Many people have used churchyards more during the pandemic, as a way of getting outside, getting exercise, or finding a place of peace.
These prayer stations are designed to encourage people who may not attend church, or pray much, to use your churchyard for spiritual reflection, and become familiar with the season of All Saints, All Souls, and Remembrance. They can be used be people of all ages.
There is a sign for the entrance to your churchyard and then there are four stations:
All Hallows Eve – confronting our fears
All Saints – remembering those whose lives inspire us in faith
All Souls – remembering our own beloved dead
Remembrance – honouring the sacrifice of those in war, and praying for peace
These can be put anywhere around your churchyard that is appropriate. However, one suggested way is:
All Hallows Eve – by graves that have imagery (angels, skulls, cherubs, etc) to explore
All Saints – by something with a saint’s name on it (your church’s sign, or a statue, if you have one)
All Souls – a memorial bench
Remembrance – a commonwealth war grave, or your war memorial (if outdoors)
What do I need?
The stations can primarily stand on their own without resources. However, you will need to laminate the pages so they’re waterproof, and, if possible, provide the following and ensure they’re checked and topped up regularly as needed:
A basket of stones, to go by the sign at the entrance
Rosemary and myrrh for the fourth station (these can be in waterproof plastic containers – you may want to provide hand sanitizer here as well)
There is a space on the third prayer station for you to add a sticker with contact details for someone to talk to about bereavement
Today I visited The Knitted Bible in its latest host site of Hampstead Parish Church. While St. Albans Diocese has an impressive fondness for knitted Bible stories – our cathedral’s large knitted Nativity, the smaller knitted Nativity and Noah’s Ark available to borrow from our Resource Centre, and many other knitted Bible sets around the Diocese – this goes beyond even our impressive yarn-based Biblical efforts.
It consists of around 35 scenes, from Creation to Jesus’s breakfast on the beach after his resurrection, each painstakingly re-created in yarn and stuffing, often with ingenious sets made of everything from kitchen roll to upside-down flower pots. (Please note: it does include the sacrifice of Isaac, without a huge amount of material provided about that story apart from “God wanted to see if Abraham would obey,” which is a simplistic reading that can be damaging to children’s ideas of God, and scary for them. Rabbis I have spoken with tend to interpret that story more as Abraham misunderstanding God, thinking God wants human sacrifice like the pagan gods of the time, and God stopping Abraham, clarifying he does not require human sacrifice. You may want to remove this scene from your display or provide additional material to give it context.)
The Knitted Bible was created in 2008 by over 40 people at St. George’s URC in Hartlepool. It is available for churches to borrow without charge – however, it’s booked up very far in advance. If you’re interested in borrowing it for your church in late 2021 or even 2022, contact information can be found here.
While that may seem far away, it’s definitely worth considering if this is something you might be interested in doing. I spoke with the stewards on site, the church’s administrator, and with the Rev. Jeremy Fletcher, Vicar of Hampstead. The stewards and the administrator told me they’ve received a marked increase in foot traffic in the church over the ten days the Knitted Bible has been in situ. The stewards said it’s been a wonderful point of engagement with the local community – the church school has brought several classes to visit, it’s been out during worship for people to look at and explore, and people of all ages have engaged with it.
Rev. Jeremy said, “lots of people have told me they expected to be charmed by it. And that they were surprised to find that they were both charmed and moved by it.” He suspects a lot of what’s so moving about it is the detail. Every person and animal is an individual, and has their own story to tell, and little details in the setup – from a steward in the act of pouring wine at the Wedding at Cana to the little foil tip on a Roman soldier’s spear – draw the viewer in and inspire wondering and imagination.
Visiting the Knitted Bible could serve as a springboard for follow-up activities as well, in schools, or church children’s/mixed age groups, such as:
Make your own 3-d versions of Bible stories and display them alongside the knitted ones.
Choose a character from one of the scenes and write the story from their point of view.
Put together an assembly, or a presentation to the congregation, about your visit and/or one of the stories.
Here are some more photos. Maybe you’ll be inspired and create a knitted Bible – or at least a few scenes – of your own!
Oh, I wish there was one. However, I’ve found a few programmes over the last few years which have actually been very useful, with information, inspiration, and ideas that are easily related to what we do with children and families in church.
The first is “Babies: Their Wonderful World” – a three-part series in which famous studies in development are re-created and discussed, and a few new experiments are tried, with children up to 12 months. Unfortunately, the full episodes aren’t available at the moment, but a few good clips can be found here, and a fascinating bit about how some aspects of morality may be innate can be found here. (And yes, I asked on Twitter if they re-created the experiment with the blue square/yellow triangle roles reversed, and they confirmed they had, and babies chose the blue square when it was the “good” puppet.) If our sense of good and bad is innate, then that suggests our spirituality may be innate – what researchers like Rebecca Nye and John Westerhoff have suggested. In which case, what we’re doing in church is not filling up an empty vessel, who knows nothing about God, but helping a child understand and express a relationship, and a set of ideas about right and wrong, help and harm, which they possess from birth. This clip can be a good way of starting those conversations with your church groups.
