Engaging in worship across the spectrum of ages and stages

The journey into creating a Church community that is All-Age and All-Stage has been an option for me, brought about by a combination of factors.  And it is truly an option that I’ve embraced and run with for some time.   I know it is not possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons.   I’ve had a few conversations in the last few months that remind me of this – and the last thing I want to do is to make anyone feel that they’re worshipping in the wrong place, while being powerless to change anything structurally.    This blog then is not about the structure of becoming an all-age, all-stage Church, but about some of the background thinking which could be included within your existing worship structures to engage more fully across the age and stage spectrum.   It’s also for families or those who are travelling with children, be they your own children, your grandchildren, nieces or nephews or young friends and ways you can interact meaningfully about your faith as your journey.

It makes it sound like a ‘how to’ kind of blog, but it’s not.  There is no secret recipe and no ’Five steps to running a successful all-age, all-stage Church’.   This is the story of my travels and the travels of some of the adults and children travelling with me.   I hope you’ll get some ideas on engaging with others across the age and stage spectrum in corporate worship.  I’m always happy to converse with anyone wanting to incorporate this kind of thinking into their own settings.

Journey not destination 

I’ve loved the metaphor of travelling along a road for as long as I can remember.  The road moves us. It takes us between milestones, stopping points, places we call home or tourist attractions, places to stay for a while and sleep, eat, drink and live.  While we might retrospectively be able to identify our starting point and memorable milestones, we don’t shift between these places and times instantly.   We don’t get teleported like Dr Who in the Tardis or touch a portkey like Harry Potter.  In these examples the characters move in time and space to a different place.  The journey is instant and apart from a strange feeling of moving at speed, there is no meandering between one place to the next.

My view of our Christian faith is that there is much that happens in the journey between each milestone, significant event, profound revelation, new knowledge or lightbulb moment.  There is the journey to be undertaken.  The path of life is not smooth or boring.  It is full of all kinds of things; opportunities, celebrations, mistakes, problems, emotional hiccups, some turning back and false starts, joys, sorrows, challenges and general mish-mash of human experiences.  And here’s the great thing with being a follower of Jesus.  We don’t walk alone.  Jesus is our faithful walking companion, as we traverse the ups and downs of ordinary life.

At Avenues Church we view our gathering together as part of the journey not the destination itself.  We don’t ‘come to Church’ to sit still because we’ve arrived.  An Avenues event isn’t a destination.  Our gathering is about helping us move along on our own journey and in the journey we are on together.  And we recognise that not everyone is at the same place on their journey.  So when we meet together at Avenues it’s like we’re at some intersecting crossroads, where everyone’s own journeys meet and for a while we travel together.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group encouraging each other no matter where we’re individually located on our own journey and helping each other to carry on along the roads of our own faith journeys and our shared faith journey as a consequence.

Show not tell

When I was nine I decided that one day I would be a published author.  There are degrees of achieving anything.  I was first published as a children’s book author when I was 19 and even though I’ve been published several more times since then, I still don’t feel that I’ve written my great work!  My goal isn’t so much achieved as underway.  There’s always a story or two percolating away in my brain and on my computer. Every so often I get a peer review or seek some advice on my fiction writing.  The number one area that I know I personally always need to work on is the ‘showing’ not ‘telling’.  Thinking up a story idea is only the first step to writing a fiction work.  Once I’ve thought up the plot line and characters and written the outline for my book, the work is only at the beginning stages.  The next step is to ‘show’ the reader my story.

Showing something is not the same as telling.  To tell the contents of a story, you can list the facts, in the order in which they happened, you can tell your opinions and conclusions.  You can explain what the story was about or why something was or wasn’t included.  Telling a story is a very linear delivery.  But to show the contents of the story means you take your reader with you as you tell your story and it appears that they discover things as if you’re discovering them for the first time too.  Showing means that they will feel things, think about things, form opinions, make judgements, laugh and cry and want others to experience the story too.  It will seem to them that they are part of what is happening in the story.  They’ll enter into the experience, as if they are in the story with you and the characters and plot.  After they’ve closed the book, they’ll still be remembering what it felt like to read the story, and if it’s a well-written shown story they’ll be remembering it for a long time afterward. Showing a story is non-linear and you don’t have as much control over where the story goes.

