This is an idea I got from Ann Sharp, the Early Years Advisor for Chelmsford Diocese. It can be used in Toddler Group worship, in the creche on Sundays – and, with a few “special occasion” additions, at baptisms and weddings with little children present.
Toddlers and little ones may have little patience for sitting still and listening to wordy prayers. Using pictures and movement, we can help them connect to God through prayer in a way that works with natural toddler-ness instead of against it.
Ann also pointed out that toddlers love choosing things, and they love sticking things onto boards with velcro. And the ones are are in Nursery or Reception are probably doing lots of this during the week, so they already know how it works!
I made one myself, in less than an hour and a half from start to finish. I only had to buy the foamboard and velcro, so it cost me less than £10 to get the materials. Many churches will have much of this stuff already in situ.
You will need: a laminator, laminating pouches, a colour printer, A2 foamboard, velcro (I used strips, to cut to size), scissors, Pritt stick.
I decided to use “LET US PRAY” as the centre image, to help teach them the language we use in church every week. You could use “PRAYER BOARD” or “TIME TO TALK TO GOD” or any number of things. I flanked the LET US PRAY image with a group of children and an image of the Holy Spirit.
I used Google for images (See Educational exception to copyright law here).
Then I chose the images for the prayers themselves. I decided on:
A church (I used a picture of our own church, which the children would recognise)
A family (I might replace the image I used with one that includes grandparents)
A group of children playing (I deliberately chose one with children of different ethnicities)
A child looking sad.
A child holding a pet.
A row of houses (I used a street in our parish – check local estate agents’ websites)
A child in bed with a thermometer in their mouth and a teddy bear.
A gravestone with flowers on it.
For each image, I came up with one or two sentences to go with it:
We pray for our church, St. George’s. Help us to know you here and everywhere.
We pray for our families. Help us to take care of each other.
We pray for our friends and teachers and schools and nurseries and toddler groups.
Help everyone who is sad or lonely or scared.
We pray for our pets and all the animals.
We pray for everything in the whole wide world and universe.
We pray for our homes. Make them places where everyone is safe and loved.
We pray for everyone who is ill or feeling poorly.
We pray for people and animals who have died. We miss them even though we know they are safe in heaven with you.
I printed out the images and prayers, cut them out, and stuck the prayers on the back of each image. Then I laminated everything and cut it out again.
I stuck the central images to the foamboard with Pritt stick, and cut velcro to size in several rows around it (checking with some of the bigger images that there was space between rows)
This is another reason why strips of velcro might be better than dots – they’re bigger! Very small children might not have the hand-eye coordination to match up small dots of velcro.
When this was done, I stuck the other side of the velcro to the backs of the laminated images, and we were done!
How to use it: I’m planning to put all the images in a drawstring bag, and bring it out with “I wonder what’s in here … !” Under-5s love seeing what’s in the bag/box/etc. They can then choose one to put up, hand it to the leader, who reads the prayer on the back, and hands it back to the child to put on the board. Your group may not have the attention span for all nine prayers every time, so you may only have four or five per session. That’s fine!
If you use the same closing words every time, such as “Lord, in your mercy / Hear our prayer,” you may want to add those to your board.
This could also be something an older group of children/teenagers could make for your younger group.
I did this with Diocesan staff yesterday, with the idea that it could easily work with children’s groups.
Because it requires an understanding of abstract ideas and metaphor, it probably would work best with kids age 7 and up – into adolescence. It could also be used in All-Age Worship, if you could think of a way to include the tinies.
You will need: a picture of a dove, coloured strips of paper, markers.
So, using the “gifts of the Spirit” as my inspiration, I drew an outline of a dove on some A1 easel paper and put it in the middle of our worship space. Then, to begin our prayer time, I read the following:
“God, you are three in one, and through your Spirit you have poured on all your people an abundance and diversity of gifts. Help us to know your Spirit, brooding over the world as a mother bird over her children, nurturing and inspiring, encouraging and guiding.”
Then I explained: for each question, if you would like to, you may write a response, using as few or as many of your papers as you would like. As I read the closing prayer, you may bring up your responses and place them around the image of the Spirit – perhaps as feathers, or as flames, or simply as prayers left before God. If you would like to keep your prayer private, you may fold your paper over, and I ask that everyone respects that privacy.
