Fresh expressions for under 5s and their families


Eucharistic midweek congregation

A eucharistic midweek congregation in suburban North Ascot in Berkshire aimed primarily at under 5s and their families. This fresh expression of church, called Mini Mass, meets on a Tuesday morning at 9.30am after the school run in the Chapel of St Mary and St John.

The vicar believes that one real strength of Mini Mass is that it has proved for some to be a gentle way 'into the church' or 'back into the church'. One ongoing concern is that for some it has proved to be merely a cul-de-sac, with a service designed for children being the only act of worship for a few of the adults. While some reflection on how to move beyond this is required, Mini Mass remains one of the important opportunities for outreach, service and pastoral care offered by the parish of All Saints.

These reflections of the parish illustrate one of the dilemmas of church for under 5s. Who is being discipled in this context and what does discipleship mean? What is the long term strategy for helping young children grow up in the Christian faith?

Church in a soft play centre

The Wesley PlayhouseCaroline Holt, a lay member of the local Methodist congregation, established The Wesley Playhouse in Birstall, West Yorkshire in 2008. Every month, as many as 1,000 pre-school children plus mums, dads and grandparents, visit the play area midweek for fun and relaxation.

Those that come know it is a soft play area run by Christians. There is a prayer board, as well as booklets on tables introducing the Christian faith. Volunteers chat with those who use the centre, and a counselling room has been created that offers parents the chance for a quiet chat while being able to watch their children play through a large glass window. The feedback Caroline and the team receive from those that use the Playhouse has been remarkably positive. The relaxed and caring atmosphere of the Playhouse is sensed and much appreciated.

For the numerous parties that are held in the centre, invitations are included in the party bags for families to come to the once a month Sunday 4pm gathering called Playhouse Praise. Crafts, songs and prayers are used in a similar style to a Messy Church gathering. Three christenings have taken place in the centre this year. The majority of those who visit Playhouse Praise have never before had any meaningful contact with church.

Weekly creative self-esteem/low key discipleship group

Space4Me is for mums of children under 5 in Sheffield that has evolved out of a flourishing mother and toddler ministry of a large church. It is aimed at women who are interested in exploring more about God but struggle to 'fit' into a usual church setting. It is deliberately kept small to enable friendships to deepen and discussions to take place.

A fresh expression of worship at Sheffield Cathedral

Child colouring a snowmanLittle Fishes is a monthly toddler service that meets at 10.30am on the first Thursday of every month. Toddlers and their parent and/or grandparent follow the trail of little laminated fishes from the cathedral door through this beautiful sacred building to the side chapel. As the service begins, each parent and child lights a tea light and places it on the altar, a symbol of special time set aside together with each other and with God.

Sitting on cushions on the floor in a circle, simple songs are sung and simple prayers are prayed. Canon Dr Joanne Grenfell, residentiary canon on staff at the cathedral, guides the group through their time together. Boxes of raisins are handed out just before a short Bible story is told by a team member in Godly Play style. Everyone quietly eats their snack while listening. This is followed by a craft activity prepared and led by one of the mums, with tea, coffee and biscuits served by a volunteer.

The service concludes with prayers where the children are asked to think of anything that has made them feel sad, worried, happy or thankful; with the help of a bubble machine, all this is offered to God, and the service ends with a farewell song and a blessing.

Things to keep in mind

Claire Dalpra, assistant researcher at the Church Army's Sheffield Centre for over ten years, has the following to say:

Think carefully about how you start

Be aware that different starting points seem to connect better with different types of people. For example, 'fresh expressions of worship' often draw families with previous church experience. 'Fresh expressions of community' are often a better starting point to work with those who have no previous church experience.

Boy and cloudsFind out about Godly Play

Even if you decide it isn't right in your context, Godly Play is a helpful reminder that under 5s groups needn't be about babysitting our young ones or teaching them stories that will help them when their older. Spirituality can be explored by children no matter how young they are.

Godly Play methodology trusts that the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives now and deliberately leaves space for children to reflect and wonder rather filling up time by telling them what to believe. Anyone keen on nurturing spirituality in children will find the Godly Play approach contains many useful pointers.

Expect short and small

Anyone with experience of small children will know that keeping any activity or act of worship short makes sense.

Keeping a group of a manageable size will also be an advantage

Children will feel more engaged if they can see what is going on and the noise and chaos will hopefully be kept to a minimum. Not unlike cell church thinking, keeping groups small means that any rapidly growing under 5s fresh expression may have to consider multiplication sooner than other types of fresh expression.

Don't stop for holidays

Be aware that for many families of pre-school children, school terms do not affect their patterns yet. For many first time mums whose husbands work, holidays can be a lonely time if all community groups stop. If resources and energy allow, think about out of term-time activities, even if they are low maintenance social events. This will also help contribute to the feeling that what you are growing is church rather than a just a programme or activity.

Give careful thought to disciplship.

Consider how the discipleship needs of both children and adults can be responded to. It is rare that one gathering can do both well. Consider what else might be needed. For fresh expressions aimed primarily at under 5s, consider what might help their adult family members. It might be an evening discipleship group or a daytime gathering with crèche facilities. For fresh expressions that engage parents of under 5s, consider what might be engage their children spiritually.

You might feel awkward or vulnerable when first asking adults whether they want to explore spirituality further, either on their own or with their young children. However, have courage. Many leaders have said how surprised they have been by how open people are. The leaders of one toddler group handed out to their mums personal invitations to a group taster session to 'reflect on life' and 'explore more about God'. While not all came, a significant number did and after the taster session were happy to do the same kind of thing on an ongoing basis.

Even if the first few weeks of meeting together still feel a bit embarrassing, stick with it and be prepared to be open about the highs and lows of your spiritual journey as a way to encourage others to share.

Do it properly

Child and parent bondingIf crèche facilities are required at any stage, make sure they are staffed by people who have been properly trained. Make sure you have the required number of helpers and that all are CRB checked. Parents want to know they are leaving their children with people who know what they are doing.

Join it up

Think about what will happen when the children turn five. Does an appropriate follow-on group exist for them? Will one need to be begun? Will it be part of your existing fresh expression or a new expression in itself?

Overall, is there sufficient similarity in style and content between the under 5s work and the over 5s work to enable children to make the transition with relative ease? Encouraging longer term joined-up thinking will reduce the tendency for connections to be lost with families when they outgrow the stage of life the fresh expression seeks to connect with.

Is it realistic to expect your fresh expression members to transition to existing church or church groups when children turn 5? Experience shows that many in the earliest stages of journeying into faith still find the 'jump' to existing church too 'big' to negotiate. Unfamiliar people, a less child friendly environment, worship that feels alien and patterns of unemployment can all contribute.

If you or others are concerned that what is developing is unhelpfully segregating the generations in your church community, consider making connections across the generations through community events such as harvest suppers, easter egg hunts or evangelistic events such as litter picking or handing out sweets to passers-by. Public worship needn't be the only option for expressing overall unity across a diverse set of congregations. Indeed, sometimes worship is the most limiting dimension of church to engage all ages well and create space for interaction.

Think about the journey your fresh expression is travelling on. Knowing where your fresh expression is on its journey will lead to greater self-awareness and guidance on how you can grow your fresh expression to greater maturity.

You may find it helpful to look at How do fresh expressions develop? What stage of the journey do think you have reached? How might you travel to the next milestone? If you're not sure, might you post a question at the end of this page and pray that someone responds with some helpful suggestions?