Multi-Sensory Prayer – Part 2 – Creating a Prayer Room for church and community use

A couple of years ago I spent a few unexpected weeks in a non-English speaking hospital in Germany after emergency surgery while on holiday.  It was a difficult and frightening time. Once I was able to walk, one of the staff showed me the little prayer room near my ward. Every evening, as the hospital quietened down for the night, I would go and sit in there for an hour before turning out my light and going to sleep.  It was a quiet, peaceful place. The walls were draped in a light yellow sheer fabric, the seats were comfortable, the lighting was dimmed, there were a couple of peaceful paintings on the wall, a wooden cross, and a Bible. Simple. Peaceful. Restful. Inviting. In the silence of every evening I sat there and talked to God. I was constantly in prayer during those days, but the quiet hour spent in a room set apart especially for such communion was particularly precious. In my mind I still go back into that room. It was a safe place and God met me there. (As an aside, I remember even then, when I really wasn’t very well, thinking about how much better it could have been if there were some interactive things in the room to help people pray.)

Hospitals often have prayer rooms, places where family and friends as well as patients can find some solace and comfort. These spaces are most often interfaith and they get used by both the faithful believer and those who wouldn’t call themselves religious. At times of trial, even those who do not claim to have a faith turn to God or a higher being for help and comfort. It’s less typical to find a similar prayer room in a church building. Churches generally focus on their meeting place as the central space for prayer. The purpose of the meeting space is to encourage meeting with God in a corporate way. Sometimes there’s a back room where the clergy and lay people might meet for a prayer meeting or prayer before a worship service.  But a small prayer room isn’t a typical space. I think it’s worth putting some effort into making one, no matter what style of corporate worship you enjoy.

We worked for a few years in a church which had an old chapel styled building with several small side rooms. My role was to work with the community and find ways to connect the community into the church.  We had a lot of different groups coming in and out of our buildings and so we turned one of the small rooms into a multi-sensory prayer room.  It was really interesting seeing how the room was used. Many of the church going regulars had keys to the church and would come in and use the room during the week. Other church going regulars would use it on a Sunday morning, before or after their worship service. It intrigued me to see the different responses the church going regulars had to the room. For some it was a highlight of their worship experience, and they enjoyed the quiet stillness the space afforded, for others, it was an unneccessary use of the room when there was already a lovely chapel in which to pray. Some enjoyed the hands-on approach and loved to take advantage of the tactile prayers, while others would tidy up what they perceived as mess.

What intrigued me even more was the reaction to the room by different people from the community who were in and out of the building for all kinds of classes and events, both church based and community based.  In particular our church run weekly preschool music and movement group had adults and kids regularly using the prayer room.  There were queues some mornings as people stopped in for their little weekly communion with God. This was by far more exciting to me than the use of the room by the regular churchgoers. This non-threatening space gave people a chance to interact at their own pace and level. There wasn’t anyone watching them. It was comfortable and safe. They didn’t have to act in a certain way or say a particular set of words. There was no church culture that they had to step into and imitate. It was a comfortable space in which they could be themselves. They could talk to their children about faith and experience something of God together. I’d never really know who was using it from day to day, but every so often someone would stop and chat to me about something they’d experienced as they sat or knelt or stood in the room and prayed.  God was at work in their lives.

So here’s some ideas for setting up a prayer room or space within your church building.

