Why didn’t you come back?

We were not having a good day at The Ark.

Earlier that week we had organised an event for children in the Reception/Year 1 class at school and those at our local pre-school.  We had based it on the story of the Lost Sheep and different areas around the church and churchyard had been set up for different parts of the story. The north transept where we held the Ark, our fortnightly under 5s service, had been set up as a sheep pen.  I had contrived sheep by using pillows, propped against each other and fixing on black paper sheep heads.  It was surprisingly effective.

This morning there were only two families, each with a three year old and a baby.  I thought that they would love the different displays, but instead they were unsettled.  The area was not how it usually looked and although we began with singing and activities as usual, it just did not feel the same.

We had just finished singing when Clare arrived with her one year old.

None of us knew her.  She had just moved into the village and had come to see what we were like, as she had been to a church toddler group in her previous parish.  We all tried our best to welcome her but the unsettled three year olds continued to make things difficult.  The child who never had an accident, wet herself and had to go home in the other family’s spare leggings.  The other three year old who never had a tantrum went into complete melt down and cried solidly for 5 minutes…  I don’t think any of us were surprised when Clare didn’t return.

Several years later I came across Clare in a different context and got to know her properly.  Eventually I was able to ask her: “Why didn’t you come back?”

She stopped to think.  “It all felt completely alien,” she said at last.  “I didn’t know anyone.  At the previous group we all sat round and sang Christian songs and they gave the children instruments to shake.  I hadn’t really had anything to do with church before our daughter was born. We hadn’t even been in a church much so it was hard just coming through the door. The vicar used to come along to the group and she was really kind and friendly and we had our daughter christened there.  It just felt so different here…”

What could we have done to help Clare feel more at home?

Strange though this seems, Clare was the first person in a long time who had come knowing no one.  The previous year we had been a much larger group, but several children had moved onto school.  These families had mostly come because they all went to the same under 5s group, organised by one of our church mums. She had invited a few along and then they had invited more.  Other families had a church connection or came along to our children and family events. Everyone knew someone, so this was an aspect I just hadn’t thought about.

A way through this might be to have extra adults around who can act as befrienders.  At Footsteps, our children and families events, I have Marie who is now in her 80s.  I usually give her a specific responsibility – decorating cakes or a more complex craft that will need adult help (sometimes I get the impression that I am not her favourite person!)  I find I am watching the whole room, getting up to sort out extra paints or craft materials, engaging with the children over their creations and welcoming late comers and sharing the story with them.  Marie is in one place, creating a calmer environment around her. Even more extra adults might be an advantage, to chat to those who are feeling a bit lost or alien.

Secondly, I wonder about structure – or rather about changing too much of the structure at one time. The Ark service was very structured and the children had come to expect this.  We began with gathering activities and songs, followed by story, craft, prayer and refreshments.  The children knew and felt at home in the space.  If I had at least kept the space and gathering activities the same, then the children would have been more settled and it would have been a calmer atmosphere for Clare and her daughter. (Though by contrast Footsteps has no consistent structure – we can be acting one month and play and pray stations the next.  The space is never set up the same twice running. Children and adults are free to choose their activities and change at any time. I think this works because the children are mostly older and the under 5s follow along, taking their cue from their older siblings. And again, this is what they are used to.)

Our singing at The Ark was very skimpy, mainly because no one who came was particularly musical.  I tended to get it over with early on – but perhaps I should have spaced it out and included some songs later on?  Even the tiniest children can wave ribbons or shakers and it is an activity that everyone can join in at their own level – and perhaps more importantly know that they are part of it.

At her previous group, Clare had found the vicar a friendly and known person, someone she could relate to.  The Ark had been set up by a previous vicar and me working together, but this was many years in the past and subsequent vicars had only come briefly to one session to see what went on.  They were either too busy to come again or it was their day off.  This had not bothered the families, who were mostly non church goers but for someone like Clare, who was hoping for more church involvement after her daughter’s christening, it was a definite negative.     

How could we have helped Clare and her daughter to feel more at home in the church building?  I wonder if we could have taken them to explore, pointed out the wooden angels under the roof, the carved animals and the window of St Anne and the children? Would this have helped – or not?  I’m not sure, but we do need to be aware how difficult church buildings may be for some people to enter; the church is a symbol of Christian beliefs and even entering might be seen as a commitment (or at least a sympathy with those beliefs.) 

All of these might have helped Clare to feel less alien but what about other newcomers?

