Under-40s and faith

Many of us may be expecting larger than usual numbers of young families in our churches over the next few weeks – school services, crib services, and Christingles mean we have contact with families we may not see at other times. Who are these families? What do they value? Where are they, spiritually? What can we learn from each other?

This is an excerpt from my book, “Beyond the Children’s Corner: creating a culture of welcome for all ages”

Despite a strong cultural narrative of modern life being more isolated than ever before, the idea that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ still resonates with parents, and the church is part of that village. The research into baptisms conducted by the Church of England’s Life Events team found that the biggest reason for parents wanting their children to be baptized was so that they would have godparents.[1]

‘A christening gives parents the opportunity to formally involve other significant adults in their child’s upbringing, for advice, protection, support and encouragement, and they will give a lot of thought to choosing good people,’ the research says. It found that ‘the choice of godparents often honours long friendships, and in choosing them, parents are envisaging a relationship that will last at least 20 years, probably a lifetime.’

One parent I spoke with told me, ‘Both times I’ve found myself looking down at a positive pregnancy test, my first thought was, “Oh God, who’s going to help me do this?” Of course I’m lucky in that I have my partner, but in that moment when the reality is beginning to dawn on you, you know you’re going to need more than that. It’s like that quote from About a Boy – two isn’t enough. You need backup.’

This desire – for a community of loving adults – has clear implications for mission and ministry, and for what the church can offer to provide what parents want for their children. And it also suggests we would be remiss to overlook the importance of recognizing the godparent/godchild relationship when families come to us for baptisms.

What else do parents value, when it comes to spirituality? The majority of parents with very young children will be under 40. This is relevant, because recent polling for YouGov shows that for the first time, in the last few years, the number of people under 40 identifying themselves as ‘nones’ – i.e. of no religion – passed 50%.

While this may seem like bad news at first glance, this group is not as straightforward as they seem. Linda Woodhead, the author of the research, writes, ‘Only a minority of nones … are convinced atheists … the largest bloc is made up of maybes, doubters, and don’t knows, plus 5.5% who definitely believe in God. As to what kind of God they believe in, less than a quarter of the nones who think there is a God adhere to the traditional idea of a personal “God”, with the rest believing in a spirit, life-force, energy, or simply “something there”. So the nones are not [a] phalanx of doughty secularists … but they are certainly more sceptical about the existence of God than those who identify as religious.’

But Woodhead’s idea of religion doesn’t end with identification – she then goes on to look at practice, where again she finds that ‘the picture is not straightforwardly secular … A quarter [of nones] report taking part in some kind of personal religious or spiritual practice in the course of a month, such as praying. What they absolutely do not do is take part in communal religious practices … On the whole they do not much care for religious leaders, institutions and authorities, but they tolerate them … The only leaders for whom nones have regard are Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama, and to a lesser extent Pope Francis.[2] It seems clear that nones dislike being preached at and told what to do; they prefer to make up their own minds.’[3]

Woodhead also found that ‘nones’ are more likely than practicing Anglicans to consider themselves global citizens, and in terms of their attitudes towards personal morality, tend to adopt a ‘live and let live, as long as you aren’t hurting anyone’ attitude.[4]

So families these days form a variety of structures. They may be households consisting of two people or many more. They may have three or more generations living together, may have a single parent, or two parents of the same or opposite sex. A child may spend two weekends a month with mum and two with dad, having obvious implications on their participation in weekend activities like Sunday worship. There may be children with additional needs in the family, and both they and their siblings and parents will be affected by this. The family will likely believe in some form of higher power or spirituality, but be suspicious of organized religion and not keen to label themselves as part of a group. They will be likely to have a strong belief in the rights of other families to live as they like as long as nobody is getting hurt, and desire a community of significant adults around them to help raise their children. They value authenticity and community, but are sceptical about hierarchy, institutions and authority.

And, crucially, they are unfamiliar with church. Under-40s are less likely to have regularly attended church as a child than any generation of parents before them.