I read each of these questions and waited in silence until I could only hear 1 or 2 markers still scratching, before saying “Lord, in your mercy …”
What gifts are you thankful for from others today?
Lord, in your mercy …
All: hear our prayer
What gifts do the church, and the world, need today?
Lord, in your mercy …
All: hear our prayer
What gifts do your friends, family, and community need today?
Lord, in your mercy …
All: hear our prayer
What gifts do you have that you can use in your work and personal life today?
Lord, in your mercy …
All: hear our prayer
What gifts would you ask the Spirit to help you make more of?
Lord, in your mercy …
All: hear our prayer
Then I reminded everyone they could bring their prayers forward as I read the following, slightly adapted from Teresa of Avila’s famous prayer:
Christ has no body now but ours. No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Ours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Ours are the hands, ours are the feet, ours are the eyes, we are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but ours.
The dove, with all our prayers, remained there in the middle of our circle as we celebrated communion.
You could easily incorporate music into this prayer idea.
On Friday, I had the privilege of visiting one of the many wonderful Messy Churches in our Diocese. This one was at Kensworth, and is run by a team of volunteers, along with the Vicar, Nicola.
Here are some tips I picked up. Very few are unique to this one Messy Church, but by showing how they work in this particular context, I hope I’ll nudge out some of the underlying principles that you might be able to apply to your Messy Church (or Sunday morning, or monthly Family Service, or …)
Messy Church is held at the church hall, three miles from the church itself. Why? Because the church hall is just across the road from the primary school. Messy Church begins at 3:30 pm on a Friday. As Nicola said, “you can bring the kids straight from school, it’s Friday, it doesn’t matter if their uniforms get dirty.” You get to socialise with the other parents, and by the time you get home your kids have been fed and your Friday night is much more relaxed. By starting with the thought “what do our families need?” rather than “how can we make people come to church?” the job of getting people in the door is much easier.
There was a broad variety of activities. We were doing the Lost Sheep, and there were art projects, cooking projects, and sensory tables. I ended up spending most of my time at a table with three tubs – one had slime, one had rice, and one had water gel beads. Toy sheep had been hidden in all the trays, and kids spent ages sifting their hands through and finding the sheep. (They also poured the gel beads in the slime, got rice in the gel bead tray, and made a proper mess). While we were doing this, we chatted about school and families and life, and also talked about what it felt like to get lost and to be found again. Another table made sheep biscuits, another drew pictures of themselves enfolded in the arms of God – and more. By providing a variety of activities, children of different ages, with different skills and interests, were catered for. Messy Church has lots of resources to make this easy for you, so do make sure you get their magazine and check their website regularly.
The worship was real worship. The story was told clearly, and in detail – and the story is the centrepiece of worship. Kids relate to stories, adults need to hear them again and understand them in new ways, and they’re the source of all the symbols and imagery we were exploring during the free choice time. If we gloss over the story, nothing else makes sense! And, importantly, the story was given CONTEXT. Nicola made it clear that this was a story Jesus told. Imagine a kid coming to Messy Church with little Christian background, and hearing “David was little and fought Goliath and won” … okay, who was David? Why should we care? Why isn’t Jesus in this story? A few sentences to explain where the story fits in can help. There were songs that are repeated every session, so people knew them, and a prayer written by the original Messy Church group.
Adults participated in worship. The songs chosen were accessible for everyone – adults didn’t feel silly joining in. Beware “cutesy” songs, or songs that require participants to “perform” in a way that adults and older children might be reluctant to get involved in. Also, the fact that this Messy Church is in a pretty small space for its numbers probably helped the worship – in that adults and children had to sit together. You couldn’t have a situation where children sit at the front for worship and adults disappear to the back of the church, twenty yards away, to chat and look at their phones. How could you use your space to naturally push everyone together? How could you encourage adults to interact with their children during worship, to help them get involved? How could you use music and prayer in ways accessible to all ages?
