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. Both 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 be songs that aren’t your favourites and YouTube clips that shoot over your head. But isn’t this true in any church?
We 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 40 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 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 and 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.
Many preachers have probably done all of these at some point in 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.
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 sermons.
Could preaching to minors be a master class for your congregation?
– Thalia Kehoe Rowden