What about the boys?

Today being International Men’s Day, it’s a good time to talk about boys.

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Many churches, when I’m working with them on Junior Church, Messy Church, etc., will ask, “what about the boys?” When I ask for more information, they’ll say “they can’t sit still, they charge around, they make noise, they’re loud – how do we engage them in Junior Church or worship?”

Now, I’m firmly of the belief that we shouldn’t structure our children’s ministry around “boy stuff” and “girl stuff.” We should include a range of activities for different interests and levels of activity – some girls will be very fidgety, some boys will happily sit still and read for hours. And of course in any mixed-age group, age will play a huge role – a 9-year-old boy will be much more able to sit, listen, and participate in long discussions than a 6-year-old girl will.

So when we talk about “what about the boys?” in our children’s groups, what we’re really asking is, “what about the fidgety, physical, noisy children?” And they may be mostly boys, but if we phrase it as simply “a boy thing,” then a fidgety, physical girl may get the message that her way of being a girl is “wrong,” and a quiet, calm, boy may get the message that his way of being a boy is “wrong.”

So let’s take that “what about the boys?” question and ask … “what about the fidgety, noisy, physical kids?”

I have a group in my church right now that is about 80% fidgety, noisy, physical kids, and 20% kids who want to talk for ages.

This is a tough combination.

So yesterday, when a Sunday School session had turned into a total disaster, I found a moment during activity time, got down on the floor with some of the more fidgety ones, and we had a chat about what they needed.

When they said “Sunday School is BORING,” I said, “okay, how can we make it less boring for you?”

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Here are some of the things we’re going to try:

  1. A physical opening time. We’re going to start not by sitting for quiet prayer – that will come second (kids do need silence and stillness). But we’re going to start with making the sign of the cross (in the Diddy Disciples way, with words to go with it – “God be in my head, my heart, and all around me, Amen”). We’re then going to stomp out a rhythm to accompany reciting the books of the Bible (I did this with them once, when we were talking about the Bible being a library and having all kinds of different stuff in it, like poems and stories and rules and prophesy, and now a few of them have got obsessed with it and beg for it to be included every week, and I’ve given in). We’ll then have a physical opening to prayer (the “Gathering Song” bit from this Diddy Disciples session – you can speak the words if you’re not a confident singer) and then sit for some time of peaceful stillness.
  2. More games in response time. I tend to have a variety of activities out – kids can choose to do art, or play with spiritually imaginative toys, or play with the storytelling materials. So there are options for getting physical. But they’re not officially organised. These kids said they wanted to do games together. So we’re going to try a few over the next weeks (anyone have a good physical game for the Joseph and his brothers story?)
  3. Fidget toys. This isn’t news – in fact, during the disastrous session yesterday, one of the things I tried was handing out things for them to fidget with. But we had a LONG conversation about what the fidget toys were for, and what kind they could bring in – they wanted to bring in iPads, or things that could fly up to the ceiling of the room. So we set a few rules. YES, you can bring in a fidget toy from home. But it needs to be quiet, it needs to stay in your hand so it doesn’t distract others, and it needs to be something that settles your body so your mind can focus on the story, not something that is going to focus your mind on the toy itself. I passed these guidelines on to the parents after church, so the parents know that yes, I did tell them they could bring toys in, but so that the kids can’t go “Margaret told me I could bring my iPad to Sunday School next week!” This will hopefully also help the more fidgety ones to listen with more patience to the ones who like to talk things out.
  4. Physical engagement with the story. We do a bit of this already, but I need to step it up. So next week, based on a suggestion from the Spiritual Child Network Facebook group, I’m going to hand out Lego and we’re going to build the story as we tell it. Diddy Disciples is also an incredibly physical form of storytelling, and can work with children over the age of 5 as well as under. I’m also going to try having them use their bodies to make tableaux of each scene in the story as we tell it, and, in the spring, try taking them outside and walking around different places in the church garden and porch area, for different parts of the story.

What other suggestions do you have for engaging fidgety, physical, noisy children in storytelling, music, prayer, and response time?

And how do we put these ideas into practice in other contexts, such as All-Age Worship?

 

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Remembrance Sunday response ideas

If you’re leading a group on Remembrance Sunday, it can be difficult.

You may have pastoral care responsibility for children whose family members are deployed, or have combat injuries, or who have died in war.

You may find yourself having to explain to young children what war is and address questions like “why are there wars?”

Your own faith may have been formed through Jesus’s call to non-violence, and you may be uncomfortable with some of the military connections of the day.

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Here are some ways in which adult leaders and groups of children can explore what it means to honour the service and sacrifice of those who have served, and pray for a world of peace and justice. Hopefully they’re flexible enough to be used in a variety of settings.

