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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author we love: Lois Rock

If you work with under-5s, you probably know Lois Rock. If you don’t, you have a treat in store.

Probably best known for her toddler-friendly “My Very First Bible,” Rock has also edited and written books of prayers, and authored “My Very First Christmas,” which includes Christmas folklore and legends as well as the Christmas story.  She has also written Christening gift books and some secular non-fiction that can be used for pastoral care of families, like helping children adjust to a new baby in the house.

Many of the stories from “My Very First Bible” are also available as individual books – some in big-book format, which is great for large groups.

Her writing is clear and simple without being simplistic. She doesn’t talk down to children. She includes some of the non-story parts of the Bible, such as the Lord’s Prayer, by showing how they came to be told. And, in many cases, she adds vital details that are often left out of retellings for very young children – for example, it’s made clear, in her retelling of the Good Samaritan, that Jesus’s listeners wouldn’t have liked the Samaritans. So the crucial element – that the parable isn’t just about “being nice” but about rethinking who your enemies are – is maintained.

An extra note of praise must be given to the illustrator of many of her books, Alex Ayliffe. The illustrations, like the text, are simple without being simplistic, and contain lots of little details that children will notice. The colours are bright, and the shapes attractive even to babies. Sophie Allsopp illustrates some of her others, with wonder and charm.

It Worked for Us – Baptism Follow-up

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

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

What was already in place:

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

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

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

What I did:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened:

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

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

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

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

What I Learned:

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

Nursery Rhyme Christening

Inspired by Simon Rundell’s Nursery Rhyme Mass, I’ve had a crack at writing some Nursery Rhyme texts for a baptism. They’re copied below – feel free to use them in churches and share them with others, but please do credit me.

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To the tune of “London Bridge Is Falling Down”

The oil goes on Sophie’s head, Sophie’s head, Sophie’s head,

The oil goes on Sophie’s head, for a blessing.

The water goes on Sophie’s head, Sophie’s head, Sophie’s head,

The water goes on Sophie’s head, now she’s christened!

The candle goes to Sophie’s home, Sophie’s home, Sophie’s home,

The candle goes to Sophie’s home, God is with her!

 

(Some fudging of the rhythm may be needed, depending on the child’s name – you can always just use “the baby” or “the child” instead of the name.)

 

To the tune of “Baa Baa, Black Sheep”

This can go right after the baptism itself

Welcome, welcome, to our family!

God has chosen you and me.

Washed in the water, together on the way,

We welcome the little one who’s joined us today.

 

To the tune of “Wind the Bobbin Up”

This can be used at the blessing over the water. A gesture can be given for “thank you,” so children can participate in actions throughout the song.

Pour the water in, pour the water in, splash! Splash! Clap clap clap!

Pour the water in, pour the water in, splash! Splash! Clap clap clap!

Thank you to Jesus, God up above!

Thank you for water, thank you for love!

We have come together, now we pray,

God, make this water special today!

Getting Started slides from 15th March

pray-and-play8When I run training sessions, I often refer people to this blog to get the slides I used – these are for the “Getting Started in Children’s Ministry” training held on 15th March 2017 at St Andrew’s in Biggleswade. Click on the link at the bottom to download.

Topics include:

Opportunities for mission and ministry

Creating a culture of welcome

A video clip from Rev on how NOT to manage change

Answers from lots of clergy and children’s workers on “what do you do when people complain about children making noise in the service?”

Baptism/Christenings

A resource list

Children’s corners (Pray and Play areas)

Getting Started

 

Children’s Spirituality

11338852633_ef41fae0e0_oI’ve had the opportunity a few times recently to talk about children’s spiritual development in a more academic way.

The slides for this talk are attached – both a longer and shorter version.

The longer version includes a clip from the TV show “Outnumbered,” if you’re into that sort of thing – to find out what that has to do with children in church, you’ll just have to read the presentation!

 

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