Lay pioneer minister Di Woolridge has seen numbers steadily increase at a weekly 'play and praise' worship service for the under 5s. She now believes the community is developing into a fresh expression.
Three years ago I was employed part-time as a pioneer minister at St Lawrence's, Gnosall, to look at connecting with children, young people and their families who are not attracted to traditional church.
One of my first objectives was to look at the contact made through baptisms - of which we had a good number each year - but we were not seeing any on-going link with these families. We developed a structured approach to baptism preparation through three evening sessions where we explore God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit and I talk about the events and groups we offer to children to help them in their Christian journey.
It was at the first of these preparation sessions when I mentioned our children's groups which, at the time, catered for youngsters of school age; I was really challenged when one of the mums then said, 'So, I have my child baptised and the next time I bring her back is when she is five?' From that I realised we needed to do something, so I launched Play and Praise on Thursday afternoons in church. From the start I made it clear that this is not a playgroup, but a worship service.
In terms of format, we have between 30-40 minutes of worship before the children get on with some art and craft activities associated with the theme of the service. It is quite structured in that it follows a traditional church pattern of liturgy, we usually have:
- opening prayer;
- song, usually with accompaniment from the children on instruments, bells or drums that we provide;
- prayer, where we light a candle;
- a couple of songs, usually in the New Wine style of children's worship with actions where possible;
- bible story;
- a couple more songs;
- we also now have a collection, interestingly that was something that came from the parents who asked if they could give;
- interactive grace, usually the Messy Church grace;
- notices and time to remember people's birthdays followed by arts and crafts while mums have a well earned tea break!
When we started Play and Praise, we had five children and three parents come along. Three years on, we are averaging around 18 children and 12 adults but we envisage numbers will build up again as we go through the autumn. We have about 30 children on the books in all. Some come every week without fail; most come three out of every four weeks and others come occasionally.
This summer was amazing in that we peaked at 26 children and 18 adults each week; we don't stop for school holidays at all because it's a worship service. Other services in the church don't stop simply because it isn't term time and I have insisted that we keep going too so Play and Praise meets 50 weeks a year. The only times we miss are Maundy Thursday (when all the ministers are at the Cathedral though we do hold a special event on Good Friday for families - including the Play and Praise families) and the week between Christmas and New Year.
Many churches only offer something like Play and Praise during term time but people appreciate the regularity and look forward to it as one of the highlights of the week. I'd say it's really important to look at how such things are set up in the first place and what the intention and the values are. We are only a small village of about 300-400 families. We have found we no longer need to advertise Play and Praise any more because families tell others about it and the health visitor, and others such as the local preschool, refer people to us.
We have just had eight of our Play and Praise church start school but others will certainly come to fill the gap. In the past, we - as a church - developed close links with the school and thankfully this is continuing with a ministry team there and areas of reflection throughout the school. The pupils also now come across to the church for services, prayer stations, events etc.
I've got a good team to help with it all now. I now alternate the running of Play and Praise with the rector, Mark Bridgen, and others from the Sunday congregations are involved on a rota basis. It has brought in people we weren't expecting; some of our 7.45am said communion folk, for instance, have come along to help and that's wonderful.
We have a Facebook Play and Praise page and it's great to see how the mums connect with that all the time, commenting on what has been happening and even asking each other to pray for particular situations or illnesses in their families. Other developments which have come out of Play and Praise are Yummy Mummies – a monthly coffee morning and discussion group for young mums where we use table talk to stimulate discussion; a monthly support group for mums with anxiety issues; and we have recently started a house group for those who want to look a bit deeper at the Christian faith for themselves.
Play and Praise is a growing, Christian community and I would say it is now maturing into a fresh expression. It's connecting with the children – and their parents - and they are all moving on in their journey of faith and starting to do what any other Christian community would do. They have the DNA as to what Christian living is all about. It's all about trying to serve in ways that can be understood and are appropriate for people who haven't previously been involved in church.