Can all-age worship be cringe-free?

www-st-takla-org__jonah-and-the-whale-1Over Easter, there are likely to be several times in any church where the worship service will include all ages together. Some time ago, I helped to lead an all-age service at St Nic’s, where I am Associate Minister, looking at the story of Jonah. I had some interesting and encouraging feedback from the congregation; one person told me that they had brought a family they knew along, and that they so enjoyed it, they were planning to come again. A comment that stood out for me included this: ‘It was great to have an all-age service without any cringey moments.’

Apart from being a nice comment, this is of huge importance for churches in relation to discipleship, nurture and mission. All-age is important to give your children’s group leaders a break—but its importance goes way beyond that. Good all-age services can be key learning moments in the life of a church—and research shows that a good experience of all-age services is significant is seeing children of faith grow into adults of faith. A key break point in discipleship is the transition from age-specific groups to joining the main congregation. It is the time when many drop out—but a good experience of the main service earlier on can help address this.

So what we the components of the service that made it cringe-free and effective?

First, we took the whole story of Jonah (it is not very long) and explored the different parts of it through the liturgical shape of the service. So chapter 1 led us to think about God’s call on our lives, and how well we have or haven’t responded. Chapter 2 led us into praise. Chapter 3 enabled us to focus on the central lesson, about what is on God’s heart, his generosity and kindness. And chapter 4 challenged us to consider how far we are shaped by this. This meant we entered into, and experienced, the story, rather than just hearing it.

Secondly, we had a clear structure which kept moving and alternated between congregational activity and things done from the front:

Welcome and quiz
Video clip
Responsive prayer
Dramatic monologue
Communion (including short intercessions)
Short talk and Responsive prayer

There is nothing more cringe-making than the person leading the service losing his or her place and trying to scrabble around to find what is happening next.

Third, we ensured that everything was child-accessible but nothing was child focussed. I often invite people to come and help from the front—though did not in this service—but if I do, I always invite a mix of adults, teenagers and children. ‘All age’ has to mean all age—relevant and engaging for each stage of life. A similar principle applies to any service and our use of illustrations. Not everyone is a child or has children, but everyone has been a child, and everyone values the sense of accessibility and interaction which children enjoy.

Fourthly, there was plenty of variety. We did not have a straight Bible reading, but engaged in the story by means of a quiz, using the excellent Testament video from a few years ago, which really draws out the comedy of the story, and an entertaining dramatic monologue by the wonderful Steve Stickley in place of reading chapter 3. (He made much of the fact that even the cows repented, Jonah 3.7–8!). I believe that the public reading of scripture is vital—and is often neglected—but it is always easy to over-estimate how good we are at listening to reading, and the extent to which we are actually engaging in the story in normal reading. Doing something different, engaging with the text in a different way, offers a greater chance of engagement.

Fifthly, everything was presented using something tangible—we didn’t have any extended periods of talking without something to watch or do. Every point I made in my talk had an image to go with it on the screen. People engage with material in different ways; some love to listen; some love to look; others love active engagement—and the lack of this is related to the lower numbers of men in our churches.

Sixthly, we aimed to ensure that the service offered integration. This was at two levels. On the one hand, the different elements linked with each other, primarily through the narrative of Jonah. We included Communion, and so the key conclusion of the talk led into that, and connected our being shaped after God’s heart with the receiving of the elements. On the other hand, it was important to link what we were doing and reading with our experience of life. The main way into that in the talk was the idea of what makes us grumpy (plenty of material there!) and what made Jonah grumpy. So we connected what we were doing together with the reality of our daily lives.

Lastly, we did not steer away from doing some serious theology. The central message was that God’s heart is one of kindness and grace to others, particularly those who are different from us—and we often struggle with that. 

When you review this list of approaches, it is worth noting that these are really the features of good worship, not just good all-age worship!

How are you going to plan and offer all-age worship that is cringe-free this Easter?

(An earlier version of this was first published in 2014).

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10 thoughts on “Can all-age worship be cringe-free?”

  1. Some great ideas, but as so often with all-age ideas, they assume that a church is set up for being able to show films, display pictures etc. Sadly, however much I try, I cannot persuade my small village congregations that these are worth investing in. In a recent building project in one church, I asked for a permanent screen and projector – the idea was rejected as being too expensive and unnecessary.

    • That’s a hard call, Sarah; one of my churches in a working village has six members and an average of 12-15 in the congregation across three generations meeting in a “Tin Tabernacle” chapel. YET, they project everything every week (the screen is fixed, but not the projector) and most weeks there are three or four musicians from a diary-farming family (so they’re plenty busy…). I sense one key is that the adults in more than one generation see their role as passing on a living faith to others – both their contemporaries and succeeding generations…

  2. ‘we ensured that everything was child-accessible but nothing was child focussed.’ That is a very important thought, in a very helpful article. Thank you for it. On the back of that thought, we don’t need to be shy either about using other, more traditional elements, within all age worship. Creeds and prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, are not inherently child focussed but are child accessible, as many of us have found, and play a vital part in the discipleship of the congregation, for all ages.

    • Thanks Louis—I would agree, but only to an extent. Some of the language and ideas within traditional elements of many services are quite inaccessible even to adults. So, in principle let’s use the formal elements…but ensure they are indeed accessible!

      • Agreed. The only caveat I offer is that we don’t have to insist – not for children or for adults – that every element of worship is understandable to all before we use it. Good, clear explanation should help de-mystify most inaccessible moments and make them entry points to a growing discipleship. One of the joys of pastoral ministry has been to see small children reciting the Apostles’ Creed, and coming to understand it more deeply and appreciate it more devotionally as they have grown older.

        • Sometimes we underestimate what young children understand. My 5 year old grandson attends (though not only these) services which are distinctly adult. He takes things in and repeats them outside the service. It also helps him to integrate with others. Often we make stuff childish rather than child accessible and in the process rob the adults of depth.

  3. Hi Ian,
    I know its an old article but would be interested to know more about the source of the research you refer to in the second paragraph. I’m putting some material together on intergenerational worship and would love to reference research!


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