  1. “We Will Remember Them” The children may have already experienced a wreath-laying at a war memorial, or be about to participate in one at the end of this session. Look together at photos of a variety of war memorials, including the one in your own town or village. Wonder together: why do people make these? Why do they put the names on? What are some other ways we remember people who have died? Which one do you like best? Why? How do they make you feel? Then the children, individually or in groups, can design their own war memorial – either on paper or, if you’re feeling ambitious, in 3-d. Here are some pictures to use for inspiration (click the links)
    1. Memorial for animals killed in war.
    2. War memorials around the world (very US-centric but a good variety of styles)
    3. Cwmcarn war memorial
  2. Poppy Prayers. Make “Paper Plate Poppies” (instructions here) and invite children to write prayers for today on them. If you like, you could give them the option of keeping their poppies white (or combining white and red), and explain that red poppies are to remember the dead and white are to pray that wars will end. These would make a wonderful display, or something to be shared with the main congregation – however, if children’s prayers are going to be made public in this way, do make sure you let them know before they write them. You never know when a prayer may be too private for them to want to share.paper-poppy
  3. Light in the darkness. This interactive map shows all the current wars going on in the world (zoom out to see the whole world, bit by bit). You could print a map of the world, give children LED tea lights and invite them to place their candle somewhere on the map that matches a place on the map of wars. When all children have placed their tea lights, turn off the lights in the room and pray for God’s peace to come to those places, and for all whose lives are affected by those wars.
  4. Blessed are the peacemakers. Read the Beatitudes with the children, and think together about what it means to be a peacemaker. What does peace mean? What does peace feel like? How can we make peace in our families, schools, and communities, and here in our church group? Make and decorate paper doves (tutorial here – video) and write on them a promise for one thing they’ll try to do to help make peace where they are. (NB: have your Safeguarding hat on especially for discussions of “making peace at home” and be aware of anything that might suggest a child has witnessed domestic violence or been subject to violence themselves.You can close by singing “Peace is Flowing Like a River” or “Peace, Perfect Peace.”

Do add your own ideas in the comments – and don’t forget to check out the KS1 and KS2 lesson plans, and other resources, at Remembrance 100. There are also resources from Churches Together, which you can find here.

Prayer Board for under-5s

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.

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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:

  1. A church (I used a picture of our own church, which the children would recognise)
  2. A family (I might replace the image I used with one that includes grandparents)
  3. A group of children playing (I deliberately chose one with children of different ethnicities)
  4. A child looking sad.
  5. A child holding a pet.
  6. The earth.
  7. A row of houses (I used a street in our parish – check local estate agents’ websites)
  8. A child in bed with a thermometer in their mouth and a teddy bear.
  9. A gravestone with flowers on it.

For each image, I came up with one or two sentences to go with it:

  1. We pray for our church, St. George’s. Help us to know you here and everywhere.
  2. We pray for our families. Help us to take care of each other.
  3. We pray for our friends and teachers and schools and nurseries and toddler groups.
  4. Help everyone who is sad or lonely or scared.
  5. We pray for our pets and all the animals.
  6. We pray for everything in the whole wide world and universe.
  7. We pray for our homes. Make them places where everyone is safe and loved.
  8. We pray for everyone who is ill or feeling poorly.
  9. 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)

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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!

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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.

Gifts of the Spirit prayers

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.

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You will need: a picture of a dove, coloured strips of paper, markers.

One of the readings for our service was 1 Corinthians 12:3-13.

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.

Worth 1000 words …

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.

The light shines in darkness …

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 …

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You can use it as part of a prayer station …

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You can use it an an event or service if you want people to connect online with a hashtag …

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Or you could use it to publicise something coming up …

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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.

What other ways could you use it?

If you want to get your own, I got this one from Argos for £14 including shipping. Other versions are available – some of which change the background colour or have other bells and whistles.

If you’d like to borrow this one, get in touch via cme@stalbans.anglican.org.

DIY intercessions

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.

I’ve used:

The World

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.

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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):

Soft piano music.

Taize chant – has words, but they’re repetitive. Would need to not overwhelm the words being spoken.

Modern meditative – Fous de la Mer, Clair de Lune.

Violin and piano, folk style.

 

 

 

New resource – labyrinth!

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 …

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How can I borrow it?

Simply contact cme@stalbans.anglican.org or youthoffice@stalbans.anglican.org 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.

String Prayers

Ball of household string on white

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All-Age Prodigal Son Prayer Stations

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. Jesus didn’t choose the wilderness.
  2. The struggle is long.
  3. 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 …

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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.

You can download the leaflet here.

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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.

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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.

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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.

readers13One 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 …

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.