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

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

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

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

Leader: a reading from the Gospel according to Matthew.

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

This is the word of the Lord.

All: Thanks be to God.

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

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

All: Amen!

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

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

All: Amen!

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

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

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

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

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

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

All: Amen.

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25 Things Every Children’s Worker Has Done

Inspired by James Ballantyne’s list of 35 Things Every Youth Worker Has Done, I’ve come up with a version for those of us who have the delight of working with the under-11s and their adults. Add your own in the comments!

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  1. Walked down the street to the school/village hall with some random assortment of items in your arms, like a paper dove on a stick, a box full of bubble wrap, three bags of Haribo, and 200 light-up Baby Jesus dolls.
  2. Been vomited on, caught in a poo-explosion, or peed on, by a baby or toddler, while you were in church clothes.
  3. Got really really carried away in the art supply store.
  4. Totally improvised a Junior Church/club/whatever session on the spot, because the group of kids who showed up were completely different from the ones you’d planned for.
  5. Had to find a way to diplomatically explain to the vicar that their 45-minute lecture on 18th-century church history might not have been what the school children were hoping for from their visit.
  6. Planned an All-Age Service that was a total disaster.
  7. Had brilliant parents, but also panicking parents, parents who try to feed their kid the “right answer,” parents who run away from church the second their child makes a peep, parents who play on their phones while their kid has a tantrum, and parents who think their kids’ whole spiritual formation is your job and not theirs.
  8. Tried to explain what you do to people at a party and been met with a sea of blank faces.
  9. Explained to your friends for the thousandth time why Saturday nights aren’t normal weekend nights for you and why you can’t be in the pub at 4 pm on Christmas Eve.
  10. Had to explain that this isn’t just “trying out whether I should get ordained,” but a valid ministry in its own right.
  11. Wondered if you should get ordained.
  12. Cleaned up a room that was an explosion of flour, water, juice, sequins, bits of fabric, glue everywhere, storytelling materials, and six lost jackets, in less than 10 minutes.
  13. Memorised the soundtrack to Frozen, without ever having actually seen it, and/or become an expert in Minecraft strategies without ever having played it.
  14. Had to neatly sidestep the “what does ‘virgin’ mean?” questions at Christmas.
  15. Had your whole view of the world, and God, changed and expanded by something a kid says or does.
  16. Cried because you love your job, and cried because you hate your job, on the same day.
  17. Had to justify to the PCC why there should be a budget for children’s ministry in the first place because no, “bring some crayons from home” isn’t good enough.
  18. Smiled through your rage when a parishioner compliments you on your ministry because you “keep the children quiet.”
  19. Wondered if the disciples spent this much time stacking chairs and setting up tables.
  20. Attended a funeral for a kid’s parent or sibling and raged at the universe.
  21. Had to lead a session, or a service, while your own relationship with God was messy and painful, and you weren’t sure how much of that to include or how.
  22. Realised you’d gone most of a year without actually being present in worship just as a worshipper, and maybe that’s why you’re burned out and angry all the time.
  23. Loaded the kids up with sugar, handed them back to their parents, and felt no remorse.
  24. Felt completely out of your depth.
  25. Felt like there’s nowhere else you want to be.

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New Christmas books!

Just in time for Advent, I’ve bought a bunch of new Christmas books for the resource centre. They should be here within the week, so pop in and check them out if you’re around!

For those churches in our Diocese who are far from St Albans – if any of these look good, email me, and we can send around an APB to Holywell Lodge staff for anyone who will be in your area in the next few days and can bring you what you’d like to borrow.

cover1So without further ado, here’s what we now have …

Lois Rock is basically the rock star of under-5s Bible stories and prayers. This collection helps adults and very young children together explore the wonder and mystery of the Christmas season through prayer. Perfect for a toddler group, a creche, a visit to your local nursery, inspiration for your crib service …

 

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Another Lois Rock one – I first discovered this when my nephew was three and I gave it to him as a Christmas present. What makes it special is that it includes not only the Christmas story itself, but a wonderful collection of folklore and legends surrounding Christmas. The stories come from all around the world, making it a subtle way of teaching diversity and inclusion, and Alex Ayliffe’s wonderful illustrations are simple and colourful, but include interesting details for children to spot.

