Toddler Church arose as we at Hobart’s Clarence Uniting Church attempted to find ways of including the under fours who are at worship on any given Sunday. We can have up to eight in that age group attending.
We made a commitment to keep them involved because one of our new guiding values is all-age worship. Bellerive has a worshipping community where the youngest person is 10 months old and the oldest is in their nineties.
At first the children’s area was at the back of the church and connecting with our youngest members was difficult as we fell into the usual pattern of calling them to come down the front, a difficult task for two-year-olds.
The first question we asked was how can we encourage children to know that they have a place in our church?
We used an idea from ministerial colleague Avril Hannah-Jones in Victoria who had cushions made for the children in her congregation so they knew they had a place in the worship space.
We began by inviting the children to come up to the front for our gathering time and claim their cushion, each labelled with their name. Some also collect the cushions for younger members who are not old enough to get their own. This helps reinforce that children have an important place with us in church worship.
Quickly we discovered that we needed a larger corridor so that there was a free flow of movement through the church, and children did not feel they were relegated to the back. We cleared a third of the chairs from part of the worship space so that they could come down the front easily, and worship leaders could move more freely and engage with everyone directly.
We have conversations with the children about the noisy times in church and they move and dance with percussion instruments during our singing. We also tell them about the quiet times when we talk with God. There is always a children’s song and children’s prayer.
Jan, a member of our congregation who worked in family day care for 25 years, has been invaluable in shaping Toddler Church. She arranges lectionary-based activities for the toddlers based around three very broad themes of ‘God loves us’, ‘Jesus is our friend’ and ‘we look like God’. There are up to three activities presented during our worship service.
We have appropriately-sized tables, no chairs, a sand tray for Old Testament stories and a water bath. There is also a table with a sheet over it and this has become our ‘story cave’ retreat area for times when the toddlers get a bit raucous, and they do.
I feel blessed to be part of a worshipping community who demonstrates patience and strives to make sure our youngest members feel welcome and included.
It doesn’t always work but we are beginning to recognise the ministry that their presence brings Sunday by Sunday.
The joy we collectively feel when the nativity is noticed by one of the Toddler Church members for the first time, the children’s work now displayed on the walls or decorating our Christmas tree, the happy noise made in response to a psalm or song or a reading. We have also been reminded of the gift of patience.
We have not really thought of anything new but gleaned ideas from Messy Church, Godly Play and research that is leading our church back to valuing our commitment to all-age worship. We have just put these ideas together in a way that is becoming organic to who we are as the Clarence UC, Bellerive.
We are looking forward to Easter when the word is ‘surprise’ – our surprise is that the tomb is empty. What better way is there to demonstrate that than smashing the largest hollow Easter egg I can find to celebrate Easter Day!
Ann Perrin is minister of Clarence Uniting Church