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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