 

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As Elena Pasquali’s simple yet beautiful text tells the Christmas story, Giuliano Ferri’s illustrations tell a second, unspoken one – that of the peaceable kingdom. Bit by bit, the animals gather together around the manger. Lions and lambs lie down together. Bears and donkeys gather in peace. At the end, the text of Isaiah 11 connects this imagery to the prophesy of God’s Kingdom, where “they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.”

 

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Another one that combines the Biblical Christmas stories with folklore and legend, this time aimed at older children. Here’s what the publisher says: “This beautifully presented volume of classic Christmas stories from around the world is written for children aged 7+ to enjoy reading alone, or for reading aloud in a classroom setting or with family sitting round a log fire! A mixture of stories from the Christian heritage and more secular tales, these retellings all evoke the true spirit of Christmas around the world. Included are Nativity stories from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, the stories of Baboushka and Papa Panov, Fir Tree and The Nutcracker. The whole collection sparkles with colourful and detailed artwork from Jane Ray.” (It’s also worth pointing out that Jane Ray’s Mary and Joseph look genuinely Middle Eastern.)

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I’ve been an adult for a while now, but this book still sends a shiver of wonder up my spine whenever I read it. It’s based around the Mexican community in the American Southwest, and the tradition of Las Posadas – when Mary and Joseph go around the town looking for a safe place to stay. Here’s the publisher’s summary: “This year Sister Angie, who is always in charge of the clebration, has to stay home with the flu, and Lupe and Roberto, who are to play Mary and Joseph, get caught in a snowstorm. But a man and a woman no one knows arrive in time to take their place in the procession and then mysteriously disappear at the end before they can be thanked. That night we witness a Christian miracle, for when Sister Angie goes to the cathedral and kneels before the statue of Mary and Joseph, wet footprints from the snow lead up to the statue.”

I’d love to hear your recommendations for the Advent and Christmas books we should add to our library – do leave any thoughts in the comments! And let me know if you’d like to borrow any of these.

 

 

What about the boys?

Today being International Men’s Day, it’s a good time to talk about boys.

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Many churches, when I’m working with them on Junior Church, Messy Church, etc., will ask, “what about the boys?” When I ask for more information, they’ll say “they can’t sit still, they charge around, they make noise, they’re loud – how do we engage them in Junior Church or worship?”

Now, I’m firmly of the belief that we shouldn’t structure our children’s ministry around “boy stuff” and “girl stuff.” We should include a range of activities for different interests and levels of activity – some girls will be very fidgety, some boys will happily sit still and read for hours. And of course in any mixed-age group, age will play a huge role – a 9-year-old boy will be much more able to sit, listen, and participate in long discussions than a 6-year-old girl will.

So when we talk about “what about the boys?” in our children’s groups, what we’re really asking is, “what about the fidgety, physical, noisy children?” And they may be mostly boys, but if we phrase it as simply “a boy thing,” then a fidgety, physical girl may get the message that her way of being a girl is “wrong,” and a quiet, calm, boy may get the message that his way of being a boy is “wrong.”

So let’s take that “what about the boys?” question and ask … “what about the fidgety, noisy, physical kids?”

I have a group in my church right now that is about 80% fidgety, noisy, physical kids, and 20% kids who want to talk for ages.

This is a tough combination.

So yesterday, when a Sunday School session had turned into a total disaster, I found a moment during activity time, got down on the floor with some of the more fidgety ones, and we had a chat about what they needed.

When they said “Sunday School is BORING,” I said, “okay, how can we make it less boring for you?”

