Sunday, November 25, 2012

Changing My Attitude to All-age Church Services

My attitude to “all-age” church services has undergone something of a revolution in recent times. It was not that long ago that I was rudely dismissive of what I referred to as ‘pantomime services’ (!), because of the lighter approach required with youngsters, the shorter talks and the cringe-inducing invitations to “join in the actions” to the songs. Within the last fortnight I realised the extent to which my thinking has changed. When an all-age service was announced at my church, I was sitting in the middle of group of older people who greeted the news with a collective groan; while the person sitting next to me audibly sighed, “oh no!” It’s not that I do not sympathise with this sentiment, as it is one I used to share; but I was firstly surprised to hear it being expressed so forthrightly, and then to notice the revolution in my thinking.

I used to think that the presence of children in the service (and the necessary accommodation made to their limitations), meant essentially a dumming down of the proceedings. It would mean that I would not get a full sermon aimed at me, geared around my educational level, with application pitched at me and my contemporaries. “Dunno why I bothered coming – I didn’t learn anything” – summarised my attitude. I also used to think that by not bringing what I considered our “best”; that is to say our most theologically literate songs, and our most well-honed and nuanced Bible expositions, we were not presenting our ‘best’ to God. How could He not be dishonoured by His people doing this? Wouldn’t it be better to move the children aside in order to allow us to do better?

The first person challenge my thinking was the great Reformer, John Calvin. In the “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, he wrote: 

“For who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness." 

(John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.13.1.)

This highlighted the issue for me with alarming clarity because I realised that I had misunderstood the situation profoundly. My view of matter had looked a little like this:

(this diagram only relates to levels of understanding/intellect)

In this view, we position ourselves far higher than the child, and much closer to GOD. We assume that with our minds we are able to comprehend, to seriously grapple and respond to the deep things of God; or dare I say it, presume to impress Him with our understanding. But Calvin’s quote demolishes all this. In his wise estimation, what we as adults have understood is because God has condescended, through incarnation and inspiration to reach down far, far, below Himself to speak to us. Our wisest thoughts, our greatest sermons, are puny in the light of the weight of His glory. So my diagram must immediately be re-written: and even this new diagram significantly under-estimates the full story!

(again, this diagram only relates to levels of understanding/intellect)

Simply put; I am convinced that while we think there is such a huge drop in profundity, of depth, of the worship of the mind, when we re-place singing “Immortal, Invisible, God Only-Wise”, with “Our God is a Great Big God”, for a morning; such thoughts do nothing more than reveal our spiritual pride before God. If God (as Calvin argues), must indulge us with “divine baby-talk”, in order to stir us to our greatest ever thoughts; then the drop when we condescend to the thought-world and vocabulary of a small child is, in the eternal scheme of things, virtually imperceptible.

When Jesus rebuked the disciples and allowed the children to come to him in that oft-quoted incident in the gospels; it must have been hard for them. Hard, not because earning a rebuke from the master is troubling; but because it was humbling to the point of embarrassment. If they thought they were making progress as disciples because of their status; such thoughts dissolved before the fact that Jesus condescends no more to bless a toddler than to teach us adults. 

The gathering together of the church is a necessary part of her worship. The Christian life was never meant to be expressed individualistically but corporately – as so much of the New Testament directs. What we do in such gatherings is important, indeed a whole chunk of 1 Corinthians was written to correct a church whose gatherings were more harmful than good, requiring urgent Reformation. The essence of this has to be, doing what God wants us to do, which may or may not be what we want to do, and may or may not be what we are comfortable with. So for some, engaging with Bible-teaching might be hard-work, but must necessarily follow as a discipline of the Christian life. Such teaching might offend our norms, both in content, and form – but if we think that God has condescended to speak to us this way; then we should not set much store by our counter-preferences. But what does God actually want in terms of our gatherings? 

In her recent book, “Children, Families and God”, Lynn Alexander argues (amongst other things), that God’s pattern in the Bible is for generations to come together before Him. This is certainly the case in the Old Testament, when the Israelite tribes were assembled, is the case in the ministry of Jesus (as noted), is invoked at Pentecost when Peter describes the New Covenant blessings as being for your children and your children’s children; in the epistles where the house-church context makes the discipline of the leader’s children a necessary part of church-life, and in Revelation where children are pictured in heaven’s streets. This is important.

