remember those feelings of uncertainty and think how you can help people feel comfortable and like they know what to do when they come to church.
The catch and release rule: This is about the importance of getting contacts at every event where you have families. Your crib service, your Harvest festival, your Messy Church – get the details of families and then add them to mailing lists, inviting them back for whatever events are family-friendly. Invite your Messy Church families to your crib service, invite your Christening families to Messy Church – if someone finds you from one part of your church, grab their contact details and then invite them to everything.
Those of you responsible for sorting out All-Age Harvest services may have felt your heart sink when you saw this year’s readings – bits from Deuteronomy and 2 Corinthians that have little to no context, and no narrative, and some similarly difficult bits from the Gospels – teachings and sayings rather than stories.
I’ve written a short skit to put the Epistle reading into some context and provide a visual focus. You probably wouldn’t need more than 10 minutes’ rehearsal to make everyone feel confident doing this, and the three participants could be all different ages.
You’ll need a table and a chair, and a piece of paper to be the letter.
WRITING A DIFFICULT LETTER
A skit for Harvest Festival, Year A, based on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15
PAUL is sitting at a desk.
Narrator: Today we join Paul, about 20 years after Jesus has died and risen again. Paul is writing a letter to one of the many churches he has helped to start.
Titus: Hello, Paul.
Paul: Ah, Titus – just the person I wanted to see.
Titus: I’m off to Corinth soon – you said you had a letter for the church there that you wanted me to bring?
Paul: Yes. They’ve promised a large gift to help the poorer churches, and all the saints there, and I need you to collect it. I’ve told them you’re coming, and that you hope to collect this gift.
Titus: That’s a difficult letter to get right.
Paul: Yes, nobody likes to be asked for money. They have promised, but I want to make sure they think of it as a gift and not as money I’m demanding from them.
Titus: Why does that matter? As long as the people who need the money get it, isn’t that the point?
Paul: It’s about relationships, though. Sharing what we have with one another is one way of showing our love. God cares about that, and he also cares about what’s in our hearts as well as our actions.
Titus: That’s true. Have you prayed about what to say?
Paul: I have. Can I read this, and ask what you think? Remember, the people in Corinth are very wealthy – they could give a lot, if they wanted – so I’m writing especially for them.
(Paul picks up the letter)
Narrator: A reading from the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 9.
Paul: The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under orders, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written,
“He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
his righteousness endures forever.”
God, who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity, which will produce thanksgiving to God through us; for the giving of this ministry not only supplies the needs of the saints but also overflows with many thanksgivings to God. Through the testing of this ministry you glorify God by your obedience to the confession of the gospel of Christ and by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Tomorrow is our day on Creative Holy Week for All Ages – so for those of you who can’t be there, here are all the resources.
A script for a walk-through of the whole Passion story. This is great for Messy Church or clubs or other settings where the children probably won’t be in church for Holy Week itself and may not get anything between Palm Sunday and Easter (or not even that). This is in the file labelled “Risen With Christ Resource Pack” and is based on the Prayer Walk in Gretchen Wolff Pritchard’s book Risen With Christ, which you can get here. (It’s worth dealing with the antiquated website and having to order by email or post – it’s a very useful book.)
A summary of how we used the imagery of trees throughout our worship in Lent, Holy Week, and Easter (also in the first file below).
A plan for an all-age Maundy Thursday service. This works for groups up to about 20 – for larger groups, you’ll need to rework it. We have our all-age service at 5:30 and our main Eucharist at 8 – the all-age service tends to attract families and older people who don’t want to be out late, while the Eucharist gets those in between.
The Beulah Land Exodus story script, which is used in the Maundy Thursday service.
The service sheet for my Children’s Stations of the Cross, which provides pretty much everything you need to re-create the service.
Materials which make the transition period of the Great Vigil of Easter much more interactive and dramatic. Many of these are also based on what’s found in Risen With Christ, which in turn was largely inspired by Rick Fabian and Don Schell, who planted the church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco (in this setup, the service starts with the kindling of the New Fire and then moves on to the Old Testament readings, instead of vice versa):
“The Noble Joseph” – Orthodox Bulgarian chant, used at the end of the Old Testament lessons.
The Litany of the Saints – used for procession to the font before the Exsultet.
The Easter Sermon of St. John Chrysostom – used after the Exsultet, culminating in the first proclamation of the resurrection
I set up two of my friends recently – they had a lot in common, they seemed to be looking for what the other one had to offer, and I thought they’d get on.
They agreed to meet up and they went out! There were candles, there was poetry … all the ingredients of a special occasion.
A few weeks later, I asked one of them if there had been a second date.
“No,” she said. “I really liked him! He gave all the right signals, but then he never called … guess he didn’t want me after all.”
So I went to my other friend and asked why he’d never arranged a second date.
“Well,” he said. “I organised the first one. I reckoned if she was keen, she’d call me, and set up a second date. It’s a shame – I really liked her.”
This story is made up. While I am, in fact, responsible for introducing TWO of the couples in my immediate circle of friends, this particular matchmaking venture didn’t take place. This is, in fact, a fictional version of the elusive courtship relationship your church has with young families.
Your church wants young families. Young families want a friendly and meaningful religious community where they feel welcomed, loved, cared for, and wanted. You meet up for a Crib Service – there are candles and poetry, and it’s a really special event. You smile at each other and say how lovely it was to meet up, and you’d love to do it again.
And then you both sit at home, waiting for the other to make the first move.
Research from the Christenings Project shows that families WANT the church to stay in touch. They want to be invited back to special events and to family-friendly services. But families are busier than ever, they’re nervous about their child’s behaviour in church, and they don’t know what’s happening at your church if you don’t tell them. So you need to make the effort. You need to reach out. You need to woo.
This Christmas Eve, why not hand families who come to your Crib Service a small sheet of paper with a space for them to write down their name, their child(ren)’s name(s), their email address, and whether they’d like to be contacted about future events? You know they like you – they’ve come to your Crib Service!
Have someone at the back of the church at the end of the service to gather these papers in and hand out something special to take home (a chocolate coin, a cut-out-and-keep Nativity, or something else). Then add these email addresses to your mailing list and invite them back for Candlemas … Mothering Sunday … Holy Week … toddler group … holiday club … and don’t take them off the list unless they ask you to! Conventional wisdom in the marketing world is that people need to be reminded of something seven times before they’ll take action on it. Keep inviting them back.
After all, that’s what God does, isn’t it? He goes out into the highways and the byways and says “we’re having a feast! Come on in!” And he keeps asking, and keeps asking, because he loves us so much and he wants us to be together, near him – he calls his people to be his Bride. Let’s model that persistent courtship in our churches.
(And if anyone wants my services as a real-life matchmaker, do get in touch. I can provide two happy couples as references! One couple was even introduced to each other, by me, in a church. So you never know …)