One of my greatest joys in life is worshipping God with my wife and children - dancing around, singing, doing silly actions, getting breathless, bonding - with one another, and I believe, with God.
The only thing that improves on this experience is doing it as a whole church family. Leading ‘family worship’, ‘all-age worship’, ‘worship for everyone’ or whatever you like to call it, is pure joy for me. I love the delight on people’s faces as they become vulnerable with one another, and experience that same joy and delight of bonding before God.
But the delight I experience now was not always there - it has developed over time, in part as I’ve experimented with different approaches, and developed a theology of family worship, and in large part as I’ve had children of my own to practise with at home!
I’ve led musical / sung worship for almost 20 years. I’ve gone through the awkward late-adolescent phase, where I was so nervous about my ‘performance’, and there was all kinds of soul-searching to be done as I asked the Lord to test my heart and guide my motivation. I’ve been employed as a worship pastor in an inner-city church, and had to develop an approach that focussed on serving a congregation, even if it meant stretching me out of my comfort zone.
And since being ordained in 2007, I’ve continued to lead worship (or play in worship teams) regularly - although I’ve also developed a greater sense of being a Worship Leader - capital ‘W’, capital ‘L’. Inviting people to remember Jesus at the Lord’s Table, to feed on him at Holy Communion, is the most privileged duty of Worship Leading I get to perform each week.
Over the past few years, with our team at St John’s, we’ve tried to develop a pattern for our ‘family worship’ services which we can wholeheartedly stand by, and with the hope of serving our congregation the best we can. I thought I’d take a fe moments to try to highlight the principles which have guided us.
What’s In A Name?
‘Family Worship’, ‘All-Age Worship’ or ‘Worship for Everyone’ are probably the most common names for that Sunday church service (usually monthly) at which there are no children’s groups, no Sunday School ministry. In our church, it’s the 1st Sunday of each month at 10.30am (I suspect we’re not alone!). Of course, the name we give this service is not unproblematic: the first, ‘family worship’ can seem alienating to those who are single, divorced, childless, or whatever else. It seems the prioritise notions of the ’nuclear family’ - and perhaps summons up Waltons-esque images of mum, dad and copious children - all very wholesome.
Now of course, we can reclaim the term family from all this - after all, if God calls us by adoption to be his children, then ‘brothers’ and ’sisters’ are appropriate terms to describe our relationships within the church. Indeed, ‘brothers’, ’sisters’ are the common terms with which St Paul describes our relations within the Body of Christ. But for that to become meaningful in the context of our worship, it has to be lived in the context of our lives - we have to live as ‘family’ whether we’re single, married, childless or whatever.
‘All-Age Worship’ and ‘Worship for Everyone’ are also problematic - as they imply that in the worship service there is something seeking to serve and engage all ages. In other words, you should expect that there will be something engaging for 9 year olds and 90 year olds. But this is usually just not the case. Commonly, what we describe as the ‘all-age worship’ service is really actually the ‘children’s service’.
I’m not so bothered by this, after all, most church services are very poorly oriented towards being accessible by children, so to have a service especially designed for them once a month seems a reasonable counter-balance. But maybe it should be named as such for the sake of transparency - a bit of the Cuprinol factor - just do what it says on the tin! (NB: Other wood varnishes are also available!)
Of course, really we need to be attempting to ensure the accessibility of all our worship services by all ages of the human people to whom we minister. Actually, if we’re serious about serving children and young people in worship - we need to assess and evaluate what we do on the other three Sundays of each month and consider how ‘all-age’ friendly they are.
Differentiation And A Shape Of The Liturgy
This brings me onto the subject of how our services are structured. Most of our services follow a threefold pattern: a ministry of gathering in God’s presence; a ministry of hearing from God; a ministry of responding and being nourished by God. If I were in the Vineyard church, I’d simply call this a block of worship, a block of teaching, a block of ministry - and this is not far from what we practise.
