20 October 2014

Liturgy 5.2 (2014-2015) 5.2: Traditions of
prayer (3): seminar, patterns of prayer today

All-age worship in Christ Church, Colchester … what do we mean by ‘all-age’ worship?

Patrick Comerford

TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality

Year II, 14:00 to 16:30, Mondays, Hartin Room:

Liturgy 5: 20 October 2014

This week:

The nature and theology of sacraments;

5.2: Traditions of prayer (3): seminar: patterns of prayer today (including all-age worship, participation of children in worship, worship and young people).

5.2: Traditions of prayer (3):

seminar, patterns of prayer today,


● all-age worship,
● participation of children in worship,
● worship and young people.


There is an expectation in I Corinthians 14 that in worship everyone should have something to contribute, not just those at the front. For example, we are told:

What should be done then, my friends? When you come together, each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Let all things be done for building up. (I Corinthians 14: 26).

Every service can be considered an intergenerational service of Christian worship in the sense that the worshippers represent – even if they do not actually include – the whole body of Christ, from its youngest to its oldest members.

All-age worship:

Lucy Moore, in a recent book on all-age worship, says it is something that strikes terror into many hearts because it is so difficult to get right. The dual demands of making the service accessible to children without making the adults feel ignored is often causes more problems than it seems to solve.

Even for parishioners, many think they hated what they regard as “all-age worship” to the point that they take that Sunday off – perhaps rectors too, leaving the planning and carry-through to the curate – while the church is full of members of uniformed organisations and other groups that who used the church hall, along with their families – people who never otherwise normally come to church.

It may be wonderful to imagine that the church is reaching out to and welcoming a whole group of people, big enough perhaps to form a new congregation. But why does the rest of the parish felt so disconnected from the “all-age” service that they stop coming to it?

What do we mean by all-age worship?

All-age worship is different from “children’s worship,” in which, commonly, adults prepare “something for the children.” When worship that is truly “all-age,” young and old worship together. Children, youth, young adults, middle-aged adults and older adults take part in planning for, inviting to and leading worship.

All-age worship takes seriously the idea that people of all ages worship together in the body of Christ. Worshippers, young, old and in-between can also be involved in planning worship, inviting people to worship, and in leading worship.

But, so often, all-age means “child-focussed,” so that we label hymns and songs as being for children, implying those items are for children only and that others are just for adults, without encouraging all ages to join in every song.

We have slots or items “especially for the children,” implying that part of the service is not for the adults present, and that the rest of the service is not really for children.

We use action songs, making babies of children, without inviting adults to explore ways of expressing unity with their bodies as well their voices, yet without feeling childish. Yet the Psalms encourage us to clap, dance, shout, etc.

Do we use contributions from as many different ages as possible when it comes to readings, prayers, intercessions, testimonies, songs, dances, drama, collecting, dressing the altar/table, bringing forward the bread and wine?

I think it is Saint Thomas Aquinas who is credited with saying the Lord’s Prayer was an ideal prayer because people lose concentration and attention after anything of greater length. How often we forget how long – or short a time – children are capable of retaining and concentrating.

It is better to have a shorter time of quality worship than a longer time that might deteriorate as some children switch off. And, of course, it is certain, that if some children are getting bored then some adults are getting bored too – it’s just that children are more honest about showing their feelings!

And remember too that we should always seek feedback – and from different age groups – about what works and what does not work in worship.

So often, all-age worship means a children’s service that adults feel disconnected from, or, at best, a children’s service that adults barely tolerate, instead of bringing together the whole parish of every age.

Lucy Moore lists key points or ‘touchstones’ for good all-age worship:

Short: Keep services no longer than 40 minutes.
Symbol: Make use of symbolism especially around the Eucharist.
Space: Give those present the time and the means to reflect and respond in their own way.
Pattern: Follow a usual structure.

Is all-age worship for all ages?

