Can we do all-age worship well?

There was a time, a few years ago, where there seemed to be a significant movement arguing for good, engaged all-age worship as an important part of our ministry to and with children. As I visit different churches, usually as a visiting preacher, it seems to me that movement has died away. It might be because of the reduction in the number of children coming to services; it might be connected with a change in the culture of children’s own lives; it might be because of the growth of a professionalism in the way services are conducted with big screens and projection in many places.

Whatever the reason, it seems to me to be a loss. For churches with active children’s groups, there are some compelling reasons to have periodic all-age services, and every Sunday there will be a period, usually at the start of the service, when all ages are worshipping together. But do we really take account of the diversity of age and life situation in that time? A simple structure for the shared opening time could look like this:

  • Welcome and introduction
  • Accessible worship song
  • Responsive confession
  • Lord’s Prayer and collect
  • Bible reading, read by someone from one of the different age groups present
  • Short interactive talk
  • Song, after which children and young people go to their groups.

The benefit of this form is that it only takes 20 minutes, it includes the whole range of aspects of worship, it acknowledges all those present, and it builds bridges between the different age groups and makes connections with discipleship in the home, and it prepares children and young people for adult public worship. When we started to teach our children to pray at home, they already knew the Lord’s Prayer from saying it in church!

More generally, the question arises why we should bother with all-age services at all. In answering this question, people often look for theological reasons, perhaps based on the nature of the trinity—though I have never found these kinds of answers compelling. Captain Alan Price, who for many years pioneered children’s worship at New Wine, used to argue that ‘we should never do anything separately that we cannot do together’ and perhaps the best justification for this flows from Paul’s theology of the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12 and 14.

But for me, the most compelling reasons are practical, rather than theological—not least because the objections to these theological arguments are often themselves practical (‘Nice idea, but it can’t be done!’). Good practical reasons include:

  • Links Having children in a service with adults in the building usually used for worship inducts them into the life of the congregation, and so links them with what they will be sharing in as they get older. It also builds bridges into discipleship in the home; good all-age will model patterns of prayer, praise and Bible reading that can continue in families.
  • Life Most older people, if they are really honest, want to see children around. No-one wants to be part of an aging church! (They may not like the noise and the change very much, but when pushed would rather put up with that than have a church with no future.)
  • Learning Done well, all-age services can be memorable, fun, and the best learning opportunities of any time together. They also offer the chance for children to learn about ministering to adults, through reading the Bible, praying or helping with teaching.
  • Logistics If you have children’s groups every week, you will exhaust your group leaders and deny them a place in the worshipping community. Give them a break!

What might this look like? A simple structure for an all-age service could look like this, expanding on the shape of an all-age start to a regular service:

  •             Welcome (and notices) perhaps including introduction
  •                         Song(s)
  •             Interactive/responsive confession
  •             Lord’s prayer and Collect
  •                         Activity to introduce the theme
  •                         Song
  •             Bible reading(s)
  •             Talk
  •                         Song(s), perhaps responsive or credal
  •             Intercessions
  •                         Closing song
  •             Blessing/dismissal

The merits of this are:

  • It is manageable; this format would normally last around 55 minutes depending on the length of items;
  • It has a good liturgical shape;
  • It has a manageable number of songs; it is hard to sustain a longer period of singing with an all-age congregation;
  • It is recognisably Anglican in that it includes confession, structured prayer, sung worship, Bible reading and ‘sermon’;
  • It is flexible.

The stumbling block at the central point of the service can often be the all-age talk. It can be done well, but this needs some reflection and learning from experience. Here are my Ten Commandments for speaking in an all-age context.

1. Don’t call all-age services ‘Family Services’

However nicely you put it, using the term ‘family’ in any title will put off the (on average) 40% of your congregation who are not in a nuclear family. Even ‘Church Family’ does it. If the service is for all ages, then say so. Let it do what it says on the tin!

2. Not everyone has children—but everyone has been a child

It is important not to appeal to the experience of children through the lens of parenthood, since this will exclude (painfully) those who are not or cannot be parents. However, it is fine to appeal directly to the experience of children since all have been children and all can observe how children behave. To make use of personal disclosure in preaching, share some of your own experiences of different stages of life.

