Growing Through Church – Review

Before I start reviewing Growing through the Church: A practical and theological vision for all-age worship by Russell Herbert I want to give a bit of background on how I came to be reading the book.

Karl has been asked to write a proper review on it for somewhere and so that’s how we happened to have it in the house when I got back from leading an all age service on Sunday which I knew hadn’t achieved what it was supposed to – i.e. it hadn’t been all age worship. The prayer and preperation had all gone into it and I had worked hard to put something together which was appropriate but it hadn’t worked as I’d hoped. As a teacher it was a feeling I was familiar with – you know when something hasn’t engaged (in the intended way or not).

As a reflective practitioner I know the way to deal with this feeling – which is particularly hard for some of us to deal with – is acknowledge the feelings you have, be kind to yourself rather than beat yourself up and then look at why it didn’t work and what you might do differently. Once you’ve looked at why it hadn’t gone as you had hoped some further study/ reading/ thinking may be required to try and change what happens next time. And so that’s how I came to be picking up the group which I decided to do a review on – as a way to engage in some positive reflective practice.

Russell Herbert is a Methodist Superintendent who has sought to write a book looking at the theology of all age worship rather than the actual practice involved. As he states in the introduction “it is not a ‘how-to’ book”. That to a large extent is true, although the latter chapters – particularly those on music, prayer and message – do give some excellent practical advice.

Within the introduction he lays out why all age worship can and does go wrong for people – both within the congregation and those leading. As he says two common problems are when it is either “a service for children at which adults are present” or “a service for adults at which children are present.”

The first main chapter entitled The Need to Grow focuses on the need for qualitative growth through discipleship as well as quantitative growth through evangelism within any congregation. The writer explores the way in which over simplification which can occur in the desire to be seeker-sensitive as well as child friendly is problematic. He argues within this chapter and throughout the text that in our desire to be welcoming and inclusive we can hold people back from spiritual maturity and growth.

Within this chapter he begins to talk about alienation making reference to Alan Jamieson’s text A Churchless Faith, and Fowler’s model of the stages of faith which Jamieson refers to within his work. Herbert claims that whilst Jamieson paints a picture of churches which is extreme and fundamentalist but agrees many within congregations would be able to identify with the discontent Jamieson refers to. I think this comment is one which highlights that whilst this book is not written from a denomination position. It is written from the perspective of somebody who is located within a particular ‘mainstream’ theological position which whilst broadly evangelical is also rooted in a tradition which values the use of reason above experience and reads scripture through that lens.

He also critiques the work of John Hull and Pete Ward in this first main chapter to argue against a dependency chapter where people are filtered through a system which turns them into leaders or the led.  He argues most strongly that “there is a need for us to encounter the not yet familiar as well as what we already understand and relate to”.

Chapter Two The Generation Game: Towards and all-age Church is a clarion call for intergenerational church. Again he focuses on the qualitative rather than the quantitative within this chapter. He makes the point that spiritual maturity should not be measured against age or even the length of time people have been Christians rather it should be identified through thought and practice. That said he makes the point that the wisdom of older members of our congregations is often not valued, rather they are often marginalised.

He uses the work of Rob Merchant on the third and forth ages to show how demographic changes within our society relating to life expectancy are meaning that we have a new category of people within our churches. Living into your eighties or nineties is now often the norm rather than the exception. We need, he argues, to value older generations as the church of today rather than viewing them as the church of yesterday.

He has no illusions about the difficulties involved in inclusion and intergenerational worship. However he warns against the Homogeneous Unit Pricipal (HUB) strongly critiquing it and in turn the Fresh Expressions movement which he views, despite what Cray et al may say, as running the risk of producing HUB’s rather than a diverse and inclusive church. (My own view on this can be seen I think from this post I wrote regarding safe space and the Christian LGBandT community).

Chapter Three Church for all Stages: Towards and all-stage Church returns to Fowlers stages of church and critiques this in more depth as well as laying the foundation for using this in much of the rest of the book. Again this is a call for an inclusive approach to church and worship.

The book changes gear between chapters three and four. Chapter Four Imagining Worship looks at worship from a variety of perspectives: as service to God, as the mirror of heaven, as affirmation, as communion, as proclamation and as the arena of transcendence. The last of which he argues is one part often lost – and this is because he argues we can often lose sight of the importance of the presence of God in our worship. There can too often be a focus on what we do, how we do it and why do it without taking into account the reality of the presence of God in our worship.