There were connections, and apathway. Just like in Sunday church, worship included an announcement time. This Messy Church has started “Messy Holy Communion,” to help families make the leap to sacramental worship, and to connect with the church building three miles away. It was made very clear, though, that the next “Messy Holy Communion” WAS MESSY CHURCH – they were being invited to their community’s gathering, which would also include people from the Sunday congregation, not to something different and scary. Leaflets were placed by the door with information. There was also a signup sheet for “Messy Minus The Kids” – a social gathering for the adults, and a “Beyond Messy Church” youth group signup sheet. While a few teenagers were present as helpers, it’s good to have something available for your kids who feel they “grow out of” Messy Church and who don’t want to get involved as helpers, if possible.
Finding the right balance between service recipient and community member. If your Messy Church was started by a group of volunteers from the original church, it’s easy to fall into an “us/them” mindset. “We, the church, are service providers – they, the families, are recipients.” This is important – you’re loving and serving your community, and as the volunteer leader Kathie said to me, “this is a place where the parents can relax and not have to do anything, just be taken care of. And they’re all doing the school run while we’re setting up, anyway.” However, you also need to think of long-term sustainability if your volunteer team is primarily elderly or could get burned out without new blood. Maybe a few parents could be encouraged to help once a term, on a rota, so not every one is helping every time. One dad in this Messy Church had taken the day off work to cook the dinner for everyone! Another mum said to me, “now, with my kids coming here, I can’t volunteer to help, but when they’re in secondary school I’d love to come back on my own and pitch in.” One thing that distinguishes a church from many other places in our lives is that it’s our community – we belong, and that means we’re part of making it happen. Providing opportunities for your “service recipients” to become “community members” is one of the ways in which Messy Church can be Church.
There was a donations box at the door. Stewardship is another way in which Messy Church can be Church. If it’s our community, we support it in whatever way we can.
And a final note: None of this sprang up overnight – this Messy Church has spent years being developed, and there have been changes and adjustments along the way. So if you’re just getting started on your Messy Church (or family service, or holiday club, or …) journey, use these tips to help you build your own vision, for your own community and your own church’s gifts, and take it one step at a time! And as always, get in touch with me if you need help or guidance at any time.
UPDATE: I wanted to add a few comments from parents, which don’t fit neatly into the list above, but are worth thinking about.
“We’ve been to Sunday church a few times, but here it’s more relaxed and we know we’ll be made welcome.” (this is a very welcoming Sunday church, incidentally – but parents are always a bit nervous about their kids’ behaviour, and whether it’s okay!)
“We heard about it through a leaflet at school – and then a few of her friends started coming and invited us to join them.”
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.
We now have a Light Box, which is available for you to borrow!
It comes with 85 letters, numbers, and symbols. This means you sometimes need to get creative if you need more of a particular letter than they have available.
You can use it in worship …
You can use it as part of a prayer station …
You can use it an an event or service if you want people to connect online with a hashtag …
Or you could use it to publicise something coming up …
You could also simply have it out for children to play with and make their own messages. You could take photos of every message/prayer/etc children make, and put these together as a collage for display or a slideshow to gather these prayers at the end of a session.
This could work for All-Age worship, Junior Church, holiday club, confirmation class, youth group, and more. It’s a way of encouraging the congregation to take a more active role in the prayers of the community, and it also means one less thing to organise/write ahead of time.
We’re going to try it at our Harvest Festival.
Set up a table near the entrance of your space, with paper for each type of prayer, Post-its, and pens/markers. I also added a little object for some of them, to make it interesting and more visual.
People and animals we love who have died
People who are ill or need help
Our church / our community / Christians around the world
THANK YOU FOR …
You might also want to add a note that young children can draw their prayers and tell an adult what to write for them.
Then, during the service, simply read off what people have written for each section. Start with “we pray for …” and then read the heading, and then each Post-it note. Finish each section with your standard closing, e.g. “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”
You might want to play background music during this, to make it more sensory – either live or recorded. Here are some good tracks if you want to use recorded music (copyright may apply for use in worship – do check):
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!
I’ve just bought some new books for the Diocesan Resource Centre – they’ll be officially catalogued soon, but you can borrow them informally immediately if you want.
Diddy Disciples is a wonderful resource to help you worship with babies and toddlers. You can use it on Sunday mornings in the creche, or in toddler group, or anywhere else you meet with this age group. It’s very user-friendly for the adults, and physically engaging for the kids. You can find out more (and see sample videos and materials) on their website.
