Some of you might remember this post from March, showing J, the son of one of our Diocese’s curates. J spends a lot of time hanging out at church with his dad, and has started “playing church” at home, including processions.
J has now had a birthday, and some parishioners have made him vestments. His dad has given me permission to share these photos. Unfortunately, there isn’t a replicable pattern available for these vestments – however, I imagine if you have a keen sewer or two in your church, they could probably figure something out, using Nativity costume patterns for the alb and making a chasuble pattern from scratch (it’s basically a circle).
What strikes me about these pictures is how well they illustrate the concept of enculturation, which you may have heard me talk about if you’ve come to some of our training events.
Enculturation is “the gradual acquisition of the characteristics and norms of a culture or group by a person, another culture, etc.” It’s not education – the passing on of knowledge, facts, etc. It’s not entertainment – “the kids loved it!” It’s a process of being alongside someone as they acquire a particular way of life. It’s what makes us feel part of a group.
It’s how we start to feel like a “real member” of something – whether it’s a fandom, a supporter of a particular football team, a resident of a new place we’ve moved to. We learn “how we do things here, and why.” And John Westerhoff argued at the Household of Faith conference in 2013 that it’s how we make Christians. We show them, through received ways of being and doing, what it means to live out our baptismal promises.
Enculturation comes from a shared set of values, a shared authority, a shared tradition, and a shared story. Christian values – feeding the poor, caring for God’s creation, praying for each other, sharing in the Apostle’s teaching and fellowship, etc. Christian authority – for Anglicans, it’s the three-legged stool of Scripture, tradition, and reason, with the words and actions of Jesus being our paramount authority. Shared traditions – our worship, our ways of celebrating and remembering and drawing close to God (note how J stands at the altar, arms in a toddler version of orans position). And our shared story – that Biblical journey from “once upon a time” to happily ever after, that is full of exile and loss, return and redemption, that tells us of a loving and faithful God who would die to save us and all creation. Being a part of all this is what forms the basis of a Christian life.
Where in your church are opportunities for children to become enculturated? For them to learn by doing, alongside people of all ages, what it means to be a Christian?
And if there aren’t any, where’s a place where that can start?
One of the best books I’ve read in the last few years has been Starting Rite: Spiritual nurture for babies and their parents, by Jenny Paddison. Jenny has also come down to do some introductory training for the Diocese at two of our events. Starting Rite is a 5-week course based around play and conversation, introducing parents to concepts of Christianity and encouraging them to engage with and bond with their babies.
It can also be used as a baptism preparation/follow-up course.
Here’s what the publisher has to say:
“When Anglican priest Jenny Paddison became a mother, there were numerous activities for new parents and their babies on offer: baby yoga, baby massage, baby swimming – but nothing from the church.
In response, she created this five session programme that connects with the immense sense of wonder and joy that new parents experience and provides spiritual nurture from the outset, recognising the innate capacity for spirituality with which we are born.
Starting Rite is designed specifically for babies up to a year old and their parents. It provides a complete practical companion to offering the programme locally, including story scripts, simple songs, ideas for multi-sensory play, as well as lists of equipment needed and how to create a welcoming atmosphere. It explores Christian themes though activities like peek-a-boo, blowing bubbles and splashing in water.
Starting Rite enables local churches to offer a welcome to all new parents, and can also be used as a baptism preparation course.”
Starting Rite is excellent for reaching out to unchurched people. It’s a great place to start if you have few or no children and want to make your first steps in children’s ministry. Or it can be a fabulous way to refresh and expand on existing baptism or toddler group ministry.
Feedback from Jenny’s sessions was very positive, but a lot of people said, “it’s a lot of work to put the resources together to run the course – and a lot of money.”
So, very slowly, but surely, I’ve started putting the resources together. By the end of this year, I hope to have a set of 5 boxes, plus the book, available to be borrowed all together by churches who want to run this course. We’ll then get Jenny down to do some proper training on the course and address any questions or concerns you might have. So WATCH THIS SPACE, and if you’re not subscribed to Children’s Ministry News, contact email@example.com to be sure you hear about the training when it’s scheduled.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org . 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 email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.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.
The Revd Dr Sandra Millar’s new Life Events book has just come out, and you can order it here.
Here is what the publisher has to say:
Baptism, weddings and funerals bring the Church of England into close contact with hundreds of thousands of people every year.
