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To Train Lay Worship Leaders, Do We Need To Start In Childhood?

The Body of Christ
When I was eight, my father gave me ‘the talk’. Maybe you know the one? He draw a sketch of our house, with pin men for its inhabitants. ‘What does Daddy do’? ‘He goes to work to make money to keep the family’. He went through the house’s inhabitants, one by one, until he got to me. ‘What does Laura do?’ I couldn’t think of anything, except doing my best to enjoy life. Somehow I knew that wasn’t the right answer, so kept quiet. ‘You need to go away and think about what you can do to play your part in family life.’ His tone was loving, but carried a hint of menace, I thought: he definitely meant business.

If the Church is to find volunteers among the adult congregation for all sorts of jobs, we need to have the equivalent of this talk with children at a similar age. We need to explore with them the part they might play in the Body of Christ.

In the Church of England, whether called Children’s Church or Sunday School, Children’s Ministry seems chiefly to mean ministry to children, not ministry by children. In contrast, The Episcopal Church’s webpage on Children’s Ministries says it seeks to engage children in the exploration of their own ministries:

‘Children are innately spiritual. Given the opportunity, their lively and passionate expressions of faith can help transform the church’.

In the words of Booker Washington:

Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility on him and to let him know that you trust him.

Many churches already do give children a role in services such as asking them to distribute hymn books and service sheets to the arriving congregation and to take the collection. Booker Washington’s advice is implicit in this allotment of tasks, but maybe it also needs to be stated explicitly. Perhaps we should copy the ‘monitor‘ idea from school? Just a thought!

Are Christians guilty of ‘brainwashing’?
Before going any further, we need to deal with the accusation often levelled at Christians  that we ‘brainwash’ our children. The idea that parents themselves damage their children by raising them as Christians is presented in this video (3.57 mins)  by ‘The Thinking Atheist‘. (The ‘Christianity’ described is of the ‘weird and wonderful’ variety, with a God in the clouds that takes care of everything. Unsurprisingly, when this version of Christianity is spurned as unreal, religion as a whole is also rejected).

Secular advice on parenting
Well, are we guilty? Anyone wanting to be a good parent these days might naturally turn to the web for advice. Here is Dr Stuart Crisp, a paediatrician, on net doctor:

‘Each person’s knowledge of how to bring up a child usually comes from their surroundings and their own upbringing…Parents should express their unconditional love for their children, as well as provide them with the continued support they need to become self-assured and happy…Discipline is crucial when bringing up a child. All children need and want reasonable boundaries. Through discipline your child learns that some kinds of behaviour are acceptable and others are not. Setting boundaries for children’s behaviour helps them to learn how to behave in society…Children like to have special days reserved for special activities…Such rituals and routines build strong families’.

This, although from a non-religious source, sounds very much like a prescription for Christian parenting, doesn’t it? Let us agree to regard the case against Christian upbringing as, at the very least, unproven!

Back to the question of training lay worship leaders
As we have seen in How do you find lay worship leaders from the congregation?, in many cases it is too late to train adults to be Marys, although it is much easier to find Marthas, serried ranks of whom down the centuries have polished the brass, laundered the linen and dusted the pews. Others have read the lesson or served as churchwardens. But finding potential worship leaders among the congregation is an uphill task. Why is this?

Well, partly perhaps because churches have always had steps dividing the chancel from the nave and those in clerical garb from those in ordinary dress: roles have been clearly defined. People have not been brought up with the expectation that they may have to take on liturgical roles as part of their lives as Christians. Is it a case of the herd instinct? If people accept that it is a case of ‘all hands to the pump’ and regard it as a matter of course that they may be called upon to take their turn, they will not stand out by doing so. But if it is seen as an esoteric calling, as it largely is at present, people are perhaps unwilling to look too ‘holy’ by joining this group? If, wherever possible, children are encouraged to take part in worship, they are more likely to take it in their stride as adults.

Education, education, education
‘Doing God in Education’  was the subject of a recent Theos report by Trevor Cooling which I recommend. If the training is reinforced at school, taking even a small part in leading worship is likely to be of great potential benefit to the children. First and foremost, it promotes their spiritual development: having to choose prayers around the readings for the day and even, with help and perhaps in groups, filling the ‘sermon slot’, teaches active participation rather than passive observance. But leading worship is also a great privilege and a great responsibility: fostering the personal growth needed to fill such positions of responsibility is in itself a definition of the ‘leading out’ that is at the root of the word ‘education’.

1. The illustration is ‘Little Girls At Church’ by Gwen John, via wiki gallery under creative commons licence.
2. Part of this blog is based on an article by me in ‘Conference and Common Room’ Vol 48 #2, Summer 2011 called ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls‘; grateful thanks to Alex Sharratt of John Catt Educational Ltd for copyright permission. 

15 comments on this post:

Penelopepiscopal said...

