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

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All Saints and All Souls All-Age Retrospective

allsaints10Yesterday was the All-Age service for All Saints and All Souls at my church, St. George’s. Here’s some of what we did – feel free to take any or all of these ideas, change them, adapt them, mix them up, and make them better, for your services next year.

As people arrived, they were greeted by this display. The printed images and information about saints is available in a file at the end of this post, so you can download it and use it. It features a mix of Catholic and Protestant, male and female, different ethnicities, different time period, different countries of origin, and different gifts – from martyrs to mystics to artists to reformers of the church and society.

The cardboard figures were made by children in Junior Church over the last few weeks, as we learned about All Saints and All Souls in preparation for the service. They represent either specific saints or people our children love who have died. This created an opportunity for some great conversations in Junior Church about loss, and memory, and bereavement.allsaints2

Also available was this table, with the Jesus doll, an icon of the harrowing of hell, and books about bereavement for children. A paper was available for people of any age to write names they would like included in the Litany of the Saints in the section for our beloved dead.

Children and teenagers joined the procession – the teenagers were too cool to carry shakers with them, but a few kids and I had bells and rattles, which we shook as we sang “When the Saints Go Marching In.” If you use shakers in All-Age Worship, make sure you have a bag or basket to collect them afterwards – or be sure you’re okay with random bell/rattle noises happening throughout!

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After the welcome, confession, and collect, the first reading was Revelation 21:1-6. This was read by a child. I didn’t get any photos of this bit, since I was at the front doing the feltboard. You can see it here off to the side – for the reading, it was front and centre, and the pieces were added to represent the prophecy visually as it was read. This is the Beulah Land feltboard storytelling set – we have a copy in the Diocesan Office for you to borrow, so feel free to get in touch if you’re interested. Children also love playing with it afterwards. You can learn more about Beulah Land here. (Be aware that Mustard Seed Kids is owned and operated by me.)

We then went straight into our gradual hymn, which is from the American Appalachian music tradition – “Palms of Victory.” You can download the song at the link – the sheet music is available in the All Saints section of my book, “There Is A Season: celebrating the church year with children,” which is available in the Diocesan Resource Centre.

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Our Gospel was read by one of our teenagers. There is, as far as I or our ministry team are aware, nothing that says children and laypeople can’t read the Gospel during a Eucharist.

I may have been imagining it, but I think the other members of our youth group paid more attention than usual, because one of their own was doing this part.

The sermon was delivered by our Reader, who helped us think about the great variety of imperfect humans who have followed Jesus before us, and how sainthood isn’t about being a perfect, holier-than-thou, joyless, person, but about our very real journeys through life.

We then sang our Creed.

The Liturgy of the Word is VERY talky – anything that can break it up a bit with something to touch, or do, or sing, can provide a break for those whose spiritual style isn’t primarily word-based, or who are young and have limited attention spans. We use this sung creed from Worship Workshop, which is set to a very familiar hymn tune. (You may need to log in to see it, but registration is free.) Worship Workshop provides backing tracks, teaching tracks, and sheet music, so it’s very user-friendly.

For our prayers, we did a Litany of the Saints. (First, we prayed for the sick, as they’re not included in the Litany and we don’t want to leave them out.) Again, the litany is available at the bottom of this post. You might want to move it up a third if you have high voices leading it.

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During the Litany, people were invited to come up and light a candle – we’d moved the candle stand to be in front of the altar. It’s always helpful for things like this to have one person des

ignated to get things started – once one person has got up and done something, more people are likely to follow.

The banners of St. George and of Mary were made years ago, by children who are now pre-teens or teens. They hang regularly from the balcony in church.

Then we celebrated the Eucharist – the presence of these candles lit during the Litany of the Saints meant they created a metaphorical light of the saints’ presence as we celebrated the Eucharist together. It was a reminder that we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses every time we come together to worship God.

There were a few prayers stations set up for people to use as they returned from communion:

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We closed with six verses of “For All The Saints.”

There wasn’t a huge crowd of children present – we’re going through one of the troughs in our regular cycle of peaks and troughs in terms of numbers. However, the purpose of All-Age Worship isn’t to be children’s worship. I have been reliably and regularly astonished by how often things I plan to be “child-friendly” that take worship, liturgy, and faith seriously end up being moving for adults. Especially after last week’s article in the Church Times that seemed to think All-Age Worship means nothing but action songs, it’s important to remember this. All-Age Worship isn’t about dumbing down – it’s about opening up. And it’s for everyone.

Litany of the Saints 2018

Saint Bios

Free Crib Service plan!

I know, it’s October, but you’re probably already planning Christmas.

