How to do “All Age” worship really well – interview with Jo Squires from BIG Ministries
Jo Squires leads BIG Ministries – who for the last 10 years have been specialising in children’s worship. They have increasingly been helping churches with ‘All Age’ services – which they see as quite different to exclusively ‘Children’s Worship’. Here’s Sam Hargreaves from Engage Worship interviewing Jo ahead of the sessions she is running in the Engage Worship Day (Luton, UK) where the theme is “Engaging Everyone in Worship”:
‘All Age’ worship can be the most dreaded of all services, by ministers, worship teams and congregation. Why do you think that is?
I think because it has a history of being done badly! Often this is the service that doesn’t actually cater for anybody’s needs, isn’t inclusive, and unfortunately is awkward for everybody. But there is so much potential with All Age, so it is really sad that that is the case!
One of the biggest issues is our lack of distinction when it comes to ‘Children’s Worship’ and ‘All Age Worship’ – the two are very different, but people still mix them up. We need to make sure that we don’t just ‘lift’ Children’s Worship and put it before an All Age congregation, because it’s just not appropriate.
So what do you think worship looks like for children?
There’s a John Drane quote I’ve referred to quite a lot, which is that worship is us:
“responding to all that God is with all that we are”.
And so we have to think about what a child is like – what makes a child a child? They generally have more energy about them, more fun about them and so for them, jumping around in loud music and having a lively time can be just as meaningful as for some serious grown up to stand still with their arms in the air, and we shouldn’t try to put children in an adult-shaped box…
So how do you factor that into All Age worship?
There is a big difference in my mind between ‘Children’s Worship’ and ‘All Age Worship’, and actually I think that this aspect of ‘liveliness’ shouldn’t be a major part of All Age Worship, because for a lot of the other people in congregation it doesn’t facilitate their worship and in fact can be quite distracting. So for me, an All Age situation it is about thinking about how can we all compromise, how can we all choose to do the best we can for the benefit of others, because it is worship for everybody, its not just kids’ worship with grown-ups watching.
So if we lead a lively children’s song, we might tone it down a bit, and make the actions more accessible. For example, the song Words Are Not Enough (on BIG Ministries first album, God’s Love is Unstoppable) is a really rocky song, and the actions are dancing and jumping and clapping and playing air guitar. However, when we lead this song in an All Age context, we turn down the distortion, make it a bit more ‘folk-y’ and therefore friendly to all, and rather than jumping we’ve suggested people use their fingers jumping on their hand, or bend their knees so it looks like they’re jumping but their feet aren’t actually leaving the floor! So, the theory is, you can do the same song, but do it in a way that everyone can engage with it. There are always ways to adapt things to make them more inclusive. On our actions DVD (Welcome to the Big Academy, available on www.bigministries.co.uk), we offer alternative actions for All Age worship, which are more appropriate for All Age congregations.
On the subject of actions: you recently wrote a rather impassioned response to an article on Childrenswork’s blog about using action songs in worship – how can you use actions when for a lot of adults they can feel embarrassed using them?
I don’t always feel like doing actions, but I see the value in them and I see that it’s Biblical to move in worship, and for a lot of children it’s a very powerful way to engage. And even for those adults who might not like singing, moving in worship is a way that they can engage.
One of the issues is the way action songs are led and also the actions that are chosen. An overenthusiastic children’s worker in front of you, jumping around, shouting “Come on everybody, let’s do these actions!” – nobody is going to want to join in, children or adults. Whereas actually, if you can lead it just being yourself and giving people a get-out-clause, eg. “We’re going to do some actions for this song, if you’d rather stand and sing, that’s fine, but these are the actions if you’d like to join in.”
Another approach is to use sign language rather than actions. There is something very powerful in saying “this is based on British Sign Language” or “this is based on Makaton”, rather than “I’ve just made up these actions that I think are really cool”. It’s actually a language that people use to communicate, so it means more to people. We tend to go for that route often if it’s All Age, and not force people to do things.
What criteria would you use for All Age Worship when choosing songs?
In All Age Worship generally, we try to look for repetition – because you’re thinking about non-readers in the congregation, something with very simple actions (like clapping, for example) which even really small children or people with mobility issues can join in with and not too many verses, not too many words – that sort of thing. If there are lots of words, perhaps we would use some simple sign language that can go alongside it, so that people can engage with their bodies. But quite often, if we do choose a song that has more complicated language, or more of a ‘grown-up’ song or a hymn, we would do something parallel to it: engage in creative prayer, using some colouring, use play-dough or a building activity, or get some rhythm instruments so that if someone felt that they couldn’t engage with the song itself they would be able to worship God in a different way, but at the same time as the singing is taking place.
You mentioned about being inclusive, and thinking of people who can’t read, or have mobility issues, or haven’t been a Christian for long, or isn’t yet Christian… These issues all suggests to me simplifying worship, but how do also make it meaningful for the more mature Christian, who may not have those issues?
Firstly, they are usually going to other services on other weeks that are more aimed at mature Christians. So when it happens to be All Age it’s about celebrating the diversity of church and enjoying being in each other’s company, just like we do as a family unit when we come together. Secondly, just because we’re simplifying doesn’t mean that we have to lose everything profound: I think we can communicate big issues and big challenges, just in a ‘normal’ way, rather than making it over complicated!
We ran a service in a church in London a few years ago, and the theme was God’s omnipresence – that he’s present everywhere. Afterwards, this man came up to me – he was probably in his 60s – who had been an elder of the church for 40 years, and he said that he had never realised about God’s omnipresence, he’d always imagined God just sitting next to him. The fact that God was everywhere all the time completely blew his mind! And that was an All Age service, where we had been expressing a profound truth in simple ways, and he had had that revelation. I don’t think we can restrict God to 3 point, 20 minute sermons as the only way to say something deep.
On a very practical level, what are some of the tricks that you use to keep people’s attention?
Thinking about the little extra things is really important. Even just having a load of pipe-cleaners around, for those who like to fidget. (Having something for them to fiddle with will help them engage.) Food is always a good idea, as well as space to move around, and giving people the freedom to do so.
Do you have any tips for planning All Age Worship?
Make sure you have a team around you to be able to share the work-load. If the team can have all-ages in it too, that’s always useful, but do make sure that every age has an equal say, and you think about everyone who might be at the service! Be creative, and plan well ahead. Use resources as a basis, and have fun! Start with 1 main point you want everyone to go home with, and work from that, trying to creatively communicate it in different ways. Don’t try to ‘teach’ too much, it’s more important that you communicate less information, well. Do check out the BIG Ministries resources page on the website, we have loads of stories and sketches and puppet scripts ready to download on all sorts of themes.
Interview by Sam Hargreaves – co-leader of engageworship.org and the Engage Worship Day 2014 in Luton on 15th Feb. For more information visit – http://engageworship.org/events/luton2014