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Case Study: Growing Family Worship at St. Jamesí Somerton

Background

Somerton is a small North Oxfordshire Village of 300 people. It has strong roots in the farming community, but in recent years has become increasingly popular with young families looking for a quieter way of life.
As in many villages the boundaries between village community and church community are blurred, with several people involved in the life and running of the church who do not worship on a regular basis. Several years ago it received a significant legacy. The external fabric of the Grade 1 listed building was restored and work completed on a fully accessible toilet, small vestry and kitchenette facility. These facilities have not only enabled the church to be used for a number of village and other events, but also made the space more suitable for engaging with local families.

Invitation & Participation

Although regular church going was reasonably healthy, the PCC recognised that more young families were moving into the village. The efforts of a number of committed lay leaders supported by clergy have resulted in significant growth of children involved in the worshipping life of the church and new families coming to faith.The following chart demonstates this growth, with data being taken from regular family worship, excluding special services and baptisms:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The pattern of worship of the church had included family worship for some time, however the form attracted mainly adults. Average attendance at family services in 2008 was 14 adults, but only 4 Children. In 2008 a lay- led service of ‘Bears and Prayers’ was introduced as a replacement for a monthly act of family worship. The form of worship, developed by laity and clergy together included, a mixture of traditional & contemporary music, sorry, please and thank you prayers, physical actions, crafts and bible teaching.

Rather than being a service that was simply suitable to for children to attend, it was a lay- led service in which children played a full part. Rather than simply advertising the services, families were personally invited to come, and to be a part. As this community grew it began to reflect a wider age range of children, being renamed ‘Sunday Club’.

Initially the new pattern of worship and discipleship led to a falling off of attendance. Adults who had previously attended family services felt less comfortable with the new forms. The clergy & PCC ensured that more traditional forms of worship were also available in the community, with Matins and Holy Communion becoming popular.

Listening & Communion

As new families came into the life of the church the parents were consulted about the future. They expressed a desire to introduce their children into an adult structured form of service and in particular Holy Communion.

A Family Communion service was introduced following the principles of Sunday Club. Rather than being a regular communion service in which children are welcome, it was shaped as an act of worship where children participate in every part. The children help ring the bells, light the candles, place balls in a basket to show they are sorry, sing a Peruvian Gloria, help with a talk, prepare the table for Communion, and stand around the table. As Jesus’ words are said there is a profound silence, the Children especially engaging with the Christ’s presence in the sacrament.

It has been important to ensure that parents are challenged too. Questions and answers are an important part of the service, so whole families can understand what it means to follow Jesus, why we ring bells to call others to worship, why we light candles to show Jesus is the light of the world and why we offer bread and wine.

Interaction between children and adults is key. As the children say ‘Sorry God’ they often want to confess out loud. One Sunday one child said simply ‘Sorry God for being a bit of a pickle’, and an adult responded ‘I’m sorry God for being a bit of a pickle too’. The children ask hard questions which often require adults to reflect more deeply on their faith, such as “Is it real blood or are we playing let’s pretend?”

A simple sung setting of parts of the liturgy, using well known hymn tunes has been warmly embraced, mixed with songs that the children know from school. As the children have grown older a number have been trained in more formal serving roles, and given robes to help them remember the seriousness of this responsibility.

At the end of the servicethe children process around the church with musical instruments leading us all in praise.

Communication & Discipleship

Communication has been key to ongoing growth. A lay coordinator of the children’s work sends emails to keep parents aware. Prayers and readings are distributed well in advance so that the children have time to practise, and invite friends and family members.

The typical pattern of attendance of village church going is only a couple of times a month. This provides a challenge in terms of discipleship, and although Alpha, Start!, Steps (a monthly spirituality group) and 7 (a discipleship course based on the sacraments) have been offered in the wider benefice few people are able to commit weekly - especially as rural commuters seldom arrive home until later in the evening. However, as the worshiping community has grown, families have been drawn in to the ongoing story of the Church year. Involving them in these festivals offers them opportunities for further basic Christian teaching, as well as bringing Christians together who prefer different forms of worship.

Conclusions & the Future

Although Somerton is a small community the Church is very much alive. Through the principles of Invitation, Listening & Communication, faith in Jesus Christ has become a part of a greater number of people’s lives.

There are challenges. There is an overlap between those who attend different styles of worship, especially at festivals, but the whole church needs to grow together in unity. We are keen to encourage a wider range of people onto the PCC to reflect this.  As the Children grow older there are competing activities at weekends and we are exploring ways to engage with older children after school on Fridays. The greatest challenge is ongoing discipleship, especially of parents. Here we are exploring how online resources such as Foundations 21 can fit into peoples busy lives.

Most importantly it should be noted that growth in Somerton has not been about particular liturgies or programmes. Rather at heart it is the commitment of church members to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others, with warmth and generosity, responding to their needs, and modelling what it means to be a Disciple of Jesus.


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