L-E-T-T-E-R-B-Y-L-E-T-T-E-R

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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 wordsearches to make narrative sense.

It also does not matter that James does not properly understand several of the words: repentance, prodigal, fattedcalf, 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” wordsearches 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, waterslides, alien destroying computer games…

But perhaps I’m wrong… perhaps wordsearches 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!

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Dramatic experience?

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A few years back I attempted a dramatised “Noah and the Great Flood” for the Messy Church like event in our local church.

It was a failure.

Our church, which is long and thin, is not a good place to do drama. Apart from the first few rows no one can see the action.  Usually I avoided this by having the action up and down the nave but this time the action was mostly at the front.

The church had just acquired a new black backcloth which offered many possibilities.  I had planned to use this to represent the Ark, and for the animals (played by the children) and Noah to disappear behind it.  However, I failed to think through the logistics.  It took time to move the backcloth into position, especially as I hadn’t really explained to the helpers what was wanted.  The actors stood and fidgeted. The audience did not grasp the nature of the backcloth and expected it to open to reveal the Ark!

As well the children did not understand what they were expected to do, and so poor Noah had no one to act with.

“If you’re going to do drama, you need to rehearse,” said my friend, pointedly.

I refrained from saying that it was difficult enough to find a time when people would come to the event let alone ask for extra commitment for things like rehearsals.

But she was right.  As drama Noah and the Great Flood simply hadn’t worked.

It was a failure.

Or was it?

What if I was looking at it through the wrong lens?  What if there was a different way of looking at it?

Viewed as performance it was certainly a failure.  It was unrehearsed, the logistics did not work, and various small touches were simply missed out. It had little effect on the audience.

But was I aiming at performance?

Looked at differently Noah and the Great Flood had some redeeming features.  Behind the backcloth was a semi dark space.  There was an illusion of safety for the animals and me as we crowded in there together.  When Noah set the dove free, we watched from the safety of the ark while she flew down the nave and back.  This moment would have had far less impact on those simply watching from the pews.  And finally, there was the moment when the animals themselves were set free…

What if I was aiming at creating an experience rather than at performance?

I was used to working in this way with our under 5s.  The magi began their journey outside and took a winding route as they followed the star, we waved palm branches to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem and I rigged up a makeshift boat for calming the storm… Our crib services often included an element of the experiential – one year we turned off all the lights – and the heaters – to symbolise humanity being cut off from God.

If instead of aiming at performance I had aimed at the experiential, we could have made the ark into a well-defined space, dimly lit and a close fit. We could have invited all the children (not just the chosen few) to take the part of an animal if they so wished.  Once they were all safely in, the adults could have been invited to join them (though probably with less success!)  Inside, we could focus on the storm and the rising floodwaters.  The script would prepare them for the rain easing, the sending out of the dove, their own return to freedom and God’s promise, as symbolised by the rainbow.  It would be drama from within rather than from without, an active involvement rather than a passive one.

Why didn’t we do this?  At the time it never occurred to me to try.  I think this was partly to do with adult expectations, including my own.  The adults expected performance.  They expected drama to have impact, clean edges and be tightly controlled.

Creating an experience is risky.  Adults can be self-conscious when they are watching and self-conscious when they are taking part.  This can infect the children so that they too become self- conscious about what they are doing.  It is hard to get past this.  Recently we told the story of Paul’s shipwreck, and soldiers, sailors and prisoners either swam to shore or held onto pieces of wood and were helped along.  Most of the children jumped out of the boat and took part with great enthusiasm.

The adults watched.  What they saw was ragged, roughly improvised and included a lot of byplay and conversation from the children.  But even the child who usually avoids the drama leapt forward to save her brother from the wreck as he struggled to shore…

Is there a middle way that combines the impact of performance with active involvement?

I was once asked to organise an Easter event for a cub meeting (they were doing their Religion badge). We divided the cubs into soldiers (red cloaks and swords), stall holders in the temple (black cloaks, doves and money) and people of Jerusalem (multi coloured cloaks, palm branches) and gave each group about 5 minutes to practise their role.  The cubs (especially the moneylenders) stepped enthusiastically into their parts.  The drama certainly had impact… but there was no audience; everyone was involved.

