It is a sunny morning at St Cuthbert’s and the all age communion service is about half way through. Angela, the vicar is preaching on the Gospel of Luke Chapter 15. The children, sitting at tables on one side of the church, are engaged in activities on today’s Bible passage. The younger ones are colouring a picture of the father welcoming the younger son home while the older ones are doing a wordsearch.
Lily, who is five, is engrossed in colouring the father in a bright, cheerful orange.
Every now and then she looks up and gazes around the church. From her position at the side she can see the altar, the stained glass window of Jesus’ baptism and the eagle lectern. Sometimes she listens to the Bible readings and the prayers. If she likes a particular hymn, she hums along and swings her feet. She likes watching Angela when she consecrates the bread and wine; she is a bit far away, but Lily can see well enough to watch when she is breaking the wafer and holding up the cup.
Lily is able to dip in and out of the worship because colouring is that kind of activity. There is nothing lost if she puts down her orange crayon for a few moments and even while she is colouring she can absorb the sound and feel of worship.
James, who is nine, is doing a wordsearch. The words and music of worship are passing him by, for his mind is totally engaged in searching for P-R-O-D-I-G-A-L which has been arranged diagonally backwards: L-A-G-I-D-O-R-P
It is hard to see what the point of this activity is and how it helps James understand, remember or reflect on the story. The words are arranged in alphabetical order but this means little to James, who is working down the page rather than across it: “Father hungry kisses pigs rings two”*. While some may wonder why a hungry father is kissing pigs or just who are the two he is ringing, James has long stopped expecting word searches to make narrative sense.
It also does not matter that James does not properly understand several of the words: repentance, prodigal, fatted calf, for he does not see them as words but as combinations of letters. He has learnt to look for the more unusual “j” as a starter for jealous without once pausing to wonder why the word was included.
The key words have been chosen by others and act as a veneer, allowing the adults involved to think that James is engaged in a fruitful Christian activity, while they worship undisturbed. But in reality, the wordsearch is hindering James in his journey of faith.
My friend is telling me the story of her disastrous experiences with the plumber; it is so reminiscent of Flanders and Swann that both of us are crying with laughter. She does not however end her story by giving me a list of key words to find in a wordsearch in the hope that I will appreciate her story better: P-I-P-E, H-A-M-M-E-R, T-H-U-R-S-D-A-Y. This is not how adults engage with stories and it is not how children engage with them either.
There is no discussion of the concepts behind the words, but even if there were it would not help James for as soon as the discussion is finished, he is back to looking for strings of letters that have no connection with what the word actually means.
The freedom to create her own response might have helped Lily engage more deeply with the story, but even within the parameters of the colouring sheet she has some degree of freedom. She can choose the colours and patterns, think about the action and emotions shown in the picture, pause and reflect. James has none of this freedom and the wordsearch requires his full attention. He is using his brain to solve the puzzle, a completely different kind of activity from the engagement and reflection that could lead him towards a deeper faith.
It could be argued that children “love” word searches and they certainly keep them quiet and occupied. But children “love” other things as well without anyone feeling the need to include them in worship every week: sweets, water slides, alien destroying computer games…
But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps word searches can help people on their Christian journey… Perhaps we should be offering this activity to the whole congregation and reflecting together afterwards on how it has helped us spiritually…
*I did not make this wordsearch up!