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
- Interactive/responsive confession
- Lord’s prayer and Collect
- Activity to introduce the theme
- Bible reading(s)
- Song(s), perhaps responsive or credal
- Closing song
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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