It’s tough, but hard to escape – more children than usual will be bereaved in the next few months, or already have been. These bereavements may be made more complicated by isolation – children won’t be able to attend funerals, visit relatives who are dying and say goodbye, meet up with friends, go to support groups or counselling, and so on.
We’re hoping to have a webinar about supporting grieving children – to hear more, make sure you’re subscribed to Children’s Ministry News (email us to get added) or follow me on Twitter at @stalbanscme.
However, there are also many resources already available.
Child Bereavement UK offers a lot of support and help – I’ve linked directly to their page with videos and info sheets, which may be most immediately useful, but do explore their website to find out more.
children can purchase and give to family members to tell them what they need, and how best to support that individual child. (There are also cards for children to give to friends/teachers/etc – these can be photographed and sent via email or social media, with parental supervision.) Some of the things on the cards can’t be done at this time, but others can still be done, or reworked.
I have a Pinterest board of good children’s books about death, dying, and grief. You could send the link to parents, or you could buy a book and have it shipped directly to a grieving child. I also used to buy notebooks and special pens for children in my church who had been bereaved. I told them they could use the notebook to write to the person who had died, or as a journal, or to scribble angrily or tear up pages if they needed to, or to draw, or in any way that would help them. It was their safe place.
Louise Warner, my counterpart in the Diocese of Leicester, has put together some ideas for how children can make memories, and remember someone who has died, at home. From making a memory box, to writing a prayer, to planting something, there are lots of great, practical suggestions. Download it here: Thinking about someone that has died
If you have your own resources, or ideas, or thoughts, please do let me know in the comments!
This blog has been completely silent during the Covid-19 crisis, as I’ve been putting my energies into making videos for families to use to worship at home (you can find them here) and putting together a Pinterest board with all the resources I’ve found, both for home worship and for helping children with anxiety. You can find the Pinterest board here.
However, a few resources have been coming along in Word or PDF format, which can’t be easily pinned, so I’m going to use this blog to share some of those.
This first one is from the Rev Louise Collins, from Elstree and Borehamwood. It follows Jesus’s journey through Holy Week, through the eyes of the animals that accompanied him – and, through the animal imagery, connects Holy Week to other stories of Jesus’s teaching and ministry as well. There are also craft ideas and prayers. Click on the link below to download.
Ash Wednesday is next week. I’ve noticed, this year, a bit of concern around Ash Wednesday and Lent that I hadn’t seen before, in relation to children. In several places, people have expressed reservations about using the words “remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return,” with children.
My opinion is that, in the right context, these words are powerful. Ash Wednesday and Lent are times when we confront our mortality, and our fear of death, and we acknowledge the ways in which the world is messed up and broken and hard and scary. At Easter, we hear the good news that God’s love is stronger than sin and death.
If we paper over the real fear of death, and the real existence of sin, we provide a faith that is always happy and nice and kind, and we leave children alone with the fear of death and the existence of sin, with no tools to process these challenging topics, and no sense that the church is a place where we can wrestle with these things.
Here is what I did, for many years, at the end of our pancake party. Most of these children would not be in church on Ash Wednesday, so this was a way of moving from Shrove Tuesday into Ash Wednesday, creating the feast/fast contrast, and introducing the season.
Ideally, you will have a small outdoor space to do this in.
ASH WEDNESDAY ACTIVITY WITH CHILDREN:
Large metal cooking pot from kitchen, possibly elevated on bricks
Dried palm crosses
A tiny bit of oil, if needed, to help them ignite
Fire extinguisher and bucket of water
Small bowl and spoon
Inside, in the community space:
Blank paper and pencils/markers
Pictures of “sin” – always communal, and social, eg pollution, violence, poverty. We’re looking at how we as a society fail to create the world God wants, and grieving for it, NOT at personal “failures.”
What I do:
1. Gather everyone by the door. Ask who knows why we have pancakes today. Gather answers from the group. Use the answers to get to the idea that we’re about to start a season called LENT, and that during Lent, we remember all the hard and sad and scary things that Jesus came into the world to save us from.
