From text to (all-age) talk

Last Sunday I was speaking at St Ann’s with Emmanuel, an inner-urban church in Nottingham, using the lectionary gospel reading of Mark 1.1–8. I trace here the move from the text itself to the all-age talk and activity, and include details of the PowerPoint presentation I used.

John the BFeatures of the text

The most striking thing about this text is the phrase ‘good news’ or ‘gospel’ in the first verse, euangelion, which is unique to Mark and quickly came to refer to the message about Jesus, as well as the four accounts of his life which came to be included in the canon of Scripture.

This term would have had two contemporary resonances. The first would be proclamations of the emperor, announcing a victory or celebrating a birthday, and perhaps announcing some new holiday, a ration of bread (particularly for those living in Rome) or a day of circus entertainment.

The second would have been from the passage cited in Isaiah 40, a prophetic tradition also picked up and redeployed in Malachi 3. The surprising thing about this announcement was that it concerned return from exile in a foreign land (Babylonia) to people who had already returned. This ties in with the notion (expounded most notably by Tom Wright) that, though the people had physically returned to the land, they were spiritually still ‘in exile’, since the restoration of worship, and obedience of the people, and the presence of God in their midst was still not evident.

John’s message was a sharp contrast to both of these. Instead of offering holidays, food or entertainment, and instead of promising a return to their homeland, John challenges his listeners to change direction—and Mark presents this as part of the ‘good news’ of Jesus.

The description of John the Baptist places him in the prophetic tradition of Elijah and Elisha, and his place in the wilderness hints at the Exodus wanderings where God was tangibly present with his people. His appearance would have been in marked contrast to any kind of imperial messenger!

Baptism as a ritual sign of a new start is closely related to Jewish ritual washing (in the mikveh), though the word in normal usage has the sense of being overwhelmed or immersed, as a ship is by the sea when is sinks. John’s prediction of Jesus’ ministry is only finally fulfilled at Pentecost when the Spirit comes with signs of tongues of fire.

Introductory activity

In an all-age service I always like to include some sort of activity which involves the congregation and sets the scene for the reading and talk. The most consistent idea that came out of reflection on the reading was that the messenger and the message were opposite to what was expected. So the activity involved exploring opposites. I had eight volunteers come up and each hold a piece of paper with one of these words on it:

  • White, Brown, Light, Heavy, Dark, Milk, Black, Red

They each had to find the person with the opposite term. The natural assumption to make is that (for example) white is opposite to black—but not if you are choosing sugar for your coffee (when the choice is white or brown) or looking at your bank balance (when black is opposite to red).

There are important principles for involving people here. First, there are never any ‘wrong’ answers, only ‘interesting’ ones that I had not thought of! Second, it needs to be fun, and a positive experience for all those involve. Third, everyone is thanked and gets applause at the end. The activity needs to be understandable, achievable, and it needs to work.


The talk using the attached PowerPoint, which consisted of full-size pictures with no words, and explored conversationally the three issues of the opposite messenger to what you would expect, the opposite message and the opposite invitation.

I asked the congregation what kind of messenger they might expect if the Prime Minister were to send them a message. We then imagined what a messenger from the emperor might look like, and contrasted that with John the Baptist’s appearance. God uses unexpected messages, often the opposite of what we might expect.

Similarly we then discussed what message we would like to hear from our Government, what message the emperor might have proclaimed, and how John’s message contrasted with that. A key issue was the contrast with what God’s people might have wanted to hear. According to John, the real problem for the people was not external (to do with Roman occupation) but internal (to do with the need to ‘repent’, to turn back to God and live a new life).

Thirdly we explored what kind of invitation we might receive from royalty, and the invitation of John to be ‘baptised’, to be immersed in and overwhelmed by the love of God in Jesus. The talk finished with a response of a simple confession and an affirmation of faith (from New Patterns for Worship E12).

Principles for delivery

As with every all-age talk, my key concern was for simplicity and clarity of structure. The congregation was very mixed educationally, so I needed to be very careful to explain things clearly without assuming knowledge. The most challenging point in this was explaining why the promise of ‘return from exile’ might have been a surprising message, and the significance of this.

A second key principle was to always offer concrete illustrations rather than abstract ideas. This meant rooting each point in something we might expect for ourselves, and using pictures on PowerPoint at every stage. For those who were not most conformable learning by listening, there was always something to look at, and some element of experience to reflect on.

A third principle was for me to memorise what I was going to say. This allows full engagement with the congregation, and disciplines the structure and tone of the talk. If I cannot remember it, how will they?

The fourth principle was to enable a high level of engagement with the congregation. There were about 50 adults present, together with 15 children, and the seating was around three sides of a square, so this leant itself to a congregational style. Out of this conversation two particularly interesting things arose. The first answer to the question ‘What would be good news from the Governement?’ was ‘A rise in the living wage!’ This (literally) gave voice to practical concerns of some present. A second gift was having someone who had in fact been invited to Buckingham Palace to a Royal Garden Party—not once but twice!

Preaching is always a doubly hermeneutical task: we need to interpret the text and make sense of that, but we also need to interpret the context including the congregation before us. The preached word sits in the meeting point of these two tasks of interpretation. My preparation and structure of conversation was designed to reflect this interpretive dynamic. How would the text sit in its context, and how does that dynamic shape our reading today? What we would expect? What might they expect? What surprising things do we find out of this interaction?

I hope this might of interest in preaching on this passage and in the preparation of all-age talks. My apologies for not posting before the weekend—but you could put it away for next year!

