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thalia kehoe rowden – minor master class

I was a sceptic when I arrived at West Baptist Church in New Plymouth in 2008.

For many years West had embraced an all-age approach to church life, including Sunday mornings.  Yes, you read that right.  In a church of 70-odd on a Sunday, the kids were in the service the whole time.

While I applauded West’s inclusiveness and clear valuing of children, I was pretty sceptical about how a preacher could feed such a broad range of people, week-in, week-out, without missing people at either end of the maturity spectrum.

Three-and-a-half years later, I’m not just a convert, but an evangelist, for all-age preaching, all the time.  It’s not easy, but I’m a better preacher for it, and the benefits to the congregation, in both preaching and community cohesion, certainly outweigh the difficulties.

All-age services offer the kind of deep community that including everyone fosters and the regular exercise of generosity this level of inclusion requires, and both these benefits mean I get really good bang for my buck in leading this community.

All our kids know a dozen adults outside their family who obviously think the world of them.  It takes a church to raise a child, right?  They all know that church is a place for them, where they are important (they each have jobs) and so is their growth.

Our aim is to have something in each service that is ‘for’ most groups of people.  We are also very clear that there will be parts of the service that are not ‘for’ you.  There will be action songs some adults feel silly singing, there will be boring talky bits that aren’t aimed at the youngest kids, there will songs that aren’t your favourites and YouTube clips that shoot over your head.  But isn’t this true in any church?  At West explicitly remind each other that generosity to other people, in allowing them space for things we don’t enjoy but that connects them to God, is worship in itself, and to be embraced.  And we get regular practice at this, week in, week out.

But what about the poor preacher, whose congregation ranges from babies and pre-schoolers not known for their love of sermons or quiet, to people who are eager to be stretched after forty years of following Jesus?

My approach is usually to think and write content for mature Christians, but present it creatively in ways that invite younger humans and younger Christians to engage with big ideas.  On a good day, this means that both ends of the spectrum are reached by the sermon.

We all use images, stories, evocative language to illustrate the points we make.  The trick to an all-age preaching lifestyle seems to be to make that imagery three-dimensional.  Instead of just telling a story or describing an image, here are some things I’ve tried:

  • read a carefully picked, excellent kids’ book, with the pictures scanned for the screen, and weave it into the sermon as the main illustration;
  • get adults and kids to be characters in a story, or even parts of a diagram, acting it out impromptu;
  • do a demonstration with props (think of the ‘rocks in the jar’ demo you may have seen);
  • do a brief craft activity that brings it all together;
  • or just have a great picture or prop to make the image jump out: hold a fishing rod while talking about fishing.

You’ve probably done all of these at some point in your preaching to adults – it’s not rocket science, just methodical fleshing out of normal preaching practice.

This is not the dreaded slavery to trendy YouTube clips or dependence on technology that conscientious preachers rightly worry about.  It is simply making our existing imagery three-dimensional, more accessible to those with younger minds or non-auditory preferences.

All-age preaching has been great for stretching my skills.  It makes me a more thoughtful, creative preacher, because I can’t rely on purely oral sermons where the congregation works hard to keep pace.  I do some of those – not every sermon has to be for every person, in our approach – but more often, I preach sermons that have the same content as one intended for an attentive adult audience, but with the imagery made manifest in a way that broadens the accessibility.

In giving children access to our preaching, we accidentally include a lot of adults who might struggle to engage with purely spoken sermons, or who don’t have years of churchgoing to help them navigate them.

Could preaching to minors be a master class for you and your congregation?

* * *

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is an awesome parallel parker and the pastor of New Plymouth West Baptist Church, a place of shelter, faith and laughter.

8 Comments

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  3. Greg says:

    Hi Thalia,

    This is great Thalia. I love the idea very much, although I have to admit that I was pretty sceptical about it when I was pastoring. I would love to see it in action and done well. The fact that it’s you saying it makes it pretty hard to argue with though. 🙂 Some questions immediately come to mind:

    – Do you find it hard to stop your preaching being gimmicky? Or dumbed down? Do you have to pick and choose topics based on children being in the room?
    – Do kids have other things to do when the bits of the service that aren’t for them is on?
    – Do you find people’s attention wandering to the cute 3 year old who’s running around just when you are making your most telling point? (I admit this annoyed me when I was preaching.)
    – Do you think it could work in a church that had 250 people in it, for example, or is it exclusively a “less than 100 people” option.

