Welcome to the gym – I mean, church!

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.

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Actual footage of people who are definitely, definitely not me.

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.

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That toddler looks utterly thrilled to be going to church. And yes, I’ve been going to church all my life and this picture still makes me feel intimidated and bored.

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.

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Actual footage of your church’s new front door in this day and age.

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.”

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Learning how it all 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.

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Actual footage of me working out while also engaging in the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer, like a boss. (You can buy this poster here)

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):

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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.

Out of the Silo

How would you list the activities and ministries your church does?

I suspect, in many churches, the list would go something like this:

  1. Worship (perhaps including professional-quality music groups)
  2. Bible study, education, Alpha or Pilgrim courses, Lent/Advent groups, home groups, etc
  3. Fellowship and relationship-building
  4. Serving the community – things like Foodbanks, lunch clubs for the elderly
  5. Supporting national or international charities/justice efforts
  6. Stewardship and governance decisions
  7. Children’s ministry
  8. Youth ministry

If asked about what Children’s Ministry consisted of, the response might be something like, “we have Junior Church, and our weekly toddler group, and Messy Church once a month.”

Which is brilliant! An active children’s ministry like this takes time, effort, commitment, and a lot of love. And it makes a real difference in the lives of children and their families.IMG_20190624_094632

But where are the children and young people in the rest of the list?

Often, we get so used to “children’s ministry” as a separate category that we forget that we can include children in other things the church is already doing. We can have things specifically aimed at children and families – baby and toddler groups are lifelines to many new parents – but we can also look at the list above and, for every item, not just the children’s ministry one, think, “could we include children in this?”

The Children’s Society Good Childhood report has come out today. You can read it here. In it, children express a growing concern about crime, and environmental issues – deep issues of concern for Christians who care about building peace, and caring for God’s creation. If your church is doing anything on crime, creation care, or poverty, could children be involved?

Statutory agencies and schools are also undergoing a cultural shift in how children are involved in decision-making – and churches have an opportunity to follow this example. Children are especially vulnerable, and can’t vote, but almost every decision made by adults in charge of institutions and governments affects them disproportionately. Can you include children in any decision-making processes in your church – about priorities in spending money, about programmes, worship, or choosing a new vicar, children’s worker, director of music, etc? Can children be present at and included in your annual meeting? What would be needed to make that happen?

Here are a few ideas for how this could work in practice:

  1. Invite children and young people to visit the PCC three or four times and year and talk about what matters to them at church, in their community, and in wider issues of justice.
  2. Have a “children’s table” at the annual meeting, facilitated by someone who knows your church’s children, and who can help them share their thoughts and contribute (and provide pens and paper for them to scribble and draw to keep the fidgets at bay).
  3. Think about how your church’s community service, and wider action on social issues, could include children. The church where I was children’s worker includes older children and teenagers on a local charity’s annual “sleep-out” for homelessness – they are sponsored by their teachers and friends. We also include children and teenagers in our pub quiz for Christian Aid. Could your junior church join in fundraising events? Could they make posters or speak in worship, to encourage other church members to get involved? Could you include children in deciding which charities or causes the church supports?
  4. How do you include children in worship? Are they doing what adults tell them, or do they have a chance to share their own ideas?

Children can be involved in the full, broad life of the church – indeed, they should be, because that’s how they learn that Christian life includes thinking about our common life together, reaching out in love to the community, and advocating for a world that reflects God’s values of justice, equality, and dignity for every human being, and stewardship of the earth he has given us. Including children in activities and decisions outside of children’s ministry also gives your church:

  1. The chance to foster inter-generational community.
  2. A reminder to the older members that children are full disciples and members of the Body of Christ.
  3. The enrichment of the ideas and contributions the children bring.

We are all richer when all our voices are heard.

Making Church Websites Family-Friendly

I spend a decent amount of time on church websites, due to the nature of my job. Some are brilliant. Some are awful. Most are … okay.

Most parents of small children are under 40 – this means they’re Millennials or even Gen Z, and have had internet access since their early teens, at the latest. You can pretty much count on your church being Googled before parents rock up at the door – and whether or not they give you a try may depend on what they get when they Google you.

