Let Us Play …

This post, and the photos, are shared with permission of J’s parents. J’s dad is curate of a church in Hertfordshire.

J in pulpit
Here is J in the pulpit

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!

J processing with ladle
J at home, leading a procession with a soup ladle for a cross.

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:

  1. 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”?
  2. 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.
  3. J’s understanding is age-appropriate. It is not abstract or verbal. It is sensory and imaginative.

    J carrying gospel book
    J carrying the Gospel book in procession.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Now I really want to create a Gospel Book and Daily Office board book!
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“Shhhhhhhh!!”

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!”tumblr_nlsbr2viEL1u08yodo7_500

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.

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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.

Why?

The Unholy Trinity

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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:
    1. 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”).
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  3. 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:

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How have you tackled this thorny topic? What has worked? What hasn’t?

Estate agents and Christenings

anniversary

A year ago this month, I completed the purchase of my flat.

I got the card above in the post the other day.

On the back was a brief handwritten note from my estate agent congratulating me, saying she hoped I’d been happy in my new home, and to let her know if I needed anything.

And of course I was reminded of Ann, a woman from the church where I served as Children’s Worker for seven years, who lovingly wrote anniversary cards to the family of every child we baptised, until she became too frail to keep it up.

There’s something about the personal touch, about a handwritten card dropping through your letterbox, that makes us feel like someone’s gone the extra mile to care for us – whether that’s simply good customer service, like in an estate agency, or in the broader and more holistic relationship of pastoral care that churches provide.

So if you have an aging congregation, you don’t necessarily need to train them on Mailchimp and social media (though some of them may be more familiar with it than you are – you never know) – don’t forget that a simple handwritten card saying “we remember this important occasion in your life. We shared it with you. We’re here for you” can make a real difference.

A few tips on making the most of it:

  1. To make it easier, set up a system whereby as soon as a baptism happens, the date goes on a list, broken down by month. That way, the person writing these cards isn’t chasing down 35 separate pieces of paper every few weeks to try and get it done.
  2. Have a basic “suggested wording” (I’ve written one below), but feel free to add special details or memories.
  3. Remind them of what you have to offer them now
  4. Make sure the person/people writing the cards know who to notify when stocks are low! (A quick Google for “baptism anniversary cards” turns up lots of possibilities for you to choose.)

One possible wording:

Dear Alan and Sarah,

All of us at St Martin’s send you our love on the anniversary of Jonah’s christening. We hope you have fond memories of this special day. We are praying for you, and Jonah, and Jonah’s godparents, as you all continue to journey together and grow with God.

We promised on that day to be your church family and support you as you raised Jonah to know and love God. We are always pleased to see you at worship on Sunday at 10 am or at  our Messy Church on the first Saturday of the month at 3 pm.

May God be with you and Jonah on this special day.

Love,

Revd Jane and everyone at St Martin’s

 

Messy Church klaxon!

Messy-Church-Event

We’re having a study day on the 3rd of March to look at the topic of WORSHIP in Messy Church.

How can you do worship that engages all ages?

How can you make worship accessible for those new to church?

How to connect worship well with your activities?

And more!

The day is FREE for those paying out of their own pocket – clergy and readers with a training allowance are expected to use it to cover the costs of their place. Lunch is available for a small extra fee.

Book your place now!

“But I’m Not Good With Kids”

Most of us will agree it’s really important that our churches reach out to children and families. But what if the thought of holding a baby terrifies you (“what if I just … drop it??”) or if, given a choice between leading a Junior Church session and sitting through every one of these Top 100 Bad Movies without a bathroom break, you’d be reaching for the DVD remote every time?crying-baby

The good news is, you don’t have to be good with kids to support children’s ministry in your church.  All ministry is supported by a lot of background work that makes the face-to-face stuff happen. Here’s a Top Ten list to get us started – feel free to add your own in the comments!