I find it hardest to go to events where I feel it is cliquey.  I knew that we were not cliquey at The Ark (these particular families only met at The Ark and lived some distance apart.) But for someone who knew no one, it might have felt cliquey and some groups really are cliquey.  How do you balance people’s need to catch up with friends with a willingness to welcome outsiders?  One answer might be to recruit the parent/carer who talks to anyone and everyone to be on the lookout for outsiders… But then I worry about over formalising this; my own approach has been to let things find their own level.  Some newcomers are happy to start slowly, engaging in activities with their children and only gradually becoming part of the group. 

I am often reluctant to follow up, to visit or call someone who has been a few times but stopped coming.  I don’t want to be pushy, to intrude where I am not wanted, to face possible rejection.  It’s a risk I don’t want to take, but perhaps I should?

How much difference would these changes have made to how Clare felt?  I don’t know.  Neither Clare nor I are the same people that we were then; it’s hard to look back and view this in isolation: Clare had just had all the stress of moving house, I had spent the week organising several school and church events and checking my son’s uni project for grammar, word count and whether it actually made sense… 

I think what this has highlighted for me is the importance of not making assumptions: much of what Clare told me I would not have guessed.  I had never thought about the place of singing, contact with the vicar, what we could do to help someone who knew no one at all.  I needed to ask, for it is different for everyone.

The Penelope principle: worship is for all

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“I’ve spoken to the baptism family” says our new vicar at coffee time, “and I’ve told them all about your service for toddlers.  I suggested that once Danielle is three they might like to bring her along.”

And she goes cheerfully on her way, completely unaware that I am standing there open mouthed.

Three? Three?  What can I have said that has given her the impression that a child needs to be three to come along to the toddler service?

Or perhaps it isn’t anything I’ve said.  Perhaps it is the idea that Christianity needs cognition; that there is no point in introducing faith or worship to someone who cannot understand it?

Several years back now I wrote a guest post on the blog “Explore and Express” called “A Year with Penelope”: https://exploreandexpress-sheila.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/guest-post-babys-first-year-in-church.html

In it I wrote about baby Penelope’s first experiences of church – from starring as baby Samuel at 8 weeks old to watching Godly Play stories intently at 12 months.

Looking back at it now, it seems to me that this sentence is key: “We can never tell how close a person is to God, but it seems unlikely that the God we worship does not come close to small, wordless children simply because they cannot speak.”

If God indeed comes close to small children and babies, then they should be with us as part of the worshipping community from birth.   No one is too young.

Recently Mary Hawes (the Church of England’s national children and youth adviser) asked a follow up question:  “I’d love to know the next part of the story – is Penelope still part of the worshiping community? Was she welcomed with 2 year old tantrums, 3 year old determination…”

The simple answer to this question is that sadly this particular worshipping community no longer exists but while it did exist (in various formats) there was never a time when Penelope was not welcomed.

But there is a further aspect to this.  Even as a nine month old baby, Penelope was someone who loved to be involved, and this continued during her toddler and pre-school years.  This made it easy for her to be part of this small worshiping community, where there were many opportunities for her to take an active role.

But what about the other small children?  The wandering toddler, the two year old in a temper, the independent three year old?

When we first began (before Penelope was born), the time before the service was spent with us rushing round trying to get everything sorted while our two and three year olds rolled over and over each other in a heap on the floor.  The service usually began with us separating out the children and restoring them to their families while the leader began, “Welcome to our all age service.”

For despite the chaos, they were welcome. We might have envisaged a service where the children sat quietly beside their parents, waiting patiently for us to begin; it wasn’t what we got.  We worked at it. We put down toys to engage the children before the service began and looked for ways (such as taking a prayer leaf or a candle to a chosen place in the church) to involve them in getting ready for worship.

And somehow an ethos of welcome developed at this service.  It extended not just to the babies and the tricky two year olds but also to the adult with dementia, the person with learning difficulties, the autistic older child…

If we believe that no one is too young to take part in worship, then it follows that no one is too different or too difficult either…   Worship is for all…

Welcome: The community church, getting it right…

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“Is it your first time here?”

When I reply that it is, the person on the door explains that the worship is upstairs and will be starting in 10 minutes.  He is not pushy, and seem genuinely pleased to see me.

In the foyer, someone else approaches me and asks if I have been told where the loos are and that coffee will be served afterwards.

