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Worship, Jim — but not as we know it

19 June 2020

Ronni Lamont surveys the new world of family-friendly worship


A circle in sand in Godly Play

A circle in sand in Godly Play

WHEN the present generation of children become adults, they may well be asked for lockdown memories. The boys who live next door to me will probably talk about playing in their garden with their dad and jogging first thing in the morning with their mum. They have a brilliant time: one of my memories will be hearing them laughing with joy across the wall.

I will also remember them playing in their spare time: just pootling around with toys, making up stories and games — they have so much more freedom to be children. In more normal times, they have more carefully controlled diaries, as they go to sport and training events. as well as friends’ and family parties. I think that will be so for many children. But I wonder how many will talk about their church’s online-worship provision.

We have long known that many of us learn more informally (i.e. just by being and recognising new concepts) than we do in a formal setting, such as the classroom or a sermon-type environment. The nooks and crannies of life teach us as much as the lecture or book, but we don’t notice it in the same way. This is often where faith develops quietly. The children next door are learning all sorts of things by playing, relating to each other and their family, and by being. I’m not sure that the Church has really caught on to this as yet.

KATHRYN LORDA prayer area in Godly Play

As in all things online, worship assumes that there is a screen and WiFi access — something that many people do not have, and they are thus excluded from all that follows. Personal contact — through phone calls, WhatsApp, or cakes left on the doorstep — is reminding many that the parish church cares; and, for children, continuing relationship is critical if we are to stay in touch with them and their family.

Lockdown online worship is variable in quality. I have taken great joy in “tuning in” to morning prayer; on Sunday morning, I go to All Saints’, Canterbury. An adult is spoilt for choice, but offerings for children and families are more mixed. Some of them are dreadful: if I were to refer to them as “Saturday-morning TV” worship, readers will probably know exactly what I mean. And intergenerational services seem few on the ground.

Mary Hawes, who is the “Going for Growth” Officer for the Church of England, runs a weekly service at her home church, and this reflects her understanding and knowledge of what children and young people and their families want from online worship. A trailer for story told at the Pentecost service is on YouTube; it also gives an idea of how children can use technology, in a way that fills me with admiration.


WHEN the lockdown began, many churches seemed to go into a panic, suddenly needing to master apps that many hadn’t even heard of. A combination of Facebook live, YouTube, Zoom, and other names are now commonly used. Clergy have not, until now, been trained for online worship, and, for some, it shows. Others have extraordinary knowledge of how to make wonderful online worship — and even understand the laws about copyright infringement.

There is a need to tell our congregations where the gems are to be found if we struggle, and then have a Zoom coffee after the worship to contact pastorally the people who have attended. Are families at those coffee times? That will vary, but I would guess that most are not; their concentration may have moved on.

Some churches have arranged separate coffee meetings for young people and children, so that they can touch base with one another, but this takes away intergenerational social time.

Many families find working on faith together difficult. Often, parents have been relying on grandparents to do this part of parenting, as more may have churchgoing in their lives. We should not underestimate how difficult spiritual parenting may appear. An exciting arrival has been the Church of England’s website Faith at Home, which gives help and advice for families who are growing together as Christians. If you can handle the “cheesy” music, there are some good videos for encouraging families to talk about faith together.

Diocesan advisers, such as Rochester’s, have also devised formats to print and use at home as a family.


MS HAWES has given me three words to describe where we are in this process: transferred, translated, and transform.

Many places have simply transferred their normal worship — whether for adults, intergenerational, children, or young people — straight on to the screen. Long sermons are not successful this way; neither is shutting your eyes to pray to camera. In a fascinating piece, Tori Smit, from the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda, asked parents what they would like in online worship. Parents replied that they would like it to be: succinct; simple; feature worship leaders, including children; and preferably have some degree of interactivity.

Recording the service on YouTube enables the “pause” to be employed, or parents can skip the sermon and keep it for later. They can also revisit parts that they may have missed, as can the children and young people.

Other places have now translated their format, so that the act of worship becomes more interactive and inclusive. I enjoyed watching Ms Hawes leading the weekly intergenerational service for Pentecost at St Mary with St Alban, Teddington, which comes in at 23 minutes, and features a story told in animation by two of the children (don’t miss that “trailer”), a variety of music, and prayers written and led by a family. This service has a truly intergenerational following, and models shared leadership in an interactive format.

A further example of this can be found at St Nicholas’s, Maidstone, where Fiona Higgs, a children’s and young people’s minister, told me that their first online Messy Church, “Oasis”, had not gone as well as they had hoped; so plans now include a “scavenger hunt” as part of the worship, and then an activity that uses the finds to make something together.

Ms Higgs is drawing on online resources, including those found at the Spiritual Child network, The Reflectionary, and Together@Home. She and the Priest-in-Charge, the Revd Chris Lavender, are now thinking about the future, and how her function may need to adapt and change as we enter the “new normal”.


FOR some, the present has brought a need to transform our whole lives as churches together. For the past 12 years, Kathryn Lord has been practising Godly Play (GP), which uses storytelling to explore Christian faith and the Bible, with a group of children in a designated room at a Sheffield church.

She also is a Deep Talk facilitator: a method that arose from Godly Play, but is used for groups to help make new stories for their lives and communities. A GP trainer, she has adapted and moved forward with GP online with her group. She had a group of children meeting on a Sunday morning during church; now she has an equivalent Sunday online session, as well as an intergenerational session once a week.

Ms Lord writes: “During Holy Week, we shared the story and wondering, and the children then responded in their own time. After a conversation with one of the boys a couple of weeks ago, in which he told me it was frustrating to have to leave his response after 20 minutes to come back for the feast, we decided to give this order a go when we met together on Sundays at 3 p.m.

“The Godly Play session with the children is now as follows: the circle is built, we have a laugh and catch up with each other, and then I light the Christ candle — some children choose to light a candle in their own homes — and we proclaim with words and actions ‘I am here, you are here, we are here together.’ We then pray both silently and with words; the children always want to pray for the friend who can’t join us and whose family is having a really tough time. We then share the feast.

“The children are invited to say the words that Jesus said: ‘Whenever you share bread like this I am with you.’ Then everyone breaks the food they have with them, which might be bread, a cracker, or a banana — sometimes satsumas, but they are difficult to break. The children mute themselves and switch to speaker-view for the story.

“After the story, we are back together again in a circle to wonder about the story together. ‘I wonder what you liked best. . . I wonder what you didn’t like. . . I wonder where you are in the story.’

Comments from the families include: ‘The girls are really enjoying the resources you gave us, and really engaging with the Easter story’; and, from the father of a boy aged ten: ‘Thank you, Kathryn. . . I have found the sessions this week to be really helpful in punctuating the working day and giving space for God and his story — although I am out of shot, I have been listening. My son joins of his own free will, and engages or does not engage as he pleases; so it’s good for him to have that agency and for me to be an encourager and enabler.’”

Ms Lord has taken note of where the sessions were stalling, and has adapted and transformed the way in which she ministers: now, the “children’s session” has become intergenerational, and everyone is equal.

I wonder where these sessions will go when the “new normal” is established. I also wonder if many will continue online, as we journey in faith together into an unknown future.


The Revd Ronni Lamont is a freelance teacher and facilitator, specialising in children’s spirituality. She is also the faith and nurture adviser for the diocese of Canterbury, and an associate tutor at St Augustine’s College of Theology. Her latest book is Faith in Children (Lion, £9.99; CT Bookshop £9). For links to all the items mentioned, see the online version of this article.

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