So when you have a family coming for a christening, or to a crib service, or even just an ordinary Sunday morning, you’re not just meeting a child who isn’t enculturated into church, but you are likely also encountering adults who are unfamiliar with the routines, practices, language, codes of behaviour and general expectations of what going to church means.

This has long-term ramifications in terms of how we help parents to nurture their child’s faith at home, when they themselves may be only just starting to explore faith, but it has immediate ramifications in how we welcome these families and treat them on Sunday morning.

I moved house a few years ago, and there was an independent bakery on my new high street. I wanted to go in, but for weeks I put it off and went to the chain one instead. Why? Because I wasn’t sure of the rules. Would I have to pay cash, or is card okay? (I don’t normally carry much cash.) Do I order and then sit down, or is it table service? I was worried about looking awkward and out of place.

Imagine how much more magnified these emotions must be if the place you’re coming to is someplace very quiet and reverent, with a lot of unusual practices like singing together, and you also have a restless two-year-old with you, with an unwieldy pram to worry about. Remembering that parents bringing their children to church will probably be uncertain, and nervous about what happens there and what to do, is crucial to creating a culture of welcome.


[1] Church of England Life Events, https://churchsupporthub.org/baptisms/explore-thinking/importance-godparents/.

[2] Interesting question to ponder: what do those three figures have in common? Does your church share those traits?

[3] Woodhead, Linda, ‘The rise of “no religion” in Britain: The emergence of a new cultural majority’, Journal of the British Academy, 4, 245–61. DOI 10.5871/jba/004.245. Posted 8 December 2016. © The British Academy 2016.

[4] For those who like numbers: 83% of Britons fell at the more liberal end of this scale, 92% of lay Anglicans did, and 100% of the ‘nones’ did.

Where have our volunteers gone?

Yesterday, my church celebrated our Dedication Sunday. Our vicar preached with gratitude and love for all that we had done together to keep the church’s mission and ministry going during the pandemic. But he did mention something that many other churches have asked me about over the last few months – our volunteers have quit, in alarming numbers, over the last 18 months.

Why is this happening?

For some, it’s that committing to regular volunteering in uncertain times feels impossible. We don’t know if we might have to suddenly self-isolate with no notice, and we’re worried about letting people down if we do. We struggle with quickly responding and adapting to changing regulations – planning a Junior Church session is fine, but planning six different versions of it, depending on what we might be allowed to do, and then writing a detailed risk assessment, is too much. Or our own responsibilities multiplied over the pandemic – home-schooling, working from home, caring for relatives – and we just can’t stay on top of the church gardening as well.

For others, it may have been that we were close to burning out before the pandemic hit, and it just became an easy way to naturally stop something we no longer had the energy or enthusiasm for, but felt we couldn’t quit.

Or we may be in a group that’s particularly vulnerable to Covid, or live with someone who is, and we’re trying to minimise risk, and leading Toddler Group just feels like a step too far.

So now we as a church are trying to figure out a way forward, and all the children’s ministry stuff we used to do – Junior Church, or Messy Church, or Toddler Group, or schools ministry, or any number of things – and not only does it feel like the families have distanced themselves, but you also don’t have the volunteer support you used to have.

What Can You Do?

The simplest way of encouraging people to volunteer is to ask. Definitely in a general way, from the front, but also personally. “People like to be asked,” a vicar told me the other day, reporting on an elderly gentleman who she asked to help with a project, and who told her, emotionally, he hadn’t been asked to do anything at church for years. “People like to feel useful.” The personal touch can help. And in thinking about who to ask to help with children’s ministry, don’t just think about young parents (and especially not just young mums) – people of all ages can have a gift for ministering with children. Extra grannies and grandpas can help form deep faith, and create nurturing inter-generational relationships. And if there are admin or organisational tasks needed to help run your children’s ministry, people can do those, even if they’re “not good with kids.”

