Leading All-Age Services
How can you plan good all-age services where the whole congregation benefits? Here are five pointers.
At our small local church, we spend the summer organising ourselves a little differently, without dedicated children’s work; instead we have all-age services every week. It gives our small team of Sunday School and Youth leaders a well-earned rest – when you’re small these kinds of ministries are difficult to sustain in the weeks when lots of people might be away.
That means I’ve spent a fair amount of the summer preparing and delivering all-age services, all built around the theme of ‘a meal with Jesus’ in Luke’s gospel.
But summer services are hard to predict – some weeks when you think the church will be empty, it is gloriously full. Other weeks when you’re expecting everyone to be back (just before school restarts, for example), there’s just you and the dog. That’s small church life in the summer.
It’s got me thinking about these kinds of services. Here are five principles that I’ve tried to work with this summer:
1. Speak, but don’t exclude adults
We have deliberately called our services ‘all-age’ because we don’t want them to be childish. They should be for everyone. One way to do this, of course, is simply to reduce to the lowest common denominator. But, ultimately, I believe that does no one any favours. So, it’s okay for us to have times in the service where children – if they are not listening – are doing some activity or another, so that I can say something specific to adults.
Here’s an example. The feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9) isn’t just about the identity of Jesus (‘Who is this man?). It’s also about the disciples being commanded by Jesus to take his life-giving sustenance to others. I thought the very young children could cope with the first part fine, but the second (a lesson about true discipleship) was more complex, so I got the very young ones to come up the front and draw some of the crowds for us on a large sheet of paper as I was speaking more directly to the adults.
2. Preach, but don’t neglect text work
My all-age service sermons are generally simpler, shorter and use different illustrations. But they are based on the same text work. Of course, some of the church may wish I preached like this all the time! But the spiritual reality is that I’m preaching the word of God and so the first part of my preparation is making sure I’ve properly grasped the passage and let it sink into me.
So, just like an ‘ordinary’ sermon, my week begins with the text printed out and me poring over it to make sure I get it right. This generally means that my all age preparation takes longer than a normal week, and it’s important to build this in.
3. Engage, but don’t build around engagement
A preacher should always be engaging! But the reality is that when you are speaking to the whole church family, there is a difference in the way you speak and illustrate. In particular, the hook that draws people into the message becomes very important. It can be useful to have something visual, for example (though we have some blind people in our church, so you have to be very careful with visual illustrations).
The trouble with this is, once you get a good idea, you simply let it dominate the proceedings. It takes over and you find that your whole message – or the whole service – ends up being built around your own bright idea. For what it’s worth, I believe a good preacher should be able to hold children and adults alike with good story telling. Physical props are not an absolute necessity.
4. Sing, but don’t avoid solid words
We have a repertoire of about 25 kids’ songs we use regularly at church. We could just about eke that out over our five-week series so that they won’t repeat too much. But you end up doing something different from what you would do each week: choosing songs that fit with how you want the whole service to work.
So choose some kids’ songs, but choose some adult songs too, and explain them. Most young kids, if they hear Christian music around the house, like singing along, so it’s not as much of a deal as you think it might be. For example, we’re thinking about Jesus’ reign this Sunday and we’re going to sing ‘Our God is a great big God’ but we’re also going to sing ‘Jesus shall reign’.
5. Pray, but don’t let yourself go on
You know the kind of prayer I mean! It’s sometimes difficult for adults to follow, let alone children. I was going to write that more care is required in prayer that fits into an all age service, but perhaps the reality is more care is required for every service we lead!
It’s good for the church family to hear you leading them in praising God. It’s good for them to hear you praying for things. Just don’t spend 15 minutes doing it.
You’ll no doubt think of other things. And the reality is that some of my all age services are much better than others. They’re riskier in that sense – harder to predict. But worth the effort and worth the extra time so that the whole church family can worship, learn and grow together.