The ministry offered by local churches at these key times of life has been the subject of a widespread study with the aim of fostering best practice and deepening theological and biblical understanding of the occasional offices.
Here, Sandra Millar, who led this study and has presented its findings to over half of all dioceses so far, shares its contents and offers many practical suggestions – often from local parish practice- for enriching the quality and depth of pastoral support offered at these highly significant moments.
Grounded in rigorous research, this volume includes the research findings, biblical reflection, practical ideas and questions for reflection.
Every church in the Diocese should have received the PCC Discussion Booklet that goes with this book – if you would like more copies, you can get them here.
Since this blog focuses on children’s ministry, you might think the baptisms part is the only relevant bit – but children are guests and participants at weddings and funerals as well, and it’s worth thinking how to include them and make those events meaningful for them. You can find lots of ideas in the individual sections of the Church Support Hub website, and also on my Pinterest boards:
This post, and the photos, are shared with permission of J’s parents. J’s dad is curate of a church in Hertfordshire.
J’s dad writes:
So here is J. – he is 20 months old. Since he was about 2 months he regularly comes to church every Sunday but also for some of the Daily Office. On a Sunday he sits near the back, but during morning prayer, and when the church is empty, he freely wanders around the church – access to all areas. He even helps with ringing the bell for worship.
What clearly fascinates him is the crucifer. He points out the cross (which he calls church) and all other crosses.
Recently he also insists on being followed by a book.
There is once small cross he loves to pick up and process around. He loves procession practice and at home he uses a ladle and a book when he plays. Interestingly, books like bibles and hymn books are always preferred to his own books when available. He also likes going into the pulpit. If the church could produce a daily office and gospel board book that would be great!
He also loves hot cross buns, but not sure if that is linked to the cross on the top.
We want to enable him to pursue doing this … but at what age could he help out?
Maybe our next church will have to have a boat boy as there are no youth servers at our current church.
Here are a few thoughts I had when I read this:
I agree it’s interesting he chooses Bibles and hymn books over his own books when they’re available. It shows that even at 20 months he somehow perceives a difference between “holy books used in worship” and “books read for pleasure.” Of course, there is crossover here, but as a basic distinction, it’s important. And there are of course ramifications here for our understanding of when to admit children to Holy Communion – if J can understand the difference between “ordinary books” and “God books,” could he understand the difference between “ordinary bread” and “God bread”?
J has engaged with worship through nothing more than simply being exposed to it on a regular basis. Just like when we take children shopping, or swimming, or on train journeys, or to the doctor, and they begin to explore these experiences through play, J has done the same with church. And the same skills parents use in these other activities – helping explain what’s going on, making sure their children can see and participate – can be used in church.
J’s understanding is age-appropriate. It is not abstract or verbal. It is sensory and imaginative.
If J loves processing, why not incorporate that into worship? Maybe get a selection of different small crosses, and once a month, or more often, invite any child who wants to to choose a cross and join the procession. There could be a special basket at the front where we leave our crosses by the altar.
Very small children can help bring up the bread and wine, if an adult or teenager has helped them figure out how to carry it safely, and is available to walk beside them as a second pair of hands, if needed.
These are also the sorts of things children can engage with through play in a good children’s play area in church. You can see some ideas here, and here, and here.
Once children have been admitted to communion – whether at confirmation or before – the canons of the church allow them to serve as Eucharistic ministers and help distribute the chalice at communion.
Now I really want to create a Gospel Book and Daily Office board book!
In 2016, I went to the European Conference of Christian Educators, where I saw Bibliologue storytelling done with chairs – you can find a short summary here.
I then used it when I did Prodigal Son prayer stations with Readers a few weeks ago – you can find a write-up of that here.
Now John Griffiths and Jonathan Evans, of St Cuthbert’s Church in Rye Park, have done a script using the image of a mother and two daughters, and given me permission to share it. They used it in worship on Mothering Sunday.
Note how most of it is simply the Biblical text, with a few small changes – and how the story is stopped at different points to wonder about how characters are feeling at that specific moment. By focusing on each section of the story individually, you might draw out details that would get missed if you saved up the wondering until the end. (However, for some people, it might interrupt the flow of the story, and they would get more by waiting until the end for wondering. This is why mixing up different approaches can be good.)