2. Ask what are some of the hard and sad and scary things in the world – gather responses. If some of them match the pictures, you can hold them up and show the group. (Here we can think in generic terms about things we all do as individuals – like being cruel to each other – and also things we all do as a group, or as humanity – like war, and poverty.)
3. Explain that Lent is 40 days long, because when Jesus was just starting out his work, he spent 40 days in the desert all alone with God.
4. Explain that before we start this sad time, we like to have a really good party! And that in the old days, people used to give up some special treats, like sugar and eggs and meat, so they celebrated right before by eating all these things. And nowadays, we might want to give up a treat, or take on an extra job, to help us get closer to God, and think about what it was like for Jesus in the desert, without special treats. Or we might want to try giving up a bad habit, or something we do that hurts God’s world, or ourselves, or each other.
5. Pass out the blank pieces of paper and pencils. Ask people to think about EITHER something they might give up/take on for Lent, OR something in the world that’s hard or sad or scary, that they want Jesus to help with.
6. Go outside and form a circle around the pot. Have people put their pieces of paper in the pot, along with the palm crosses. As far as possible, clear people away from the direction of the wind.
7. Set everything in the pot on fire. Ask people to think about how we’re burning the parts of ourselves we want to give up, or the hard/sad/scary things in the world. We’re turning them to ash. And we’re remembering that at the end of Lent, we remember Jesus dying to save the world, and that we will someday die too. But we know that Easter comes after that, when Jesus rose with new life to share with all of us.
8. When enough of the papers/palm crosses have burned that you have sufficient ash, put a few drops of water on it to cool it off (Note: it’s been pointed out to me that apparently it’s dangerous to cool ashes with water, and they’ll burn. I tested it on myself first, and, both on myself and with children, over many years, have never had an issue. I have no idea why mine were fine and others’ reports are different. Perhaps the large volume of paper – the ashes are, at the end of this, more paper than palm – is what made the difference. Regardless, it’s definitely worth testing an approximation of your mixture in advance.). Gather some ash into the small bowl with the spoon, and ash the person next to you. Have people practice the words “remember you are dust, and to dust you will return,” and have people go around the circle, ashing the person next to them. Finish by inviting the children to ash you. Being ashed by a group of children, reminding you that you are dust, is unfailingly an incredibly powerful experience for me.
9. Wash your hands. They will still be filthy, through the end of the next day. It’s seasonally appropriate.
Today I visited The Knitted Bible in its latest host site of Hampstead Parish Church. While St. Albans Diocese has an impressive fondness for knitted Bible stories – our cathedral’s large knitted Nativity, the smaller knitted Nativity and Noah’s Ark available to borrow from our Resource Centre, and many other knitted Bible sets around the Diocese – this goes beyond even our impressive yarn-based Biblical efforts.
It consists of around 35 scenes, from Creation to Jesus’s breakfast on the beach after his resurrection, each painstakingly re-created in yarn and stuffing, often with ingenious sets made of everything from kitchen roll to upside-down flower pots. (Please note: it does include the sacrifice of Isaac, without a huge amount of material provided about that story apart from “God wanted to see if Abraham would obey,” which is a simplistic reading that can be damaging to children’s ideas of God, and scary for them. Rabbis I have spoken with tend to interpret that story more as Abraham misunderstanding God, thinking God wants human sacrifice like the pagan gods of the time, and God stopping Abraham, clarifying he does not require human sacrifice. You may want to remove this scene from your display or provide additional material to give it context.)
The Knitted Bible was created in 2008 by over 40 people at St. George’s URC in Hartlepool. It is available for churches to borrow without charge – however, it’s booked up very far in advance. If you’re interested in borrowing it for your church in late 2021 or even 2022, contact information can be found here.
While that may seem far away, it’s definitely worth considering if this is something you might be interested in doing. I spoke with the stewards on site, the church’s administrator, and with the Rev. Jeremy Fletcher, Vicar of Hampstead. The stewards and the administrator told me they’ve received a marked increase in foot traffic in the church over the ten days the Knitted Bible has been in situ. The stewards said it’s been a wonderful point of engagement with the local community – the church school has brought several classes to visit, it’s been out during worship for people to look at and explore, and people of all ages have engaged with it.