The Space

  1. The Room – Do you have a small room in your existing space you could repurpose as a prayer room? If you don’t have a room, you could set up a space using screens to create a defined area.
  2. Remove the clutter – Take everything out of the space. Churches are often the recipients of unwanted large furniture items and these items usually find their way into small seldom used rooms. Be a little ruthless. Find somewhere else for the excess furniture to sit, or even consider getting rid of it!
  3. Lighten the walls – White paint! With a bit of elbow grease and some basic white paint, you can brighten up a room quickly and cheaply. Paint the walls, ceilings and doors plain white. It’s light and you can then add in fabric and props as required for your various prayers.
  4. Seating – You may want to be flexible with your seating in your room and change it according to the types of prayers you have displayed. Different people will respond in different ways to the space. Some will pass through quickly and will only want to stand, while others will want to spend some time in the space so will prefer to sit. Depending on the needs of your potential prayer room users, may determined what kind of seating you supply. Whether floor cushions, bean bags, a rocking chair, an armchair or a wooden stool, the style of your seating and the position of it in the room will set the tone and provide an indication on how you expect people to interact in the space.
  5. Small tables – Use several smaller tables to arrange your prayers. Think about the height of the prayers and match the furniture to the type of prayer. Do you want participants to stand, kneel, sit? Rather than having fixed furniture, change it around depending on the prayers you’re using.
  6. Lighting – You may want to change this around depending on your prayers, but try to create soft lighting by using a lamp, fairy lights or battery candles. Make it easy for yourself and for those who will be using the room. Having all the lights plugged into a multi power box means there is only one switch your prayer room visitor may need to turn on when they enter and exit.
  7. Heating – If the room is likely to be cold, add in a small heater so that your participants can feel warm and cosy when they’re praying. Choose a heater which will have an automatic switch to turn off if left on too long. Alternatively, get the person who unlocks and locks up the building each day to turn the heater on and off.
  8. Draperies and wall coverings – You may want to use the walls to display visual image or  instructions for the prayers. You could also have sheer draped curtains or fabric which could be put up or pulled down depending on the prayers. The softness of the fabric helps soften the room and creates a softer feeling for the participant. Add a couple of cuddly throws or blankets. This gives an added sense of security and warmth to the room.
  9. Practical instructions – Tactile prayers are messy. Whether you’re picking up stones and putting them in water, cutting up small pieces of paper, peeling mandarins or pressing paper flags into a sand saucer, there is potential for mess. Have a general instruction to leave the room ready for the next person. You may want more specific instructions related to each prayer.

The Prayers

  1. Think in themes – I like to group three to five prayers together by theme. Generally this is related to seasons, both calendar and church calendar. Prayers on Spring, Autumn, Winter and Spring provide metaphors to build from in spiritual lives. The church calendar seasons of Lent, Easter, Pentecost and Advent all lend themselves to themed stations. Other themes could be topical; Elections, natural disasters, local social issues.
  2. Think across the senses – Use the five senses of sight, sound, smell, taste and feel when you plan your prayers. What physical ideas can you incorporate into your prayers? The use of the senses helps ground the prayers, taking the ordinary and connecting it to the sacred.
  3. Think in faith stages – The room will be used by a variety of different people who will be operating at varying levels of faith and understanding. Provide a range of starting points, so that someone new to the faith or even pre-faith can pray but also that someone who has a long faithful heritage can also pray. I’ve generally found, if you keep it simple, those who want to make their prayer more complex will do so, but if you make your prayer instructions too complicated, it just doesn’t get used.
  4. Think across developmental ages & stages – What appears interesting to a five year old, may not appeal to a fifty-five year old. Different people have different skills in physical manipulation. Include prayers which are easy to use. Simple prayers like placing a stone in a bowl is accessible to everyone whether old or young.
  5. Think of different types of prayer – I like to group my prayers by the following types and when I plan my prayer room content I select two or three types of prayer, with one prayer based on each type or on some occasions I’ll make the Prayer Room totally Intercession or Confession prayers.
    • Praise and thanksgiving
    • Petition and supplication
    • Confession
    • Intercession
    • Responsive
  6. Think of equipment – Go through the exercise of praying all of the prayers yourself in the room to make sure your equipment works. Do you need to add extra things such as paper towels or a basin of water, a small brush and shovel to sweep up bits, newspaper on the floor, a rubbish bin? All these practical details make the prayer room able to be used and reused.
  7. Think of instructions – Keep your instructions to the minimum reading required. Less is more. But usually instructions are required in some form. If you can put some of your instructions in visual form; photos showing the various steps, diagrams or cartoons, speech bubbles with each step.
  8. Think of the space and the people – Some people will want to stand to pray. They’ll want to have their flight plan in place in case they want to leave the room quickly. Others will feel more comfortable seated and will intend to stay for a while. Getting the space right takes some time. This is about knowing those who will use your prayer room and how they might interact with it. There’s a balance between creating a private space and not a trapped space. Experiment with the space and get feedback from a variety of people. Remember that there’ll be a mixture of reactions and no one perfect way to set up your room.
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Time for Tactile Prayer

