Unless you are like a child

Andrew and I lead Avenues Church, an all-age, all-stage worshipping community.  We’ve long since passed any need to justify this venture or prove anything to anyone.  Avenues works for the people who come.  It brings meaningful interaction into our participants’ lives and faith journey.  Invariably, when people hear ‘all-age’ they translate this to it being a children’s church and when people hear ‘all-stage’ they often translate this to being age-based.  If you’re young you’re at an earlier stage, the older you get the further up the stage stairway you progress.    That’s not quite how we see it and how we’ve experienced it in the last fourteen years with our Avenues church and prior to that when we were exploring all-age worship within the context of a regular worship service.

People come to our Avenues Church from all walks of life.  They have had different experiences, different upbringings, different faith experiences and they are all ages.   Together we journey, and try to create a place where no matter what stage of faith you are at, you are welcome to join us on the journey.   The structure created by our education system of age-based learning, and duplicated across most mainstream churches, is not engaged here.  It’s all mixed up.   It doesn’t matter what stage you’re at in your faith.  It doesn’t matter how old you are, there’s no expectation that by a certain age you will be at a certain level and therefore ready to process a newer, harder faith concept.  No, it’s a full-on free for all!  It’s ‘come as you are’ church.

Sometimes when someone who is involved in a mainstream style church hears about Avenues they assume that it is a church especially for children. What can appear to make it a children’s church is that we are tactile.  We call our worship, “Discovery Worship” and it is hands on, colourful, interactive and fast moving.  This means while children can fit in with ease, it is also welcoming for adults with short attention spans, adults who struggle to learn by reading or listening, adults with no prior experience of the Christian faith, adults who have English as a second language, or have learning difficulties and so on.  What can be surprising to people when they ask, is that we also have highly educated people in our Avenues Church.  Right from the beginning we’ve had well qualified academics and professionals join us in our journey.  Perhaps from their own lives they know that just because an idea is presented simply, it does not make it a simple idea.

We don’t exist just to appeal to children.  If we didn’t have children attend, we’d still carry on the same way with our worship.  But I think our regular worshippers would agree that something would be missing if we didn’t have children on a regular basis.  The involvement of children just makes it so much more real, simpler, more challenging and more inspiring.

Here’s just a handful of reasons why I like to worship with all-ages together and have the wonder of a child’s voice in our worship experience.

Inquisitive – the art of asking a good question  

I’ve observed that something happens to our questioning ability the older we get.  Instead of focussing on a good question, we tend to focus on finding the right answer.  Perhaps this is why we appeal to academics as well as children.  Children are brilliant at asking questions and academics have learned that the more you find out about something, the more it shows you what you don’t know.  Children can cut right to the heart of things.  They pull no punches, and they persist.  “Where does God live?”, “Who made God?”, “Why did Jesus have to die?”, “What happens when we die?”…. are typical four year old questions, and any parent or grandparent who has experienced a full-on question asking pre-schooler will know that more often than not, these kind of questions can leave you flummoxed and embarrassed with your own inability to provide adequate answers.  Jesus disciples were great at asking questions, and you can hear Jesus gently guiding them, often by a return question.  Asking questions is a wonderful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Mystery and wonder– the art of appreciating something bigger than our understanding

There is a point somewhere in our faith stages where we appreciate the question to which we just can’t get answer.  That there is some mysterious explanation beyond our human understanding is in itself an answer.  Children have a sense of mystery and wonder.  Have you ever watched a child, out of bed as a special treat, on a dark night looking at the stars?  Their sense of mystery, wonder and delight at what they see is inspiring.  Children don’t have to know all the details about why and how and when and who… to appreciate that there is something going on that is bigger than their understanding.  A sense of mystery and wonder is a delightful part of faith journeying because it moves us forward to seeking more.

Honesty – the art of being frank with ourselves, with others and with God.

Children have an honesty that can be breath taking.   They haven’t yet learned all the social etiquette and rules about what should or shouldn’t be voiced.  They see things through a simpler lens than the lens through which an adult views the world.   An adult’s world has had far more experiences and voices.  While the wisdom and knowledge gained may help make a better, informed decision about appropriate action, a child’s view can often provide great clarity on the presenting issue.   A typical example is when children are hearing about poverty in two-thirds world countries.  Their response will often be starkly honest.  “There shouldn’t be hungry people. Can I give them some of my food?” says the child.  They’re disturbed that hunger should exist and see the fixing of it as a simple act of provision.  A sense of honesty is a refreshing part of our faith journeying because it moves us forward to be more genuinely honest with ourselves, with each other and with God.

