Messy Church, Bath and Wells

Jane TibbsFresh Expressions Associate Missioner Jane Tibbs and Bath and Wells Diocesan Children & Families Officer, explores how a focus on children can create new opportunities for experimental  worship and mission.

Well you may know the situation. The Sunday morning ten o'clock service of the church has a healthy congregation of mainly retired people. In the Sunday school meeting in the hall there are two children and three adult helpers. Someone says, "Oh but this is just a one off!", but you know in your hearts of hearts, it is isn't!

We have to face facts. For many churches this is now a weekly occurrence. Sometimes there may be as many as six children in the Sunday school, but more often – NOT. Sunday school has become a holding activity for the children of the few young families which come to church.

So what are we going to do about it?

Messy ChurchDiscussions ensue and at an evening meeting over supper I make a suggestion. There are two schools in the parish which have plenty of children, but they just don't want to come to sung Eucharist form of church on a Sunday morning. I suggest, 'How about trying something completely different?' Let us choose a few festivals – not the obvious ones – and have an activity session for the children on Saturday mornings. Let's do creative activities, 'making things', which can be included in a service, and change the pattern of Sunday morning services to include a non-eucharistic family service to last for forty five minutes.

In addition this needs a greater focus on relationships, so let's provide refreshments at the back of the church (if they have to leave the church and go to the hall they'll go straight to their cars) and maybe even consider lunch afterwards. It will mean changing the format of Sunday mornings but it will only be a few times a year.

"I've been asking for a non-eucharistic service for years," says Dave.

"We'll have to take it to the PCC", says Julian, the vicar.

"They'll never buy it…" I think gloomily to myself, "I've seen them in action!"

BUT, the PCC said yes, why not? And then I had to put my money where my mouth was!

The new "weekend" would be an activity morning for the children (primary school age to start with). Sunday would change from Holy Communion at eight and sung Eucharist at ten to Communion with hymns at nine o'clock, a service for all ages at eleven followed by lunch at 12.30.

Messy ChurchFirst things first. Festivals. We decided on Pentecost, Harvest, Advent, Candlemas and Palm Sunday. Then who to ask? I looked around and knew exactly who to target, inviting them all (fifteen) to a planning meeting.

I produced a pack of ideas and agreed to do the upfront bit and the games if everyone else would prepare craft activities. With some trepidation they agreed and went away armed with designs and materials. A couple of ladies were roped in to do the refreshments and CRB checks were put in place. "Jaffa cakes!" said Julian. "I'll provide them."  Posters were distributed and our first activity morning would be a Pentecost Party.

The day dawned brightly and by nine o'clock everyone had arrived to set up. The music player was plugged in, the kettle was on, games equipment was set out and tables were covered with the ingredients for a variety of crafts – fairy cakes with candles, streamers, kites, doves, an altar frontal for the Sunday service …. And at five to ten the first children arrived. By five past ten we knew we weren't going to get any more. There were ten children aged from five to nine.

Disappointment? Of course. But actually… it was a Godsend! Instead of being overwhelmed with hordes of children, the helpers were able to spend quality time with each child who made something of everything. Everyone had a go at painting the altar frontal and writing prayers for the service. We sat round the tables together for refreshments and played different games to the team games planned. The closing worship included simple songs and a story. When the children had gone and we had cleared up, many of the volunteers said, "that was easy", and what's more, they all turned up to the service the next day!

Messy ChurchThe altar frontal was a riot of reds, oranges and yellows and depicted Pentecost to a "P". The music was lively, the prayers were sincere, the reading was dramatic and the talk was to the point. The children participated, not called upon to stand at the front and hold up pictures, but as part of the worship. Virtually everyone stayed for refreshments and about forty people sat down to lunch.

With little time to draw breath we met again to plan for Harvest and decided on the same format. Planning meetings now are timetabled before lunch and ideas are discussed again while we're eating. This time we'd have all the traditional harvest crafts, including apple heads and harvest loaves.

All the children who came to the Pentecost Party received a personal invitation and all the children in the schools were given invitations too. Lunch afterwards would be a harvest lunch.

Messy ChurchOnce again the day dawned brightly and everyone arrived laden with goodies. By ten o'clock we knew this was NOT going to be a quiet event. Sixty children turned up. Would we have enough for them all to do? Would there be enough space for the games? It wasn't quite chaotic but it was lively and tremendous fun. A number of parents stayed and drank coffee in the corner and chatted (rather too noisily during the story!) and they all left noisily at noon while set up for Sunday.

