We can all to easily write off formal or traditional models of church as boring, inaccessible or tired. And I admit there is potentially a little fire to the smoke of this – I know of parents who have struggled under the withering stares of congregation members as their infant wriggles, squirms and screeches in their lap. But this is not the only story of families in traditional church services.
My own story is of being embraced wholeheartedly by an elderly congregation in a rural and traditional Church of England church as a child, my brother loudly singing along to every hymn to the tune of Bodger and Badger (google it if you weren’t a 90s child).
There are other stories I could add here, but rather than just shooting down arguments against traditional models of church with stories of those who have enjoyed it, I want to offer a few arguments of why traditional Eucharist, when done well, can fit into the framework of what we aim for in welcoming all ages to worship together.
It is multi-sensory
When I was training as a children’s worker, all-age services and how to make them actually all age was the big Thing, with a capital T. And the best way to do it according to most of the training I received was to engage all the senses for those in the congregation.
Much of this was pinned onto the idea of learning styles – kinaesthetic, listener, writer etc. Rightly so, it was highlighted how much the usual church models in mainly middle of the road low church / charismatic evangelical styles only engaged with the listening learners in the congregation, whereas the majority of people in their everyday life engage and learn by doing.
All-age services therefore became the space to get creative and engage those who learn by doing. This was advocated for through action songs, bubbles, using Lego or waving flags or percussion items. I used them all and more (and I still do!).
But what I hadn’t considered was that these multi-sensory worship styles are already part of my Church of England repertoire in the higher church or more traditional worship I’d known as a child. The sense of smell as plumes of incense represent the prayer and worship of the people, the tinkle of the bells during the service, the opportunity to bow and cross oneself in reverence to God. I’d encourage us to consider what it would mean to see these as moments of multi-sensory engagement with worship.
It teaches scripture
It’s easy to argue that we are what we sing when it comes to the Christian faith. Partly because they are the bits that stick. I might not remember the sermon each Sunday – even if I preach it! But you better believe I’ll leave the service humming along to the worship songs. This is a good thing. Sung worship is a chance to teach and sing truth so we know it in the moment and remember it when we need it most.
The joy of a traditionally sung eucharist is that you sing the same words each Sunday. I know the prayers I learnt when I was five years old by rote because they were to a tune. For that reason, there are whole swathes of scriptural truth that stuck in my brain and shaped my heart. Sung Eucharist can be a chance for children to learn by heart the truth of scripture. The rhythm and uniformity can be a gift that keeps on giving well into adulthood.
“Traditional Eucharist, when done well, can fit into the framework of what we aim for in welcoming all ages to worship together”
There’s growing room
The other joy is that those truths shaped me even when I couldn’t fully articulate them. Let me put it like this – when I started secondary school my mum bought the largest PE top for me. It hung to my knees, but that was handy when I was running around a netball pitch in a Cumbrian winter. But by the time I got to Year 11 it fitted like a glove. As I haven’t grown since it would probably still fit me now.
I find the same is true of the liturgy I still follow today. There were words in there I didn’t understand but there were experiences of God through the Eucharist that fitted my childlike understanding of God. Today, those same words are as rich and powerful to me because there was room to grow into them.
In the same way, I think all services need the space for us to grow spiritually into them, and there is no harm in that.
It is engaging
In most ‘Help! My kid is bored by church’ training or articles or advice, one of the common ways to easily engage children and young people is to give them a job. This is indeed excellent advice. Again, this is often pigeon-holed to helping with a younger kids group, working the sound desk or similar.
But once more, Anglo-Catholic worship is awash with engaging roles for children and young people. I used to love help carry up the chalice to the front of church and when I had hit the right reading age I would give the Bible passage. I recently visited a church in which the youngest congregation members wore choir robes and walked with the procession. They loved stomping up the aisle, and their exuberance for it lifted us all in worship. Engaging roles can come in all shapes and sizes and can be found in all expressions of church.
A highlight though was at around 14 years of age, when the warden of the church – who loved the Eucharist deeply – sat me down and taught me to serve at the table. He showed me the right way to hold the little jug and pour the water over the priest’s hands for ritual washing.
He showed me the right order to give each item. And with each role I felt like I’d been let into an inner sanctum, like I had really very important job. What is more, his passion for it was infectious. It kept me going and built in me a deep love for the ritual of it.
For those who are leading churches, I encourage you to not think traditional means boring or unengaging for families. It just means setting a culture in which children are given space to engage in their way – loud singing and wiggles included. And for parents seeking a church in which their children can thrive, please don’t write it off.