The Prodigal Daughter
Place three chairs by the steps of the sanctuary carpet. One larger and two smaller and say:
There once was a woman who had two daughters.
Move the ‘younger daughter’ (i.e. a smaller chair) over in front of the mother’s chair.
The younger daughter said to her mother, “Give me my inheritance NOW
so that I can enjoy it.”
So the mother divided her property between them.
Move the ‘younger daughter’ a little way along the road.
Place the mother in the centre.
Move the ‘older sister’ off to the side (almost out of the scene).
move to the younger daughter chair and say
The younger daughter gathered all she had and travelled to a distant country
She spent her money on wild parties and having a really REALLY good time.
Move the ‘younger daughter’ towards the ‘end of the road’ (top of the central aisle)
I wonder. What is the Mother thinking?
I wonder. What is her older sister thinking?
But the day came when she had spent all the money her mother had given her and she had nothing left.
Turn the daughter’s chair onto its side.
There was a severe famine in that country and she was hungry and poor.
So she went and hired herself out. To a pig farmer. Who made her look after pigs.
She was so hungry that she would have been grateful if she was allowed to eat what the pigs were eating; but no one gave her anything.
Then she came to her senses, she said to herself
“All my mum’s maids have plenty to eat, but here I am dying of hunger!
I wonder What is the younger daughter thinking?
I know what I’ll do. I will go to my mother, and I will say to her, “Mother, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your daughter; could you give me a job around the house?”
Move the daughter on the road towards the other two chairs
So she set off to return to her mother.
Move the mother down the road towards the daughter, say:
While she was still far off, her mother saw her and was filled with compassion;
Her mother ran and put her arms around her and kissed her.
Move both the mother and daughter close to one another at the bottom of the aisle say:
Her daughter said to her, “Mother, I have sinned against you;
I am no longer worthy to be your daughter.”
But the mother said to the staff, “Quickly, bring a dress – my very best one – and put it on her; put a ring on her finger and my favourite shoes.
Remember her favourite meal? – go and make it, and let’s eat and celebrate;
for my daughter was dead and is alive again; she was lost and is found!”
And they all began to celebrate.
Move the mother and daughter’s to the centre of the sanctuary blue carpet
When the elder daughter came home, she heard music and dancing.
She called one of the maids and asked what was going on.
The maid replied, “Your sister has come home, and your mother has made her favourite because she got her back safe and sound.”
But the older daughter became angry and refused to go in.
What is the older daughter thinking?
What is the mother thinking?
Move the mother to the back of the carpet in front of the elder daughter, say:
Her mother came out and began to plead with her.
Twist away the elder sister and say
She said to her mother, “Listen! For all these years I have been slaving away for you, and I have never disobeyed you in anything; yet you have never given me a single night in with my friends. But when young madam went off and played the tart and wasted all your money comes back. YOU treat her like a princess!
Move to the Mother chair, and say
The mother said to her, “Oh Darling, you are always with me, and everything that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate, because your sister was dead and has come to life; she was lost and now she’s found.”
What was your favourite part of the story?
What was the most important part of the story?
Which person in the story did you most connect with?
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.
I’m preparing Reader Training for tomorrow evening, and one of the topics we’re addressing is children in the worshipping community.
One of the questions I get asked most often on this topic is about the dreaded “shhhhhhh …!” and how to address it.
What is “the dreaded ‘shhhh'”? What harm can it do?
Imagine you’re a young parent with a two-year-old. You’ve got up on a weekend morning, dressed and fed yourself and your child, bundled them into the pushchair or car, gone to church, figured out where to sit and what to do, but you’re feeling conspicuous and nervous in this reverent environment. The sign outside said “ALL ARE WELCOME,” but … does that really mean you? It’s so peaceful and contemplative here. Everyone seems to know all the rules. And here you are, in the back pew, shoving raisins at your kid, trying to get them to sit still and be quiet. Your child stands on the pew (is that allowed??) so they can see, looks at the stained glass windows, turns to you, and says, “daddy, look, I see a sheep!”
In front of you, heads turn. Three or four people are staring at you. One of them says “Shhhhh!!” A few others tut and not-so-subtlely roll their eyes.
How do you feel?
Will you come back?
What message have you and your child just received about your place in God’s house?
Okay, but sometimes a child is screaming …
I’m immensely grateful to Carolynn Pritchard (no relation) from the Spiritual Child Network for clarifying the distinction between SOUND and NOISE.