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If you have a crib service that’s mostly attended by children who haven’t experienced Advent, here’s a fairly simple plan that allows you to include a bit of waiting, a bit of expectation, and a bit of context for the coming of the Saviour.

The outline is a shortened version of the Christmas liturgy in my book, There is a Season – we have a copy in the Diocesan Resource Centre if you’d like to borrow it and see the full version. The Adam and Eve story is adapted from the Beulah Land feltboard story – we also have a Beulah Land set available for you to borrow. Many of the other readings are adapted from Miracle Maker: a life of Jesus, retold and remembered, by Mary Joslin.

The service should last approximately half an hour.

YOU WILL NEED:

Your church’s crib scene

A bunch of stuffed animals – placed in the pews ahead of the service

Candles for the congregation

Any visual elements you’d like to add to the first story.

A few readers, ideally a mix of children and adults (there are five readings – some people can do more than one reading if you don’t have five readers)

A few helpers to greet people as they enter, light candles, and turn off church lights (again, these can be children and/or adults)

Either some way of accompanying the carols OR a few very strong singers to lead them a cappella

SERVICE PLAN:

The service leaders welcome the congregation.

LEADER: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  In him was life, and the life was the light of the world. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

READER ONE: 

In the beginning, God made the world.

He made a man and a woman,

And put them in a beautiful garden.

They had everything they needed.

They were safe.

But the snake said, “did God say you can’t eat any of the fruit in the garden?”

And the woman said,

“we may eat of any of the trees,

But not of the tree in the middle of the garden,

The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

For God has said that if we touch this tree, we will die.”

The snake said, “you will not die.

If you eat from that tree, you’ll be just like God.

You can do whatever you want.

You’ll be just as big and special as God.

Come on. Try it.”

So the man and the woman ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

But it didn’t make then big and special.

It made them ashamed.adam-eve2.jpg

They were ashamed of their thoughts.

They were ashamed of their bodies.

And they couldn’t live in the garden any more.

They had to go out into the world, and work hard, and feel pain, and die.

But God did not forget them.

God began the long work of saving them.

And that’s our story.

CAROL: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

LEADER: Let us pray.

This is just one type of prayer suggestion – feel free to use a different one! This one uses our hands. Parents with babies can be encouraged to touch their baby’s hands.

With our thumb, we make a thumbs-up sign and say thank you to God for all the good things in the world, and the good things about ourselves.

(If you like, you can invite people to share with each other or with the whole congregation)

With our pointer finger, we point around the room and pray for everybody here.

With our big tall strong middle finger, we pray for people who are big and strong and powerful. We pray they make the right decisions.

With our ring finger, we pray for our families, especially anybody who isn’t here, or who has died, that we miss very much at Christmas time.

With our tiny little pinky finger, we pray for everyone who is small, or powerless. We pray that the God who came into the world as a tiny powerless baby will keep them safe and be with them.

And now we make a big circle on our palm as we pray for the whole entire world.

AMEN.

Loving God, as we hear the story of how God sent Jesus to save us, let us pray that our hearts, like those of the prophets, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, and wise men, may be open to receiving Jesus into our world and our lives. AMEN.

READER TWO:

The reader asks everyone to check their pews for a stuffed animal. What animals do you have? Do these animals get along or do they fight? Which are predators? Which are prey?

Explain that we’re about to hear a story of what it’s like in God’s Kingdom, where predators and prey get along. Ask everyone to listen VERY CAREFULLY for the words “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb.” When they hear these words, bring up your animals and place them around the empty crib scene!  

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There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.

And the Spirit of the LORD shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth.

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb …

(Pause for the chaos of everyone bringing their animals up. Comment, if you like, on how beautiful the scene of all the animals living in peace is. But that crib is still empty! We’re still waiting for the person who brings this peace! Then continue the reading. Repeat “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb” if needed.)

and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall feed; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.

They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

If necessary, re-arrange the stuffed animals to make room for the figures.

Carol: Away in a Manger, 2 or 3 verses

READER THREE:

God sent the angel Gabriel to a town named Nazareth. The angel had a message for a girl promised in marriage to a man named Joseph. The girl’s name was Mary. The angel came to her and said, “peace be with you! The Lord has greatly blessed you!”

Mary was deeply troubled, and wondered what the words meant. The angel noticed the fear and wonder in her eyes and spoke again.

“Don’t be afraid, Mary,” the angel said. “God has chosen you. You will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High God.”

Mary was perplexed. “How can I have a baby?” she asked. “I’m not even a wife yet, so how can I become a mother?”

The angel’s answer was simple. “God’s power will make it happen.”