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I had to Google photos of someone Googling and this is the most meta thing that has ever happened to me.

Here are a few tips:

  1. Make your service times easy to find. On the front page of your site if possible. And make sure they’re up to date, including special events. A family may feel more comfortable coming to your Crib Service or your Harvest Festival than to a normal Sunday morning service, so make sure those dates are up there.
  2. Include pictures of children, if possible – and definitely of people. I was on a church website recently that had about 30 beautiful photos of every part of their stunning building. But nothing showing that this was a community. If you can show pictures of children, particularly, this reassures anxious parents that your community values children and they’ll be welcomed if they come. (Of course, you need permission from parents/carers for any photos you do use.)redbourn
  3. “New here? Here’s what to expect!” The Revd Ally Barrett has a wonderful blog post here about why you should include a section on your website about what to expect if you’ve never been to church before – and how you can make that section work. Many parents may only have been to church occasionally before, but feel a desire to come now they have children. If they can read up ahead of time about what the experience is like, they will feel more prepared and less hesitant. It also sends the message that your church is open to newcomers – they won’t be expected to know everything. In our own Diocese, St Paul’s Letchworth has a good example of this kind of page.
  4. Christenings! Most church websites have information about baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Great! However, this may be hidden away under some tab with insider language like “Life Events.” How would I know, if I wasn’t a church professional used to that kind of language, that that’s where to look for information about christening my child? And while we’re on the subject, the word “christening” is much more familiar to society at large than “baptism” is. If your website uses “christening,” you’re more likely to come up in Google searches in the first place, and much more likely to get people to click on that tab and contact you. You can then use baptism preparation to help broaden the parents’ understandings of the different words used to describe this sacrament. But don’t put them off before they’ve even started by using language they won’t understand or won’t search for.

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    A smiling vicar, a cute baby, clear and simple descriptions of what happens – a good Christenings page on a church website.
  5. Connect the dots. If you have things for children during the week – toddler groups, Messy Church, Scout groups, etc – make sure these are prominent and easy to find. Don’t hide your lights under bushels. Your church website isn’t just about the history of your building, and Sunday morning – it’s the front door of your whole community.

Any good website tips I’ve forgotten? Leave them in the comments!

Messy Church – Playfully Serious

For those of you who may not yet have seen the research from Church Army on Messy Church, called “Playfully Serious,” please find it attached below. It’s very useful in helping churches discern what you’re doing Messy Church for, how to do it well, how to make it church instead of just entertainment, and so on.

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CA Messy Church Playfully Serious

Song Sharing Workshop files

Last week, we had our Come and Worship residential conference, looking at children and worship across multiple contexts. As part of this, I chaired an open workshop where we shared child-friendly songs that have worked for us and don’t need a great deal of musical skill or instruments.

Some are specifically written for children, some are simply pieces of music appropriate for worship that are simple to pick up, and don’t require reading skills. Some are ancient, some are modern, some are in between.

These can be used in groups where you don’t have a CD player or a WiFi hookup, where you have no piano (or nobody who can play it) or where you find yourself suddenly with five or ten minutes you need to kill and feel like doing some singing.

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Here are the links to YouTube. There’s some chat, some teaching of music, some singing … hope it’s useful!

Christ Our Peace

Come Into God’s Presence Singing Alleluia

Emmanuel

Famous Fish (Steve Morgan-Gurr)

Fruits of the Spirit

God Welcomes All

I Am a C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N

Jesus in the Boat

Lift Up

Litany of the Saints

Round of Three Saint-themed Songs

Tick Tock (Steve Morgan-Gurr)

Vine and Fig Tree

We Believe

I also taught this song – “King of Kings and Lord of Lord,” which you can find more professionally done here, at Worship Workshop. You can download backing tracks, teaching tracks, and full tracks, as well as the sheet music, for this and over 90 other songs of varying styles and degrees of difficulty. You need to register in order to use the site, but registration is free – it’s just needed for copyright reasons.