Rehearsal changes things.  It becomes more about what the director thinks and less about what the children (and other adults) think.  If I want to challenge their thinking, I need to work on ways of structuring the drama so that it is open ended.  Perhaps I need to stop worrying about the raggedness, the interplay between the children and the feeling of insecurity…

Perhaps I also need to start talking to the adults…

Invisible children

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A couple of years back I went along to a service in a charismatic church, which was somewhat outside my usual experience of Anglican Holy Communion.

We began with a time of worship songs, accompanied by a band of guitars, drums and keyboard.  People sang, prayed (possibly in tongues), waved their arms and participated with emotion and enthusiasm for about forty five minutes.

Meanwhile what about the children?

Near the front sat three boys who spent the time in that kind of jostling, shoving, mock fighting usually reserved for long journeys in the back of the car. “He pushed me!” “He banged my elbow!” “Stop him!”

Further back a boy of about 10 or 11 spent the time on his ipad. Next to me the 12 year  old girl tried to amuse her 3 year old sister while their mother took part in the praise and prayer. A smaller child paid about six visits to the loo…

Were these children invisible to the congregation? They had been welcomed on entry but after that no one seemed to be aware they were there – until the end of the praise session when they were sent off to groups.

The previous week I had been in a community church where the praise session lasted about half an hour.  The children sat on the back row, kicking their legs, doing puzzle books and holding conversations about dinosaurs. They too appeared invisible to the worshipping congregation.

I wondered if these churches saw this time of praise as a coming together of the whole church family. But although the children were physically present they were absent in all other respects.  I saw no child taking part in these times of praise.

It would be good to be able to say that things are different in middle of the road Anglican churches. Mostly they are not.  Words to the hymns and songs are either in hymn books or projected onto screens.  They need a reading age of at least seven years old which takes out most of the younger children and any child who is dyslexic. These children stand ignored, fidgeting in boredom, while the adults sing around them.  Occasionally a token action song is included.

It doesn’t have to be like this.

The other week I saw a four year old joining in enthusiastically with the hymns, playing an assortment of musical instruments.  Although this was almost her only participation in the entire hour long service, she was recognised and visible for these brief moments of time.

If a church’s musical standard is too high for pre-schooler percussion there are the quieter options of flags, ribbons and banners to wave.  I have seen an evangelical church where four children came forward to wave long streamers during the praise time (and mini versions for all the children would have been even better).  Some songs (for example Taize) can be signed. There are art projects that could add another dimension to a time of praise.

For I just don’t get it.  If we are truly listening to God how can we be so unaware of the children in our midst, who are always visible to him?

 

 

 

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…

Dancing in Church

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We are in the cathedral for some kind of afternoon celebration – it might be Pentecost. It isn’t specifically an All Age service but there are several children present.  The congregation are singing “How great thou art…” and in the small space in front of us a tiny two year old is dancing quietly.  Then a lady leans forward, taps his mother on the shoulder, and indicates to her that she should be keeping her child in order. The mother picks him up and restrains him.  He doesn’t dance any more. Many of those around me are aware that we have lost something special – but what can we do?

There are about 60 children present for All Age Worship in this large evangelical church.  For the first twenty minutes, while the children are present, there are choruses and a children’s talk, interspersed with the opening hymn and prayers for the adults.  The introductory hymn is “Shine Jesus shine”.  A four year old girl and her little brother step forward into the small square space in the centre and begin to dance.  They weave around each other, creating intricate patterns. At times they catch hands and whirl each other around.  No one joins them; all the other children stand sedately with their families in the pews.  It is hard to gauge the response of this church to the dancing – tolerated but not encouraged perhaps?  There is almost a feeling of relief when all the children are brought forward to take part in a well-known action song, a kind of religious version of the Hokey Cokey. Perhaps it’s safer when everyone is doing the same thing at the same time?

There are fifteen at the village All Age Worship service, five children and ten adults.  The congregation are singing “God forgave my sin in Jesus name” and three of the younger children are dancing (two eight year old boys and a five year old girl).  Ribbon rings have been offered and they all have one or two in each hand. Their dancing is spontaneous and experimental and sometimes gets carried away.  There is little interference from the adults; everyone accepts that dance is part of our experience of worship.

As I watch I wonder if the adults long to join in… Do they dance like this in empty churches, as I do?