Good post, Laura –

I always get frustrated when people talk about our children and young people as "the future of the church." They ARE the church, NOW! Not when they become old enough to pledge. And the church should be providing the kind of assistance for people of every age in discerning gifts for ministry and vocation and training and educating them for ministry.

04 June 2011 18:10
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you so much for this. Once again, the lead comes from the Episcopal Church. I fear some of our leading churchmen may have apoplexy at the thought of ministry *by* children, but it seems to me exactly what we need. (That, equality of treatment of LGBT and the appointment of women to the episcopate. How long, O Lord, how long?)

04 June 2011 18:15
BabbleRouser said...

Hi Laura,

Reading your post reminds me of one of the reasons why I keep returning to our local church, even when I sometimes get frustrated with the way the Church as a whole conducts itself (particularly regarding our mission and ministry to others).

There are a small but growing number of children of parents who are not regulars themselves on a Sunday morning, who attend our ‘Sunday School’.

Three older children (one of them is my son) take their turn to serve on a Sunday morning as sides persons, and my son is willing and able to assist at the altar on occasions.

After their class, the younger children come into the worship area to show the congregation what they’ve learnt, and will often say a prayer at the lectern. Hopefully, in time, they will get used to the idea of acting as sides persons, or helping at the front.

Of course, preparing children’s lessons regularly and dealing with the little ones can be stressful. And what we’d give for some of the parents to actually make a commitment to worship with us! But I know how blessed we are to have a Ministry Team that value the contribution that children, young people and the laity can and should make to mission.

I would say none of this is rocket science, but it has taken many years for us to make steady progress to where we are now, and a Rector who encourages, and dare I say expects, members to use their gifts and play their part.

04 June 2011 19:06
Lay Anglicana said...

It is not rocket science, as you say, but it does seem to be a rarety. Let us hope that initiatives such as at your church will gradually work their way upwards and sideways by osmosis (that is how osmosis works, isn't it?!). Meanwhile I congratulate you on having appointed a Rector and Ministry Team who seem so indisputably to be on the side of the 'good guys'!

04 June 2011 19:32
UKViewer said...

I suppose that coming from an RC background, I have a slightly different personctive on obliging children to be involved in worship in some form of ministry.

I was obliged to be an Alter Server as a child, part of which involved learning Latin so that I could give the responses by heart. There was lots of other ritual involved and sadly, when the chance came to get out of it, I dropped it like a hot stone.

As children, We were force fed the Catechism and had to learn it by rote. We had, what was for us, the drudgery of daily prayer, three times a day, kneeling for what felt hours at night for the Rosary. In fact,forcing children take part in things that they do not fully comprehend or understand and having an expectation that they will be Catholics for life. It doesn't work and they will fall away when they are older.

Formation of our young people in their faith is the responsibility parents, supported by the God parents and the whole community who witness the baptism and share the promises made. It seems to me that this should be the basis and foundation of how we involve young people in worship. Encouraging participation, not obliging it. If children are used to being taken to church, no matter how disruptive their parents might feel they are, they will inherit something worthwhile, a habit of attendance.

My parish runs a range of family services, based on a Service of the Word, these are participatory, and sometimes follow on from what has been done by clergy and lay leaders in school assemblies. This allows a continuous exposure to participatory worship and taking a lead from a tender age. We Soften end up, sometimes with more volunteers for something in the service then are needed. The natural extension of this is to offer them the opportunity to help the welcome team, sidesmen, the offertry and to be part of the Serving Team.

This formation, just like formation for ministry should be natural, it might not suit all, and is reliant on parents also being involved and supporting their children. The reality is that if parents do not attend church, it is much more difficult to get the children involved, whether or not the attend a Church School.

Involvement as children and young adults and a commitment from parents to family prayer, bible reading and explanation, combined with regular church attendance as a normal part of family life is key to any of this. Children will emulate those who inspire them, and their parents following Jesus Christ, must be the only one example we want to give them.

04 June 2011 21:15
Erika Baker said...

I'm beginning to feel that my churches have always been different than those most people seem to experience. We've always had children's involvement. At the very least they come back from their session at the end of the service and tell everyone what they've been doing. On occasions, the children have lead the Family Service with dances and/or prayers and/or sketches.
I thought everyone does that?

The Benefice Youth Group also plays a part and completely takes over 1 family service a month in one of the participating churches.

Mind you… makes not difference. We still lose them when they're teenagers or when their parents stop bringing them and we seem to go in cycles. At the moment, one of othe churches in our benefice has no childen, down from 17 some 6 years ago. Another one has grown from 4 children to around 19 in the same period of time.

04 June 2011 22:01
Lay Anglicana said...

Hello, Erika. Yes, I wasn't really counting the children's involvement that you describe – at its worst, it can be pretty squirm-making, to be honest. I agree it is participation in the services, but in a way that makes the children the service at that moment. (If it were me, I would feel rather like a performing seal! My prejudice, no doubt, and obviously not generally shared). What you describe you have to be a child to participate in.