Power – the art of destructing our stereotypical structures and giving voice to the powerless

It is almost impossible to have any people orientated system that does not have power.  It’s a natural way in which we organise ourselves.   Whether the power is in individuals or by committee, whether it’s in the local church, or in the group of churches, power is inevitable.  Giving a voice to the powerless is structurally challenging.  When I’ve talked to other pastors I can hear the struggle they are under in leading their church.  The idea that a child could contribute something of more value than a theologically qualified professional is not a popular thought.  On more than one occasion we’ve had an adult visiting Avenues who has some theological training.  When a child offers something that us Avenues regulars might view as a valuable contribution itself, our visiting adult wants to chip in to round it off, to clarify, to add some additional words.  A sense of lack of power is a significant part of our faith journeying because it allows us to see God at work in each other.

Generosity – the art of giving from your best

We seem to unlearn giving as we get older.   A baby will take their soggy biscuit out of their mouth to share with their mother, a toddler will give hugs to complete strangers, a pre-schooler will spontaneously pick a bunch of weeds to give to someone they like, a five or six year old will draw picture after picture and give these away to everyone around them.  The more we know about life, the more our generosity shrivels to be given from our excess, not from our all.  Children haven’t learned this yet, so whether in physical acts such as hugs or giving drawings or cards, or verbally by giving words that come straight from the heart, a child leads us to God’s heart and generosity.  In our worship, a child will often say out loud their generous feelings or response to a situation that makes the rest of us nod and take note.  A sense of generosity is a significant part of our faith journey because it allows us to interact with the people whom God loves.

Sorry – the art of confession for wrongs

Children learn right from wrong fairly early on in life.   A toddler who has just learned the word, “No” will be reduced to tears on hearing it.  When a child does something that they know is wrong they project their guilt and their need to be forgiven, getting very upset over their ‘wrong’.  Children have an enormous capacity for feeling sorry and an enormous capacity to forgive.  You have only to watch pre-schoolers playing in the sand to see this in action.  Watch the child get in a fight in the sand pit over sharing a toy with another child, they will be enemies one moment, then with some intervention, and a chance to say sorry, they’re friends the next moment.  At Avenues we often have confession prayers which are typically interactive.  The practice of confession is freeing and liberating and sadly often overlooked in our ‘smug goodness of being a Christian. We all do things wrong, whether deliberately or inadvertently.  So at Avenues we might be thinking out loud some examples that a child can relate to, such as “Was there anyone you said something horrible to this week?”  While it will likely relate to children who’ve been playing with other children, we find ourselves challenged. Did we offend someone this week?  Such wrongs can seem small and simple, but they are very real and they are blocking our way to be more like Jesus.  A sense of saying sorry is a significant part of our faith journey to become more like Jesus.

This is just a handful of thoughts that I’ve had over the last week about why I love to worship with children as an integral part of our worshipping faith community.  It’s almost selfish actually!  I’m trying to decide if I get more from the children than I give to them?  Life is a journey and faith is a journey.   For myself, my faith is strengthened by the presence of children and if that means I become like a child mysef….  well hey, that can’t be bad, it’s what Jesus told us to be!

About this time the disciples came to Jesus and asked him who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus called a child over and had the child stand near him. Then he said:  I promise you this. If you don’t change and become like a child, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven. But if you are as humble as this child, you are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And when you welcome one of these children because of me, you welcome me. Matthew 18:1-5Contemporary English Version (CEV)

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Avenues Church 14th Birthday

Today is our Avenues Church birthday.   It’s not actually technically our birthday by date, but it is by festival.  We began our experimental alternative congregation fourteen years ago on Pentecost. Our dream was to create a Church for people who wouldn’t usually go to Church.  I don’t remember if we deliberately started on Pentecost, the birthday of the Church, and I’m sure fourteen years ago we were living week to week and had not considered the possibility of a birthday celebration each year, and had definitely not imagined that we’d still be celebrating today.

I’ve been reflecting on what’s stayed with us on our Avenues journey.  So here’s 14 things that have remained with us over the fourteen years since we started in June 2001.