Those damaging gatherings in Corinth where some refused to wait for the slaves to be freed from their household duties, before commencing the fellowship-meal; were given Paul’s “body of Christ” metaphor to chew on. Even the smallest member is considered vital and important; something without which the whole lacks. It seems clear to me therefore, that there is something about the gathering of the whole family of God before Him; with which The Lord is pleased. It is something He wants, has commanded, and so our approach to Him in unity something to be greatly prized and protected. Logistically, separate age-appropriate teaching is obviously going to be part of the life of a church community; but it cannot be at complete exclusion of the whole family of God coming together. If worship is not primarily about having ‘my needs’ met (however loftily I presume the fulfilling of them to be); but pleasing God; then my prejudice against children’s songs, even with the dreaded actions, has to go. A repeated refrain I hear from older Christians, when younger people say that they find the style of our public gatherings to be outmoded is that the young are “consumerist”, demanding that their personal preferences be adopted. It maybe true – but it is profoundly unhelpful when it comes from people whose cultural preferences and needs are met virtually all the time in church; and whose tenacious hold on content, format and style is the very definition of consumerism in worship! I am convinced that older Christians, need to lead the way here in demonstrating what it means to ‘prefer the other’, to defer to the needs of less mature believers on countless secondary matters which do not consist of vital articles of faith. In so doing, they can play a part in bringing the family of God together to worship, because worship is primarily about pleasing God, not ourselves.

Some of the people we are called to worship alongside are very small. They may not have a vast knowledge of the Bible, they may not be able to stand up and lead eloquently in prayer. They may respond especially well to music which some of us older people might consider to be a fearful racket. The slaves in 1 Corinthians were restricted in their freedoms, yet the believers there were not called to ignore them, but to wait for them, to take special heed of their circumstances and limitations. So we should with the younger members of our community.

Missionary work is the process in which the gospel of Jesus Christ is transmitted across cultures and languages. Pioneer missionaries often look for parallels between the Bible’s message and the culture they are living in, in order to make the word understood. These local symbols, customs and words are often picked up and expressed in worship-songs as the church roots and grows in new cultural contexts. This is all good, but while usually understood and accepted in terms of cross-cultural transmission, we need to realise again how important such principles can be in cross-generational transmission of the Bible. One children’s song that makes some people I know very cross features the lyrical claim that Jesus is “better than” and lists various superheroes from children’s TV and film. I have heard it described as irreverent tripe, as puerile and unfit for public worship. Well, indeed it would be if it were given to a congregation of OAP’s to sing! However, as a piece of missionary work, entering into the cultural landscape that children occupy and claiming it for Christ, it is good, relevant and timely. Just as Elijah’s generation needed to know that Baal had no power to set Mt Carmel’s altar alight, there are kids today who need to sing about the real hero of the world; who puts to shame the phony plastic heroes of their culture.

Descriptions of God which we use to honour Him in worship are sometimes described as being either “Cataphatic” or “Apophatic”. Cataphatic descriptions seek to say positive things about who God is and what He is like. Human language and concepts are obviously inadequate here, and we find ourselves using the best language we have, all the while accepting that we are recipients of divine accommodation, even as we use terms such as ‘righteous’, ‘holy’, ‘complete’. Adult worship when cataphatic must reach us and stretch us; that is it must say something we understand, but must provoke us to look away from ourselves and up to God. All-age worship should provide the same for kids, it must use expressions and images which children of different ages understand – it must draw on their thought-world. Then it must use this language to stretch them; to draw their thinking to new places, to God, to the cross of Christ, to heaven.