A few participants also referred to Fr. Simon Rundell’s Nursery Rhyme Mass – there’s also now a nursery rhyme Christingle, and a nursery rhyme Christening (which began its life on this very blog!).

A litany for blessing a children’s space in a church

This can be used for a new Pray and Play area, for a Junior Church room, a Godly Play room, or any space used by children.

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You will need: a bowl of holy water and rosemary branches or other branches

The people gather in the space, ensuring children can see what’s happening.

Leader: a reading from the Gospel according to Matthew.

Little children were being brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.

This is the word of the Lord.

All: Thanks be to God.

The leader invites the children to enter the space and touch something as she or he says:

Leader: Lord, thank you for this space. Thank you for the children who will use it. Help us to use it to know you, to love you, and to play with the stories of our Christian faith.

All: Amen!

The leader invites the children to hold the hand of one of their adults.

Leader: Lord, thank you for all the people in this church, of every age. Help us to love each other, to welcome each other, and to learn from each other.

All: Amen!

Each child gets a branch, dips it in the holy water, and shakes the branch to bless the space with the water, as the leader says.

Leader: Bless this space, O Lord, which this community has made. May it be a place where the children come to you and find welcome and a home.

The leader then sprinkles holy water over the children, saying:

Through their play, may they come to claim your stories and the worship of your church as their own. May they know you as they are known by you, and love you as they are loved by you.

And finally, the leader and the children together sprinkle holy water over the whole congregation, as the leader says:

And may we all be open to the awe and wonder, the joy and creativity, of play, becoming as little children so we may know you better.

All: Amen.

Making the most of your occasional Christmas contacts

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Hey everyone, it’s CRIB SERVICE AND NATIVITY PREP SEASON, otherwise known as Advent, and that means you may have LOTS of families come through your doors who you don’t see much of the rest of the year.

This is an opportunity to get these families onto your mailing list and send them regular updates and invitations about what’s happening at your church.

If you don’t have a mailing list, then start putting one together. Mailchimp is an excellent (and free) platform for easily sending professional-quality mass emails – if you have twenty minutes, you can learn how to use it via this tutorial.

And to save you the hassle of re-inventing the wheel, I’ve developed an insert for you to put in the service sheets of all your events – crib service, nativity, school services, etc. – so any families who want to be invited to future events can let you know.

You can download the insert here:

Follow-up information sheet (note: once the file opens, click on “Enable editing” at the top, and the weird formatting should fix itself.)

More Pray and Play inspiration

Here’s a brand new Pray and Play corner from St Albans Church in Warner’s End, in the Hemel Hempstead Deanery.

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This corner was the work of a few dedicated lay volunteers, with support from their incumbent, and was funded with a small grant from the Diocesan Children’s Ministry budget – if you’re planning something similar, do get in touch and see if we can help you.

I love this display board. It’s interactive (lift the flaps! Asks a question!), includes a link to Scripture (the text from Isaiah 9 on the right), and introduces children to the liturgical year in a relatable way. If you have an ex-teacher in your congregation, this might be the sort of thing they could take charge of in your space.

Note that they’ve covered the table in an easy-to-clean cloth – a very practical idea.

 

An overview of the general space. A few things I’ve noticed:

  1. The mat is a landscape and can be used for so much imaginative play.
  2. The Happyland church!
  3. 2.jpgCushions on the floor are useful for older children to lie on, or if you ever plan to have structured sessions in this space – having a cushion for each toddler to sit on can help limit the wiggles.
  4. The toy storage is clearly labelled, which can help parents find what their child is looking for, and allow them fewer excuses for why they haven’t tidied your space at the end of the service.

Below you can see an overview of the whole space. The sightlines to the altar are clear, and there’s adult seating to allow parents to worship with their children in this space. The colours are cheerful and work with the general feel of the existing architecture of the church.

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6Starting with the most easy-to-find and familiar toys can be a good way of beginning your Pray and Play area. Parents and children will recognise them, and you can often get bargains on eBay or in charity shops, which is tougher with specialist items.