It is within this forth main chapter that his focus moves to the importance of images and symbols and starts to talk a little more about practice rather than the theology and philoshophy behind it.

In beginning to talk of images he refers to needing to produce a spark and how this often comes from playing with different images to which people are able to relate and which have a link but which are not ordinarily associated.  He argues part of the role of the worship leader/ preacher is to produce a sense of intrege which can be nurtured enabling the familiar to be presented in a way which seems fresh and new.

Within this section where he talks of the value of story, projection and drama he makes several points he goes on to underline. The first is that there is a danger in too much explanation. The second is that symbols are important but they have their power through a sense of participation and interaction with them. If this sense of participation is lost then the congregation is robbed of the necessary meaning of the symbols.

He then talks about comedy and how it can work on the same level as symbols. Whilst being careful to give the required health warning regarding humour he shows it is useful. He does, however, make very clear that we need to know when to mourn and cry as well as when to laugh.

Music is often a contentious subject within churches and this is something he deals within in Chapter Five. He begins by making an important point that you can not assume a preference for a particular type of music based upon a persons age. This is a problem which I think many of us fall into.

In terms of music he makes the point that ethos and atmosphere is important as is participation and ritual. There is an importance he reminds us to strive to avoid “performance”. I think that whilst there is a growing recognition of the second part of this the former is equally important and may provide some explanation for why we are seeing a growth in cathedral worship (something the Church Growth Research Programme research currently being undertaken may help us explore further).

A very practical point he makes within this section before underlining in the following chapters is the overuse of any form/ element can be a problem. That said he argues that it should be engaging imagination rather than a quest for balance which should be our starting point.

Chapter Six Let Us Pray looks at symbols, participation, ritual, play and laughter again. It gives a few practical ideas and examples but essentially reinforces what has already been said, whilst focusing it around the subject of prayer.

Chapter Seven The Word Made Flesh again acts as a mix of reinforcement and practical ideas relating to the giving of “the message”. Within this chapter he brings in the importance of quality in what we do. He also develops further the conversations on images and symbols and identifies why the two are different. Within this he talks about the way in which an image doesn’t point beyond itself in the same way in which a symbol does. The health warnings in this chapter against “over use of novelty” is a useful reminder.

The final main chapter is called Calling Everyone: Services with Respons-ibilty talks of the need to find innovative ways to allow creative ways to respond. Within this chapter he makes the point that one needs to know what best suits the local context. This is an important point which I think he could have explored further, particularly in relation to the denominational context he is coming from. Local Preachers who travel around the circuit and who may only visit a chapel once or twice a year don’t have the same knowledge of the local congregation which he advocates.

This lack of knowledge of the local context becomes a problem not only in terms of finding the right way for people to respond to the message but also in putting some of the good advice into practice. If one has regular and direct contact with a congregation, rather than working through a steward on infrequent visits it is easier to include drama, etc. The visiting local preacher does not have the same knowledge of the toolbox of gifts within the congregation and this is something I am increasingly aware of. One way of encouraging participation is knowing about and being able to use gifts within the congregation – the average local preacher lacks this knowledge.

Going back to my own experience on Sunday, briefly, after reading this book I was able to identify exactly where I had gone wrong as well as what I had done which was good practice for this type of service. Whilst seeking to be child friendly I had relied too much on technology which it turned out there wasn’t a confidence in. I had not looked at how to fully engage people in a participative way. Where I had sought to ensure participation much of it had been adultcentric. I had also sought to explain too much rather than give space for the individual to unpack the wonder of the scriptures. Russell Herberts book ends with a list of practical resource material which I can refer to in the future to help me in the planning of such services.

For me being able to write that last paragraph is the test of a book like this. Does it enable me to reflect on the nature of all age worship and to come away with a greater understanding which I can then reflect upon and relate to my own experience, seeking to serve those congregations I have appointments with in the future in a better? If as in this case the answer is yes then this is a good book worth purchasing and referring back to in the future. On this basis I can’t recommend it highly enough.

One thought on “Growing Through Church – Review

  1. Agatha

    Really thought provoking on All Age Worship. On any given Sunday my Mum (85), my son (25) and I (55) will be in church together. But thats not “All Age Worship”, apparently – for that we would need a 5 year old to join us.
    The three of us are just expected to want and cope with the same thing.

    Hope the book and other resources help you solve this conundrum.

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