And think about changing trends in volunteering – an NCVO webinar I attended a few years ago pointed out that people these days tend to like volunteering for shorter, time-limited events, rather than ongoing commitments. So someone may not be happy to lead Junior Church every other week, forever, but they might be happy to organise the Crib Service. Or a half-term holiday club.

But there are bigger questions raised by this slump in volunteer numbers.

Going Back To Normal?

It is tempting to think “how can we make it so that things can go back to normal? How can we find the same number of volunteers we had before, so we can do the same things?” But it may be that God is calling you to a different way of doing things, a different way of being.

Perhaps the lack of volunteers is an opportunity – instead of doing separate things for children, which require a number of specialist volunteers, your congregation can think about ways to further integrate children into what the rest of the church is already doing. What if you stopped trying to do Junior Church every week, for example, and instead did it once or twice a month? The other weeks, use simple techniques to integrate children further into worship – I asked a few parents and clergy for easy ways to do this the other day, and here’s what they came up with:

  1. Provide everyone, of all ages, with paper and drawing materials. Encourage people to draw or write in response to what happens during worship.
  2. If you have a children’s area, can you make it larger? With things for toddlers but also for older children?
  3. Encourage children to come up and sit around the altar during the Eucharistic prayer.
  4. Keep children in church with clergy. Send everyone else out to self-guided groups with some discussion questions for part of the service.

In the longer term, can you make it a goal for the whole church to take seriously the idea of welcoming children and families, and including them in worship? What would it take for this to happen? Would it be more or less work than trying to re-launch separate programmes from scratch? Would the families you used to have be interested, or would they only be interested in coming back to the same thing they used to do?

Outside of Sunday morning worship, are there opportunities to include children and families in things that are already happening, so you need fewer volunteers?

For example, if you have a “tea and a chat” club for the elderly, is there a way of combining this with a toddler group, for at least part of the time they’re together? Yes, you would still need volunteers who were good with families, and volunteers who were good with the elderly, but you’d only need half as many people to set up, do the refreshments, tidy everything up, if you were only doing it once! The toddlers could have some time on their own to begin, then everyone could meet together for a while, and then the elderly could have some time on their own to finish.

If you have a group who works on a local issue of justice – homelessness, or a Foodbank – could they meet in an evening, include prayer and pizza, and make this group open to older children and teenagers who also care about these issues?

There may still be places where we want children to be just with children. This provides the opportunity for them to make friendships more easily than if their parents are right there, and it allows us to tailor things for different ages or interests. I’m not saying get rid of everything children do on their own. But if we start shifting our thinking from “how can we get lots of people to run all the programmes we used to run for children” to “how can the whole church move to open up what we’re already doing, so children and families can be more included?” we may find, with time, that our intergenerational relationships, worship, and ministry are flourishing in unexpected and wonderful ways.

UPDATE: In a discussion on social media, Wendy Claire Barrie, a children’s ministry expert from the USA, said the following, and gave permission for me to add it to this post:

A few thoughts from the other side of the Atlantic:

1. While young children remain unvaccinated, they are at risk and raise the risk of others, so it may not yet be time to match them with elders or have them stand around the altar.

2. Nimble is the word and mindset we’ve adopted. We are back in worship and with some programs here in NYC but have to be ready to pivot on a moment’s notice.

3. I am long past ready to reframe what parishioners do at church/for church events as volunteering. This is how church happens: we do this work together. What the lack of parishioners being willing or able to participate in this way must mean is fewer programs, events, classes, not that already overburdened staff take on more responsibilities.

Re-thinking and re-starting

As we start to (hopefully) emerge from the pandemic, lots of churches are using this opportunity to re-evaluate many aspects of mission and ministry.

I’ve found this to be a helpful tool for meetings, to start conversations about the future. You may find it useful to limit the number of things people can write in each box – 3 or 4, maximum, for example – so that you don’t end up with the answer, “everything,” in some of the boxes, which isn’t helpful.