  1. Maintain an up-to-date email list of baptism families, and send them information of any activities your church is doing that are friendly for under-5s (Mailchimp can be useful for this – it’s a user-friendly way to send mass mailings, and the free version has everything you need).
  2. Keep an eye out while in charity shops for any toys or puzzles featuring Bible stories, in good condition, and bring them in for your children’s corner (if you have one) or your Junior Church.
  3. Make a knitted Nativity set (Parkinson’s UK has a pattern for £10) or knitted teddies for baptism families, or child-sized vestments for “playing church,” or …
  4. Be responsible for keeping track of volunteers, organising your Junior Church volunteer rota, and reminding them when it’s their week.
  5. Cook for Messy Church, or organise cooking teams for Messy Church.
  6. Help set up and tidy up Junior Church, Messy Church, etc – anyone willing to wield a broom, stack chairs, wash dishes, hoover up sequins …
  7. Distribute leaflets around town for your crib services, Messy Church, All-Age Services, holiday clubs, etc.
  8. Set up a standing order of £10 a month for art supplies, games, etc.
  9. Graphic design skills? Make leaflets and posters for your events.
  10. Be an ally to parents of young children in the service – remind other worshippers that babies and toddlers will sometimes fuss a little and it’s okay, or give an encouraging smile to a parent, or say “you’re doing really well” to a parent wrangling three children under 5, or smile and say “I’m so glad you’re here – it’s great to have the children in church.” Often, parents tell me that this is what made the difference between coming back to church or not!

Slides from Leading Your Church into Growth and BELIEF Bedford

Recently I had the privilege of doing a workshop on Starting Children’s Ministry at the Diocese’s “Leading Your Church Into Growth” conference, and also a lecture on “From Childhood to Maturity” in BELIEF Bedford’s “stages of life/faith” series.

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The slides for both these talks are below.

The LYCiG slide makes reference to a few “rules” when it talks about communication with families. Since I don’t explain those on the slides themselves, here’s a short summary:

The First Date rule: you can find more about that here. Basically, the idea is that after a first contact, like a first date, SOMEONE has to make the call to see if you want to see each other again. With the church/family relationship, that might as well be you! The family might be nervous about approaching the church, or just might keep forgetting to get around to it. Send them an invitation to something – make it as easy as possible for them to come back.

The Debenhams rule: I stole this one from Sandra Millar’s Baptism Matters talk – when you go to a shop and buy something, if you give them their email address, they will keep you on their mailing list until YOU ask to be taken off. They will never say, “oh well, Jane Smith hasn’t been back to Debenhams for two years, guess she’s not interested, let’s take her off our list.” The church, however, often does just this – and when many families say they come to church for Christenings but then won’t come back regularly until their children hit school age, this is really self-defeating.

The nightclub lesson: Another one from Sandra Millar. We who are used to going to church, and feel comfortable there, need to remember how scary it is for people who aren’t familiar with the culture and what happens there. You might feel unsure of yourself going into a betting shop or a hot new nightclub (or maybe not – I don’t judge), so remember those feelings of uncertainty and think how you can help people feel comfortable and like they know what to do when they come to church.

The catch and release rule: This is about the importance of getting contacts at every event where you have families. Your crib service, your Harvest festival, your Messy Church – get the details of families and then add them to mailing lists, inviting them back for whatever events are family-friendly. Invite your Messy Church families to your crib service, invite your Christening families to Messy Church – if someone finds you from one part of your church, grab their contact details and then invite them to everything.

Here are the slides:

LYCiG (Leading Your Church Into Growth)

Belief Talk – from childhood to maturity

How can pigs welcome children to church?

I had the chance to visit St. Mary’s in Baldock recently, and to my surprise I found I was sharing my pew with … a pig!

No, I’m not insulting the person sitting beside me – there was an actual pig there. All right, so it was knitted, but it was still very much of a porcine persuasion.

It turns out that these pigs, which were knitted by a member of the congregation, serve as tour guides to children who visit the church! They’re for children who come to worship, children who come on school visits – any child who wants to figure out what the bits of the church building are for can be shown around by the pigs.

There’s a little leaflet, and each pig has a sign around its neck telling the child what its job is.

(I’m willing to bet the pigs have educated many adults as well.)

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I often find myself reminding people that you don’t have to be “good with kids” to help with children’s ministry. The pigs have a huge impact on the church’s welcome, and also affects their schools ministry. But you don’t have to feel confident leading a children’s group in order to get involved. You can be a knitter, you can write the labels and print and laminate them, you can make sure the leaflets are restocked and there are pens available … these sorts of things are ways to get more of your congregation supporting your children’s work, even if they’re not comfortable doing hands-on work with the kids themselves.

