The Upper Room Gets Splashed with Color

I've written several posts about the Upper Room, the kid-friendly space in our sanctuary balcony where school-age children go during the worship service. There they take part in quiet crafts, books, and other activities, all the while listening and participating in the worship service in their own way. It's always gratifying to hear about a child asking her parent about something she heard while puttering around the Upper Room. Children listen.  You can read about some of our new challenges and growing pains here. It's all good and natural stuff as we seek to be hospitable to our young friends upstairs in the balcony and our young-at-heart friends downstairs in the pews.

But I wanted to share a BIG cause of joy---the Upper Room is getting a mural! One of our folks has contacted an artist, Kate Cosgrove, who generously and graciously allowed us to use her work to adorn our walls. Nancy, the mother of two of your little ones, did the outlining based on Kate's work, and the kids are filling in the color.

The idea is that the children would work at various times before and after worship, but last Sunday there was so much joy and momentum that, well, they kept going during church itself. Yes, things got a bit boisterous. But the photos of this masterpiece-in-progress speak for themselves:

Upper Room 5 Upper Room 4 Upper Room Upper Room 2 Upper Room


Dispatches from the Tiny Church Upper Room

  The Spirit descended from heaven like a dove... or from the balcony like a piece of paper.

I wrote several months ago that Tiny Church has done away with Sunday School as we know it. Many of you were interested in our Upper Room ministry, so much so that the post went viral... as much as a post about churchy stuff can go viral.

So how's it been going? I wanted to check in about this, since I know others (especially those in small congregations) are considering alternatives to Sunday School. As we think about "what's next" in our churches, we need to share not only the ideas, but the successes and failures of those ideas, and they ways they get tweaked. Tangent: check out the Paracletos Project through NEXT Church, in which two congregations engaged in revitalization will work with a coach and share their learnings.

Well, it's been mixed. Regarding the Upper Room: We are very fortunate to have a member of the church who's offered to come up with a simple craft option most Sundays, but coordinating that is a challenge---ideally the activity would tie in to the sermon or theme for worship. And it also has to be as silent as possible! (Check out my Upper Room Pinterest board.)

The Upper Room is also a victim of its own success: a few Sundays ago we had 11 children up there. Wow! How wonderful... but that's really too many with only one adult, especially considering that some of them are on the young side. We need a backup adult there too.

We also have a few new extroverts in the mix. What to do with them? We're trying to educate parents and kids that this is not communal time---that children are there to listen to the Spirit through the worship and through "their own work"---but it's not easy.

My original post also mentioned a few other ideas. We're trying to figure out how to equip parents as faith educators. I've been previewing the Vibrant Faith materials; I get the weekly email and wonder whether it would be something we could share with families. I absolutely love the stuff at the Practicing Families website.

My time with the children during Sunday worship has been more thematic. In September I was guiding the kids through the different parts of the sanctuary and what they mean. Next I think I will try a stewardship theme (including stewardship of creation and the body), then it's time for Advent and Christmas.

In our meeting with the parents last spring, we talked about having "pullouts" from time to time. Instead of Sunday School every week, which has been hard for a church our size to sustain, we're looking at, say, four to six weeks in the fall and again in the spring for a specific purpose. Our choir director has offered to prepare a choir piece with any children who are interested. I'd like to give that a look in November and/or early December, so the kids can present something in worship during Advent. This also gives children a break from the Upper Room, which keeps it from getting stale.

We're still feeling our way. The day we had 11 kids in the Upper Room was a little rowdy. As I preached I would would hear these random sounds and shushes from up there and think, Maybe this is a crazy idea. 

I wondered again during the sharing of joys and concerns, when one of our folks who works at the Navy Yard was sharing a prayer request about that situation. As he spoke I saw one of the younger children come to the balcony rail and drop a piece of paper over the side. I watched as it fluttered down and landed directly behind the man, in the lap of a quiet older woman whose husband we'd just buried a few weeks before. The horror.