However, I’d also recognise that this is the general pattern of Common Worship Anglican liturgy as well: we gather in one another’s presence before the Lord - this involves preparation, comfortable words, confession, acclamation, worship in the words of the Gloria; we then receive from God’s word in Scripture, and hear it opened in preaching and put into practice as we declare our faith with the creed and intercede for the world; finally, we acknowledge the peace God has given us with one another and with him as we gather to be fed at his table, blessed and sent out.
We’ve tweaked the shape of the liturgy in our church to emphasise a few things: first, we have our first Scripture reading right near the very start of the service - this is to acknowledge that we are first addressed by God, and that our worship is a response. Second, we substitute the 17 lines of the Gloria with about 20 minutes of praise and worship songs. We emphasise the sacrifice of our praise and thanksgiving (expressed in giving our valuable time to singing God’s praise) as a way of drawing ourselves into the presence of God. (I always think of Psalm 100 here - entering his presence and acknowledging who we are before him.)
We conclude a time of sung worship with extemporary prayer and also always the Collect, and proceed into the ministry of the word. After celebrating the Eucharist - during which we offer personal prayer ministry, we proceed to a liturgy of ‘sending out’. With the words of the Creed we declare the faith that we share as we prepare to go back to the places where God has called us to bear witness to his saving love.
But what of the children and young people? And what do I mean by differentiation?
On a normal Sunday our morning service starts at 10.30am. Our children (up to 11) leave for their groups after the opening song / hymn, bible reading, confession and absolution and a song or two chosen specifically for them to enjoy. It’s about 10.45am. We then continue in sung worship for a further 15 minutes or so, and the youth (12-16s) then go to their group after the Collect. They all return for the Peace and we celebrate communion as a whole church family together. (We give notices just before we share the Peace - it seems appropriate…)
You may have noticed that this basically means that children and young people are out during the ‘ministry of the word’. Essentially, we are streaming or differentiating for the time that we spend ‘hearing God in Scripture’. In contemporary educational method, this kind of ’streaming’ according to age and ability is entirely normal - so that we are enabled to engage at the level appropriate to us. This is certainly vital during the sermon - but we’re also doing it in a way through the sung worship. We want the 12-16s to stay in a little longer during the sung worship: their capacity for the language of the songs is perfectly developed, and more than that - we want our younger members to witness the adult community at worship - we want them to watch, learn, and in their own way, to participate.
Our younger children get to see a bit of the adult church at worship at the beginning and end of the service, but their participation in worship songs really does still need to cater to their own language development - and so simple songs that mirror the kind of language acquisition they have at school are helpful. Recognising that we also have different learning styles, it’s great to have songs with actions - particularly so that little children without reading skills can still join in. Indeed, we might also note that children are still in the process of developing gross and fine motor skills - so action songs are actually really helpful for the physical development and co-ordination.
Anyway, that’s enough about our regular Sunday services (though it’s probably helpful for setting the context). What about our ‘all-age’ or ‘family’ worship services?
A Few Scattered Thoughts
Action songs are great! Especially if you can really persuade the adults to join in too! I sometimes lead a song which involves standing / sitting according to which line you’re singing - and you can alternate between men and women or adults and children or one side of the church from the other. It would be a great song to do regularly in preparation for a skiing trip I’d imagine - as your thighs are burning afterwards! It can be very tiring, and you can get quite out of breath. But the comedy value of seeing everyone get muddles as to when they should be standing or sitting is priceless.
Similarly, another song involving ‘Greek-dancing’ has you all doing arms over your neighbours shoulders and trying to walk from side-to-side together - chaos! Obviously, this can be uncomfortable for some people - and we’ve got to create an environment in which people also feel comfortable not to join in - we don’t want to embarrass people into worshipping God. Over the years, I’ve found that there’s no better way to encourage people to join in that to be prepared as a worship leader to make a bit of a fool of yourself. I think of David dancing before the Lord as they brought the Ark to Jerusalem - his ephod and tunic kicking about in an undignified manner. If those who are charged with leading can humble themselves, it’s so much easier for others to follow. In other words, you can’t expect people to sing ‘I jump and dance with all my might, I might look silly but that’s alright’ unless you’re prepared to actually live by those words. It can be a bit tricky with a guitar slung over your shoulder - but it’s possible!
