How to include all ages in worship
The music we find in the church should not just mimic what goes on in the world, but rather should be setting the standards of creativity
the attitude of heart of those leading, and those participating
by Mike Burn - [printer version]
When I first started leading worship, 12 or so years ago, I used to think that the bit we had in the service when the children were all in was a real inconvenience, and I would do a couple of quick actions songs with an embarrassed expression on my face, and then send them out to their separate activities so that the adults could get on with some "proper worship". Many things happened over the following years to change my perception radically, one of the most significant being that I had 3 children, and became aware of their needs, and their capacity to express worship every bit as effectively as an adult.
In the world, the generations tend to polarise: each new generation thinks that it is the only one that matters, and often invents its own culture and music to reflect its identity, and set it apart from the previous generations. Depending what age you are as you read this, you might have identified in your youth with flappers and the Charleston, jazz, rock and roll, punk, glam. rock, new wave, or house. Who can predict what the next genre will be? Each generation as it grows older often yearns for "the good old days" and complains that the latest music style is too loud/has no melody/you can't hear the words!
In the kingdom of heaven, though, we are called to unity across all of the divides: national, cultural, denominational, generational. Where the world tends towards enmity and separation, we are called towards love and reconciliation. Surely that should be reflected in our times of praise and worship together? There are bound to be musical tastes and preferences which differ in the church, but if we "prefer one another in love", then there should be something for everyone in our times of worship. Music is one of the most powerful communicators, and when we can sing with one voice, it does something powerful in the spiritual realm in demonstrating that we really are one body.
Many worship leaders and musicians will genuinely try to include all ages in worship, but maybe struggle to draw the children in, or if the children are happy then some of the teenagers get bored, or if the teenagers are happy then some of the older folks feel excluded...and so on. A key aim of the Family Worship series is to present songs which cross the boundaries between worship for different ages, and do so in a context which says that everyone matters and therefore should be included in our times of all-age worship. (A definition may be useful: "family" in the context of the church does not just mean parents with children but means absolutely everyone, regardless of age, gender or marital status)
I was devastated to learn a while back that one estimate calculated recently is that children and youth are leaving the church in the UK at the rate of 300 every day. Everything that we are doing with the Family Worship recordings, activities and resources is arising from a growing conviction and vision that we need to stem the tide flowing out from our churches, and to see it reversed, so that children and youth (as well as adults!) start flowing back in from the world to the church. I'm sure that if young children really enjoy church (and worship is one of the key features that can make it enjoyable for them) then when they get to the critical pre-teen and teenage years, they will choose to stay. And then, as teenagers and young adults, if there is included in our worship the kind of music that they can identify with and feel is acceptable and credible, then they will continue to stay through their adolescence and into adulthood. The music we find in the church should not just mimic what goes on in the world for the sake of being contemporary, but rather should be setting the standards of creativity, excellence and enjoyment for the world to take note of.
What about the other end of the spectrum - older folks who feel alienated and cut-off by the seemingly endless number of new songs, instruments and styles of music that they are confronted with? What's wrong with the old hymns? Well, absolutely nothing, I'd suggest, and in our enthusiasm to embrace new styles of worship, we shouldn't neglect the rich heritage of existing songs and styles. In the same way that we want to value and include children and youth in our worship, we should value and include older generations too. It's not a question of compromising and trying to placate all the different ages and preferences we find in the church, but rather a question of saying that every single person is valuable and therefore should be included in what we do together.
In the introduction to the first Family Worship songbook (Let Praise Break Out), Graeme Young suggested that family worship can be compared to a family meal time, where there is something for everyone. I love this comparison, because conceptually it leaves room for the separate times of worship that we can enjoy, for example, larger adult celebrations are likened to an adult dinner party, and children-only times of worship are likened to a kids' party. There's nothing wrong with these occasions - they're wonderful, but we need the family meal regularly to express our togetherness, and ensure a healthy diet for everyone. It's interesting to note that in the world, many families no longer sit down to a regular family meal, but exist on a pattern of TV dinners for the kids, and separate meals for the adults. We need to be careful not to follow the same pattern in the church.
Practically, where does all this lead? In my experience, successful times of worship with all ages present depends not so much on the practical details of what is done, but on the attitude of heart of those leading, and those participating. If we are prepared to let go of our preferences and prejudices, and ask God to give us his heart and mind to see one another as he sees us, then the release of love that will surely result may give us a taste of heaven in our worship.