I am thinking more of finding areas which would normally be done by an adult, which do not involve the children being cute for the entertainment of adults, and where the children feel they are being given real responsibility for the smooth running of the service.

It may still make no difference to the fact that they stop coming when they're teenagers or their parents stop bringing them. However, I am hoping that this grounding may make a difference if they return as young adults when they first live on their own (see success of Holy Trinity, Brompton, Alpha Course etc) or when they have children of their own.

I think we should try it and see what the long-term results are.

05 June 2011 04:06
Erika Baker said...

but that's just it, the children are given responsibility for the smooth running of the service, or at least for their part in it. This is not about show offy kids telling everyone they've learnt about Jesus. This is about being a genuine part of the service, just like the intercessors for example.
Whether it's experienced as patronising and entertainment or as a genuine contribution will depend not so much on what the children do, but on how the priest and congregation treat it.

I certainly hope that the many children we've had with us for years, including my own!, will have a solid base to find their own way to God later in life. Whether that then translates into church involvement or not is a completely different matter.

Maybe – and I'm not saying that this is what you're doing, it's just where my mind is wandering as I write this – maybe we need to just stop thinking in terms of building up our churches and concentrate on the spiritual development of the children for no other reason than what we are really charged with is to open up their hearts and minds to the possibility of God and of a genuine relationship with him.

05 June 2011 07:31
Lay Anglicana said...

I still think we agree! What you say in the last paragraph is how I ended my blog post – in the final analysis it is about the children themselves for their own sakes, not as statistics, and it is about their 'e-ducation' in the truest sense.

Your first paragraph is also of course correct – it depends on how it is done. The laws of libel preclude my telling you of my own recent bad experience. The neighbouring parish does it much better.
But I really don't think you can compare it with intercessions, in which one person invites others to join him or her in focusing on God; my objection to the children's part is that God does not feel like the focus.

05 June 2011 08:47
Erika Baker said...

"my objection to the children's part is that God does not feel like the focus."

I think that's partly because, if we're honest, for many children God isn't the focus and adults know it.

I would not expect someone to lead the intercessions if they didn't have a faith that gives this service integrity.
Adults largely no longer come to church if they don't have a personal faith, children generally cannot make that choice until their early teens.

It is our role to lead them to faith, but that's not the same as saying that every 4 year old taking on an active role in the Service is genuinely focused on God and aims to focus us on God.

That's not to say it doesn't have its own integrity and sincerity! But it is to recognise that a seamless integration of adult worship and children's participation may not be possible. We have to be prepared to accept that "break" in the service.

05 June 2011 10:47
Lay Anglicana said...

Hello UKViewer
Thank-you for this heartfelt post. In many ways you sound like the young people in the atheist video, who were put off religion for life by their early exposure to an overdose of liturgy!
But you are also proof of your own point that a grounding in religious belief is the best thing parents can do for their children: even if they reject it in early adulthood, it will stand them in good stead and they may return to it (though perhaps a different denomination) in later life with a faith that is stronger than ever.

06 June 2011 06:19
Benny Hazlehurst said...

Great Post Laura! (And I think that you have just inspired my next blog!)

My own children have benefitted recently from attending a church where no role is barred to them. They have grown spiritually as a result and the congregation have sometimes been reduced to prayerful tears!

Thank you for your inspiration.

06 June 2011 07:52
UKViewer said...

Laura, thank you. I think that I was aiming the first part of my response to the stifling contstriction I felt that the RC church was. That grounding was knocked in, if you could not learn a catechism question or gave a wrong answer you were humiliated in front of the rest of your class. It coloured my picture of religion for a greater part of my adult life, eventually I left the RC church because of a total loss of faith.

The restorative power of Jesus Christ came back to me very late in life, for which I grateful and sing his praises daily in prayer and formal worship if it is available.

I can see that things have changed in the RC church since my childhood, but not enough for me. There are severe doctrinal difficulties which would prevent me ever returning.

On the other hand, the Church of England, despite is faults and failures provides an open space to allow you to learn and grow as a Christian, but the three legged stool of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, really are the elements which allow such freedom.

Involvement of children and young adults in worship is intrinsic I believe that nurturing their faith and growth. The leadership of our church, could, as you ably describe, take a leaf out of the book of the Episcopal Church in this.

06 June 2011 09:33
Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Benny! If only we could make the attitude in your children's church more widespread…perhaps if you blog, and I blog, and we get a few more bloggers onto it, like seven maids and seven mops we might eventually move some sand on the beach from A to B?!

06 June 2011 15:46
Lay Anglicana said...

Dear UKViewer
I pray that the leadership of our church may have the humility to learn from the Episcopal Church on this – and many other matters.

06 June 2011 15:48

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