Why including little ones is good for big ones too
In the coming issues of Premier Childrenswork we will be exploring the new paradigm in children’s ministry: what needs to change and what the future might look like. In the second of the series, Beth Barnett looks at all-age worship.
I often find myself wondering, ‘How did we come to make this practice of gathering for worship so difficult?’ The Hebrew Bible records generations upon generations of family communities worshipping and ‘faith-ing’ together. The early followers of Jesus adapted this pattern in their new gospel communities as they spread around the Roman Empire. Their approach can be summarised in simple two-word catch phrases: ‘word and table’, or ‘food and faith’. For most of history, even most cultures, it seemed that worship and faith seemed to be self-evidently and straightforwardly an all-ages-together activity.
How have we come to make a simple ‘all-in’ feast of food and faith the exception, rather than the norm? Is this an advancement; a refining of religious practice as the result of some kind of ‘progress’, or have we lost something fundamental?
Out of practice, out of theology
In Protestant churches, we have gotten out of the habit and lost many of the basic skills of being together. We have also lost our theological and philosophical conviction that gathering together is healthy.
Many people respond to all-age worship with concerns that adults need different kinds of spiritual nurture from children, or that children enjoy going out of the worship space to their own ‘special programme’. On one level, I agree – children and adults do need different things in worship. Adults need to have children around them. They need humbling, and connecting to sensory, emotional and symbolic elements. They need help with play and questions and wholeheartedness.
Children need the companioning and supervision of adults, models and mentors, relationships and connectedness. Children need exposure to ideas that will stretch them and feed their curiosity. They need to hear adults talking about things they don’t always quite understand.
While we’re at it, teenagers need to be given responsibility and room for their radicalism to stir the sediment of reality, to exercise their important calling in allowing their idealism and energy for change to make the middle-aged feel healthily uncomfortable.
The very old – what is it that they need? Sometimes it’s able-bodied assistance, but more deeply it is to see that the young are taking the torch and carrying on what the very old have spent a lifetime championing. Some need a new supply of travelling companions for the last lap of life, as many of their long-term friends have already gone before them. They need allies in a changing world of technologies.
WE HAVE FALLEN OUT OF THE HABIT AND LOST MANY OF THE BASIC SKILLS OF BEING TOGETHER
Contributors or consumers?
More than just having different needs, different generations bring different contributions which meet a diversity of needs in one another, far more effectively than in homogeneous groups of consumers.
This is where a future fruitfulness in all-age worship can be found: rather than exploring how we can all endure or consume the same worship experience, we explore how together, using all our various contributions, we can construct it.
Changing the script
Ahead of any changes in practice is the need to change our scripts, to change the rhetoric that encases and protects unhealthy, unfruitful but unchallenged norms and assumptions. As curators of segregated worship, even when the children have been sent out to their programme, we need to reword our invitations and instructions, our narratives of what we are doing. The future of healthy all-age worship needs to be planted in soil that’s prepared by a whole new vocabulary: not just explaining to children what we are doing in worship, but giving adults a fresh language for our renewed practice.
There is no need to say things such as, ‘we are doing things a bit differently today’ or ‘we are trying something new’ – my experience is that the words ‘different’ and ‘new’ simply heighten anxiety and increase resistance among those already so inclined, while recruiting new skeptics.
Besides, printed books, heating in the sanctuary, an organ that runs on electricity, and songs by those young whipper-snapper Wesley brothers are all (relatively) new-fangled worship. So what might a ‘script’ talking about all-age worship look like?
‘We are going to open the Bible and listen for God together. This takes all of us opening our hearts and minds, not for what we can learn individually, but for what God is calling us to be as a community of faith in this neighbourhood.’
‘This is a time for nourishing, encouraging, serving and challenging one another – no matter how little or much faith you have, or how little or much skill or giftedness you have. The Spirit is here to ensure we all are blessed, and all are blessing to one another.’
‘This is a community of faith. We hold faith together for one another. So if some of us feel like we don’t have a lot of faith, or even if we don’t have any, that’s ok, because some of us have a bit to spare today, and we’re happy to share. Likely a day will come when those who today are strong will find faith in short supply and others will share faith with them. In the community of faith, no one goes without; the person with extra shares.’
Introducing these ‘reforming’ scripts aren’t just for the sake of all-ages, but also all-abilities, all-cultures, all-temperaments. They give voice to our primary call to love and justice.
MORE THAN JUST HAVING DIFFERENT NEEDS, DIFFERENT GENERATIONS BRING DIFFERENT CONTRIBUTIONS WHICH MEET A DIVERSITY OF NEEDS IN ONE ANOTHER, FAR MORE EFFECTIVELY THAN IN HOMOGENEOUS GROUPS OF CONSUMERS
Establishing a new ‘ordinary’: regular
I am often asked whether I seriously believe that having no separate programme for children is really a good idea. Aren’t separate programmes a way of valuing of nurturing and discipling children? Yes, I agree. Healthy communities are comfortable in all kinds of different configurations, dividing in all kinds of ways. The question to ask is, ‘what is your “ordinary”?’