The participation of children in worship:

The presence of children in church ought to be a source of joy for the present and hope for the future. It can also provide opportunities to reshape worship practices and attitudes for the benefit of all worshippers.

But have you ever noticed how smaller children become distracted, but also become a distraction? It can take some time to break down the resistance and objections to the participation in worship from some people, especially from those who find it hard to concentrate when children are around. But the rewards and benefits of getting the whole church to join together in worship with one heart and one voice are worth struggling for.

Those of us who are parents know the joy of a meal with all the family eating happily at the same table – including grandparents and grandchildren, even with small toddlers crawling in and out under the table. I suppose therefore that God the Father enjoys seeing all his children, young and old, joining together in a family gathering especially around one table.

Have you ever noticed how often the clergy lack enthusiasm, especially when it comes to children’s services?

A lack of enthusiasm can be as infectious and as contagious as enthusiasm. Children learn best through observation and repetition, so good role models from clergy and worshippers are important. Children soon realise when adults are merely going through the motions in worship but are not engaging with their whole hearts.

So often we reduce worship to talking and singing, which is what we do as adults most of the time. How do you think children might engage with and learn from dance, visual illustrations, puppets and other forms of movement?

The average nine-year-old can sit for three or four uninterrupted hours on a Saturday morning, unmoving, before children’s TV. Yet we fail to hold her attention for more than a few minutes in church on a Sunday morning.

Some years ago, the General Synod Board of Education (Northern Ireland) undertook a project to address the developing needs of children in the Church family in the 21st century and the related issues of training and resource issues.

As part of this project, the board commissioned Dr Gareth Higgins to conduct research into the needs of children’s ministry. His report, Children’s Ministry in the Church of Ireland – a new vision, is available of the Church of Ireland website here.

This report gives ideas on how to best develop and manage volunteers, offers practical suggestions about resources that could be used, and identifies the need to reconsider the ‘Sunday School’ instructional model of Children’s Ministry.

When the report was presented to the General Synod, speakers identified the need for material for inter-generational worship that is attractive to children, and spoke about the children’s ministry projects in parishes, including ‘The Ark’ and ‘Sunday Space.’

Teaching on the Church of Ireland Children’s Ministry Certificate course began at the Church of Ireland Theological Institute three years and the course runs over a number of Saturdays. The programme includes the Building Blocks conferences in Belfast and Dublin.

This is an exciting training scheme that seeks to resource all those who work with children in the church. The material is creative and interactive, and is designed for children’s leaders within the local church. The areas covered include: Child Development; Leadership Skills; Programme Planning; Children and Community; Pastoral Awareness; and Spirituality and the Bible.

All the material being used has been piloted by a wide network of church traditions, drawn from Churches in Britain and Ireland. During each session there are opportunities to look at current resources in music, prayer, craft, courses, games, and storytelling.

Young people and worship

What went wrong with Chris Brain’s Nine O’Clock service?

Teenagers especially prefer to be active contributors rather than passive participants.

How often do we find adults, and especially teenagers, are embarrassed. But they also notice when those involved in leading worship do not get involved. Have you ever noticed how clergy can hide behind their responsibilities and musicians behind their instruments?

But, is there a danger of reducing worship to entertainment?

Yet, remember how visual and evocative worship was in the Temple in the Old Testament.

So, who do you think would be most resistant to a Saturday night service in your church, to trying club church, or to café church?

[Discussion, including illustrations from The Night of the Living Dead – Hallowe’en Service in Liverpool Cathedral, introduced by Archbishop Justin Welby when he was the Dean of Liverpool.]

Next (10 November 2014):

Baptism and Eucharist (1) from the early Church to the Reformers.

6.2: Seminar: ‘Word’ and ‘Sacrament’ expressed in music and art.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for discussions in a seminar on 20 October 2014 as part of the Module TH 8824: Liturgy, Worship and Spirituality, on the MTh course.

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