At Avenues Church we have an emphasis on showing not telling. Telling is something many Churches tend to focus on in their worship services.  Showing is not always considered in worship preparation.  For one thing, it takes much longer to prepare.  To plan Avenues we have a bible passage and a key theme as a starting point.  From there we develop some clear ideas as to what key learnings we want to bring out in our worship experience.  You could compare these to sermon points in a traditional setting.   Once we have that as the basis of our planning for our gathering, we build around these key ideas ways we can ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.  Because we’re interactive, we can use physical objects to help in showing a key idea.  Participants get to interact in an activity such as a science experiment to draw out the ‘show’ of the point.   In a sermon, a preacher will use a story or illustration to ‘show’ the point they’re trying to make.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group getting involved in stories and activities rather than words-based telling of the same point, connecting with real experiences and helping participants to engage, understand and remember as a consequence.

Process not product

For most crafters or artists or scientists or construction workers, the measure of success is in the finished product.  If you’re a builder and your job is to build a house, you don’t stop halfway and say you’ve finished.   If you’re an artist and you are creating a painting for an exhibition you don’t stop halfway and display your unfinished artwork as a completed exhibit.  If you’re a knitter and you’re making a beanie hat for your friend to wear in the snow you don’t hand them a half finished hat on some knitting needles and a ball of wool and expect that to keep their head warm.

One of the challenges of using hands-on activities, is that they inevitably have a start and finish.  A craft or science experiment has a logical flow from being a bunch of separate pieces of equipment to a completed product.   We use lots of activities in Avenues.  We draw, cut, glue, place, turn, twist, open, shut, build, paint, wipe, spray, tape, cover, staple, join, rip, bend, smell, taste, listen, see and touch.  (to name a few).   Unlike a builder building a house, or a painter exhibiting a finished piece of art, or a knitter giving away a warm hat, our focus is not on the finished product.  We aren’t making things for the things themselves.

At Avenues Church we’re about the process not the product.  Occasionally we’ll make something that exists for another use beyond our gathering, (such as a kite on Pentecost).   More often it’s the physical act of ‘doing’ that we focus on rather than the finished product.  Sometimes people when they see photos of our Church gatherings or hear stories or even watch from the side-lines, assume that we do ‘craft’ and that you have to be good at working with your hands.  But that’s not so.  Our emphasis is in the process of the doing, that in carrying out physical actions, we are engaging people actively.  As their bodies are involved in active participation, then we’re hopefully also engaging the mind.  The process is the important thing not the end product.   There’s no beginning skill level required.  If we have an activity that involves cutting with scissors, and one of our participants can’t use scissors, then someone else will do the cutting.  There’s no putting anyone on the spot for what they can or can’t achieve.  One of our traditional activities is ‘Drawing on the Tables’ where we set a topic near the start of our gathering and participants draw on newsprint covered tables.  The drawings are not for anyone to see other than the person drawing.  When we get visitors who are used to more traditional worship forms they’re always nervous and self-conscious about picking up a crayon.  But if they’re brave and give it a go, they’re often forthcoming on how surprised they are at how drawing helped channel their thinking.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group actively involved in the process of tasks, translating this to participants own faith life being a forever developing process as a consequence.

Participation not performance

We’ve just seen the end of the 2016 Olympics.  This year it seemed to me that the media in our country were big on the idea that winning was everything.  “We’re not just going to the Olympics to participate,” seemed to be the standard catchphrase.  A performance of an athlete’s personal best was acceptable, but anything less was ‘participation’ and our media weren’t into giving any participation bouquets.  I guess in the age where supporting sports costs money, the media representing the taxpayer, want the results.  And the reality is that most high achieving athletes have their own personal goals which are most likely little different to this view.  Of course they’re not making all these sacrifices to simply participate, competition by its definition is about performance.  The winner takes all!   This is performance.

But not everyone is an Olympic athlete.  The adult who runs daily for fitness and enjoyment was once a school kid who loved running.  He never placed high enough to get a certificate, a medal or a place on the school cross-country team.   This doesn’t mean that he’s not a runner, that he’s not able to participate in the daily ritual of morning exercise.  There are no financial gains for him to run, nothing is required from him in running which would result in him receiving a reward from someone else. The rewards of running are personal to him.  He gets fit, he starts the day energised, he keeps his weight down, he has fun.  This is participation.