Channel 4 thankfully keeps their programmes available on catch up for longer than the BBC, so you can still watch full episodes of their incredible “Old People’s Home for Four-Year-Olds.” This inter-generational experiment, in which a group of two-to-four-year-olds came into a residential care home, is a model of how mixing the generations helps us all. The parents get more adults who love their child, the elderly residents show benefits in physical and mental health from contact with children, and the children get love, care, and wisdom from older people. The implications for churches are obvious.
There is also a series called “The Secret Life Of Four-Year-Olds,” which now has expanded into series about 5- and 6-year-olds as well. It’s a lot of detail about a very narrow age group, but if this is your speciality area, it’s well worth a watch. You can find all 25 episodes here.
This isn’t a programme, but a useful clip: The Diocese of Aberdeen and Orkney gave some children video cameras and they filmed what worship is like for them. An eye-opening “child’s-eye view” of an Anglican service. What do you notice?
And finally, sadly, there is “Exposed: The Church’s Darkest Secret.” It makes for harrowing watching, but it provides a vital glimpse into how church culture helped cover up the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball, and his abuse of young people in his care, and reminds us of how vital our Safeguarding responsibilities are. Watch it if you can, but if you know you can’t, that’s also fine. (Any current or historical Safeguarding issues relating to St Albans Diocese can be reported to our Diocesan Safeguarding team. You will be listened to and taken seriously.)
Recently, I joined a gym. Those who know me will know this is out of character for me. But I’ve done it, I’m going to regular classes, and I’m not dead yet, so things are looking good.
However, one unexpected benefit of this is that I now have recent, hands-on experience of what it feels like to be really new to a place, and completely unfamiliar with its customs and culture. This is something many children and parents experience when they come to church – and church leaders, who are used to their church’s ways of doing things, can often forget how intimidating it is to be new, and how unfamiliar most children, and parents, are with what happens at church.
So here are a few things I noticed about my gym experience, and how we might learn from it at church.
Coming to the gym wasn’t my first step. My first step was a friend inviting me to her boxing class. She knew I was looking to get in shape, and she told me this class was small, informal, friendly, and that she and I would go for a coffee afterwards. I went twice and LOVED it. However, the scheduling of the class didn’t work out for me long term, so I found myself with the desire to do fitness classes, looking for a place that would work for me to explore this more.
Applicable to churches: A culture of invitation among existing members. My friend knew I was looking for something, and invited me to her group. Knowing somebody who would be there meant it was less intimidating for me to show up, and she helped show me what to do with the equipment and so on. Encourage your existing congregation to invite friends to your Harvest Festival, your Crib Service, and to help show them how the service sheet works and all that.
Then I found myself looking for a home. I posted a plea to Facebook – “anyone have experiences with a newbie-friendly gym?” and I researched websites. I found one that looked friendly and accessible and had an online schedule of classes, so I knew there were boxing and dance classes at times that would work for me.
Applicable to churches: Most parents of young children are under 45. They will search your website and any social media you have before they even think of showing up at your door. I wrote a few tips on making your website more family-friendly here.
Then I joined, and booked myself in for a class. The gym I joined has no contract, so I didn’t feel I was making a MASSIVE commitment just by taking that first tentative step. By booking myself in for a class, I felt I had, however, made a commitment to show up on that day, even if I didn’t feel like it.
Applicable to churches: Don’t ask people to sign up in support of the Nicene Creed, the 39 Articles, a particular position on the atonement, and to join the coffee rota and the PCC the second you see them approach you. They’re still not sure if this is for them, and demanding they turn their whole life over is scary. The second half of this – the commitment to a class – is applicable more to things like Christenings and weddings. Asking people to commit to coming to church a few times in preparation for a Christening or wedding service can help them feel like they’ve made a promise they need to stick to.
Then I actually showed up. So much groundwork had been done before I even walked in the front door! So now, here I am. The gym is part of a nationwide chain that sells itself as very friendly to newcomers and not scarily intense. There is an app, and you have a PIN number that gets you through the front door. It took me a while to figure out how this worked, and I watched a few other people arrive and copied what they did.
There was an area with tables and chairs, so I sat there and posted on Facebook: “I’m feeling self-conscious and I don’t quite know how it all works, but I’m here, and the class I booked starts in 10 minutes, so let’s do this.” Friends on mine who are gym regulars posted comments like “you’ll do great!” or “I’m a member of [that chain] too – here’s how it works.”