When worship is “apophatic”, it is when we use negative thoughts and images to describe what God is NOT like; things to which He stands in contrast. From the viewpoint of our fallen world, there are many examples to draw on! When we sing about God being completely without sin, or better than money (etc) we are using this category. Some theologians prefer apophatic worship to cataphatic descriptions of God because we are on very safe ground pointing to something flimsy, changeable, temperamental, flawed, wicked or dirty and singing about how God is quite unlike any of those things. So while we adults might sing, pray, and preach, about all this world’s goods and promises being nothing compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ; children need to be allowed to express that He is better, far better than the thing which shines brightest in their world. If one youngster decides that Jesus is better than Lionel Messi – then that is as profoundly worshipful as when an adult seeks to dethrone money as the organising principle of his life. If a little girl sings with all her heart that Jesus is ‘better than Barbie”; then to you it might be trite and unworthy; but I believe that heaven rejoices with her. If the angels do not mock adult’s highest and noblest attempts to worship God (which from their lofty vantage point must often look a little silly) but want to join the voices of heaven with those on earth in praise; then we have no business in stamping on the flickering flames of worship being kindled in a child’s soul. 

My previous attitude to all age worship has had to change; I hope my prejudices and unease at some of it follows suit! There are times in such services, when I could rightly unleash my old-criticism that I “haven’t learnt anything”; but frankly I have been a Christian for more than two-decades and should by now be capable of taking some responsibility for my own spiritual development. If for one week a month (or however often an all-age service is held), I can’t read more, or download a sermon from the internet and listen to it, in order for a child to have the opportunity to respond to God; then I should be thoroughly ashamed of myself.

Recently I have been watching children during the musical-praise we provided for them in an array of Sunday morning services in various churches. The traditional children’s songs are sound, but twee, orthodox but cheesy – and played in arrangements which represent the culture and generation of the players not the children. It has been sad to see many, many children gloomily staring at the floor, completely unengaged in what we are offering them. A good friend of mine is a worship pastor in a large church, devoted to using music to assist God’s people worship. He contends that the Bible contains The Psalms’  lyrics but not the tunes or the arrangements to sing them to; not because of a lack of ancient musical notation, but by the plan of God. His view (with which I concur) is that we have been given the truths to sing, but have been left the task of constructing the music ourselves. This is not simply so that our God-mirroring creativity can be fully unleashed in all its imago-dei wonder, but also so that this vehicle is constantly relevant, constantly connecting, constantly engaging not alienating the participants. “The Musicians Union says keep music live” –  say the little yellow stickers on thousands of guitar cases! I agree. However, I have noticed that children consistently engage better with the recorded videos of praise songs that have been used. This seems to be for a number of reasons. Firstly kids love repetition, and the arrangements are identical each and every time you play the clip. Secondly, the arrangements and tempos just work culturally for them; if they have listened to guitar/bass/drums/ all week, they simply will not ‘get’ a semi-orchestral re-working of a song they love. Thirdly, and very significantly, the video-clips synch the lyrics very tightly to the music making it easy to follow, whereas a whole screen of text presents a barrier. I have heard this dismissed as ‘karaoke’ but that I suggest, misses the point. It meets kids where they are, which I maintain pleases God, which in turn makes it by very definition ‘worship’. 

All-age worship is not a new phenomenon. All-age worship does not necessarily imply that truth is dumbed-down or avoided. I am realising that I need to rediscover something from my own childhood here. I grew up in a determinedly Reformed Evangelical church, where the pastor was a noted Bible-scholar and expositor. People travelled a long-way to hear him preach – something which never surprised me because he was exceptionally gifted. Yet, the monthly family services he conducted were a highlight! He would sometimes do three short-talks instead of one 45 minute sermon, would use visual aids, would interact with and talk to the children; and this was in the 1970s! The seventies were a long, long time ago- and much has changed, Flannelgraph has come and gone and re-appeared in a kind of post-modern ironic parody of itself. Yet, while the specifics of all-age worship may have changed since 1977, the principles remain intact: the truths of the Psalms need to be re-voiced in a new idiom in 2012. God wants His family to meet, and to approach him together. This will involve the older, more mature, and wiser members of the congregation learning to mimic the divine-accommodation of God, who stoops way below Himself to condescend to address us in ways we can understand. If God in His mercy uses such “Divine baby-Talk” to reach down to us, then in fact, a mark of our own Godliness, and sanctification will be our willingness to imitate Him and stoop to those with less understanding than us. 

But please don’t make me “do the actions”, please!

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