It’s been a roller coaster week.  Even down here at the bottom of the world, in little New Zealand, the topic on everyone’s lips is the US elections.  We might be far away but we’re not removed. Kiwis are global in our world view.  We like to keep up with international events.  Even so, there has never been a US election we’ve been more interested in following.   And we’ve followed it!   It’s on our news, in our papers, and discussed around the water cooler in every office around the country.  These elections are significant on a global scale and this week we’ve recognised that we’ve watched an historical global event.  What will our world look like in the weeks, months and years to come?

Some of us are devastated and worried.  Social media has gone crazy, particularly amongst the millenials. There is disbelief, hurt, frustration, fear …. and so much energy!! What do you do with that energy?   In our helplessness we reach out to our creator God.

An “OH GOD!” is the cry from so many.

I was thinking about prayer typically used in Christian circles and how it’s word based.  Sometimes words just don’t seem enough.

This is a time for prayer outside of words!  I’m thinking it’s a time for tactile prayer.  A time to release emotions, to pour out our fears and frustations and anguish.  To be physical and tactile as we express ourselves and cry out to our God for peace, hope and love.

This isn’t a gimmicky way to pray.  Look at the old testament and the sackcloth and ashes prayers.  There is relief in expressing ourselves physically as well as verbally.

Our booklet “All Over the World” has a host of prayer ideas using a shower curtain world map, but you could easily adapt these to use with a sheet and a roughly drawn map in permanent marker, or a paper map of the world, or forget the map altogether.   If you’re looking for ideas for corporate prayer this Sunday, this booklet has plenty of food for thought.   Only $5.95 (NZD)   About $4.29 USD

http://www.kererupublishing.com/our-books/our-resources/all-over-the-world

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.

Shrove Tuesday Pancakes

This is my very simple NUMBER ONE pancake recipe.  It includes 1 cup of flour, 1 teaspoon of baking powder, 1 egg and 1 cup of milk.  (1+1+1+1).  Of course the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake remembrance was a time to use up all the fat and decadent ingredients in the house… and my pancakes don’t have sugar or butter included… so the trick is to go to town on the toppings!  Shrove Tuesday is not a holiday traditionally celebrated in NZ (by Kiwis), although these days some churches and Christian groups are celebrating with pancake breakfasts or suppers.  Andrew and I have been holding Shrove Tuesday events for over 20 years.  Initially we hosted them at our local McDonalds which was 50m away from our church.  It was a fundraiser for mission and people would stop by on their way to school and work.  At our next church we held Pancake Breakfasts in our home and again, people would stop by before heading off.  But these days with our Avenues Congregation as everyone is spread far and wide, we hold a Pancake Dessert evening.   Everyone brings along a topping, we have a few stations spread around, and we feast on pancakes before Lent begins.

To make these pancakes mix all the ingredients together and beat until you’ve made a smooth batter.  Heat a non-stick frypan until super hot and then reduce heat.  Pour a small circle of batter into the middle and then circle the frypan to spread the pancake.  When small air bubbles appear and pop, turn your pancake over.    Decorate with fruit, cream, syrups of your choice.

The best thing about my photographed pancake is that the blackberries, raspberries, strawberry and (3) of the blueberries came from my own garden!  I drizzled the fruit with maple syrup.   Of course in the Southern Hemisphere our Shrove Tuesday occurs in late Summer or early Autumn… and we have an abundance of fresh fruit.  My favourite winter pancakes is to add some chocolate chips into the batter and make a sweet and hot blueberry sauce to pour on top.

(Photo credit:  my pancake with homegrown berries from my garden)