WE ARE on Zoom, about a dozen of us, in September — clergy, paid family workers, and volunteers. “They’re sick of Zoom,” one says, about children from her church. “But parents are beyond exhausted,” another adds, “and it’s hard enough coming to church with children normally, let alone now, with extra rules and behaviour expectations.”
“I’m just so scared of losing all those relationships,” another said. There was a sense that relationships with children and families were at risk. How can we worship and share our lives, when the two ways of being together — in person and online — are both uniquely difficult for families?
When I posed this question to people around the country, answers generally fell into three categories: keeping online church engaging, making in-person worship feel possible, and keeping in touch outside of worship.
MAKING online church work for children means including them. Six-year-old J. says: “I like talking to everyone on Zoom after the service.” A mother told me: “It’s good when someone asks them questions, and listens. They don’t like listening to adult conversations.”
Adding physical or sensory elements can help: something to make, do, touch, or smell. One mother of a three-year-old says that they “give him a chance to ‘celebrate the eucharist’ alongside the Vicar” with his own cup, plate, and bread.
The Revd Mo Baldwin, in the diocese of Blackburn, works to make Zoom as interactive as possible. “Children have tasks to do: treasure hunts, breakout-room challenges like artwork, or designing something. The families also record elements of the service.” One mother says that her children “like storytelling a lot, especially when people go out on location or use toys or props”. And “they like seeing other children taking part.”
Some toddler groups are engaging even very young children online. Joanna Gordon, of the early-childhood support ministry Daniel’s Den (danielsden.org.uk), says: “Toddler groups across the UK brought what they do in their groups into the home.” Some have Facebook live singing sessions, and many included sensory play, crafts, and puppet shows to help engage children and families.
Being online can be an opportunity for children. At St Helen’s, in Wheathampstead, children “took over” family church when it moved online, Claire Banham, the children’s worker, says. They insisted on making videos of the Bible story, and writing the prayers. Doing this from their own home felt safer than getting up in front of everyone at church.
Beth Moughtin Hayward, in the diocese of Chester, says that her 12-year-old daughter has taken on co-ordinating Kids Church Online, including creating worship herself and also encouraging other families to make things and send them in.
Online worship can be simple. The Revd Stephen Gardner, in the diocese of Sheffield, says, “We’ve read a bedtime story [online] every night. ‘We all cuddle up together to watch,’ said a mum.”
ONE four-year-old, however, says that she “doesn’t like church on the computer, only church in the building”, because she loves “playing and dancing”. And a three-year-old’s mother reports that “he misses his friends — aged three to 93” in online church.
Some churches have found ways to offer worship in person. For many, this means going outside. Rachel Summers, the author of Wild Lent and Wild Advent, points out that being outside means “you’re working in a different space. What you might normally do is probably not possible — but, in a way, this is a strength. For a child coming into church, faced with protocols restricting how they move, who they interact with, the ‘old normal’ can feel unsettling. So starting afresh, on a blank canvas, helps.”
Instead of trying to fit old wine into new wineskins, embrace being outside, she advises. “Pay attention to where you are — urban, suburban, rural. And to when you are — which season you’re in, what time of day it is. And to how you are — under blue skies or with rain pouring off raincoat hoods. All of this can and does feed into our experience of worship.”
St Mary’s, Redbourn, in Hertfordshire, had a thriving toddler group before lockdown. They have restarted worship, under worship guidelines, each household staying together. To do this, they went outside and incorporated movement, so toddlers can get out the wiggles while staying with their households.
“We walk around the churchyard,” they wrote, “stopping to do an activity, to say rhymes and play instruments, to make things, and collect things.” They have identified particular trees in the churchyard as their “thank-you tree”, “worry tree”, and “quiet tree” to stop at and pray.
Going outdoors can make churches more visible to the community. A church in the diocese of Blackburn is doing church outdoors for families because, as their Children’s Worker said, “if you’ve got a loud, very active four-year-old, like me, then you’re in a safe, welcoming environment where you’re encouraged to explore and move around together.”
They have found that “families not connected to the church have started arriving, which has been brilliant to see. The walls are literally down.”
Even one-offs at special occasions can keep the relationship going, especially if there are ways to stay in touch in between. The Revd Jo Kershaw, in the diocese of Leeds, did “a craft afternoon with a story, prayers, and a blessing of school bags at the start of term. We did it outside, asked people to let us know they were coming, and set up tables for each household at two-metre intervals on the church field.”
Churches with small outdoor spaces may need to be more creative, but with just a strip of grass, or a large portico, there are ways to use it.
Some are worshipping indoors. Maureen Smith, a children’s worker in the diocese of London, started “Bubble Church”.
“Families sit in their bubbles,” she says. One leader sings, “and there are percussion instruments which children can choose on their way in”. Children do the readings and prayers. Some families join via Zoom, and they can do readings and prayers, too: the church invested in a screen and speaker.
Similarly, a church in the diocese of Newcastle is restarting Messy Church, with blankets for each household, and all the materials needed on each blanket.
OUTSIDE of worship, churches are keeping in touch with families through phone calls, cards, care packages, and more. The Revd Katrina Thomas, in Southwell & Nottingham diocese, delivered each family a soft toy, or “buddy”.
“These ‘buddies’ are there to go on adventures, but also love to be read to from the Bible. [My] buddy, Bella the Bunny, has an email address — she emails out challenges.” Fran Smetten, in Bath & Wells diocese, sent prayer packages, with “bubbles, a mini holding cross, Love Hearts, a battery tea-light, wooden butterfly, and some suggestions about how they could be used.”
Kellor Smith, from an Episcopal Church in California, made “Surprise bags”. Children open the bags during a short online visit with her and the Vicar, with parents present. The diocese of Newcastle has created “Moments of faith prayer-cards” for families to use at home.
Important times of the year can be marked, too. St Peter and St Paul, Flitwick, in Bedfordshire, posted “back-to-school cards” with a prayer, and did “Harvest Messy-Church-in-a-bag”. They have also delivered cakes to families, and done charity challenges.
Some churches have — with permission — created WhatsApp groups for Sunday, toddler-group, or Messy Church families. Parents chat and share prayer requests. Having church leaders in the group keeps that connection with the church. (At least two DBS-checked adults are needed in any WhatsApp group with young people or vulnerable adults.)
Even if it’s only possible to offer small things, families appreciate knowing that they’re cared for. One mother told me that she thought her children had “forgotten how it used to be. We’re unsure when our church will open again, and if they will come with me.”
“I pray with them, but I’ve not done any Bible teaching. There’s been nothing for them from church at all. I don’t think they’ll want to go back, and I’m not looking forward to that.”
In contrast, another mother said: “Our children’s worker sent a personalised postcard at the height of lockdown, with an individual Bible verse. My two loved those; it was a nice reminder that other people care, even when they can’t see them.”
The founder of Messy Church, Lucy Moore, agrees. “A phone call or a card through the door is possibly the most valuable thing Messy teams are doing. We’re demonstrating that our Messy Church family still matters.”
Ultimately, that is what’s important: children and families need to know they matter: to us, and to God. They need to know they’re not alone, they’re not forgotten, and that they are valuable members of our church family. That’s true in all times, but especially now.
Margaret Pritchard Houston is Children’s Mission Enabler for the diocese of St Albans, and author of Beyond the Children’s Corner: Creating a culture of welcome for all ages, published by Church House Publishing at £16.99 (Church Times Bookshop £15.29); 978-1-78140-164-4.