I am accompanied up the stairs by Eric, an elderly man who has had a stroke. I find it almost impossible to make out what he is saying. But there is no mistaking his deep joy, his attention and the warmth of his smile.  Here is someone who knows that he is loved and valued by God and does not let himself be defined by his disabilities.  It is still important for him to welcome people and so he does.

At the end of the service I go down for coffee.  Several different people come up and chat and I am introduced to the pastor.

As I leave, I think that it would be good to go again, even though it isn’t really my style of worship.

This church seems to see welcoming as the responsibility of everyone, even though there were people with specific roles like greeting and dispensing coffee.

Instead of settling into the comfort of friendship groups at coffee time, there is an awareness of those who are on their own and might not know anyone.  I didn’t have to stand around looking lost and feeling excluded; probably six or seven people spoke to me at different times. Their initial questions were neutral – leaving me free to set the pace and share as much or as little as I wanted.

But perhaps the most important thing was that this church saw me as a real person and did not label me as a potential punter. I felt this most strongly talking to Eric going up the stairs.  He knew that here he is accepted as himself. I knew that I could be too.

Welcome: for extroverts

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I’m visiting a suburban evangelical church and have scarcely got through the door before someone has stepped forward to welcome me. She asks my name, where I am from and whether I am just visiting.  Another person gives me books and shows me where to sit. She also asks my name, where I am from and whether I am just visiting.

As I sit down the lady behind me smiles, asks my name and where I am from; her friend sitting next to her asks me if I am just visiting…

I hope for a quiet pause to gather my thoughts before the service but I am out of luck.  The lady sitting across the aisle leaps up, comes over and yes, you’ve guessed it, she asks my name, where I am from and if I am just visiting.  I am thankful when the service begins.

If I were an extrovert, I think I would feel really welcome in this church.  The people are interested in me (if a little predictable) and their welcome feels genuine. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to talk about why I had come.

But for an introvert it has been overwhelming.  If the congregation are this welcoming before the service, what will coffee time be like? It is a relief when the service overruns and I can excuse myself quickly in order to meet my friend for lunch.

Welcome: The evangelical city church

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I am welcomed at the door by Denise.  I know this because she is wearing a badge that says: “Denise, Welcomer.”

This is an evangelical church with two large congregations each Sunday morning plus a lot of weekday activities.  Denise shows me a good place to sit – towards the back, but not so far back that I am unable to see or take part. She makes sure that I have the weekly pew sheet and tells me that the words of the hymns and the Bible readings will be on the screen.  She then leaves me and returns to the door.

For some time I am on my own but then a young girl comes and sits next to me.  When the service starts we are invited to introduce ourselves to our neighbours.  Pollyanna tells me that she is a student at the university and that she is looking for a church to belong to.  This is her first visit here.

After the service we are instructed to stay in our places and coffee will be brought to us.  Denise, the welcomer, reappears and tells Pollyanna and me that she will fetch coffee for us. There is no time in this gap between services for us to mingle with other members of the congregation, no time to make contact with anyone in the church except for Denise.  Pollyanna and I make each other welcome, she tells me about her very charismatic home church. This one isn’t quite the same, she is planning to try a different church next week.

Denise returns with the coffee.  She asks me how I found the service and I tell her it was very interesting (this has become my catch all phrase).  I ask her how long she has been coming (12 years) and what it is that keeps her coming here (the teaching). She ask me if I will come again and I make a vague reply.

Denise has done a good job of welcoming me. She has been smiling and friendly. She has shown me where to sit, told me about the service beforehand, reappeared at critical moments, brought coffee and stayed to chat.

But she has left me feeling exactly that: I am her job.  Although she has completed all the tick lists I leave feeling that my real welcome at this church came from Pollyanna the visiting student.

Welcoming: The city church

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I have spoken to no one since I arrived in this church; even the hymnbooks were given out with a smile rather than words. Now it is coffee time; I collect my cup and sit next to the woman who shared my pew. So far, we have had no contact except for a brief sharing of the peace. Now we sit next to each other, staring forward into space.  No one comes to speak to us.  We neither speak nor look at each other.  I wonder which of us will crack first.

Eventually I turn to her and ask if she comes here often (!)   She doesn’t. She is church searching and this church was recommended to her. This is her second visit; she likes it and may well come again when she is in the city.  We chat for several minutes before she has to leave to catch her train.

Now three members of the church approach me. They are friendly and welcoming.  We talk easily. By chatting to the woman next to me, I seem to have become visible to the people of this church. But what if I hadn’t?  Would I have left without speaking to anyone?