The secret of making all-age services work

There is nothing that quite gets opinion going as the subject of all-age services in local churches. I think there are some really good reasons for doing all-age worship, both practical and theological, but I won’t go into those here. The chances are, especially around Christmas or during the summer, you are going to be confronted by the challenge of enduring or leading an all-age event.

But how to make it work?

I recently had the experience of speaking at an all-age service and then going straight on to a pantomime—a secular all-age event. And it highlighted the key to making these things work well: ritualisation. (‘Oh no, it didn’t!’ ‘Oh yes, it did!’). How does this work?

1. Ritualisation unifies

To be human is to be liturgical—not in the sense of enjoying complex wordy forms of worship (!) but in the sense that we are creatures of rhythm. In conversation, at football matches, on social occasions—in a wide range of contexts you can see people observing ritual behaviour. And this is particularly true of children; they are the ones who know how to respond to: “Good morning, everybody…” better than anyone.

Stephen Cottrell, in his book Praying through Life, includes a chapter on praying with children, in which he describes children as natural charismatics (since they like expressing themselves in worship), natural evangelicals (since they love reading Bible stories), and natural catholics (better, ‘sacramentalists’, because they love rhythm and ritual). If pantomime is anything to go by, this last is true—and if all-age events in church can draw on this, they will engage not only children, but people of all ages.

2. Ritualisation facilitates involvement

Pantomime works so well because everyone knows how to respond. The same is true on the football terrace—but there is one proviso: you need to know the rituals. This is where worship, of any kind, can work well or fail badly. Many people unfamiliar with church feel disempowered because the rituals are complex, unexplained and unfamiliar.

But ritualisation in all-age worship means explaining things clearly and simply, set up expectations—and meeting them, whether that is in the way songs are introduced, prayers are conducted, or activities are managed.

3. Ritualisation creates a safe space for ‘performance’

At the Nottingham Playhouse pantomime, there is always a moment when children from the audience come up onto the stage. The routine is the same every year, and for each child; although it takes a certain boldness to go up, it is made safe by the ritualisation of the process.

Most all-age events need participation to add interest, and this only works if there is a safe ritual framework. Answers to questions must always be received positively. Participation of any kind needs thanks, recognition and applause, and for this to be expected. ‘Games’ and other activities at the front need predictable outcomes; the fun is in the getting there, not in uncertainty about the outcome.

4. Ritualisation creates space to address difficult issues

At one point in the pantomime, the henchman of the chief villain sneaked up behind two children, raised a dagger, and was on the point of murdering them—only for the nurse (a man in drag) to return just in the nick of time to save them and scare the henchman away. This happened not once, not twice, but three times. And it was striking that an audience which included children could cope with the idea of violent death—because it was ritualised. (For an exploration of this phenomenon in fairy tales more widely, see Bruno Bettleheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment).

Similarly, when all-age events are ritualised, they can provide a safe context to engage and explore challenging issues—issues of loss and loneliness, grief and hope—in a manageable way.

So what does this mean for all-age events?

It doesn’t mean that all-age needs to be reduced to pantomime—even if there are some theatrical elements. Neither does it mean reducing all-age to entertainment. But we can learn from the ritualisation of pantomime. A common mistake in leading all-age is to think it is all about being ‘informal.’ But leading in a more stylised way, and ritualising the different elements, can create powerful space for participation. A structured introduction to short periods of silence, for example, can enable a real sense of encounter with God.

See also this Grove booklet on planning and leading all-age services.

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7 thoughts on “The secret of making all-age services work”

  1. Having been in two church panto performances yesterday and preparing for three Christingle services this week the juxtaposition has been very interesting. It’s certainly making me think a lot about making the children who we bring to the front for the game in the services feel safe – it’s always the braver ones who come up but once they’re at the front quite a bit of the bravado melts away. It’s just little things like asking their names that makes the difference and having two teams rather than individuals playing then they can look to one another for support.
    People who attend church every week are familiar with the rhythm of our services and it’s the same when people only come once a year to bring their children to the Christingle services. They come with certain expectations (as they would for a panto) and will leave happy if we’ve ticked all the boxes. It’s perhaps this comfortable familiarity which might just make the Gospel story stick in their minds through the busyness of Christmas too (I hope).
    I won’t make the obvious comment about pantomimes and church services both involving men in frocks though.

  2. Thanks, Ian for a really helpful distinction — stylised expression from depth can be simple and authentic and is a sufficiently strong framework to make its own dramatic way and make genuine informality safe and engaging. The process is entirely different from old fashioned ritual taken as the norm that decides to run a nursery slope by letting its hair down. It chips all its edges off to try and engage but then finds it harder to engage because it’s chipped all its edges off. All it looks like is “Old fashioned Lite,” that annoys everyone.

  3. Pantomimes work because you go to them once a year. If you went to one every month, you’d soon get tired of the rituals – you need creativity and unpredictability to keep people interested. But it has to be good. My 12 and 14 year olds won’t go to all-age services. It seems to me that they’re often aimed at everyone so appeal no-one (or not very many). They end up just being a slightly jollier adult service with children’s action songs (grim).

  4. Yes, Alan, I agree. Interestingly, having been a Roman Catholic and then experienced discipleship in a free church context, I needed to make a decision about church membership whilst at University, and self-consciously settled on the Church of England since, though reformed, it believed in liturgy—in the general sense that we are creatures of rhythm.

    The assumptions behind word-heavy liturgy, that we all know it, really belong to Christendom and cannot be taken for granted. It is fascinating to observe how being liturgical can be very off-putting (when it is complex and unexplained) or facilitating when it offers simple and manageable structure.

  5. Karen, yes of course, in this extreme case you can have too much of a good thing. The same applies to regular liturgy if it is dull, repetitive and predictable. Having said that, when you say ‘Hello, how are you?’ not many people respond ‘Can’t you think of anything more original by way of greeting?’!

    I think the case of teenagers is important and challenging–like you we have several in the house. This age is a time of renegotiating expectations and rituals, and that offers a challenge for any regular activity. For me, all age needs to be that–relevant to all ages. Here at St John’s the most effective services for all ages have actually included teenagers in the planning and delivery. That way, they can offer their own versions of ritualisation, and you don’t have to second-guess what will be relevant to them.

  6. There is something else that works well, which is ‘Open the Book’ – we have small teams doing this as a weekly Assembly in our 3 local primary schools; and with a minimum of props, really, really simple costumes, and a bit of thought about the playlet, this works wonderfully well. There the trick is to involve as many children as possible [eg in David and Goliath, smallest soldiers surrounded tall Goliath, and the tallest surrounded David] not to ‘do’ the play ‘at’ them.
    The stories definitely stick: going along the street, children run up to ‘actors’ saying ‘Hello, God’ and tell them what they liked about the recent play.

  7. This is very interesting.

    I wrote a booklet for my churches called ‘I’m Sorry, I Haven’t a Clue’. It was a 14 page booklet to explain the communion service and the various bits in it, what they are for etc, intended for those occasional visitors who must be completely mystified by what goes on.

    I had to do a reprint because most of my regulars took the first lot! I think that says something about how much regular churchgoers know what they are about in worship and how many just acquired the habit!


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