Mary thought for a moment.  She had been brought up to live by God’s laws. Now she was older, that was what she herself wanted to do. If this message was truly from God, then she knew what her answer would be.

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“I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it happen to me as you have said.”

And the angel left her.

Invite people from the congregation to add the figures of Mary and the angel to the crib scene.

If you want to extend the service, you can add wondering questions, or prayer stations, or a reflection here.

Carol: Once In Royal David’s City 

READER FOUR:

Mary was heavily pregnant now, and so tired. Then the pains of labour were upon her – it seemed certain that the baby was going to be born while she was far away from home, here, in Bethlehem. “Oh, Joseph,” she cried. “We have travelled so far and need a place to stay, but all the rooms for travellers are full. What shall we do?”

Joseph was not dismayed. Months earlier, in a dream, the angel told him to take care of Mary and her baby. He must now do what he thought best – and trust God that all would be well.

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“Dear Mary,” he said, “here is a stable where we can shelter. There is clean straw, enough room to lie down, and the cold night breezes cannot chill us.”

There, among the animals, Jesus was born. The son of God. Not in a palace or a safe hospital, but in a stable.  Mary wrapped her baby in swaddling clothes. Joseph piled straw into an ancient stone manger, to make it into a cradle. There, Mary laid her baby.

Invite people from the congregation forward to add the figures of Joseph and the animals to the crib scene. Then invite a very young child (with carer) to place the figure of baby Jesus. 

Carol: Silent Night.

During this carol, light the congregation’s candles and turn off the lights in the church.

When “Silent Night” is finished:

LEADER: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Those who dwelt in the land of deep darkness, upon them has light shined!

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, Almighty God, the Prince of Peace!

The lights in the church are turned back on and candles are extinguished.

Carol: O Come, All Ye Faithful.

READER FIVE:

This poem is called “The Shepherds’ Carol.”  It imagines what the shepherds might have said to Mary when they arrived at the stable.

We stood on the hills, Lady,

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Our day’s work done,

Watching the frosted meadows

That winter had won.

 

The evening was calm, Lady,

The air so still,

Silence more lovely than music,

Folded the hill.

 

There was a star, Lady,

Shone in the night,

Larger than Venus it was,

And bright, so bright.

 

Oh, a voice from the sky, Lady,

It seemed to us then

Telling of God being born

In the world of men.

 

And so we have come, Lady,

Our day’s work done,

Our love, our hopes, ourselves,

We give to your son.

 

People are invited forward to add the shepherds to the crib scene.

Carol: While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks By Night

PRAYERS:

LEADER: Let us pray to Jesus our Saviour.

Jesus, whose mother was Mary,

Bless our families. Jesus, Saviour,

All: Hear our prayer.

LEADER: Christ, born in a stable,

give courage to all who are homeless. Jesus, Saviour,

All: Hear our prayer.

LEADER: Christ, worshipped by the shepherds,

give peace on earth. Jesus, Saviour,

All: Hear our prayer.

LEADER: Christ, whose light filled a lowly manger,

give the glory of your resurrection to all who rest in you.

Jesus, Saviour,

All: Hear our prayer.

 

All: Jesus, Saviour, child of Mary,

you know us and love us, you share our lives

and hear our prayer. Glory to you for ever. Amen

 

LEADER:

May the joy of the angels,

the eagerness of the shepherds,

the perseverance of the wise men,

the obedience of Joseph and Mary,

and the peace of the Christ-child

be yours this Christmas;

and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,

Be among you and remain with you always.

All: Amen.

 

LEADER: Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

All: In the name of Christ, Amen.

 

Carol: Hark the Herald Angels Sing

 

For some tips of how to make the most of the contact you have at this service with families you only see at Christmas, check out “First Dates By The Manger.”

All-Age Talk for a pet blessing service

I was honoured to be asked to speak at St. Martin’s in Shenley for their pet blessing service last Sunday. That’s me in the back row, holding the angry-looking orange cat.

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The service was warm and welcoming, and friendly for all ages – we heard the Creation story (with pictures), sang hymns both modern and traditional, and had time to reflect and pray for, and with, each other.

I also learned a fabulous way to add movements to the grace, which I’ll be stealing for my own ministry. It goes as follows:

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (arms out in front of you)

and the love of God (arms crossed over your chest)

and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (hold hands with someone close to you)

be with us all evermore, AMEN. (lift up your joined hands)

Here’s the talk I gave – you’ll need some Play-doh (enough for everyone to have some), but that’s it. Feel free to borrow this for animal/Creationtide services. Thanks go to Sarah Green, the Children and Families Worker at Homewood Road URC, for the idea – the bulk of the credit goes to her.