If Jesus is right, there is something about the experience of children and young people which gives a unique window into what it means to be human before God.

3. Don’t dilute your content; just express it simply and clearly

I don’t believe there is any theological truth which, with creativity, cannot be expressed in a way that children can grasp. If it is too complicated for children, then it is too complicated. Look how simple Jesus’ explanations and illustrations are in his teaching.

4. Treat children like any other group in the congregation you are addressing

Pastoral encounter forms an essential part of preaching, since it is our encounters with others that tell us some of the assumptions, issues and challenges they are living with. For all those we are speaking to, we need to be asking how the passage or theological principle might affect them in their lives—and we need to do just the same, no more and no less, for children and young people.

5. Don’t say anything without a concrete illustration

By this I mean an artefact, a picture, or a visual illustration. If you are a very good storyteller or you are expert at inciting the imagination, you may be able to get away without this. But normally you need to have a concrete illustration for each point you make. Scripture is full of metaphors, and these are often good starting points for your illustrations.

6. The illustration must serve the point

If you illustrate being the salt of the earth with salt (what an idea!) then what you say about the salt must show something about what it means for us to be salt, and vice versa. Don’t make people taste the salt (yuk!) and then suggest that salt adds nice flavour.

7. If you bring people up front, make it a good experience

Welcome them up, affirm what they say (it might be ‘interesting’ even if it is not what you are looking for), thank them, invite applause, offer a reward, and thank them personally afterwards. In this regard, learn a lesson from television presenters and pantomime starts.

Don’t forget to invite up all ages of people, and make sure you and they address the congregation (not just each other). If you humiliate them, they will remember it to their dying day!

8. Rehearse everything as it will be on the morning

Do the pieces of the cardboard body stick as they are supposed to? Do the images tie in with the music? Does it all work? Sunday is too late to find out! So make sure you find out on Saturday or before.

9. If you can, learn it

If you are giving eg a ten-minute talk, with perhaps three points, you should be able to remember what your three points are. If you cannot, how will they? You may well need prompts because of nerves; make them inconspicuous as possible (record cards work well).

10. Invest the time—it is worth it

Adults will usually learn more from a good all-age talk than from a sermon. My consistent experience is that men engage with good all-age more than any other, since they are often kinaesthetic learners, and all-age is a rare occasion when things happen in a kinaesthetic way.

And last but not least, enjoy yourself. If you do, others will too. And joy is a great aid to encounter and learning.

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18 thoughts on “Can we do all-age worship well?”

  1. I think this is exactly right. Without ‘a child in the midst’, adults will not effectively learn the way of Christ (Matthew 18), and the ‘being in the midst’ must be handled in the best possible way for the child’s development.

    My colleague Lallie from the education department and I have just written a grove book. Interestingly it melds your previous topic with this one, arguing that curacy is inadequate when it does not include quality interaction with children.

  2. Please, please don’t invite applause when you invite people up. I cringe every time the visiting vicar invites children up the front to do a token action song and ends with the words “Let’s give them a clap”. Invited (rather than spontaneous applause) turns this from worship into performance. What people share is their gift to the worship in the same way that doing intercessions, Bible readings and preaching is. (I must admit I am often tempted to applaud the preacher, Bible reader and intercessor after a “Let’s give them a clap” comment. So far I have resisted…) (I’m not happy with offering a reward either.)

  3. It is audacious to have the diversity of ages together for worship in one space. I have been committed to this on a monthly basis for many years and it’s hard work. There are things to fend off as you covered: It’s not a family service, It’s not a performance for all ages, It’s not an induction of children into the environment of adults or ‘big church’. One golden tip to share relates to seating. Sitting in the round changes everything. Thanks for addressing this.

  4. I think it can be done well. I think (hope!) we do it reasonably well here, on the first Sunday of the month (and, in a lesser way, for the first 15 minutes of other weeks). And THANK YOU for saying we shouldn’t call it a family service. I couldn’t agree more!