Here, the church has started with a Noah’s Ark, a toy church, and a Nativity set. They have books for a variety of ages, all of which are Bible stories or prayers. Some puzzles in the toy cupboard show other stories, such as David and Creation.

Below, you can see how they’ve displayed one of their wooden arks, next to books telling the story. This can also be a useful way of identifying toys whose Bible links might not be as easily recognisable (eg a story book of the parable of the lost sheep put in with a toy set of a shepherd and sheep).

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2018-11-07-116Here you can see the table, which is aimed at slightly older children. Some ideas for a table and marker/pencil space can include:

  1. Meditative colouring of Bible story pictures or passages from the psalms.
  2. Crosswords (you can make your own – one site can be found here.)
  3. Word searches (again, you can make your own – try here.)
  4. Blank paper.
  5. Drawing prompts, like, “draw what you think God’s Kingdom is like” or “draw your favourite part of worship.” These can vary with the seasons – and you could even include a place for children to leave their drawings if they’d like them to be included in a display.
  6. Lined paper for budding poets.
  7. Black paper and chalk.
  8. Anything else you can think of!

If you have a space in your church for imaginative spiritual play, I’d love to see photos! Do send them in.

Pray and Play inspiration

A church sent me photos of their brand new Pray and Play space today. This is always so exciting, and I love seeing these creative places where children can worship through play. They’re not quite done with theirs yet, so I’m waiting to share their photos, but it reminded me I took a full set of photos of my own a few weeks back and haven’t yet shown them!

Ours is mostly used:

  1. At the beginning and end of services, when toddlers aren’t in their Sunday School groups.
  2. During All-Age Worship.
  3. Over the summer, when we have no Sunday School.

This means it’s predominantly used by under-5s, and was designed with them in mind.

These photos give an overall view of the space. In the second photo you can see that it’s positioned in the south aisle – you still have a clear view of the altar.

Spaces at the very back can make it hard to see what’s going on, while those at the very front can sometimes make parents feel nervous and exposed – especially if you’re late, and there are no side aisles, so you have to do the Walk of Shame, with a fussy toddler, to reach the space at all.

There are chairs around the edges, so parents and carers can stay with their children, and the Good Shepherd poster on the wall is from McCrimmons.

Carpets like that are available from most educational supply stores, or from Amazon or Dunelm or the like. Ours cost £60. The altar is a £5 IKEA plastic table with a metre of fabric in the appropriate liturgical colour over it.

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Here’s a closer view of the altar. This is NOT at its best! The crucifix was inherited – I’d prefer one that didn’t have small pieces that could break off, and I’ll be buying a new one soon. We used to have a toy metal chalice and paten from Articles of Faith – they’ve discontinued it and have only the expensive one now. We used to also have IKEA wooden bread that “broke” via velcro in the middle – also now lost. So these are fill-the-gap bits, but they do the job for now! (That’s a wooden egg cup, by the way.)

1 metre each of red, green, white, and purple fabric will see you through the year.

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The back of the chair makes an excellent bookshelf … these are all great titles. The book on the Creed was made and illustrated by the Sunday School a few years back. Soft Noah’s Ark toys make less noise when a toddler hits them against stone church floors. You can buy one here (note: this is my company, so, conflict of interest alert) or here.

We have some puzzles of different Bible stories, and a bunch of themed baskets. We’re not rigid about how the toys are played with – kids can mix and match bits from different baskets. About once a month or so I go through and re-organise it all, which takes about 10-15 minutes.

There used to be laminated Contents lists in each basket – of course these got lost. If I were doing it again, I’d punch a hole through a corner and tie them onto the handles of the baskets.

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One of my favourite themed baskets is our Good Shepherd one. You can buy the shepherd and sheep set here. I’ve added a few railings from model railway sets to make a sheep pen – and if you look closely, you can see I’ve also added a piece of circular green felt to be grass and some strips of blue felt to be water. A couple plastic sheep have also found their way in over the years – that’s okay, Jesus says he has other sheep not of this flock! I added the book to give it a bit of context. You could include a book of the 23rd Psalm as well, if you liked. (I use wicker baskets from Argos, with liners, which can be taken out and washed.)