Sermon Mark 1 St Ann’s

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14 thoughts on “From text to (all-age) talk”

  1. Do you mind if I probe a little? What is it about this talk that made it an all-age talk, as opposed to merely a very accessible and engaging talk? Specifically, how does this approach enable you to connect with people under 10 years old? Under five?

    • Thanks Anthony. At one level, the answer is ‘nothing.’ That is why the title has (all age) in brackets.

      But at another the answer is ‘everything.’ Whenever we are speaking, we are making assumptions about shared understandings with our audience, and pitching what we say accordingly.

      When speaking to adults only, there are certain things that we can take for granted. This allows, on the one hand, for the use of a certain kind of ‘shorthand’ so that we do not have to explain everything. On the other, it allows us to build on that shared understanding so that we can travel further in what we communicate.

      Because this was ‘all age’, I needed to pitch the level of shared understandings at the level of the children there. This expressed itself in some different ways:

      . making sure any ideas were explained
      . ensuring the all illustrations were concrete, and not limited to adult experience
      . using specific illustrations from a child’s world, as well as an adults’ world. So ‘bread and circuses’ translates into ‘McDonald’s and a film’.
      . delivering dialogically, so that listeners become interlocutors who can deploy their imagination.

      I would always question the extent that we can engage under-fives effectively in this context. But it was clear from responses that 5 to 10 year olds were attentive and engaged.

      Does that help?

      • Thanks Ian. Great that the 5-10s were engaged. So I’m wondering whether it’s really possible to give an “all age talk”, as opposed to an “over-5’s talk”? Also wondering whether it wouldn’t be a bad thing if our “adult talks” were sprinkled with the kind of thing that would grab the attention of a 5-10 year old…!

        • Oh yes certainly. We do need to gain people’s attention before we can convey anything much that is positive. We also need to maintain their interest by making sure that the vast majority of those present can understand our words and expressions and that illustrations are part of their experience too,

  2. “A rise in the Living Wage” would be a very bad thing for the low-paid, since the Living Wage is an estimate of what an earner needs to attain a decent standard of living, and thus if it were to rise it would mean there was appreciable inflation. Are you sure the respondent didn’t mean “minimum wage”?

    • You might well be right, but I am reporting what was said! The issue was less about Government policy, and more about giving people a space to articulate and hear their own voice…

  3. Thanks Ian.
    If there is time for suitable preparation, an all age service rather than talk could be possible.
    Even within the talk ‘slot’ there are a range of things including:
    Role play
    Dressing up
    Quiz questions (with visuals)
    Party magic
    and responses can include things like time to draw/write/make with dough – what you think God might be saying to you
    Local schools may have a range of costumes that can be borrowed.

    • Dave, thanks for these ideas. But for me, this raises a pressing question: are you talking about an all-age service, or a children’s service?

      My serious conviction is that we need to take the ‘all age’ term seriously. If I would never use any of these things with adults, though I might use them with children, should I use them in something that is genuinely ‘all age’?

  4. In what sense “gospel” unique to Mark. You seem to follow NTW in emphasising the manner of proclamation over the message proclaimed. Gospel is used frequently in the gospels and epistles. It appears to be a definite message delivered orally. Mark is widely believed to be first to write it down

  5. Dear Ian
    I wholeheartedly agree with your comments on all age. I believe that all sermons should be all age – congregations want to engage but feel they do not have the theological learning or experience to validly do so (although we must never assume that our congregations do not have this learning or experience) But all can learn from even the simplest of examples and teaching
    I also wholeheartedly agree with your words memorise and engage. I work in sales and engage and keep a connection by always looking at my client the same is true for preaching If you read a sermon or keep looking at notes you break this connection Memorising and looking at people helps to engage and involve the listener so they become engagers
    God Bless

    • Thanks for the comments! There is a thread of thinking that compares preaching to either sales or a political pitch, and common themes emerge. Quite a few preachers, though, are resistant to such parallels, I suspect because of a distrust of sales culture…

  6. Dear Ian
    Some theological help please if it is not too presumptious to ask
    I am a new LLM and still learning
    In connection with this Sunday I was asked the following question
    John preached the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. I have always believed that Christ died for our sins on the cross. Yet if John’s baptism allowed people to repent and be forgiven, why then did Jesus have to die, if people could be forgiven their sins by repenting and being baptised as in John’s baptism.
    Is it a case that John’s baptism was similar to the Jewish purification and was not the permanent forgiveness of the Cross
    Any help would be greatly appreciated

    • Hi Ashley,

      I’m sure Ian will get round to answer this for your question, but as an interim response…

      The scripture speaks of John’s baptism as an act signifying repentance. It’s also meaningless unless accompanied by behavioural outcomes consistent with a Christ-centred outlook on life. As John said: ‘bring forth fruits worthy of repentance’.

      St. Peter explained what is meant when we talk of baptism. He says:

      ‘and this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also–not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God. It saves you by the resurrection of Jesus Christ’. (2 Pet. 3:21)

      Baptism is the normative ritual ordained by God whereby we respond open and decisively to the call of the gospel. It is the means whereby we publicly signify the dedication our consciences, cleared of confessed sin, to God. It’s efficacy is our reliance on the power that raised Jesus from the dead.

      John made it clear that removing the sin of those he baptized rested on the sacrifice of Christ: ‘The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! ‘ (John 1:29)

      That’s why Jesus still had to die.

    • Ashley, I would agree with David’s explanation.

      The classic Anglican way of talking about sacraments is that they are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual reality. They are not ‘instrumental’; it is not baptism itself that effects forgiveness, but is a sign of what God does in faithfulness to his promise and in response to the acceptance by the participant.

      So, as David says, it is Jesus’ death and resurrection that effects forgiveness; it is baptism that is a tangible sign of this.


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