The Story of King Jesus, by Ben Irwin is a beautiful re-telling of THE WHOLE BIBLE, from Genesis to Revelation, in child-friendly language. Full of awe and wonder, this book is especially good for situations where you might only have one or two sessions with a particular group – school visits (“this is what the Christian story is”), holiday clubs, etc – though of course it’s great for Junior Church, Messy Church, etc. as well.
Outdoor Church, by Sally Welch is a terrific and accessible resource for helping churches connect with God’s creation.
It’s ideal for rural churches, but her introduction includes ideas for how to make it work even in churches with very limited outdoor space (or none at all – suggestions are included on how to bring the outdoors in).
Each season has five sessions included, focusing on Bible stories and parables. There is an emphasis on COLLECTING, CREATING, FEASTING, and CELEBRATING, which allows room for people with different spiritual styles and gifts to participate.
If you would like to borrow any of these books, get in touch on email@example.com . And I’d love to hear your recommendations – what should we add to our Resource Centre to help your ministry?
The Diocese now has a LABYRINTH, which is available for churches, schools, and other groups to borrow for use in their own programmes.
If you’re thinking, “what is a labyrinth?,” this short article can tell you a bit about their history and how they can be used for prayer.
Here is ours – in situ in a meeting room at Diocesan Office. It will look even prettier in your church, your churchyard, your school hall …
How can I borrow it?
Simply contact firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com and let us know when you’d like it. If it’s available, you can come and collect it.
I don’t have an enormous vehicle and seven weight-lifters to help me transport it – what do I do?
That’s okay! The labyrinth is made of plastic-backed canvas, so it’s very lightweight and it rolls up easily. It can fit in the passenger seat or boot of most cars, even small ones, and I can personally testify that a small woman who doesn’t work out very much can comfortably carry it under her arm for a ten-minute walk.
How do we use it?
There are no right or wrong ways to use a labyrinth. The simplest way is to walk through the path, slowly, pausing whenever you feel like it, and then walk back out.
You can also provide meditations or prayer activities at certain points along the path.
You can encourage people to walk the labyrinth barefoot.
You can line the path with electric tealights and dim the room the labyrinth is in.
You can play music, have incense burning, or have other sensory elements added.
You can use it as part of a story, as a response to a story, or as prayer.
You can just have it available when your church is open, or deliberately use it as part of a service or activity.
It’s up to you!
The only ground rules I would recommend you make clear to children are those you would do with any physical activity – giving other people space, not pushing or shoving, and a reminder that a labyrinth is a quiet and peaceful time, not a race.
Is there a leaflet to go with it?
Here’s the text that goes with it in its current space in the cathedral. You are free to use or adapt this as you like:
Our lives are like a long trip.
Sometimes the path is wide and easy, sometimes it’s narrow and hard.
Sometimes we feel far away from where we’re going, but actually we might be nearby. Sometimes we feel near to where we want to be, but we’re actually far.
People of all ages can walk this labyrinth.
You might want to think about all the places your feet have travelled through your life, and pray for the people in those places.
There are a few mistakes in this labyrinth. Maybe they remind you of times when things have gone wrong, and you’ve had to try to fix them.
Maybe they remind you that our lives, and ourselves, aren’t perfect, and that’s okay.
A labyrinth is a place to spend time walking with God. Take your time. Pause. Breathe. Pray.
I’d like to make my own, since I don’t live in your Diocese or I want to use it without having to play far ahead. How can I do it?
Here’s the tutorial I used. The total cost was about £50.00 – two dust sheets, duct tape to hold them together (I didn’t spend time sewing, like in the tutorial), paint, string. I had to adapt it slightly because I used two dust sheets and that meant the circle had to be an oval instead.
On Saturday, I was asked to lead an hour and fifteen minutes of worship at a retreat/meeting day for the Readers in our Diocese. The ideas I used were supposed to engage the adults present on the day while also inspiring them with things they could take home and use with children in their churches. So they had to be TRULY All-Age!
I led about half an hour of worship at the beginning – the slides for this can be downloaded by clicking here: Readers Retreat Day. For the story, I used Bibliologue, which I’ve written about on this blog before. The song I used is a Hebrew melody, using language from Isaiah as a prayer for reconciliation – appropriate to the story of the Prodigal Son. If you don’t know it, you can hear a tinny recording of me singing it in my office here. The two parts can be sung together, as well – I had the congregation try this. The Lego prayers referred to in the slides can be found here.