  1. Crayons & Newsprint – Usually near the beginning of the worship experience it’s a way warming up to the theme, a time of self-reflecting and responding non-verbally, a therapeutic opportunity to explore thoughts and ideas.
  2. Storytime in the Big Chair – Everyone loves a good story!  We ditched the traditional sermon fairly early on, but retained at least one story, which sometimes is slightly ‘sermonette-ish’ but is more likely illustrative of the theme, whether by picture book or told.
  3. Professors to Preschoolers – It is one of the great joys of Avenues, that we’ve always had a mixed congregation of different ages, different stages of faith, different personal circumstances, different abilities, different backgrounds and different experiences coming together as one.  This is Church.  There isn’t any ‘typical’ person at Avenues.  If we had to name common ground, it’s that those who come are good at asking questions and enjoy discovering and seeking to find out more about their faith and how it connects with their ordinary lives.
  4. Tactile, Experiential and Participatory –  In more recent years we’ve labelled our style ‘discovery’, but right from the beginning we had a hands-on, activity based  worship environment which was more than speaking and listening.  Avenues is not a passive experience – it’s fully participatory, although participants can determine how much they want to be involved.
  5. Visual Image – Visual image is one of the cornerstones of how our worship is held together each week.  Whether physical props, static images or projected images, Avenues is visual.
  6. Metaphor – There’s always a metaphor!  Jesus talked in metaphor and we both pick up biblical metaphors and create our own. And… as my teenagers are want to groan and moan at me about my obsession, the possibilities are endless with what you can do with metaphor!
  7. Around the tables –  There is something special that happens when you sit together around a table, with a group of people, whether friends or strangers.  Our original tables were purposely round.  These days they’re usually in a hired space and rectangle, but we still sit around them. .
  8. Sharing food – We started with morning tea, but moved quite early on to a Sunday morning breakfast slot.  The sharing of a common meal together is an integral part of our fellowship together and a running buffet style continental breakfast through the programme contributes to our relaxed atmosphere.
  9. Small in size – Whenever we think are having a growth spurt, it is short lived.  People move in and out and we remain a group of about 3 – 5 households,  for our regular Breakfast worship, although some of our big events attracting 100+ people.  We continue to cater for those who have never been attracted to a mainstream worship service and aren’t in the pattern of weekly attendance.
  10. There are never enough hours in a Saturday – What would a Saturday be like in our household if we didn’t have Avenues?  Discovery based means we’re always making something, cutting something, cueing something, searching for movie clips or music tracks, designing and printing menus, gathering visual images… no matter how hard I try, there are never enough hours in a Saturday!
  11. Short sound bites & themed music – Blink and you could miss something!  Our slots are usually three to five minutes long with things moving along crisply, ensuring boredom is seldom on the menu.  Our backing track includes both secular and Christian music to support our theme.
  12. Structured order of events – We call it a ‘Menu’ but it is essentially no different to the Order of Service for worship experiences of more mainstream variety.  From the Call to Worship to the Benediction, we have a structure – it’s just not always predictable or easy to spot amongst the chaos of discovery style worship.
  13. The one sentence prayer – whether a responsive prayer with a one line refrain or a tactile prayer where participants pray alone or in groups, the one-sentence prayer is accessible for everyone, simple and straightforward and it cuts right to the point.
  14. Biblically based – Our whole discovery planning process begins with the Bible.  It is central to our worship experience.  Our bible readings are interactive and participatory and the entire worship experience is connected to together and underpinned by the Bible.

Prayer Stations at Kohekohe Church

Our first Refreshment at the Station book has just been published so I thought it timely to reflect on our recent Church event on Sunday with our Avenues Church.  We just held our annual Avenues Prayer and Pizza event at this beautiful little historic church on Awhitu Peninsula in Auckland.  It’s an idyllic setting and one of a handful of times our Church family meets in a church building during the year. It’s also one of the very few times we have a front for our meeting!  Our prayer event includes some responsive prayers led from the front and then a dozen stations that participants can move around at their leisure, followed with a guitar prayer and some final responsive prayers.

It is fascinating how everyone approaches the stations differently.  We provide plenty of room for people to make their own choices… and if taking part in the stations isn’t someone’s cup of tea there is an alternative reflection provided – with an amazing view to look out upon to aid in the reflection.

There are those that breeze through the stations quickly and others who only manage to fit in a third of the stations in the time provided.  Some of our regulars are very ‘Station Savvy’ and explore in great detail faith questions at each station, while at this event we also had some newcomers who hadn’t experienced Station worship before and enjoyed the different way of coming to worship. As usual there was a mixture of engagement and time spent at different stations.

It’s been ages since Andrew and I have gone around Stations together.  When our kids were little, it was one child each, or if there were visitors we’d usually split to make sure everyone was comfortable.  These days visitors are scooped up by our regulars and so on this Sunday we went around together.   Another thing which always surprises me about stations is my own reaction to them.  By the time I’ve planned the service, written the stations, gathered the bits and pieces… it is delightful to me that i still discover new things when I move around the stations.  Perhaps it’s the opportunity to interact with others, or the time and space to pause and reflect… whatever it is – it’s powerful and moving and very faith refreshing!   The whole idea of refreshment at the station really rang true for me this last Sunday!

Of course the senses were fully engaged at this event!  I’m a bit of a foodie too – and the additional part of the day with pizzas cooked on an outdoor pizza oven further down the peninsula at Graham’s Beach really made it all very special, refreshing, relaxing and invigorating.

There is a book coming of course on Five Senses to Prayer.  It’s been about 10 years in the writing!  I just need to get organised and get into some serious organising of all the material!

The great thing about writing this kind of book as an e-book is that it will be filled with cross referenced hyperlinks – so you can navigate around it to find prayers that suit your worship event.   To be amongst the first to hear about it make sure you join our Kereru Club and/or like us on www.facebook.com/Kereru.Publishing

To see more photos of our Prayer and Pizza event you can find them on the Avenues facebook page www.facebook.com/AvenuesChurch and the Avenues website www.avenues.org.nz has some older photos from previous events too.