This page is predominantly about work with school-aged children.
A messy church congregation for children and their families
Sister Alison Wooding developed Manor Messy Church on a deprived estate in Sheffield for children and their parents to come to after the afternoon school run. Meeting once a month on a Thursday in St Swithun's Church, each messy church gathering works to a theme, ie Mother's Day or Easter. People arrive in time for a drink and a snack followed by craft activities in the church hall which parents, grandparents and children can work on together.
A 20-minute worship service then follows in the adjacent worship area. This involves the lightening of the Manor Messy Church candle, three or four songs with shakers and actions, in between a short refection on the given theme and a prayer time. A cooked meal then follows back in the church hall which a number of dads turn up for.
This congregation started as a response to a perceived need for a child-friendly service at an appropriate time and day for families. People have heard about it through baptism enquiries or friends and family that attend. An opportunity for adults to explore discipleship issues further has since arisen, meeting together in the evening. Inviting people to join a weekly 12-week discipleship course doesn't work in this context, so finding an appropriate content and style of follow-on group is their current challenge.
A community on a deprived, multi-cultural estate
Inspired by a year working with Metro Ministries in New York, Barry and Camilla Johnston are connecting with non-churched children and youth in their area by going to where they are. Every Saturday for eight months of the year (spring/summer/autumn), they take their yellow Sidewalk van to the same local park where local children gather to play.
They make regular visits to the families of the children that come and are starting to look to establishing a community house as a base for some who are involved.
Things to keep in mind
Claire Dalpra, assistant researcher at the Church Army's Sheffield Centre for over ten years, has the following to say:
Never underestimate how labour intensive it is to involve crafts or a cooked meal. It is rare that this type of fresh expression is run by a full-time leader. Therefore, think carefully about the resources you need and how often you should meet. Invite people to help with specific contained jobs. If you decide to hold your main gathering monthly but live in an area where people don't keep diaries, text member's mobiles a few days before as a reminder. Or consider a Facebook group if that's appropriate for the people you're working with.
Always work with a team
Encourage your team members to grow in confidence in their ability to lead and organise. Remember that investment in your team is time and money well spent. Consider how to build people of all ages into the team and how to develop their skills.
Connect with other leadership teams who are doing the kind of thing you are. Practical resources such as craft and food ideas can be shared, as well as the chance to reflect together on deeper issues.
Many fresh expressions working with this age group have a valuable team of church volunteers who help make the main gathering happen. If you are aiming to grow a sense of this being church in its own right, it will be helpful to have volunteers who understand this aim and are willing to consider committing to this fresh expression as 'their church'.
If volunteers belong to another congregation and only 'help out' at your fresh expression, the sense that what you are doing is just a programme or activity will be harder to shake off. As your fresh expression grows and becomes more established, invite your volunteers to consider whether this fresh expression could be their primary place of belonging if it isn't already.
Discipleship is for all
Give careful thought to how the discipleship needs of both children and adults can be responded to. It is rare that one gathering can do both well, though by building a church of all ages, we are building tolerance, diversity and celebration of the other into the very DNA of the church, so it's worth putting effort into.
Discipling different age groups (including adults) separately needn't break the all-age nature of the venture if there are regular gatherings that bring everyone together.
Join it up
If you or others are concerned that what is developing is unhelpfully segregating the generations in your church community, consider making connections across the generations through community events such as harvest suppers and easter egg hunts. Or consider evangelistic events such as organising a 'labyrinth' at a local community fair that families can experience together. Jane Leadbeater of Liverpool Diocese set up a prayer tent in the shape of an enormous caterpillar.
Public worship needn't be the only option for expressing overall unity across a diverse set of congregations. Indeed, sometimes worship is the most limiting dimension of church to engage all ages well and create space for interaction.
Think about what will happen when the children turn 11. If children are used to being part of a community that is attractive and relevant, it is unrealistic to expect them to transition to traditional church as they grow older.
How can you keep the cohort together as they enter adolescence? Can your existing fresh expression develop to accommodate them or a might something new be needed? How will each stage be consistent in style and content to enable children to make a smooth transition from one to the other?
Encouraging longer term joined-up thinking will reduce the tendency for connections to be lost with families when they outgrow the stage of life the fresh expression seeks to connect with. Some churches employ a generational worker who stays with a group as they grow up to ensure continuity.
Try to encourage a sense of 'looking outward' as soon as possible
Even if some of the members of your fresh expression wouldn't call themselves Christians, it is still important for members to think of ways to engage with others outside the fresh expression.
What ways can your fresh expression offer loving service to their neighbours, friends and family who don't attend? Are members themselves encouraged to tell their friends, neighbours and school contacts about their fresh expression and invite them along?
Encourage children to see their faith as 'whole-life' faith
Keep asking how the themes and scriptures you explore are relevant to life at school, at clubs, at home, with friends; children are the best evangelists to other children.
- George Lings, Encounters on the Edge 11: Never on a Sunday?, Church Army, 2001;
- Lucy Moore, Messy Church: Fresh ideas for building a Christ-centred community, Barnabas, 2006, 978-184101503-3;
- Lucy Moore, Messy Church 2: Ideas for discipling a Christ-centred community, Barnabas, 2008, 978-184101602-3;
- Messy Church;
- Kathryn Copsey, From the Ground Up: Understanding the Spiritual World of the Child, Barnabas, 2005, 978-184101386-2;
- Margaret Withers, Mission-shaped Children: Moving towards a child-centred church, CHP, 2006, 978-071514081-7;
- Philip Mounstephen, Kelly Martin, Body Beautiful?: Recapturing a Vision for All - Age Church, Grove Books, 2004, 978-185174573-9;
- Rona Orme, Rural Children, Rural Church: Mission Oportunities in the Countryside, CHP, 2007, 978-071514126-7;
- Margaret Donaldson, Children's Minds, HarperCollins, 1986, 978-000686122-5;
- David Wood, How Children Think and Learn: The Social Contexts of Cognitive Development (2nd edition), Wiley-Blackwell, 1997, 978-063120007-9;
- The Consultative Group on Ministry among Children, Core Skills for Children's Work: Developing and extending key skills for children's ministry, Barnabas, 2006, 978-184101507-1;
- Children Matter: online resources for Christians working with children;
- Mothers' Union resources for children;
- The Child-friendly Church Award.