Looking around, I was relieved to see people of all ages and sizes – I’m not 25 and I’m not a size 8, and it was encouraging to know that didn’t make me stick out like a sore thumb.
I went into the room where the class was being held. There was no instructor until about 30 seconds before the class started, so I had to figure out what to do on my own. Once I’d (pretty much) sorted it, I updated Facebook: “I walked in and there’s no instructor yet. I tried to find an empty step and there wasn’t one. Then someone else walked in and got one from a cupboard, so I did too. Now I’m wondering if I’ve left enough room behind mine or if it’s going to be awkward. Mostly I’m trying to avoid eye contact!!!”
Applicable to churches: Here’s where your greeting team and your service sheets/screens are REALLY important. A quick “is this your first time here?” to people your team doesn’t recognise, and one or two sentences covering the basics – “you can put the pushchair over there, we have Junior Church or you can stay with your family, there’s a children’s area on the right, and this service sheet has the readings, this one has all the prayers” can help people feel less at sea than I did.
Also, don’t judge someone who’s sitting there frantically scrolling through social media right before the service starts, instead of chatting quietly or praying. They may be new and feeling awkward, and our phones have become our collective security blankets for surviving awkward social situations.
The bit about how reassuring it was to see people who looked like me is difficult – diversity of all kinds is a huge issue in our churches, and needs more space than I have here. But it does reinforce what I often say – that the HARDEST work in children’s ministry is getting from 0 to 5 or 6 regulars. Once you have critical mass, even if it’s a small number, new parents and children will feel more relaxed when they arrive and see at least a few other people who look like them. However, signs in your building that you’re welcome to the idea of children can help – a good children’s corner (see the Pray and Play tagged posts on this blog), examples of children’s artwork from Messy Church or holiday club or toddler group, etc.
Then … I did it! I worked out! Again, I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one who had to pause sometimes while other members of the class kept going. I wasn’t the only one who had to trade out their weights for lighter ones.
And as I walked out, I felt … more at home. More like I belonged there. More in control and more confident. I updated the Facebook thread – “I did great! Not compared to the incredibly muscular and toned gym bunny in front of me, but great compared to me, which is what matters!” Friends who are gym regulars chimed in with tips about post-workout nutrition, and how to make sure I wasn’t too sore the next day. I immediately signed up (on the app, nice and easy) for two more classes, to make sure I continued the momentum.
And then, over the next few days, the strangest thing happened. I started to feel like I was “in the club.” I tried on this new identity as “someone who goes to the gym” to see how it fit. I saw memes about “leg day” and so on, on Twitter, and laughed in recognition. I started obnoxiously telling everyone about how I went to the gym and the different classes I was thinking of taking. I considered going there on my own sometime, not for a class, just to use the machines (the gym equivalent of popping into church for silent prayer, not just a service).
Applicable to churches: Make it okay for people to not know how to worship. Make it clear that it’s okay to walk around with your child if needed – switching out the weights for the lighter ones, so to speak. And that if you stand or kneel at the wrong place, or have trouble finding the right page in the hymnal or service sheet, that’s okay. Encourage your regulars to help people who are juggling small children and service sheets. Make the logistics for Communion clear.
And once people start to feel “hey, I kind of have a handle on this,” they will start to feel more like one of you. They will start to get the jokes (like this one):
Make it easy for them to “join the club.” My gym-going friends on Facebook have been very open about sharing tips and jokes and making me feel like I belong, even though I’ve now only gone twice (but I have another class booked for tonight). There has been no snarkiness, no “oh, you’ll understand when you’re as developed and enlightened as we are,” just a genuine enthusiasm for this place that’s part of their lives, that requires effort and hard work to make them healthier and stronger and better able to cope with frustration and anger, and an encouragement that I too can be part of it. That’s not a bad model for evangelism.
How would you list the activities and ministries your church does?
I suspect, in many churches, the list would go something like this:
Worship (perhaps including professional-quality music groups)
Bible study, education, Alpha or Pilgrim courses, Lent/Advent groups, home groups, etc
Fellowship and relationship-building
Serving the community – things like Foodbanks, lunch clubs for the elderly
Supporting national or international charities/justice efforts
Stewardship and governance decisions
If asked about what Children’s Ministry consisted of, the response might be something like, “we have Junior Church, and our weekly toddler group, and Messy Church once a month.”
Which is brilliant! An active children’s ministry like this takes time, effort, commitment, and a lot of love. And it makes a real difference in the lives of children and their families.
But where are the children and young people in the rest of the list?