The recent recovery of all-age worship signals our recognition that we have let division become our default setting, rather than unity. To repair the normalness and naturalness of being together, we will need lots of practice and commitment to work through the bumps and glitches in a sustained and regular way. Humans being together are always a bit awkward until we work things out. Even dating starts off this way.
If a community has not been regularly meeting all together (and by this I mean at least 50 per cent of all community gatherings genuinely including the contributions of all), throwing in the odd ‘all-age’ or ‘family worship’ once a term – or even once a month - will either be a) excruciatingly painful, b) wonderful but absolutely exhausting, c) a token nod to the children that grown-ups ‘tolerate’ them or d) the Sunday when all the families stay at home because there’s no children’s programme and the parents can’t face the trauma of parenting in the pew. It might even be a combination of all of the above. If you have been involved in sporadic, special occasion all-age worship, you will no doubt recognise these phenomena.
Establishing a new ‘ordinary’: unsensational
You also may have experienced this: once they’re through the door, most people can sit through a fairly average or even slightly clunky, artless sermon, selection of hymns, and run-of-the-mill liturgical elements. Even the well-polished contemporary services with multi-piece bands, colourful slide-shows and the likable, microphone-friendly might-have-been-a-hipster-in-his-day preacher, have their just average days. These are the Sundays when people go home and talk about the football or the new shopping development on the high street, but they rarely complain.
By contrast all-age inter-generational services are expected to be at least a nine out of ten, a thriller that we can gush about. Both congregations, and those who organise all-age worship, contribute to the exaggeration of expectations here. Congregations need the reason for not having ‘broadcast as usual’ to be something really worth being put out of routine for. Worship planners, in this case, often advocates for children in the community, or the children’s ministry team, also have high expectations. We know that we are on borrowed time; we want the children and their families not to be the cause of complaint or criticism. We can feel we have a lot to prove, and for good reason in the face of an unsympathetic culture. And let’s be honest, many of us are highly creative, gifted people, just bursting to use our gifts to serve the whole people of God – and given the (rare) opportunity, we tend to want to give our best, and make it bigger than Ben Hur. I studied opera in a previous life, so I know the theatrical temptations well.
The large-scale, super-sensational family worship events of the past need to be shelved. Multi-sensory, multiple intelligence, multi-modal, multi-vocal gatherings don’t have to be complicated, huge extravaganzas. Think of the iconic pot-luck supper. Everyone brings what they can. There is plenty. It’s a little quirky, but we learn about each other’s culture and ways of doing life. Remember: for Peter and John, Paul and Barnabas, James and Philip, church was faith and food, word and table.
Who organises or ‘curates’ worship then, is a key to a flourishing future together. This can’t be left only to children’s ministry specialists, vicars, or to the performing arts team. There is plenty more to explore on this topic, but for now, do some dreaming around the image of the pot-luck, and what kind of facilitation a pot-luck supper parallel of all-age worship would require?
Alongside-ing and modelling
One strategy that helps reinvigorate all-age gathering is championing the culture of alongside-ing. Against the prevailing culture of standoffishness, let’s not leave parents to flounder, feeling vulnerable and judged. We can raise our children as a community, without disempowering parents, by planning and preparing spaces that are hospitable, advocating and inviting diversity in participation, and reminding everyone present that everything that occurs, from the loud sneeze to the pacing father settling the baby up and down the aisle, is the liturgy – the beautiful work of the people.
Our role is not abandoning one another. The work of all-age worship is in strategically connecting people, engineering interaction and ensuring alongside-ing. We need to articulate and demonstrate what this means. Whatever is modelled in leading will strongly shape the culture. The facilitator who stands at the front of a congregation and tells them to talk to the person next to them, or to engage in an activity with a few others nearby, and then stands back to watch, will likely be disappointed by the result. All-age worship requires re-modelling and re-resourcing; especially in the key resource of the gospel – actual real live human beings.
Less and More
Preparing for all-age worship means fewer drama scripts or monologues, or even less practicing songs, less asking people to ‘stand up the front and do something’ and definitely fewer dramas and puppet shows. Preparing for all-age worship means more identifying confident friend-makers, inviters and ‘have-a-go-ers’ to lead from the middle by including. A few well placed allies among the gathered faithful, primed and ready to be the first to contribute (but then back off and allow others space) or the first to join in a response with heartiness covers a multitude of both ‘too-restrained’ and ‘extremely-rowdy’ participants.
If we continue to construct, communicate and evaluate worship as if it is an event that appeals to all ages we will constantly be frustrated by passivity, hampered by cranky criticism, and exhausted by the effort required of the few by the many. Only in the Spirit-gifted and empowered assembling of all ages, all worshipping and all serving can we hope for genuine sustainable transformation.
The future of all-age worship gathers us into this ancient-new model of mutual stewardship, whoever we are in the story of faith. There is a place for a privileged and self-assured Daniel, a fearful and reluctant Gideon, a feisty and formidable Jael, a diabolically annoying enslaved girl; all will minister to one another with their words and actions and emotions and presence under the great grace of God.