Rev. Jeremy said, “lots of people have told me they expected to be charmed by it. And that they were surprised to find that they were both charmed and moved by it.” He suspects a lot of what’s so moving about it is the detail. Every person and animal is an individual, and has their own story to tell, and little details in the setup – from a steward in the act of pouring wine at the Wedding at Cana to the little foil tip on a Roman soldier’s spear – draw the viewer in and inspire wondering and imagination.
Visiting the Knitted Bible could serve as a springboard for follow-up activities as well, in schools, or church children’s/mixed age groups, such as:
Make your own 3-d versions of Bible stories and display them alongside the knitted ones.
Choose a character from one of the scenes and write the story from their point of view.
Put together an assembly, or a presentation to the congregation, about your visit and/or one of the stories.
Here are some more photos. Maybe you’ll be inspired and create a knitted Bible – or at least a few scenes – of your own!
Think about a story or book that meant a lot to you as a child. What made it so special?
I ask this question at some of my workshops, to start a discussion about telling Bible stories in our groups. Often, the answers are very similar from one group to another – some of the most common are:
There were characters I identified with.
I loved the world it was set in and I wanted to live there.
It gave me hope, or inspiration, or got me through a tough time.
My grandmother read to me, and being in her lap and having her read me a story is a special reminder of our relationship.
The person who told/read me that story clearly loved it, and their passion for that story was contagious.
All of these things about stories can help us think about how we pass on the stories of the Bible to children in our groups, and how we encourage parents and carers to read Bible stories at home. I have a Pinterest board of good Children’s Bibles or Bible stories – many of them are designed to be read aloud. The ones that work for under-5s can be given as gifts to Christening families if your church has the budget, and parents/carers can be encouraged to read a Bible story at bedtime. That special time with a beloved adult, hearing the stories of God’s people, will be treasured.
It’s also a reminder that the relationships we form, as children’s ministry leaders, are important. If we know, and care for, the children we tell stories to, our storytelling will have more impact, because it will come from a relationship of trust and love.
Another thing I take from this is how important it is that the Bible is full of diverse characters, and we need to include a broad range of them, for children to identify with. If we portray all Bible characters as perfect, obedient, brave, etc., we limit children’s ability to connect with the stories.
Moses was far from obedient to authority – he was a troublemaker for Pharaoh and other oppressors. Joseph went on a journey from arrogance to reconciliation. Ruth showed bravery and faithfulness in a new country not her own. Esther stood up and spoke truth to power, risking her life. Daniel stayed true to his own conscience, no matter what. Peter could never remember to think before speaking. John wasn’t afraid of having strong emotions. James was trying to follow Jesus while also feeling responsible for his little brother. Mary Magdalene wasn’t believed by her own friends when she told them what she’d seen. All of these are traits and experiences that children can relate to – let’s remember that we’re talking about real people in our stories, not idealised cardboard cut-outs!
The power of stories to get us through tough times, or give us hope, is also clearly relevant to our Biblical storytelling. The stories in the Bible are full of loss and pain, exile and despair – they tell the story of people who, in the words of the Beulah Land feltboard storytelling set, “lied and cheated and stole from each other, they fought and hurt and killed each other, and trampled the poor, and spoiled God’s earth, and worshipped gold and silver instead of God.” But the Bible also tells us that God never stops loving us, God never stops trying to save us, and that God has fought death for us, and won, and invites us to share in that new life in a Kingdom where death and suffering and cruelty are no more.
Often, we are afraid of some of these stories – and, in many cases, for good reason. The Bible is also full of what seems to be God-sanctioned genocide, and patriarchy, and the deaths of children as revenge for the sins of their parents. So we shy away from the tough stories, and give our children only the parable of the lost sheep, and the creation, and a sanitised version of the Christmas story without the politics of occupation and oppression. But that means we’re depriving our children of the very heart of the Gospel – that evil and oppression and cruelty are real, but that God’s love is stronger than them, and God will never abandon us. (What we leave out, and how, is a difficult question, and one that deserves more space than I can give it here.)