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Here are some of the things we’re going to try:

  1. A physical opening time. We’re going to start not by sitting for quiet prayer – that will come second (kids do need silence and stillness). But we’re going to start with making the sign of the cross (in the Diddy Disciples way, with words to go with it – “God be in my head, my heart, and all around me, Amen”). We’re then going to stomp out a rhythm to accompany reciting the books of the Bible (I did this with them once, when we were talking about the Bible being a library and having all kinds of different stuff in it, like poems and stories and rules and prophesy, and now a few of them have got obsessed with it and beg for it to be included every week, and I’ve given in). We’ll then have a physical opening to prayer (the “Gathering Song” bit from this Diddy Disciples session – you can speak the words if you’re not a confident singer) and then sit for some time of peaceful stillness.
  2. More games in response time. I tend to have a variety of activities out – kids can choose to do art, or play with spiritually imaginative toys, or play with the storytelling materials. So there are options for getting physical. But they’re not officially organised. These kids said they wanted to do games together. So we’re going to try a few over the next weeks (anyone have a good physical game for the Joseph and his brothers story?)
  3. Fidget toys. This isn’t news – in fact, during the disastrous session yesterday, one of the things I tried was handing out things for them to fidget with. But we had a LONG conversation about what the fidget toys were for, and what kind they could bring in – they wanted to bring in iPads, or things that could fly up to the ceiling of the room. So we set a few rules. YES, you can bring in a fidget toy from home. But it needs to be quiet, it needs to stay in your hand so it doesn’t distract others, and it needs to be something that settles your body so your mind can focus on the story, not something that is going to focus your mind on the toy itself. I passed these guidelines on to the parents after church, so the parents know that yes, I did tell them they could bring toys in, but so that the kids can’t go “Margaret told me I could bring my iPad to Sunday School next week!” This will hopefully also help the more fidgety ones to listen with more patience to the ones who like to talk things out.
  4. Physical engagement with the story. We do a bit of this already, but I need to step it up. So next week, based on a suggestion from the Spiritual Child Network Facebook group, I’m going to hand out Lego and we’re going to build the story as we tell it. Diddy Disciples is also an incredibly physical form of storytelling, and can work with children over the age of 5 as well as under. I’m also going to try having them use their bodies to make tableaux of each scene in the story as we tell it, and, in the spring, try taking them outside and walking around different places in the church garden and porch area, for different parts of the story.

What other suggestions do you have for engaging fidgety, physical, noisy children in storytelling, music, prayer, and response time?

And how do we put these ideas into practice in other contexts, such as All-Age Worship?

 

Remembrance Sunday response ideas

If you’re leading a group on Remembrance Sunday, it can be difficult.

You may have pastoral care responsibility for children whose family members are deployed, or have combat injuries, or who have died in war.

You may find yourself having to explain to young children what war is and address questions like “why are there wars?”

Your own faith may have been formed through Jesus’s call to non-violence, and you may be uncomfortable with some of the military connections of the day.

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Here are some ways in which adult leaders and groups of children can explore what it means to honour the service and sacrifice of those who have served, and pray for a world of peace and justice. Hopefully they’re flexible enough to be used in a variety of settings.

  1. “We Will Remember Them” The children may have already experienced a wreath-laying at a war memorial, or be about to participate in one at the end of this session. Look together at photos of a variety of war memorials, including the one in your own town or village. Wonder together: why do people make these? Why do they put the names on? What are some other ways we remember people who have died? Which one do you like best? Why? How do they make you feel? Then the children, individually or in groups, can design their own war memorial – either on paper or, if you’re feeling ambitious, in 3-d. Here are some pictures to use for inspiration (click the links)
    1. Memorial for animals killed in war.
    2. War memorials around the world (very US-centric but a good variety of styles)
    3. Cwmcarn war memorial
  2. Poppy Prayers. Make “Paper Plate Poppies” (instructions here) and invite children to write prayers for today on them. If you like, you could give them the option of keeping their poppies white (or combining white and red), and explain that red poppies are to remember the dead and white are to pray that wars will end. These would make a wonderful display, or something to be shared with the main congregation – however, if children’s prayers are going to be made public in this way, do make sure you let them know before they write them. You never know when a prayer may be too private for them to want to share.paper-poppy
  3. Light in the darkness. This interactive map shows all the current wars going on in the world (zoom out to see the whole world, bit by bit). You could print a map of the world, give children LED tea lights and invite them to place their candle somewhere on the map that matches a place on the map of wars. When all children have placed their tea lights, turn off the lights in the room and pray for God’s peace to come to those places, and for all whose lives are affected by those wars.
  4. Blessed are the peacemakers. Read the Beatitudes with the children, and think together about what it means to be a peacemaker. What does peace mean? What does peace feel like? How can we make peace in our families, schools, and communities, and here in our church group? Make and decorate paper doves (tutorial here – video) and write on them a promise for one thing they’ll try to do to help make peace where they are. (NB: have your Safeguarding hat on especially for discussions of “making peace at home” and be aware of anything that might suggest a child has witnessed domestic violence or been subject to violence themselves.You can close by singing “Peace is Flowing Like a River” or “Peace, Perfect Peace.”