Then we had about half an hour to explore prayer stations, which I’ve detailed below. During this time, I played my YouTube Lent playlist, to create a contemplative atmosphere.
In putting together the prayer stations, I was loosely guided by three things:
The different parts of the story. Some had quotes on them from the story to show a focus on that particular element. Some were more general.
The four spiritual styles detailed by Dave Csinos in his book “Children’s Ministry That Fits,” and based on work by several others: Word, Emotion, Symbol, Action.
A model from a colleague who told me her prayer life operates in three ways – inward (ourselves), outward (others), and upward (God). (She may have got this from someone else – if so, please let me know!)
At the end, I gathered the group back together and talked about how the Prodigal Son is an apt parable for Lent – it shows a time of alienation, ending in reconciliation. Just like the son and father are reconciled at the end, we are reconciled with God at Easter. I read the following from an essay by Debie Thomas on the “Journey With Jesus” blog:
“How exactly did Jesus spend his time? Was he tempted 24/7? Did he walk for miles each day, or camp out in one spot? Where did he sleep? What was the silence like, hour after hour after hour? Did he break it up by humming, laughing, or shouting? Did he star gaze? Play with birds? Chase lizards? As the days stretched on and on, did he fear for his life? Question his sanity? Wish to die? Mark — given, as ever, to brevity — leaves all of these questions unanswered. But the few details he does include in his account are telling, and they give us much to cling to as we face deserts in our own lives. I’d like to focus on three:
Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness.
The struggle is long.
There are angels in the desert. “
Then I said that we are still in that desert time of Lent, but we know Jesus is with us even there, even in the desert. We closed with this wonderful video and some wondering questions.
So now, on to the prayer stations …
I focused several stations on the opening part of the story – the idea of leaving home and going to a distant land. Here, I invited people to think about those who are forced to leave home because of war, and to reflect on what they would bring if they had to leave home quickly. There were then ways to take action on refugee issues.
With children, I might not provide a “donate now” text code.
Lots of people wrote prayers for countries where they had connections, or where there is violence. When I’ve done this with children, they often pray for the places their families come from, or places they have been on holiday.
This was a very popular station. The cardboard outlines of people are available from Baker Ross, and are a very flexible resource to have on hand.
This was also a very popular station … I can’t imagine why!
There is not just solemnity in the story, but also rejoicing. So I thought of the image of a party, and went with cake and balloons. Participants were asked to think of something that was going well, and write it with a Sharpie on a balloon. The balloon was left on the altar as an offering of thanksgiving, and then people served themselves cake.
I provided one cake that was Gluten/Dairy free.
One thing I learned … make sure you have a plan for what to do with all the balloons afterwards! If you’re not able to pop them afterwards (we had lunch, then a Eucharist, so I couldn’t), bring a big bag to carry them out in! I did multiple trips to the car, and my back seat is now full of unpopped balloons …
For people who prefer contemplative silence, we had a side chapel available, with the words of reassurance given to the older brother – “child, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” – and some glittery candles. These are electric candles, also available from Baker Ross, and great for staying safe with under-5s. Older groups may wish to use real candles, but still make sure an adult is on hand.
For those who pray best by talking and sharing with others, the Table Talk sets are great! These are available to borrow from Diocesan office – we also have special sets designed for use with Messy Church and for use with teens. Because this was a bought rather than custom-made resource, this prayer station wasn’t specifically about the story. But the fact that it has questions about the nature of God, and friendship/relationship, means it addresses some of the same questions the story does.
This station was about the story as a whole – and again, all these resources are available from Diocesan office. We had fuzzy felt, “The Lost” storybag with its wooden figures of the story, and the wonderful knitted pigs made for us by the Mothers’ Union. I printed out a copy of the story and encouraged people to read it and play with the materials.
And finally, there was a very general open-ended art table, with some ideas to encourage people who might feel stuck when told to “make anything.”
Many of these ideas can be adapted VERY easily for use with other stories – and could be used in Junior Church, Messy Church, All-Age Worship, and more.