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The Baptism basket has a doll in a baptism dress (also available through Mustard Seed Kids), a shell, and a candle. There used to be a wooden dove – it appears and disappears at random, rather like the Holy Spirit itself …

Sometimes I’ve sent this basket home with a family preparing for a baptism where there is an older sibling. They can play at baptising “their” baby.

I may add a book for kids about baptism to this basket as well.

 

 

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The Easter one has some deep levels of symbolism which I’m sure many of the kids don’t understand, but which I include anyway, because it helps to build awareness of the symbols. The caterpillar and butterfly are symbolic of resurrection, and the globe stress ball indicates that Jesus’s death and resurrection saved the whole world. This also has our Jesus doll (you can buy it here – though they seem to have made him look more European since we got ours, which is a shame), and donkey and sheep hand puppets. The sheep symbolising Jesus as the lamb of God, and the donkey for Palm Sunday. This is also where the bread and egg-cup-wine-goblet were before we had to press them into service on the altar – to represent the Last Supper.

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I bet you can guess what this one is.

We got this toy church from Beulah Enterprises in the US (now part of The Sunday Paper) – you may want to go for the wooden church available from Articles of Faith (again, everyone’s White!! And the baby is literally glued to mum, so nobody else can hold it), which has a wide range of interior fittings, or the Happyland Church (store the wedding couple and coach separately, buy a bunch of ordinary Happyland figures to be the congregation, and bring out the bride and groom when you have a wedding). Playmobil also have a church, but that’s more appropriate for older kids and is very easily taken completely apart in minutes by an enthusiastic group of 7-year-olds – ask me how I know.

Finally – we put in a temporary 5-11 table over the summer, with plain paper, comic strip templates and speech bubbles, and some meditative colouring, since we had no Sunday School. We found that it was very popular, and, once Sunday School started up again, helped ease them back into church.

I don’t advise colouring being the extent of the Christian formation you have for primary-aged children, but as part of it, there’s nothing wrong with it. As long as it’s not completely banal imagery with preachy moralistic messages. This Psalms in Color (American spelling) book was about £10 and I photocopy a few pages when supplies run low. Far from being a distraction, keeping children’s hands busy helps settle them and enable them to concentrate more on worship.

In the future, I’d like to add a Pentecost basket and one with items related to our patron saint. You can get more ideas in our Pray and Play leaflet, which you can download here: Pray and Play Corners

“It worked for us” – Messy Church edition

On Friday, I had the privilege of visiting one of the many wonderful Messy Churches in our Diocese. This one was at Kensworth, and is run by a team of volunteers, along with the Vicar, Nicola.Messy-Church-Event

Here are some tips I picked up. Very few are unique to this one Messy Church, but by showing how they work in this particular context, I hope I’ll nudge out some of the underlying principles that you might be able to apply to your Messy Church (or Sunday morning, or monthly Family Service, or …)