Baptism case study – “Do we make it easy for them to return?”

lucyToday’s post is written by the Revd. Lucy Davis, from Flitwick Parish Church.

In the last 6 months, 19 children have been baptised in the font at Flitwick Church.  That’s 16 different families who have taken the brave step of sending an e mail or picking up the phone to a complete stranger, asking for something that feels somehow instinctively important or significant, with no certainty of what the response would entail. To the vicar of a large Parish, those messages could sometimes feel burdensome, each request signalling a new round of negotiation about dates and guests and Godparents, knowing that very few of those families would retain contact with us once the baby was ‘done.’

Following Sandra Millar’s wonderful training day Baptism Matters, I found myself needing to repent.  The Baptism liturgy talks a great deal about repenting, about turning to Christ.  And I found that it was me who needed to turn again, to be prepared to see afresh, to look outwards and see these Christenings in a new light.

“If a family asks for a Christening, we now talk about a Christening.”

blue-elephant-christening-plates-8s-11312-0-1397559603000And therein was the first turning, a turning of vocabulary.  Parents approached us asking for Christenings, and we would persist in talking about Baptism – on our website, on the phone, in our literature.  To what end?  Yes, to the end of being theologically and ecumenically correct, but also to the end of immediately excluding, of making families feel as though they were asking for the wrong thing, on the back foot and inadequate in the face of our secret Church language.  So there was the first change.  If a family asks for a Christening, we now talk about a Christening.  On the phone, by e mail, on our website. Christening it is.  I have climbed down from my high horse. At the service, we unpack these words a bit, talking about the oil of Chrism as the priest and parents mark the baby’s head.  Suggesting we dunk the baby in the font like hand washing some clothes, in keeping the original meaning of the word Baptism (this one usually met with a little light laughter).

“Do we make it easy for them to return?  Do we even invite them to return? And what would they be returning to?”

Where else have we turned?  Importantly, in our attitude to communication.  It used to be that parents would approach us, we would prepare them for their child’s Baptism, have a lovely service, wave goodbye at the door and then be disappointed when they didn’t return.  But why should they return?  Do we make it easy for them to return?  Do we even invite them to return? And what would they be returning to? The changes in us have been several. Creating a children’s area in the Church which visually communicates “You are welcome here.  We want you and your children to worship with us. We absolutely expect that will come with the noise and movement children bring.”  The difference the children’s area has made is extraordinary.  From being a church with almost no children, I have received comments like “I had no idea you were so welcoming to families.”  “We love coming here, it’s such a child friendly place.”

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We communicate our welcome with words too; all families are now quite deliberately invited to come and join us one Sunday morning before we take a Christening booking (how I hate that word!).  A simple invitation to come, very often taken up, which says at a deeper level “This is not our Church, this is your Church too.  This is not our God, this is your God too.  You belong here.  Christening is not a one off, but is surrounded by the prayer and people of this place.”

“Instead of … providing a service, we are making relationships.”

And then, after the big day, more communication.  More invitation. Another turning. Instead of lamenting the fact that we don’t see families again, we now see it as our job to keep in touch with them.  Yes, cards on the anniversary of their Christening.  But also more frequently too, using Mailchimp e mails to stay in touch, letting families know about special services, about our toddler group, about Messy Church, about social events and fetes and Christingles and  Christmas Carols.  And here is the thing: the majority of those e mails are opened and read.  We are not met with a wall of indifference.  Far from it.

So what has changed, where has this turning taking us?  Into a new relationship with our Christening families. Instead of quite literally providing a service, we are making relationships.  Some will be closer than others. Some will take longer to develop than others.  Some might yet drift and fizzle out.  But by becoming relationship builders rather than service providers, we already see the children we Baptise as members of Christ’s body, not in some distant, abstract way, but emotionally and practically, we see them as belonging.  And I am beginning to see that belonging as catching, catching hold of the families we encounter as it catches hold of us.

It Worked for Us – Baptism Follow-up

13603744465_c916f7e7ea_zAfter Sandra Millar’s wonderful day with us last November, I resolved to put a few of the tips from the Christenings Project into practice in my own church.  We have a large cohort of children in the 7 – 14 age range, but very few babies and toddlers. This has left our under-5s volunteers demoralised, and, of course, made us feel we’re missing out on the joyful presence of toddlers, and on the chance to provide a community and a place of meaning and hope for them and their parents.