The next step for discussion after this, of course, is, “of the things we think are valuable and should keep/restart, what is needed to make them happen? In terms of time, talents, and treasure? Do we have those resources? If not, can we reshape some things – less Junior Church and more All-Age Worship, for example, if we have fewer volunteers?”

The matrix is available at the bottom of the post in a Word document, so you can download it and share it with your PCC/ministry team/working group.

What have we stopped during the pandemic, which we should pick up again?



What have we stopped during the pandemic, which should stay stopped?



What have we started doing during the pandemic, which we should keep?



What have we started doing during the pandemic, which we can stop once it’s over?



There is a second matrix that we’ve used in our Toddler Group Leaders’ group as well – the “Value/Effort” matrix. This can help narrow down the “OMG WHAT DO WE DO FIRST???” spiralling, and help decide on actions and next steps. I’m afraid I only have this one as an image file, so it can’t be written on, but you can either re-create it, or encourage people to talk/use the chat function, about each square in turn, and share ideas that way:

A liturgy for admission to communion

This is the liturgy I wrote for admitting children to communion – a church recently asked for one, and that made me realise I’d never put it up on the blog! So here it is – I hope it’s helpful.

We do this right before the Eucharistic Prayer. Children come up at the offertory and stand in a line along the chancel. They stay there throughout the Eucharistic Prayer, so they can see, up close, the elements being prepared, and be a part of it. Then at the invitation to communion, they move down to the altar rail and are the first of the congregation to receive.

We usually gave them a small gift along with their certificate – sometimes it was a book about the communion service (Pray Sing Worship, from SPCK – currently out of stock, sadly), sometimes it was a good children’s Bible, sometimes a cross or icon or a carving or a piece of stained glass to hang. During the preparation classes, we practiced putting down things you were holding so you could use your hands to receive the bread.

The Liturgy:

My dear friends in Christ, today we come together in special joy as we see these children join us as regular sharers in the most holy, sacred, and wonderful mysteries of communion.  A warm welcome therefore to you all, especially if you have come to see N, N, and N, as they reach this stage in their journey of faith.

The priest addresses the children:

In baptism, you were made members of Christ’s family.  You come to us now as members of that family.  Today you will share with us that meal which he commanded his friends to remember on the night before he died, and which he gives to us as a sign of his living presence among us. 

N, N, and N.  Jesus calls you by name, and invites you to his table.  Do you wish to be admitted to Holy Communion, and share regularly in this sacred meal?

The children reply: I do

The priest addresses the congregation:

Will you welcome these children as communicant members of Christ’s family, and support them with your friendship and prayers?

All: With the help of God, we will.

The priest addresses the parents and carers:

Will you help these children to grow in faith and come to confirmation?

Parents and carers: With the help of God, we will.

The priest prays for the children:

Lord Jesus Christ, you said that we should all become as little children.

We pray today for these children as they receive bread and wine for the first time in your name.        Give them such a sense of the mystery of your body and blood that they may know your presence in their hearts and day by day grow to be more like you.    Amen.

The priest gives each child their certificate of admission to Holy Communion, addressing them by name:

In the name of God, I welcome you, N., to the sacrament of Holy Communion.  

May God bless you as you continue with us on your journey of faith. 

The children remain on the chancel for the Eucharistic prayer.

Harvest Resource

I know it’s a bit late, and I apologise – but bookmark this for next year if you’ve already had your Harvest Festival.

Especially now, as more of the world is waking up to the climate crisis and our collective failure to care for God’s creation, it can be easy to feel helpless.

So I’ve put together some simple actions we can take – some personal, some pushing for systemic change – that can genuinely make a difference.

I’m going to print multiple copies of these out on orange, yellow, and red paper, then cut them out, punch a hole in each one, and hang them on a tree* by the entrance of the church. During the service, I’ll mention the tree and encourage people to choose a leaf as a commitment and promise to do something that will care for creation. I’ll include some blank leaves for people to add their own ideas.

* The “tree” is a few twigs stuck in a basket of sand.