  1. Messy Church is held at the church hall, three miles from the church itself. Why? Because the church hall is just across the road from the primary school. Messy Church begins at 3:30 pm on a Friday. As Nicola said, “you can bring the kids straight from school, it’s Friday, it doesn’t matter if their uniforms get dirty.” You get messy-3to socialise with the other parents, and by the time you get home your kids have been fed and your Friday night is much more relaxed. By starting with the thought “what do our families need?” rather than “how can we make people come to church?” the job of getting people in the door is much easier.
  2. There was a broad variety of activities. We were doing the Lost Sheep, and there were art projects, cooking projects, and sensory tables. I ended up spending most of my time at a table with three tubs – one had slime, one had rice, and one had water gel beads. Toy sheep had been hidden in all the trays, and kids spent ages sifting their hands through and finding the sheep. (They also poured the gel beads in the slime, got rice in the gel bead tray, and made a proper mess). While we were doing this, messy-5we chatted about school and families and life, and also talked about what it felt like to get lost and to be found again. Another table made sheep biscuits, another drew pictures of themselves enfolded in the arms of God – and more. By providing a variety of activities, children of different ages, with different skills and interests, were catered for. Messy Church has lots of resources to make this easy for you, so do make sure you get their magazine and check their website regularly.
  3. The worship was real worship. The story was told clearly, and in detail – and the story is the centrepiece of worship. Kids relate to stories, adults need to hear them messy-1again and understand them in new ways, and they’re the source of all the symbols and imagery we were exploring during the free choice time.  If we gloss over the story, nothing else makes sense! And, importantly, the story was given CONTEXT. Nicola made it clear that this was a story Jesus told. Imagine a kid coming to Messy Church with little Christian background, and hearing “David was little and fought Goliath and won” … okay, who was David? Why should we care? Why isn’t Jesus in this story? A few sentences to explain where the story fits in can help. There were songs that are repeated every session, so people knew them, and a prayer written by the original Messy Church group.
  4. Adults participated in worship. The songs chosen were accessible for everyone – adults didn’t feel silly joining in. Beware “cutesy” songs, or songs that require participants to “perform” in a way that adults and older children might be reluctant to get involved in. Also, the fact that this Messy Church is in a pretty small space for its numbers probably helped the worship – in that adults and children had to sit together. You couldn’t have a situation where children sit at the front for worship and adults disappear to the back of the church, twenty yards away, to chat and look at their phones. How could you use your space to naturally push everyone together? How could you encourage adults to interact with their children during worship, to help them get involved? How could you use music and prayer in ways accessible to all ages?
  5. There were connections, and a pathway. Just like in Sunday church, worship included an announcement time. This Messy Church has started “Messy Holy Communion,” to help families make the leap to sacramental worship, and to connect with the church building three miles away. It was made very clear, though, that the next “Messy Holy Communion” WAS MESSY CHURCH – they were being invited to their community’s gathering, which would also include people from the Sunday congregation, not to something different and scary. Leaflets were placed by the door with information. There was also a signup sheet for “Messy Minus The Kids” – a social gathering for the adults, and a “Beyond Messy Church” youth group signup sheet. While a few teenagers were present as helpers, it’s good to have something available for your kids who feel they “grow out of” Messy Church and who don’t want to get involved as helpers, if possible.
  6. Finding the right balance between service recipient and community member. If your Messy Church was started by a group of volunteers from the original church, it’s easy to fall into an “us/them” mindset. “We, the church, are service providers – they, the families, are recipients.” This is important – you’re loving and serving your community, and as the volunteer leader Kathie said to me, “this is a place where the parents can relax and not have to do anything, just be taken care of. And they’re all doing the school run while we’re setting up, anyway.” However, you also need to think of long-term sustainability if your volunteer team is primarily elderly or could get burned out without new blood. Maybe a few parents could be encouraged to help once a term, on a rota, so not every one is helping every time. One dad in this Messy Church had taken the day off work to cook the dinner for everyone! Another mum said to me, “now, with my kids coming here, I can’t volunteer to help, but when they’re in secondary school I’d love to come back on my own and pitch in.” One thing that distinguishes a church from many other places in our lives is that it’s our community – we belong, and that means we’re part of making it happen. Providing opportunities for your “service recipients” to become “community members” is one of the ways in which Messy Church can be Church.
  7. There was a donations box at the door. Stewardship is another way in which Messy Church can be Church. If it’s our community, we support it in whatever way we can.

And a final note: None of this sprang up overnight – this Messy Church has spent years being developed, and there have been changes and adjustments along the way. So if you’re just getting started on your Messy Church (or family service, or holiday club, or …) journey, use these tips to help you build your own vision, for your own community and your own church’s gifts, and take it one step at a time! And as always, get in touch with me if you need help or guidance at any time.

UPDATE: I wanted to add a few comments from parents, which don’t fit neatly into the list above, but are worth thinking about.

“We’ve been to Sunday church a few times, but here it’s more relaxed and we know we’ll be made welcome.” (this is a very welcoming Sunday church, incidentally – but parents are always a bit nervous about their kids’ behaviour, and whether it’s okay!)

“We heard about it through a leaflet at school – and then a few of her friends started coming and invited us to join them.”

“It’s a real community feel here.”