And yet, we were still doing Christenings. So these families were out there! We just needed to connect with them better.

What was already in place:

We had a good Jr Church, so I felt confident that families who did start coming back to us would be happy with what they found.

We have a children’s area in the church, specifically for under-5s, with spiritually imaginative toys.

There has been a deliberate, long-term, concerted effort to make the culture of the church more welcoming to young families.

What I did:

I have a tendency to try and do Everything! At! Once! and burn out, so I restricted myself to two small changes:

  1. Send email invitations to specific events.
  2. Make sure families who come back after a Christening are welcomed.

Using Mailchimp, which is a free and pretty user-friendly website for sending mass mailings, I created a mailing list composed just of families who have had children christened in our church in the last five years.

Then, a week or two before our Crib service, our Candlemas service, our Mothering Sunday service, Holy Week, and our All-Age Trinity Sunday service, I sent very simple emails to these lists. The subject line was, “Come celebrate with us!”

IMG_20170618_104958Each email was simple and to the point – we have a toddler-friendly event coming up. Join us! We’d love to see you!

For the Crib service one, I reminded them that holding their child and singing “Silent Night” by candlelight was a special thing they wouldn’t want to miss. For the Holy Week one, I wrote a short paragraph as a “p.s.” reminding them that if they came on Easter Sunday they’d see the new Paschal candle, and they might remember it from their child’s christening. For Candlemas, I told them that we re-light all the Christening candles at the end of the service, so they can bring their child’s if they want (and if they’ve lost it, we’ll give them a new one).

And then I put three people on notice to spot any families with toddlers who they didn’t recognise, and make sure they got talked to after the service.

What happened:

At first, very little. Our Crib service was the usual – neighbourhood children who we see once a year – and the sheets we put in our service sheet asking for contact details were mostly ignored. Candlemas and Mothering Sunday were our usual older children and not much else.

But over the last few months, there’s been a slow upward shift. Here’s what’s happened:

  1. Christening families have started coming back – and not just to our all-age services, but to other Sundays as well.
  2. Thanks to having people on hand to welcome them, they’ve formed relationships with people at church – not just with the vicar and myself.
  3. Knowing that I had people prepared to welcome new parents meant I was less stressed after the service – if I had to go deal with something else, or eight other people needed to talk to me, and I didn’t get to greet the new family, I knew someone else would.
  4. Our under-5s volunteers now feel confident that when they prepare a Jr Church session, there will be some kids there to participate in it.  Their morale has improved.
  5. The parents know that there is a good Jr Church there and so they feel comfortable bringing their kids. (NB: if you don’t have Jr Church, then think about what you can do on Sundays to make families of toddlers feel more comfortable being there. Children’s corners, welcomers, a reminder from the vicar to the congregation to help out parents who need an extra hand … ).

There are three Christening families who I would now consider “regular” attendees of our church (which means 2 – 3 Sundays a month), with 5 young children between them.  There’s a fourth family we might see every 6 weeks or so. For a church our size, this is significant, and means that we now have what feels like a “group” at that age. (This also means that any new families who come now won’t feel like the only family with toddlers.)

What I Learned:

  1. You need a few allies in the congregation – to welcome the new parents, to be on hand to help them during the service, to negate the effects of the “sssshhhhh” brigade or say “it’s okay – they’re just playing” to anyone giving the stink-eye to a non-disruptive child.
  2.  Sandra was right – repetition matters. One invitation isn’t going to get results. Ten invitations will.
  3. Several of the families who have come back have said they were planning to come back anyway when their children got a bit older – parents of babies and toddlers are hesitant to come to church out of fear of being disruptive. Assurance that it’s okay if their kids are behaving like kids might help them come back a little earlier than they were planning to. And if it doesn’t, then it’s important to keep up the invitations for at least five years after the Christening, so that when they are ready to come back, they know what’s going on and that they’re welcome.
  4. Keep it as simple as possible: “It’s Christmas. There’s a Crib service. Christmas Eve, 4 pm. It’ll be lovely and moving. Come and bring your kids.”