Do add your own ideas in the comments – and don’t forget to check out the KS1 and KS2 lesson plans, and other resources, at Remembrance 100. There are also resources from Churches Together, which you can find here.

Prayer Board for under-5s

This is an idea I got from Ann Sharp, the Early Years Advisor for Chelmsford Diocese. It can be used in Toddler Group worship, in the creche on Sundays – and, with a few “special occasion” additions, at baptisms and weddings with little children present.

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Toddlers and little ones may have little patience for sitting still and listening to wordy prayers. Using pictures and movement, we can help them connect to God through prayer in a way that works with natural toddler-ness instead of against it.

Ann also pointed out that toddlers love choosing things, and they love sticking things onto boards with velcro. And the ones are are in Nursery or Reception are probably doing lots of this during the week, so they already know how it works!

I made one myself, in less than an hour and a half from start to finish. I only had to buy the foamboard and velcro, so it cost me less than £10 to get the materials. Many churches will have much of this stuff already in situ.

You will need: a laminator, laminating pouches, a colour printer, A2 foamboard, velcro (I used strips, to cut to size), scissors, Pritt stick.

I decided to use “LET US PRAY” as the centre image, to help teach them the language we use in church every week. You could use “PRAYER BOARD” or “TIME TO TALK TO GOD” or any number of things. I flanked the LET US PRAY image with a group of children and an image of the Holy Spirit.

I used Google for images (See Educational exception to copyright law here).

Then I chose the images for the prayers themselves. I decided on:

  1. A church (I used a picture of our own church, which the children would recognise)
  2. A family (I might replace the image I used with one that includes grandparents)
  3. A group of children playing (I deliberately chose one with children of different ethnicities)
  4. A child looking sad.
  5. A child holding a pet.
  6. The earth.
  7. A row of houses (I used a street in our parish – check local estate agents’ websites)
  8. A child in bed with a thermometer in their mouth and a teddy bear.
  9. A gravestone with flowers on it.

For each image, I came up with one or two sentences to go with it:

  1. We pray for our church, St. George’s. Help us to know you here and everywhere.
  2. We pray for our families. Help us to take care of each other.
  3. We pray for our friends and teachers and schools and nurseries and toddler groups.
  4. Help everyone who is sad or lonely or scared.
  5. We pray for our pets and all the animals.
  6. We pray for everything in the whole wide world and universe.
  7. We pray for our homes. Make them places where everyone is safe and loved.
  8. We pray for everyone who is ill or feeling poorly.
  9. We pray for people and animals who have died. We miss them even though we know they are safe in heaven with you.

I printed out the images and prayers, cut them out, and stuck the prayers on the back of each image. Then I laminated everything and cut it out again.

I stuck the central images to the foamboard with Pritt stick, and cut velcro to size in several rows around it (checking with some of the bigger images that there was space between rows)

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This is another reason why strips of velcro might be better than dots – they’re bigger! Very small children might not have the hand-eye coordination to match up small dots of velcro.

When this was done, I stuck the other side of the velcro to the backs of the laminated images, and we were done!

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How to use it: I’m planning to put all the images in a drawstring bag, and bring it out with “I wonder what’s in here … !” Under-5s love seeing what’s in the bag/box/etc. They can then choose one to put up, hand it to the leader, who reads the prayer on the back, and hands it back to the child to put on the board. Your group may not have the attention span for all nine prayers every time, so you may only have four or five per session. That’s fine!

If you use the same closing words every time, such as “Lord, in your mercy / Hear our prayer,” you may want to add those to your board.

This could also be something an older group of children/teenagers could make for your younger group.

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.

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.