  5. Thank you… That’s good stuff…. If I’m honest it’s because it reflects my view and experience!

    I watched too many AA services emptied of any content, thinking that it ‘helps’ children, but with no real understanding of how we help them to grow in faith and within the wider body of Christians. They become not so much child accessible as (forgive the bluntness) infantile.

    Rarely even is anything liturgical (Lord’s Prayer /Confession /collect etc) included when children are present…. or sometimes at all… because we’re being “contemporary” .

    And, as said earlier, don’t get me on the issue of requesting applause for children participating as if it’s a secular concert….

    Groan over….

    • Richard & Ian Hobbs- thank you – my sentiments entirely, but I had held back from sharing honestly.

      Ian’s article reads well and compellingly, however I have led/spoken/participated in all age services regularly for over 30 years and indeed was one on staff of a church for 3 years and we did all-age every other week!!!!. I have given numerous all age talks & heard very many. The only ones that stand out are not due to content but the am-dram presentation. I do wonder who really benefits from all age services. I fear all things to all people benefits no-one – the adults are patronised, the children bored, the parents frustrated keeping the restless children engaged. I think there is something hugely important in being together as church community and we benefit from more corporate meals, organised fun times, church ‘big day out’ etc but I think most ages are frustrated by all age services.

  6. Unfortunately I have been to too many all age/young people’s services which are aimed at one demographic population, youth. The songs are mainly Hillsong which do not lend to communal participation. Whilst it it difficult to not see towards the presentation and performance aspect too many young teens have never been shown the principles of public speaking so readings are mumbled, babbled incoherently. The links between different parts of the service are missed out so our older members do not know if they are meant to be sitting , standing,are we getting ready to worship in song or in prayer. this could be inexperience (of whom though) but it just doesn’t improve . Many of our older group when notified of an all age/family service (yes it is still advertised as such) do not attend. This seems to reflect the lack of participation and communication between all in our community certainly if you are not in the 30 to 55 age bracket. There is a role in stacking chairs, making teas, meeting and greeting, but no involvement in the youth groups of services ‘upfront” for the non 30-55 group. Not that the first 3 are not important but exclusivity in age and gender must be across the whole worshipping community.

  7. Cringe worthy are some named Family Service, even Church Family, when we are at times like porcupines in a huddle.
    And, like others, don’t get me started on applauding children, which is far from encouragement. Children who read out scripture rightly are not applauded.
    Sometimes children are allowed to do as they wish, running around.
    Sometimes, the services are the equivalent of Theological Dad dancing.
    Sometimes overheads are overused, such as a call to pray for neighbours brings up an image of an urban semi-detached house.
    A lot are not ” all age” at all, but exclude adults.
    Far too negative? Just a plea for thoughtful well prepared service.

  8. Completely agree about Family Service. I look after four small village churches – I’ve managed to persuade three of them to change the name to something much more inclusive but the fourth one holds out. Please pray!!!

  9. Unless I missed it, but no mention yet of the use of Drama in all-age worship. Teenagers usually prefer to prepare as a group a short sketch, than one giving a talk. There are lots of good scripts around. Then if the service leader or another speaker briefly draws out the meaning, that should cover it for all ages. And with regard to sung worship, please intersperse modern songs (which usually means the congregation can only listen or join in the chorus) with hymns – whether ancient (pre – 21st Century) or modern, but at least with a progression of meaning/ theology. And to get this gripe off my chest, please if on a screen, at least with the whole verse on screen so I can see where the words are going.

  10. So many good points in this, and good comments by others. Sadly, in mixed-age groups, when an adult speaks, most children assume he/she is talking to the adults. We need to work hard to help the children know they are valued, and what they have to contribute is appreciated. However, the point about applauding children is important. It is patronising, unless we applaud everyone who contributes.
    Children learn best by doing, which is why I have always tried (not always successfully) to involve children in ministry.
    One other thing I feel passionately is that children need (and love) to experience the presence of Jesus, in whatever way that is experienced (singing, prayer, silence or ministry). Many worship leaders do not really believe children want to experience Jesus, and feel they just want to be entertained!


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