The church was packed for the eleven o'clock service and the new song went down a treat.

H for hops and HP sauce

A for apples red and green

R for rhubarb and radishes

V for veggies crisp and clean

E for every kind of egg

S for strawberries and spuds

T is for tasty take-away

Spelling HARVEST. Thank you God!

Sung to the tune "Doh a deer…"

The altar frontal looked like the fruit and veg stall in the market! Young and old alike chatted over drinks and biscuits and then ambled across for Harvest Lunch. The hall was packed.

So what did we learn from this event? Well… the children were younger than we'd expected, mostly about five and six rather than across the age range. Participation and activity are vital if young people are to find their place. It also needs to be fun. We need to ensure that the children didn't start the craft activities before the welcome and "setting the scene" and we needed to involve the parents who stayed.

Seven weeks later we learnt from our experience and were set to start on Stars and Angels (for Advent). A roll of bin liners and labels with the children's names on meant all the crafts could be stored in a bag and picked up as the children left. The labels that the children wear have the morning's logo on them and as they arrive each child now writes their name on two and one goes straight on to the bag. Some simple activities were layed out in the middle of the space for the children to do while everyone arrived. Parents were asked if they'd like to help behind the scenes while still leaving time for them to chat.

Messy ChurchThe opening songs, warm-up activities and story are a huge success. The children are then absorbed in the crafts and ready for refreshments (still Jaffa Cakes!) and games. We provide about eight different crafts – more than can be completed but no time to get bored. And the final story time is eagerly anticipated by parents and children alike!

This time, the altar frontal was a street scene in Bethlehem without the stable specifically marked.

Again, the service was well attended with a good mixture of children, parents and grandparents. The use of a simple round has been most successful. By taking a traditional tune (London's Burning or Frere Jacques, for example) and writing simple words on the theme, then dividing the congregation into four groups to sing you get instant harmony!

Lunch this time was baked potatoes but bring your own fillings – we had so much chilli sauce!!

On Christmas Eve the altar frontal was moved at the start of the carol service from the front of the altar to behind it, thus becoming the background for the Nativity Scene, set up in the altar. The work of the children was thus integrated into the Christmas celebrations for the whole of the season.

Candlemas was soon upon us and the theme this time was "Leading Lights". No prizes for guessing how many candles we used!! The story of Simeon and Anna was simply and effectively told in the Godly Play style and children were invited to respond to the story with their art and craft work. The tune the Bear went over the Mountain was utilised for the words Simeon went to the Temple… and what do you think he saw? It was also an opportunity to make Christingles and talk about what each symbol means as we worked. A dark February day was lit with the lights in the children's eyes and in church the next morning a huge lighthouse shone out from the altar.

Families were chatting together and it was obvious that friendships were being forged. Lunch this time was a warm and hearty stew.

And so to the fifth of our chosen festivals – Palm Sunday, and Palm Parade. This time we decided that the children would dress up for the service and parade into church and tell the story of Palm Sunday. Among the activities were donkeys made from brooms so each child had a hobby-horse donkey. The parents at the activity morning were asked to make palm crosses while drinking their coffee and so everyone was included. Living crosses were made by the children from willow, and planted in pots.

The clock struck eleven on Palm Sunday morning and Julian introduced the service by saying "It was a quiet day in Jerusalem…" and that was the cue for the children to enter. And so, to shouts of Hosannah! and Praise the Lord! The children paraded in with their donkeys and the story of Palm Sunday unfolded.

The altar frontal depicted one of the gates of Jerusalem with a crowd on the right shouting "Hosannah! Jesus is King!" and on the left, "Kill him!" all done using potato prints. The talk drew on having the strength to stand up and be counted and not just being part of the crowd.

Messy ChurchAnd so, as Pentecost looms again, what have we learnt, gained, achieved?

Well, we are a good team with a shared vision and a lot more confidence than a year ago, supported by the prayers of the regular church congregation. Our times of planning, reflection and fellowship have enabled the sharing of ideas and easy discussion about the activities that didn't work too well and what we could do better.

The thank you notes I send to everyone who is part of the event are much appreciated, and that also helps to encourage the team. We may not be particularly young (average age probably well over 60!) but we have enthusiasm and a heart for reaching the children where they are.

So, by listening to the needs of the children, church became more participative, more relational, more centred on being a dynamic community. In so doing, it became increasingly attractive to 'de and unchurched' families and importantly, parents. Mission then becomes a key relational component to arts-as-worship activities with children, and the church now continues to grow with new life.