And let’s not forget to leave space for awe and wonder. I’ve heard this spoken in many ways in response to my question – and about books from The Famous Five to the Narnia Chronicles. That longing to be in that world, with those people, the way a book fires our imagination and gets us wondering. Creating that space for a child to explore the story for themselves, to make meaning out of it, and to play with it, is very important. This means we don’t need to draw a moral lesson from every story – the story itself can be the gift we give to children. Open questions like “I wonder …” questions can help your group explore what the story means without closing off the power of imagination. And providing response time that isn’t just reading comprehension or creating an identical craft can also encourage children to enter deeply into the world of story, and make it mean something to them.
Oh, I wish there was one. However, I’ve found a few programmes over the last few years which have actually been very useful, with information, inspiration, and ideas that are easily related to what we do with children and families in church.
The first is “Babies: Their Wonderful World” – a three-part series in which famous studies in development are re-created and discussed, and a few new experiments are tried, with children up to 12 months. Unfortunately, the full episodes aren’t available at the moment, but a few good clips can be found here, and a fascinating bit about how some aspects of morality may be innate can be found here. (And yes, I asked on Twitter if they re-created the experiment with the blue square/yellow triangle roles reversed, and they confirmed they had, and babies chose the blue square when it was the “good” puppet.) If our sense of good and bad is innate, then that suggests our spirituality may be innate – what researchers like Rebecca Nye and John Westerhoff have suggested. In which case, what we’re doing in church is not filling up an empty vessel, who knows nothing about God, but helping a child understand and express a relationship, and a set of ideas about right and wrong, help and harm, which they possess from birth. This clip can be a good way of starting those conversations with your church groups.
Channel 4 thankfully keeps their programmes available on catch up for longer than the BBC, so you can still watch full episodes of their incredible “Old People’s Home for Four-Year-Olds.” This inter-generational experiment, in which a group of two-to-four-year-olds came into a residential care home, is a model of how mixing the generations helps us all. The parents get more adults who love their child, the elderly residents show benefits in physical and mental health from contact with children, and the children get love, care, and wisdom from older people. The implications for churches are obvious.
There is also a series called “The Secret Life Of Four-Year-Olds,” which now has expanded into series about 5- and 6-year-olds as well. It’s a lot of detail about a very narrow age group, but if this is your speciality area, it’s well worth a watch. You can find all 25 episodes here.
This isn’t a programme, but a useful clip: The Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney gave some children video cameras and they filmed what worship is like for them. An eye-opening “child’s-eye view” of an Anglican service. What do you notice?
And finally, sadly, there is “Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret.” It makes for harrowing watching, but it provides a vital glimpse into how church culture helped cover up the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball, and his abuse of young people in his care, and reminds us of how vital our Safeguarding responsibilities are. Watch it if you can, but if you know you can’t, that’s also fine. (Any current or historical Safeguarding issues relating to St Albans Diocese can be reported to our Diocesan Safeguarding team. You will be listened to and taken seriously.)
While the leaves have been falling and the weather has been turning distinctly autumnal, over here at Diocesan Children’s Ministry Central, we’ve been looking ahead to Advent and Christmas. I’m delighted to say we now have a Faith at Home resource for families to use throughout Advent – why not print it out on Advent Sunday and send a copy home with every family who comes? You could also send it home with toddler group or Messy Church families.
It’s designed to accompany the Red Letter Christians UK Advent meditations on Jesus and Justice – however, both the adult meditations and the family resource stand entirely on their own. You can do both, or either. If you want to sign up to receive the daily meditations for adults, you can do so here.
The resource is designed to be easy to use – you don’t need any unusual or expensive stuff to do the activities. It’s also designed to be inclusive – it doesn’t assume every family is able to donate food or money to charity. Where donating is suggested as an activity, an alternative is provided.
To download, click on link below, then, in the window that pops up, click the arrow on the right side of the bar at the top:
I know it’s a bit late, and I apologise – but bookmark this for next year if you’ve already had your Harvest Festival.
Especially now, as more of the world is waking up to the climate crisis and our collective failure to care for God’s creation, it can be easy to feel helpless.
So I’ve put together some simple actions we can take – some personal, some pushing for systemic change – that can genuinely make a difference.
I’m going to print multiple copies of these out on orange, yellow, and red paper, then cut them out, punch a hole in each one, and hang them on a tree* by the entrance of the church. During the service, I’ll mention the tree and encourage people to choose a leaf as a commitment and promise to do something that will care for creation. I’ll include some blank leaves for people to add their own ideas.