    I imagine that because kids do this every week they get into the groove, which is different from them being in with the adults only once every term and weren’t that used to what was going on. Do new people struggle to fit in?

    I really think this kind of direction needs to be explored more in terms of handling some of the generational challenges in our 21st century churches. I’m fascinated by it and would love to hear more. Thanks for writing about it.

    Cheers,

    Greg

  4. Hi Greg,

    Good questions, all! And thanks for your kind words.

    Some thoughts (feel free to skim!):

    • I don’t think the ‘gimmicky’ thing is a problem if you plan your content first and then think of how to present it in an all-age way. I plan my preaching calendar with the adults in mind, largely, and then work on making sermons accessible by explaining things better rather than dumbing things down. At least that’s what I aim for.
    • Censoring because the kids are around is less of an issue than I had anticipated. Explicit discussions on sexuality are just about the only thing I wouldn’t go near on a Sunday morning, and I’ve been thinking an evening series on that would be the way to go. Lots of other ‘adult’ topics are more interesting and relevant to kids than we think, I reckon, and we have the latitude to do sermons that are definitely over their heads every so often.
    • We give the kids other things to do during the higher-pitched sermons, but that isn’t very often – maybe 5-10 sermons a year? Usually a related craft activity or set of worksheet/colouring sheets. If you give kids something to do, they switch off, but if you don’t, it’s surprising what they take in.

    I and parents are constantly impressed at the conversations that come up in the wake of sermons that weren’t in any way ‘kids’ talks’. I’ve had five-year-olds quote sermons and texts back to me weeks later and a ten-year-old ask to meet with me to talk about Matthew 18 as it applied to her friends, a full year after I preached on it.
    • Yes, kids stealing the show is part of the challenge! We have some very cute children ☺.

    I can email you (or anyone) some of the guides we have created for parents, kids and adults-without-kids to help things work smoothly. One of the things we ask of the non-parenting adults is that they keep their eyes on the speaker and do their best to ignore distraction. It’s very hard to finish your sentence when fifty pairs of eyes go to the side of the room! Parents are encouraged to have their kids next to them through the service both for that reason and because then they can be constantly helping them to engage with what’s going on – topical whispering is encouraged.
    • Yes, I think it could work with 250. It requires commitment and a strong culture of this-is-how-we-do-things-here-and-why, but logistically, it’s not *that* hard to see it working in a bigger community.

    You’d need a good team approach (organising the pipe-cleaners or crayons for the related craft activity would be onerous for the preacher!), thoughtful creativity about giving dozens of children different ‘jobs’ in the service (though I suppose in a large church, fifteen handing out newsletters, fifteen collecting the offering could work, as well as all the other more specific things), maybe some small group discussion built into the service more often (we can kind of do that all together, asking all our kids for their input in the larger group).

    Involving kids beyond Sundays is important, too – for example, plenty of kids like praying for other people, so giving them an appropriately edited weekly digest from the prayer chain has worked for us and would be great in a big church.
    • Visitors do struggle, often, though I’ve seen a variety of responses. Without knowing for sure, we suspect there are lots of people, mostly families, who check us out and don’t stay because there’s no Sunday School – probably a mix of the all-age approach looking too hard and a worry that their kids won’t be well catered-for.

    But on the biggest train wreck service this year (from my perspective), where we suddenly had ten new kids with no church experience on an adult-sermon kind of a day (you can imagine how that worked out), I was at the door after the service.

    We had a few visiting adults without kids, too, and to each of them I said a wry, ‘thanks for bearing with us in the chaos today’. And to my shock and shame, each one enthused about how lovely it was to see the children involved. And that same day a new family from the primary school across the road was there, and the Mum was overcome at ‘being allowed to keep her babies with her’.

    Overall, in my time I’d say we might have grown more numerically if we had a Sunday School, but we have grown more in terms of depth of community because of the all-age approach, and all the new people who have stayed have done so either because of or in spite of the demands of it.

    Happy to talk further 🙂

  5. Greg says:

    Thanks Thalia – it’s your last paragraph that attracts me the most! Good, clear answers. I wish I had heard this stuff 5 years ago when I was pastoring full time. Hopefully I’ll get the opportunity again sometime to give something like it a go.

    Cheers,

    Greg

  6. Robyn says:

    Great blog post Thalia thanks! Good reminder to us all although you are especially talented in this area 🙂
    Blessings,
    Robyn

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