Other action songs a not so rambunctious - they involve slightly more co-ordinated actions (‘Our God Is A Great Big God’ for example). Again, these are great for social bonding - they allow us all to follow a prepared pattern and enjoy the unity of co-ordination. (There’s a reason songs like the ‘Locomotion’ or ‘Macarena’ with set dances are popular - you don’t have to like them - but you’ve got to admit their popularity!)
For a simple alteration in songs like these, try verse with just the actions but no singing - it’s engages our minds in a different way to follow a motion sequence without the verbal cues. Or try doing ‘baby actions’ - make the actions as small as you can - perhaps bending your fingers, or moving your neck in little ways. For small kids especially, this is great for developing their fine motor skills and controlled physical co-ordination.
Contemplative songs are also great! We’re working really hard to enrich our repertoire of more worshipful, contemplative songs for children. Not all children like jumping around chaotically - especially in a large group. And we need to enable our children to express themselves to God in a variety of ways. Songs like ‘God Is Love’ or ‘Wonderful Lord’ are so helpful for changing the atmosphere, and allowing kids to express their affective devotion to God.
We’ve found recently that old simple gospel choruses can be really good for this. ’Thank You Jesus’ sung slowly and reflectively can be really powerful - and the words are simple enough for kids to grasp. Similarly ‘God Is So Good’ and ‘I Love You Lord’ can be really helpful songs for the whole worshiping family to sing together.
Blend adult and children’s songs together. Another thing that we’ve learned (particularly from Nick and Becky Drake) is the benefit of blending repertoire. Our own children made us realise that they can really fall in love with the worship songs we sing regularly. At the age of 3 or 4, ’Strength Will Rise’ was Seth’s favourite song. Now he’s 5 going on 6, it’s probably ‘Let It Be Known’. Caleb always loved ’Saviour He Can Move The Mountains’.
One of the things we’ve realised is that there are lots of great worship songs with really simple choruses that can be used in the midst of an energetic action song set to change the tone and pace for a moment. ‘How Great Is Our God’ is always popular with our kids, along with ‘How Marvellous’ or the chorus of ’How Great Thou Art’. (Although for several years our children casually sang ‘Earl Grey is our God’ without realising the error. We found it too amusing to bother correcting them - as we didn’t really think they were committing idolatry! You can probably tell my wife’s favourite tea variety from this…)
As with my comments about the 12-16s staying in through the whole sung worship time, it’s really important to us that our children get to see the rest of the church family worshipping God, and become familiar with our expression of worship.
Sing songs that teach Scripture. We love simple songs that sing Scripture. ‘Love Joy And Peace’ is a favourite just now - popular with 350 children at our local primary school as well! I love that our kids have learned the fruits of the Spirit off by heart, and that they know the list is found in Galatians 5:22-23. ‘I Need A New Heart’, based loosely on Psalm 51, is new to us - but does a brilliant job of expressing confession for kids.
When we’re singing (or speaking for that matter) in our worship services, it seems to me that there are three basic directions of address: 1) speaking to one another - exhortation - encouraging one another to praise God, and telling of his goodness and love ‘Come, Now Is The Time To Worship; 2) speaking to God - that form of direct personal speech that expresses our thoughts and emotions to God ‘Adoration’ by Brenton Brown perhaps or ‘Bless The Lord’ by Matt Redman?; and 3) God’s speech to us - this is far less common in song, but is an essential part of Scripture, and in many traditions, also part of the theology of preaching or prophetic prayer. I think there’s also a space for this in songs as well - although the only example that springs to mind is one of my own songs, which sets Jesus’ words ‘Come to me, if you’re weary, heavy burdened’ to music.