* The “tree” is a few twigs stuck in a basket of sand.
Yesterday, during response time, E was drawing, and started adding sequins to her picture. I knelt down beside her and asked if she’d like to tell me about what she was doing.
She told me the shapes of sequins she was choosing showed the things she was praying for.
For example, an elephant-shaped sequin was a prayer for animals. A heart-shaped sequin was a prayer for love. A snowflake sequin was a prayer for the seasons.
Why not use E’s idea with your group? Get a pack or two of these sequins and use them in one of the following ways. You could do this as a one-off or as a weekly regular form of prayer.
Pass a tray of sequins around the group and ask everyone to choose one or two to represent what’s on their mind today. They can say something out loud about it if they want. When everyone has their sequins, hold them in silence for a little while (or you can play music, or sing). Then have everyone bring their sequins to the front and leave them on the altar/table as a sign of giving their prayers to God.
Have a large piece of paper and some glue sticks and marker pens, as well as a few plates with sequins on them. Gather your group in a circle around the paper and have them choose a few sequins to glue onto the paper to represent their prayers. They can write or draw something by their sequins if they like. Hang the paper up on the wall of your space. You can add to it every week if you’d like, building a glittering shining prayer wall over time.
At the end of your session, pass around a tray of sequins and ask children to choose sequins that represent what’s on their mind. Allow them to take them home and encourage them to hold the sequins and pray each day for the things they represent.
Recently, I joined a gym. Those who know me will know this is out of character for me. But I’ve done it, I’m going to regular classes, and I’m not dead yet, so things are looking good.
However, one unexpected benefit of this is that I now have recent, hands-on experience of what it feels like to be really new to a place, and completely unfamiliar with its customs and culture. This is something many children and parents experience when they come to church – and church leaders, who are used to their church’s ways of doing things, can often forget how intimidating it is to be new, and how unfamiliar most children, and parents, are with what happens at church.
So here are a few things I noticed about my gym experience, and how we might learn from it at church.
Coming to the gym wasn’t my first step. My first step was a friend inviting me to her boxing class. She knew I was looking to get in shape, and she told me this class was small, informal, friendly, and that she and I would go for a coffee afterwards. I went twice and LOVED it. However, the scheduling of the class didn’t work out for me long term, so I found myself with the desire to do fitness classes, looking for a place that would work for me to explore this more.
Applicable to churches: A culture of invitation among existing members. My friend knew I was looking for something, and invited me to her group. Knowing somebody who would be there meant it was less intimidating for me to show up, and she helped show me what to do with the equipment and so on. Encourage your existing congregation to invite friends to your Harvest Festival, your Crib Service, and to help show them how the service sheet works and all that.
Then I found myself looking for a home. I posted a plea to Facebook – “anyone have experiences with a newbie-friendly gym?” and I researched websites. I found one that looked friendly and accessible and had an online schedule of classes, so I knew there were boxing and dance classes at times that would work for me.
Applicable to churches: Most parents of young children are under 45. They will search your website and any social media you have before they even think of showing up at your door. I wrote a few tips on making your website more family-friendly here.
Then I joined, and booked myself in for a class. The gym I joined has no contract, so I didn’t feel I was making a MASSIVE commitment just by taking that first tentative step. By booking myself in for a class, I felt I had, however, made a commitment to show up on that day, even if I didn’t feel like it.
Applicable to churches: Don’t ask people to sign up in support of the Nicene Creed, the 39 Articles, a particular position on the atonement, and to join the coffee rota and the PCC the second you see them approach you. They’re still not sure if this is for them, and demanding they turn their whole life over is scary. The second half of this – the commitment to a class – is applicable more to things like Christenings and weddings. Asking people to commit to coming to church a few times in preparation for a Christening or wedding service can help them feel like they’ve made a promise they need to stick to.
Then I actually showed up. So much groundwork had been done before I even walked in the front door! So now, here I am. The gym is part of a nationwide chain that sells itself as very friendly to newcomers and not scarily intense. There is an app, and you have a PIN number that gets you through the front door. It took me a while to figure out how this worked, and I watched a few other people arrive and copied what they did.
