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.