I loved Tuesday nights when I was a teenager. It was homegroup night, and with my younger sisters already asleep in bed and my parents busy leading the home group in the living room, I could sneakily stay up an extra 15 minutes to watch the second half of The Bill. I hope my children love home group night in our house now, not because they have found something they can get away with behind our backs, but because they are in our midst, as fully formed and equally valued members of our all-age Messy Home Group.
Home group night for us is once a month on a Sunday teatime. We begin, as the best church gatherings often do, with food and time to spend building friendships together. We usually work together on a practical activity – scraping out pumpkins in October, creating clay Advent spirals in November, cutting out a daily Lent Bible reading in February, before looking at the Bible together. At this point, we often have appropriate toys which enable our youngest members to play the story together, as well as a selection of storybook Bibles and other translations. As the conversation flows, children are encouraged to participate along with the adults. Sometimes they drift away to play together, while the adults continue to talk. As the time draws to a close, we gather again to pray, inviting everyone to join in, sometimes using a creative means, before ending with a time of singing, dancing and shaker-waving praising.
Our church is a Messy Church plant, initially begun as an ecumenical church plant in a new housing development, which has morphed over the last eight years to a shape where our Messy Church monthly Thursday night celebrations are our main church gathering. In being formed into a ‘Messy Church’, we have used the Messy Church values as core to our structure, our identity and how we shape our activities. These values, shared by Messy Churches worldwide, are:
While it could be argued that most of these are common to all churches, it is our being ‘all-age’, together with the other values, which identifies our home group as being distinctly ‘Messy’ in nature.
Traditional home groups
There is a commonly shared model in discipleship journeys that when someone who is a part of the church community wants to go deeper, the place to find this is in a small group. Traditionally, these are segregated, generally by age, with children and teens meeting in youth groups, retirees meeting midweek in the daytime, and often married couples finding that only one or other of them can make it to their evening group, unless they can find a babysitter. There is great benefit and attraction in these groups, which should not be ignored or dismissed. Personally, my own discipleship has been nurtured by belonging to a small group specifically for mothers of similar-aged children. But there is something that happens in the coming together of all, which does not happen when we meet in our separate silos.
All ages together
For us as a couple, and as a family at this stage of life, meeting together in a home group with other families with young children is very practical; none of us need to find a babysitter, for a start! But there is far greater value in our being together than simply the convenience, as was brought home to me in a recent home group discussion. We had rolled out a large sheet of lining paper, spread the pens across it and asked everyone: “What would help you to grow as a disciple right now?” One seven-year-old carefully drew a whole collection of stick people: baby, toddler, child, teenager and adult. Justas I was feeling all warm and fuzzy about how he had grasped the importance of all ages being together, my bubble was burst: “When I’m older, I’ll have more time and then it will be easier.” It was in that moment that the benefit of being all ages together could be fully enjoyed, as all of us could confess openly that this simply is not the case. If this conversation had taken place at home with a parent, or in a children’s group with one leader, it would have been a typical conversation of the knowledge-and-power-holding adult telling the needing-to-learn-from-the-adult child, but here with all ages gathered together it was a shared learning experience for all.
There is a word of caution here: all-age home groups naturally attract families but they should not be exclusively a gathering of families. When we gather intergenerationally, we should be looking to include all - the singles and the couples, the families, the grandparents, those of grandparent age who never had their own children…We can then model what it is to be part of God’s big family, with its rich diversity, within our own homes. In a world where generations are too often separated, we have a gift to offer, providing a space where young and old can learn together, and from one another. But there is, of course, more to this than simply gathering a group of people of all ages together and calling it a home group. In order to be an all-age home group, you need to be prepared to do things differently, to think creatively about what will work and what will help all ages to grow.
Starting (and sustaining) an all-age home group
If you build it, they will come
So often in church life, we get excited about a new idea or new initiative and jump in to set it up, ready for people to come along. The nature of any home group is that rather than being organised by an overseeing body, it flourishes when it is allowed to grow organically within the home setting. An all-age home group can begin with two or three families, or individuals who simply begin spending time together. As parents, and as children’s or youth leaders, we may well be called to be involved in that, or to support others as they do so.
Value what matters
It’s easy to get hung up on detail: which day of the week should we meet? What time? Where? Deciding your core values as a group enables you to focus on the things that matter, then the practical details can fall into place. We value all ages being together, so we meet at a time and place that works for this group, for instance.
Value all ages
This sounds obvious, but it has very practical implications. In a large group of all ages such as in an all-age service, we see when the majority are engaged and go along with that. In a small group, there is nowhere to hide; it becomes obvious when we are leaving people out and so we have to work harder at including everyone in our group journey. This may mean providing toys which particularly enable toddlers to engage with the story, for example, or taking time to talk to each member individually, finding out what works for them. A principle for all-age ministry I picked up some time ago is: “We don’t expect the adults to behave like children, and we don’t expect the children to behave like adults.” One way this shows itself in our group is that the adults often like to talk for longer. We never tell the children it’s time for them to go away and play, but rather let them flow in and out of the room at this point, gathering them together again at the end.
There is a growing awareness of the benefits of all-age groups meeting together, and so more resources are becoming available. A lesson we’ve learned along the way is that it helps to have a focus, or you can drift from one session to the next. Begin with those who come along to the group and dare to ask the question: “What do you need to help you on your discipleship journey?”
Review, review, review
It takes time for a group to bed in, but by nature of an all-age group, that group itself will change over time. If things aren’t working, don’t be afraid to change them. Also, small groups can become a victim of their own success and when they grow to a point that they are no longer small, don’t be afraid to divide the group and multiply out (although we’re not there yet!).Leading an all-age home group is certainly challenging, but like my children, I look forward to the Sunday afternoons when our friends are coming round. There is something rather wonderful in growing in your discipleship together with your children, and all-age home groups, where faith, family and home collide, are a great place for that to happen.
HOME GROUP IN ISOLATION
Although you are unable to meet physically as a home group at this time, there are still things you can do. A number of ministries and churches are finding ways to meet online and this can be true for an all-age home group too. Younger children may not understand that they are actually interacting with their friends, rather than watching a television programme, so be prepared to explain that. Keep your gathering short and focus on what matters, engage all members in discussion or activity, pray together. You could send out a message in advance telling people what you will be looking at together so that they can be prepared, perhaps reading a Bible passage in advance, or pulling together some appropriate equipment. Plan your reunion celebration, for when you are able to gather together again!
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