There was an area with tables and chairs, so I sat there and posted on Facebook: “I’m feeling self-conscious and I don’t quite know how it all works, but I’m here, and the class I booked starts in 10 minutes, so let’s do this.” Friends on mine who are gym regulars posted comments like “you’ll do great!” or “I’m a member of [that chain] too – here’s how it works.”
Looking around, I was relieved to see people of all ages and sizes – I’m not 25 and I’m not a size 8, and it was encouraging to know that didn’t make me stick out like a sore thumb.
I went into the room where the class was being held. There was no instructor until about 30 seconds before the class started, so I had to figure out what to do on my own. Once I’d (pretty much) sorted it, I updated Facebook: “I walked in and there’s no instructor yet. I tried to find an empty step and there wasn’t one. Then someone else walked in and got one from a cupboard, so I did too. Now I’m wondering if I’ve left enough room behind mine or if it’s going to be awkward. Mostly I’m trying to avoid eye contact!!!”
Applicable to churches: Here’s where your greeting team and your service sheets/screens are REALLY important. A quick “is this your first time here?” to people your team doesn’t recognise, and one or two sentences covering the basics – “you can put the pushchair over there, we have Junior Church or you can stay with your family, there’s a children’s area on the right, and this service sheet has the readings, this one has all the prayers” can help people feel less at sea than I did.
Also, don’t judge someone who’s sitting there frantically scrolling through social media right before the service starts, instead of chatting quietly or praying. They may be new and feeling awkward, and our phones have become our collective security blankets for surviving awkward social situations.
The bit about how reassuring it was to see people who looked like me is difficult – diversity of all kinds is a huge issue in our churches, and needs more space than I have here. But it does reinforce what I often say – that the HARDEST work in children’s ministry is getting from 0 to 5 or 6 regulars. Once you have critical mass, even if it’s a small number, new parents and children will feel more relaxed when they arrive and see at least a few other people who look like them. However, signs in your building that you’re welcome to the idea of children can help – a good children’s corner (see the Pray and Play tagged posts on this blog), examples of children’s artwork from Messy Church or holiday club or toddler group, etc.
Then … I did it! I worked out! Again, I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one who had to pause sometimes while other members of the class kept going. I wasn’t the only one who had to trade out their weights for lighter ones.
And as I walked out, I felt … more at home. More like I belonged there. More in control and more confident. I updated the Facebook thread – “I did great! Not compared to the incredibly muscular and toned gym bunny in front of me, but great compared to me, which is what matters!” Friends who are gym regulars chimed in with tips about post-workout nutrition, and how to make sure I wasn’t too sore the next day. I immediately signed up (on the app, nice and easy) for two more classes, to make sure I continued the momentum.
And then, over the next few days, the strangest thing happened. I started to feel like I was “in the club.” I tried on this new identity as “someone who goes to the gym” to see how it fit. I saw memes about “leg day” and so on, on Twitter, and laughed in recognition. I started obnoxiously telling everyone about how I went to the gym and the different classes I was thinking of taking. I considered going there on my own sometime, not for a class, just to use the machines (the gym equivalent of popping into church for silent prayer, not just a service).
Applicable to churches: Make it okay for people to not know how to worship. Make it clear that it’s okay to walk around with your child if needed – switching out the weights for the lighter ones, so to speak. And that if you stand or kneel at the wrong place, or have trouble finding the right page in the hymnal or service sheet, that’s okay. Encourage your regulars to help people who are juggling small children and service sheets. Make the logistics for Communion clear.
And once people start to feel “hey, I kind of have a handle on this,” they will start to feel more like one of you. They will start to get the jokes (like this one):
Make it easy for them to “join the club.” My gym-going friends on Facebook have been very open about sharing tips and jokes and making me feel like I belong, even though I’ve now only gone twice (but I have another class booked for tonight). There has been no snarkiness, no “oh, you’ll understand when you’re as developed and enlightened as we are,” just a genuine enthusiasm for this place that’s part of their lives, that requires effort and hard work to make them healthier and stronger and better able to cope with frustration and anger, and an encouragement that I too can be part of it. That’s not a bad model for evangelism.