All-Age Talk on Creation and Pets

Clarify there are no right or wrong answers to wondering questions, and that it’s okay to wonder quietly and not say anything out loud.

 I wonder what your favourite part of the story was.

I wonder what the most important part of the story was.

I wonder why God made the world.

I wonder what it feels like to make something.

 

Somehow ensure everyone has Play-Doh – with large groups, you may want to pass this out ahead of time.

 

The Bible says we are made in God’s image – that means we’re like God. We can make things, like God. We can love, like God. We can make choices, like God. Our creativity – whether with Play-Doh or paint or problem-solving at work or home or school, or anything else – is God-given. It’s special and important.

Now I would like you to choose somebody near you to take care of your Play-Doh sculpture for you until the end of this talk.

Did you choose somebody you know? Someone you trust? How does it feel to give something you’ve made to someone else to look after?

(take responses)

When God made the world, after allllll that time, he gave it to us to look after. The plants, the air, the water, and these precious animals we’ve brought today to be blessed – they are gifts from God, a sign of his trust.

What does it mean to take care of something?

Now I’d like you to look very very closely at the thing you’re taking care of, which was made by someone else. Can you see fingerprints in it, from where they’ve touched it?

The fingerprints of the one who made something are all over it.

Every one of us is made by God. Individually, uniquely. God’s fingerprints are all over us. And so, because we are like God, we leave fingerprints on the things we touch, and, like God, we have a choice. We can choose to use our hands, to leave our marks on the world – by feeding the animals we love, by watering plants, picking up litter that is hurting God’s beautiful earth, putting things in the recycling instead of the rubbish, by touching animals gently and in ways that are loving – or we can choose to leave fingerprints on the world that are harmful – hurting animals and each other, destroying God’s beautiful creation. We have that choice.

When we bless these animals later, we’re putting our fingerprints on them in place of God, because God’s body isn’t here right now, so it’s OUR job to take care of them FOR God. So I ask you, when you bring your animal to be blessed, or as you sit and watch the animals, think of how the love and care between people and animals is part of the job God has given us, and a way of being like God.

And when you leave this place, during the week to come, I invite you to pause. And look closely. At the falling leaves. At the whiskers on your cat’s face. At your child’s fingers as they sleep. At the arms and hands of the adult who takes care of you. Because when we pause, and look closely at the world around us, we can see God’s fingerprints.

Gifts of the Spirit prayers

I did this with Diocesan staff yesterday, with the idea that it could easily work with children’s groups.

Because it requires an understanding of abstract ideas and metaphor, it probably would work best with kids age 7 and up – into adolescence. It could also be used in All-Age Worship, if you could think of a way to include the tinies.

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

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

So, using the “gifts of the Spirit” as my inspiration, I drew an outline of a dove on some A1 easel paper and put it in the middle of our worship space. Then, to begin our prayer time, I read the following:

God, you are three in one, and through your Spirit you have poured on all your people an abundance and diversity of gifts. Help us to know your Spirit, brooding over the world as a mother bird over her children, nurturing and inspiring, encouraging and guiding.”

Then I explained: for each question, if you would like to, you may write a response, using as few or as many of your papers as you would like. As I read the closing prayer, you may bring up your responses and place them around the image of the Spirit – perhaps as feathers, or as flames, or simply as prayers left before God. If you would like to keep your prayer private, you may fold your paper over, and I ask that everyone respects that privacy.

I read each of these questions and waited in silence until I could only hear 1 or 2 markers still scratching, before saying “Lord, in your mercy …”

What gifts are you thankful for from others today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts do the church, and the world, need today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts do your friends, family, and community need today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts do you have that you can use in your work and personal life today?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

What gifts would you ask the Spirit to help you make more of?

Lord, in your mercy …

All: hear our prayer

Then I reminded everyone they could bring their prayers forward as I read the following, slightly adapted from Teresa of Avila’s famous prayer:

Christ has no body now but ours. No hands, no feet on earth but ours. Ours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Ours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Ours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Ours are the hands, ours are the feet, ours are the eyes, we are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but ours.

The dove, with all our prayers, remained there in the middle of our circle as we celebrated communion.

You could easily incorporate music into this prayer idea.

“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.”

Baby loss services – tips for worship leaders

Every so often, someone calls my office or sends me an email – “I’m leading a service for Baby Loss Awareness Week – got any tips?”