NB: Teach hymns - our children need to know the great hymns (not the naff and dated ones mind you - but the great ones). I’ve been astonished at how our local primary school children have embraced learning ‘Be Thou My Vision’, ‘O Lord My God’, ‘How Marvellous’, ‘Amazing Grace’ to name but a few… I can’t wait to teach them ‘Dear Lord And Father Of Mankind’ and ‘Praise To The Lord, The Almighty’… It enriches their language, their imagination, their conceptual grasp, their empathy, and ultimately, their worship of the living God.
Model mixed models of prayer. Moving away from our songs of worship, we’ve been deliberate about modelling intergenerational praying in our ‘all-age’ service. We invite a family to lead intercessions each month - so that mum, dad, and each of the children get to lead a prayer. Of course, most of the children in our church come from single parent families - so actually we often twin up two single parents with their children and create a team to lead intercession.
Involve children and young people in leadership. We’re so fortunate to have some amazingly gifted and confident children and young people. We have teenagers who play in our worship team and lead worship, and we’ve even had my 7-year old son lead a worship song that he wrote together with me. But we also usually have a pair of children up front leading the service. I’m more than happy to have them lead the Collect and the Confession and Absolution (don’t worry - I use the ‘us’ form!) as well as to lead us in our closing liturgy (usually sharing ’The Grace’). I’m excited about seeing some of the young people get involved in opening up Scripture for us as well - and preaching for us.
A Few Practicalities Observations
Here’s a few other practical aspects we’ve found helpful:
1. Think about learning styles: AVK (Aural-Visual-Kinesthetic) - we all have a preference, but as adults, we tend to learnt to cope outside of our preference. That’s how we manage to sit patiently through a sermon each week despite being more accustomed to visual learning through TV / advertising / reading etc. Kids can’t suppress their natural impatience so easily - so I often use film clips and object lessons to help reinforce teaching points. (Our Children’s Minister, Ruth Cant, is great at this - she uses things like squeeze cream to illustrate the power of words - she gets a child to squeeze some frothy cream onto a paper plate, and then invites them to put it back in the can!! What a great way to illustrate the power of words!) Mix up your teaching - the adults will appreciate it as well.
2. Don’t go overboard with ‘responsive’ or ‘creative’ activities. Some people (me!) hate being asked to go and draw a picture to express our prayers of confession. Not every act of submission or surrender to God needs to be symbolised with post-it notes stuck to a wooden cross at the front. Use this stuff appropriately, but don’t feel obliged to do it all the time - after all, for all those who might enjoy it, there’ll be a bunch counting down the minutes until they can leave.
3. Use rugs / mats / beanbags to create a children’s zone - this can be especially helpful if you want them to sit for a while during a talk in a specific place. A special square of coloured rugs can create a border they must sit within. It’s essentially what they call in school ‘carpet-time’. But, when you’re celebrating communion or have them standing for a set of worship songs, have a volunteer remove the rugs and bean bags - the rugs will become trip hazards for your 90 year olds coming up for bread and wine, and the bean bags will become pugel-sticks for the children (or churchwardens!).
4. We celebrate Holy Communion at the beginning of our service once a month. Why? A few years ago, we found there were a bunch of people who always arrived really late, and just in time for communion. Also, our worship team were working really carefully on arranging ‘all-age’ action songs, and then feeling demoralised when no kids were there at the start of the service to enjoy them. Putting communion up front encourages better time-keeping, and for those kids who are a bit late to the service, means they don’t miss out on their favourite action songs.
I’ve run out of steam - it’s late, I’m tired, and I can’t think of anything else to write just now. But please keep on going with ‘all-age’ or ‘family’ worship - whatever you call it. It’s worth the effort - and not just once a month, but think about how your worship services are serving every generation of your congregation and community on a weekly basis.
There are some great places out there to find out more: look at ‘Worship for Everyone’; look at Big Ministries; look up Godfrey Birtill on youtube, look up Andy and Ishmael while you’re there… I’m sure there can be some communal sharing of ideas in response to this post. If a few people get a conversation going on Facebook etc maybe I’ll try to write another post. For the meantime, have a great day / evening / weekend, keep going in worship for every generation, and may you know the peace, joy and hope of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).