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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

Creation/Harvest Story Bag

We now have a Creation/Harvest Story Bag for our Resource Centre – churches can borrow it for Junior Church, Messy Church, assemblies, clubs, All-Age Worship, or anything else. The Resource Centre is open at Holywell Lodge, in St. Albans, from 9-5, Monday to Friday – however, if you can’t get down here, let me know and we’ll send out an APB to the staff to find someone who’s driving your way and can deliver the item.

The story bag contains:

Bible stories and non-fiction books related to the story of Creation and the themes of Harvest Festival

Toys to help explore the six days of creation – a light-up sun for “let there be light,” fish and birds, green growing things, animals, and people!

A toy farm to help connect with Harvest Festival and thank God for the earth and all that sustains us.

You can have the bag available for free play, base your entire programme around using it, or anything in between. The games included can be played according to the rules, or they can simply be used to play and build. It’s designed to be as flexible as possible.

The bag will be available to borrow within the next few days. We also have story bags for Pentecost, Easter, Christmas, Water stories, Shepherds, and more – as well as a great variety of Godly Play stories, books, and other materials.

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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!).

Play and Pray inspiration – Psalm 23 again!

This is titled Pray and Play inspiration, as it shows a space for imaginative spiritual play – but since it was part of a Junior Church session, I’ve included response time/wondering ideas as well.

We’re finishing up the Hebrew Scriptures in my own Junior Church group – we started with Creation in September, and I timed the Babylonian exile to go with Lent, and the return home to happen around Easter (though of course they celebrated Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and Easter as part of the main congregation).

The rest of the year will be spent on psalms and prophesies. Last Sunday, we had a mixed session with our under-5s group, since our attendance plummets on Bank Holidays and we merge the groups. I picked Psalm 23 – for many of the reasons listed in my previous post about it. It’s accessible, it’s familiar to some children already, the imagery works with people of all ages, and it has simple language with deep truths. We ended up with a small group ranging in age from 7 to 15.

I set up this play space as one of the options for response time. I did tell the teenagers that if they wanted to regress to childhood and play with it, I wouldn’t tell their friends. It got a bit of use, but not much – I imagine with toddlers, it would have been much more popular.

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I based the three zones off the imagery in the psalm – “green pastures, still waters, the valley of the shadow of death.” These are picked up on in the Godly Play telling of the Good Shepherd parable.

This wonderful shepherd and sheep set can be purchased for around £12, from many places, including Amazon. I added fencing from a model railway set. Plain coloured cotton can be found at Hobbycraft and other places for around £2 to £5 per metre.

sheep4

The sand tray is the packaging from a wooden Nativity set I bought a few years ago (note: the link takes you to Mustard Seed Kids, which I own – the set is available elsewhere as well). I just kept the tray it all came in, and filled it up with sand, and a few rocks from the church garden. There were no wolves in the plastic animals set the church owns, so I used cheetahs.

Later, I wanted to make it clearer that the blue fabric was water, so I added some boats. You could also add shells (I have some – you can see a few in the sand tray – I just didn’t think of it) and/or plastic sea creatures, if you have them.

The older kids sometimes have trouble figuring out what to do with response time, and phones come out. So I gave them a few prompts:

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Some of the wondering questions I used:

I wonder what your favourite part of the psalm was.

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

I wonder if you have ever been someplace that felt like the green pastures and the still waters.

I wonder if you have ever been someplace that felt like the valley of the shadow of death. (“EXAMS” was the immediate response. The follow-up here WOULD have been the Godly Play follow-up – “I wonder what got you through” – but we got sidetracked into a discussion about how some things can be symbols of both life AND death, and I forgot it!)

I wonder what it feels like to have a meal prepared for you in the presence of your enemies.

 

 

You can’t pour from an empty cup

A parenting support group just posted this on Facebook with the comment that it often applies to adults as well.

Where in our ministry with children and parents are we filling up their cups? Where are we – without meaning to – draining them? How do you, as a paid or volunteer minister with children, fill up your own cup? What would your PCC say if you showed them this and asked those questions?

cup