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They’re asking partly because this sort of falls under my remit as Children’s Mission Enabler – these services are a ministry to families, and often, other children are involved either at the time of the loss or later. Providing a meaningful place to honour and remember the life of their child can create a deep pastoral relationship with a family for years to come. But they’re also asking because they know I’m a bereaved parent myself – my son Isaac died at birth in 2015. So I’ve seen these services from both sides – as a parent, and as a leader. And here is what I’ve learned:

  1. Connect with your local SANDS group. You can find your nearest group here. Not only can they help you plan an appropriate service, they can help publicise your service to families. You may also want to contact local hospital chaplains – many hospitals do annual memorial services and might have some tips, or service sheets from past years you can use.
  2. The service itself should probably be about half an hour long, at most. People may want to stay afterwards and talk – and this may actually be longer than the service itself. Plan for this time and provide lots of refreshments.
  3. Generally, regardless of what else is done in terms of music, readings, remarks, etc., the two things that these types of services consistently include are: a time to read off the names of the babies being remembered (usually before or while people can light candles), and something to take home as a memorial (the Baby Loss Awareness Week pins are good). Have a list people can add their baby’s name to as they enter, so they don’t have to send anything in advance.
  4. The delegate pack from an event we did on baby and child funerals is attached to the bottom of this post – this can provide ideas for readings and music.
  5. You may have children in attendance – siblings or cousins, both before and after the loss. It’s worth considering that this is potentially an All-Age event. Remember in your welcome to include parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins – “whoever you are, you are grieving a baby you loved today, and we welcome you.”
  6. Some families may have made the awful decision to terminate a pregnancy after a diagnosis, or because of risk to the mother’s health or life. Others may have had to decide to turn off life support. They may be struggling with feelings of guilt, and worried the church might condemn them. Some may be dealing with a loss from decades ago when stillbirth wasn’t considered a “real” loss.
  7. And finally – this will probably be emotionally draining for you as a leader. Plan your diary for the hours after the event accordingly. Whatever is restorative to you, make sure you include some of that. And don’t expect to be able to go straight from a baby loss service to leading a wedding rehearsal, or Messy Church, or a funeral visit, or whatever … take care of yourself.

If you want a more detailed conversation about any of these issues, do get in touch. And please remember, if you are leading one of these services, how much it means to the families simply to have their baby remembered and named. Thank you so much for doing it.

Download: Funeral Ideas for Delegate Pack

Worth 1000 words …

Often, a visual focus can help children engage in worship, or can illustrate an idea or a story. Below are some pictures that might be useful for your groups – all were taken by me, so you’re free to save and use them however you’d like. All I ask is that you credit me (Margaret Pritchard Houston) and if you use them at an event you’re charging admission for, to get in touch and ask about fees (email me). But you can use them without payment for worship, Messy Church, Junior Church, etc.

I’ve included some suggested topics, but feel free to use them for other ideas as well!

To download an image, click on it to view it full size, then right-click and choose “save image as …”

Here are a few from my “journey” folder.

These could be used for All Souls or for other events looking at death and resurrection.

Here are some on “light”:

Some photos of the natural world that could be used for any number of things:

And a few random bits and bobs – ashes, home, water, sheep, etc:

Hope these are useful – and I’d love to hear about the creative ways you use them.

The light shines in darkness …

We now have a Light Box, which is available for you to borrow!

It comes with 85 letters, numbers, and symbols. This means you sometimes need to get creative if you need more of a particular letter than they have available.

You can use it in worship …

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You can use it as part of a prayer station …

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

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Or you could use it to publicise something coming up …

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You could also simply have it out for children to play with and make their own messages. You could take photos of every message/prayer/etc children make, and put these together as a collage for display or a slideshow to gather these prayers at the end of a session.

What other ways could you use it?

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

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

DIY intercessions

This could work for All-Age worship, Junior Church, holiday club, confirmation class, youth group, and more. It’s a way of encouraging the congregation to take a more active role in the prayers of the community, and it also means one less thing to organise/write ahead of time.

We’re going to try it at our Harvest Festival.

Set up a table near the entrance of your space, with paper for each type of prayer, Post-its, and pens/markers. I also added a little object for some of them, to make it interesting and more visual.

I’ve used:

The World

People and animals we love who have died

People who are ill or need help

Our church / our community / Christians around the world

THANK YOU FOR …

You might also want to add a note that young children can draw their prayers and tell an adult what to write for them.

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Then, during the service, simply read off what people have written for each section. Start with “we pray for …” and then read the heading, and then each Post-it note. Finish each section with your standard closing, e.g. “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.”

You might want to play background music during this, to make it more sensory – either live or recorded. Here are some good tracks if you want to use recorded music (copyright may apply for use in worship – do check):

Soft piano music.

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

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

Violin and piano, folk style.