We all make SOUNDS when we worship. There might be the 35-year-old who forgot to turn down their Lady Gaga ringtone, and the intercessions are interrupted by the first notes of “Bad Romance.”
There might be the 84-year-old gentleman who is in denial about needing a hearing aid and is consequentially two beats behind everyone else when they sing.
There might be the 5-year-old who whispers observations to their friends about what’s happening during the service.
All of this is different from NOISE, which is genuinely disruptive.
NOISE would be if your phone rang and you took the call instead of turning your phone off or going outside.
A toddler having a screaming tantrum in church is noise, and there needs, if possible, to be a safe warm place within the church building for parents to take children who need some time out. (They also need to be clearly told that we would prefer for them to COME BACK when their child is ready!)
So yes, of course, disruptive noise needs to be kept to a minimum in church. And yet, often, people react to any SOUND made by children – shouting “AMEN!” at the end of prayers, calling their carers’ attention to something in the building they’ve noticed, playing with a Bible-related toy like a Noah’s Ark or a Nativity set – as though it were NOISE.
The Unholy Trinity
In my experience, I’ve generally found that this hostility towards children in church who are anything other than silent and invisible comes down to one of three reasons.
Pastoral reasons. For some people, the presence of children might be upsetting. You might have just found out that your sixth round of IVF didn’t work. Your grown children might have told you that they don’t plan to have children, and you’re grieving the grandchildren you always thought you’d have. You might be a parent whose child has died. In this case, “I’ve noticed you seem upset when children are around – are you okay?” can start a conversation about this behaviour. Often, when people feel able to express their emotions in a positive way, the passive-aggressive behaviour, and acting out, diminish.
Fear and defensiveness. “If we start getting more young families, this church is going to turn into a three-ring circus of bright colours and loud noises and simplistic dumbed-down worship, and everything I love about my church, my spiritual home, will disappear.” In this case, the person has a particular image in their head of what “child-friendly worship” is, and it’s somewhere between an episode of Peppa Pig and a children’s birthday party. For this, I would recommend:
Making changes in a slow and careful way (and using the phrase “we’re going to TRY x,” rather than “we’re going to DO x”).
Making changes that are in keeping with the existing tradition of the church. Don’t immediately go from being a high-church Anglo-Catholic community with a professional choir to having screens and guitars and cafe-style church. It won’t work.
Demonstrating what the presence of children has to offer US, as well as what we have to offer THEM (“wow, that music the children sang was wonderful, and enhanced MY worship – maybe this isn’t so bad”), can help reassure these fears. But it is a slow process, and there will be setbacks.
An unexamined, mistaken assumption about what church is. For this, I have to thank Gretchen Wolff Pritchard (there is a relation there, unlike with Carolynn), who pointed out that almost everyone, including parents and children themselves, comes into church with the unexamined assumption that when they come to church, children are “guests at an adult event.” This was driven home to me when I was at a rehearsal for my amateur dramatics group, which I automatically categorise as an adult event, and I got annoyed by the sounds made by an actor’s 3- and 5-year-old grandchildren, who had come along.
When we think of church as an adult event, as opposed to a family event, that creates different assumptions about the role of children. Children, in that context, are supposed to entertain themselves quietly so they don’t disturb the people this event is REALLY for. And when this is internalised by non-childed worshippers, parents, and children themselves, this is what happens:
Non-childed worshippers think – “children are disrupting an event that’s for me.” They may be more accepting at family events or other occasions where they understand it’s for everyone.
Parents think – “my children are misbehaving and bothering the people who this is for. I’m embarrassed and I need to make them behave.” The emphasis then becomes not disturbing others, rather than engaging in the event. Watch these same parents at a children’s puppet show – they behave differently. They engage their children, they make sure they can see, they whisper about what’s happening, they make the experience sensory … Carolyn Carter Brown has an excellent article on Whispering In Church which can help parents with this.
Children think – “this is not for me. I have to sit down and shut up instead of being actively engaged, and wait until I’m set free at the end.”
So what can be done?
In addition to the tips and links above, here are a few ideas – I put the question “how do people answer complaints about young people making any noise in church?” to the Spiritual Child Network Facebook group, and here are a few of the replies:
How have you tackled this thorny topic? What has worked? What hasn’t?