Often, we get so used to “children’s ministry” as a separate category that we forget that we can include children in other things the church is already doing. We can have things specifically aimed at children and families – baby and toddler groups are lifelines to many new parents – but we can also look at the list above and, for every item, not just the children’s ministry one, think, “could we include children in this?”
The Children’s Society Good Childhood report has come out today. You can read it here. In it, children express a growing concern about crime, and environmental issues – deep issues of concern for Christians who care about building peace, and caring for God’s creation. If your church is doing anything on crime, creation care, or poverty, could children be involved?
Statutory agencies and schools are also undergoing a cultural shift in how children are involved in decision-making – and churches have an opportunity to follow this example. Children are especially vulnerable, and can’t vote, but almost every decision made by adults in charge of institutions and governments affects them disproportionately. Can you include children in any decision-making processes in your church – about priorities in spending money, about programmes, worship, or choosing a new vicar, children’s worker, director of music, etc? Can children be present at and included in your annual meeting? What would be needed to make that happen?
Here are a few ideas for how this could work in practice:
Invite children and young people to visit the PCC three or four times and year and talk about what matters to them at church, in their community, and in wider issues of justice.
Have a “children’s table” at the annual meeting, facilitated by someone who knows your church’s children, and who can help them share their thoughts and contribute (and provide pens and paper for them to scribble and draw to keep the fidgets at bay).
Think about how your church’s community service, and wider action on social issues, could include children. The church where I was children’s worker includes older children and teenagers on a local charity’s annual “sleep-out” for homelessness – they are sponsored by their teachers and friends. We also include children and teenagers in our pub quiz for Christian Aid. Could your junior church join in fundraising events? Could they make posters or speak in worship, to encourage other church members to get involved? Could you include children in deciding which charities or causes the church supports?
How do you include children in worship? Are they doing what adults tell them, or do they have a chance to share their own ideas?
Children can be involved in the full, broad life of the church – indeed, they should be, because that’s how they learn that Christian life includes thinking about our common life together, reaching out in love to the community, and advocating for a world that reflects God’s values of justice, equality, and dignity for every human being, and stewardship of the earth he has given us. Including children in activities and decisions outside of children’s ministry also gives your church:
The chance to foster inter-generational community.
A reminder to the older members that children are full disciples and members of the Body of Christ.
The enrichment of the ideas and contributions the children bring.
I spend a decent amount of time on church websites, due to the nature of my job. Some are brilliant. Some are awful. Most are … okay.
Most parents of small children are under 40 – this means they’re Millennials or even Gen Z, and have had internet access since their early teens, at the latest. You can pretty much count on your church being Googled before parents rock up at the door – and whether or not they give you a try may depend on what they get when they Google you.
Here are a few tips:
Make your service times easy to find. On the front page of your site if possible. And make sure they’re up to date, including special events. A family may feel more comfortable coming to your Crib Service or your Harvest Festival than to a normal Sunday morning service, so make sure those dates are up there.
Include pictures of children, if possible – and definitely of people. I was on a church website recently that had about 30 beautiful photos of every part of their stunning building. But nothing showing that this was a community. If you can show pictures of children, particularly, this reassures anxious parents that your community values children and they’ll be welcomed if they come. (Of course, you need permission from parents/carers for any photos you do use.)
“New here? Here’s what to expect!” The Revd Ally Barrett has a wonderful blog post here about why you should include a section on your website about what to expect if you’ve never been to church before – and how you can make that section work. Many parents may only have been to church occasionally before, but feel a desire to come now they have children. If they can read up ahead of time about what the experience is like, they will feel more prepared and less hesitant. It also sends the message that your church is open to newcomers – they won’t be expected to know everything. In our own Diocese, St Paul’s Letchworth has a good example of this kind of page.
Christenings! Most church websites have information about baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Great! However, this may be hidden away under some tab with insider language like “Life Events.” How would I know, if I wasn’t a church professional used to that kind of language, that that’s where to look for information about christening my child? And while we’re on the subject, the word “christening” is much more familiar to society at large than “baptism” is. If your website uses “christening,” you’re more likely to come up in Google searches in the first place, and much more likely to get people to click on that tab and contact you. You can then use baptism preparation to help broaden the parents’ understandings of the different words used to describe this sacrament. But don’t put them off before they’ve even started by using language they won’t understand or won’t search for.
Connect the dots. If you have things for children during the week – toddler groups, Messy Church, Scout groups, etc – make sure these are prominent and easy to find. Don’t hide your lights under bushels. Your church website isn’t just about the history of your building, and Sunday morning – it’s the front door of your whole community.
Any good website tips I’ve forgotten? Leave them in the comments!
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.
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.
Here are the links to YouTube. There’s some chat, some teaching of music, some singing … hope it’s useful!
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!).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.