At Avenues Church we value participation.  Participation means everyone can be involved. It’s kind of a given in an action packed event, and it’s more obvious if someone doesn’t take part than if they do participate.  Participation means contributions come from wherever an individual is currently situated in their own life.  Which means we get what we get!  We get the profound muddled in with the confused, the ‘on message’ with the ‘off message’, the funny, the sad, the complex, the simple, the extremist, the minimalist…  and it all blends together.  For those leading, the challenge is to pull all the components, the personalities and the contributions together in a way that shows we value every contribution and value the contributor.  Sometimes people outside of Avenues worry that ‘God’s truth’ will not stand out, in such an environment, but we’ve found that there is an amazing way of the ‘good stuff’ filtering to the top.  It also generates a genuine opportunity to contribute in a safe environment.  We’ve found that to encourage participation encourages tolerance, grace, generosity, honesty, openness, kindness and courage.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group creating opportuntiies for participation in a safe, comfortable and encouraging environment and growing together and individually in our own faith as a consequence.

Question not answer

If you’ve ever encountered the questioning three-year old, you’ll know that not every question has an easy answer!  Some things are just too difficult.  Why is that three year olds know how to ask tough questions?  It seems sometimes like the older we get, the more conservative our questioning can become and at Avenues we like to revert back to those great questions we used to be braver at asking.

My own children as three year olds, were able to tie me in knots with their insatiable appetite of asking questions and finding out answers.  “How does the moon stay in the sky?  Where does the sun go at night time?  Why do people get old?  Who made God?  Where is heaven?  How does the rain know when to fall?   Why are there puddles?  How will I learn to drive?   Why do people have to go to sleep at night?  How do you build a wall?   How does the dehumidifier work?  What is a rainbow?  Why is broccoli the name for a vegetable?  Where does pink come from?  How do you make pink?  Before the days of Google, were the days of, “we’ll ask Grandad, we’ll get a book out from the library, we’ll go to the observatory, we’ll test it out…”.  These strategies could also be called; ask an expert, look it up in a book, go on a field trip, conduct an experiment.  The search to find answers was an exciting prospect.  In our case this hunger for questioning, simply resulted in more questions!  I know I’ve talked to tired parents of pre-schoolers who just want the questions to stop, and I can relate to that feeling, particularly remembering when Miss Three who has never slept well, would wander in to our room in the middle of the night with a particularly thorny question which she felt required an immediate answer before she’d go back to sleep.

Overall, the questions were celebrations of a quest that has become life-long to each of the children.  It’s great to have a question!  They are in very different fields of study, have a different emphasis on their expressions of faith, but they each have a thirst for finding out things.  And they know that sometimes the answer to a question, is another question and that just because you have a question, it doesn’t mean you get either a partial or complete answer.

At Avenues Church we see this translates into our faith too because we’ve used questions a lot and we don’t necessarily have an answer to them.   We ask questions, we encourage others to ask questions and sometimes we end with questions.  I’ve blogged before about our youngest daughter’s interactions with some clipboard carrying Christians who interviewed her and who were mind blown by the idea that having questions and doubts was something she viewed as a strengthening of her faith rather than an unravelling.  Our congregation intriguingly has frequently contained a mixture of high achieving academically qualified adults as well as pre-schoolers and adults or young people with learning difficulties.  And a question is still a question!  There is no room for embarrassment or awkwardness in an environment where everyone is encouraged to question. There’s also no need for an answer to be provided because sometimes some things are just too difficult to answer.  Occasionally we’ll get a churched Christian visitor used to a traditional setting with a sermon, and they can’t resist trying to wrap up a discussion for us when they think we’ve left it too open-ended.  They can’t cope with the open-ended, or pass up an opportunity to ‘tell the answer’.  Too often people get trapped by their own questions and instead of enriching their faith it boxes them in and makes them walk away.

We believe in the practice of a gathered together worshipping group asking questions together and growing and expanding in faith as a consequence.

Well that’s a random Saturday’s attempt at a few things that work for our faith community.   May you be encouraged in your own faith adventures and doing and being church in your own time and space.

 

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)

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.