I'm sure my facial expressions were a complete non-sequitur to this poor guy, who had no clue what kind of "death from above" antics were going on behind him. I braced myself for a backlash after worship along the lines of kids today need to learn how to behave.

Instead, later in the service the woman raised her hand, held up the paper and said, "I just have to tell you all. This landed in my lap a moment ago. It's a picture of Jonah and the whale, and here's what that means to me today." She concluded, "'A child shall lead them' after all!"

Well I'll be. I guess that's right.


photo credit: h.koppdelaney via photopin cc

Jesus Gets Around!

Remember this map at Tiny Church? photo

We're continuing our journey around the world through our running, walking, biking and swimming. We have been plotting our course to Democratic Republic of Congo, where we will hear from a woman in our church who works for USAID. She will talk about her work and a ministry she interfaces with in the DRC. The service will have a special focus on that region of the world.

In addition, on Sunday we're innovating and imitating an idea from the First Presbyterian Church of Jesup:

Jesus is on the move!

You may know Flat Stanley, the guy from the children's books who shows up all over the world as people take pictures of him in various locales.

Well, First Presbyterian---and Tiny Church---are adapting this practice as Flat Jesus:


This Sunday in the Upper Room we will have the kids decorate this image, printed on a bunch of cardstock. Following the service we will hand him out and encourage people to photograph him on their vacations and business trips. These photos will go up on our map.

Why? Because it's fun. Because it's summer and people are traveling.

And because God is everywhere.


What Happens in the Upper Room: A Case in Point

A short follow-up to yesterday's post about bidding farewell to children's Sunday School at Tiny Church, in favor of the Upper Room and other activities. For several weeks in late April/early May we adapted the "ribbon ritual" that took place at the NEXT Conference in Charlotte in March. At Tiny Church, the ritual built over a series of weeks and ended on Pentecost. The previous week, people had written their names on ribbons with different prayer words they selected. Then on Pentecost, we handed out the ribbons and folks were invited to take those home and pray for that person over the coming weeks.

We had the children hand out the ribbons before going to the Upper Room. One of the children spent the rest of the service creating a sort of "cocoon" in which to put the prayer ribbon she received. This was not an assignment. This was her own initiative, using nothing but paper and tape.



I especially love the lid that tapes shut for safekeeping. And of course, the heart.

Children do listen, process and respond.


Speaking of heart, I am off this afternoon to one of my heart places, Mo-Ranch in the Texas Hill Country, where I will lead the good folks of St. Philip Presbyterian Church in a Sabbath retreat. My piece is minimal: a few presentations and a sermon on Sunday. The real Sabbath comes from walks under the grape arbor and across the catwalk, BBQ by the river, and long hours in God's hot tub, the rapids of the Guadalupe River.

St. Philip is where Robert and I married almost 19 years ago, where I first felt called to ministry, and where I was ordained as a Minister of Word and Sacrament 10 years ago. It will be lovely to go home to those great folks, many of whom I remember, some of whom are friends I haven't met yet.

On Letting Go of Sunday School

The Sunday School movement began in the 1780s to provide education to children working in factories---children who were not receiving any other formal education. Teachers shared lessons on Christian religion, but also things like reading, sports, and drama. Today, more and more people are asking whether Sunday School is nearing the end of its life cycle, particularly in certain congregations and contexts. Tiny Church's practice in recent years has been to have Sunday School class during the worship hour, following the children's time. For a small congregation, we have a good number of school-age children---this fall there will be nine, plus about seven middle and high schoolers and a handful of nursery-age.

That's if they're all there.

But they're never all there... which is one of the problems with relying on Sunday School as a child's primary Christian formation. "Regular church attendance" is different than it was even 5 years ago. Now, a couple times a month is considered regular. Around here, folks generally aren't slacking off and sleeping in. They're attending Girls on the Run, taking a weekend trip out of town, volunteering at the Kennedy Center, or helping a friend move. That means the adults who would teach weekly Sunday School are also out a lot, in addition to the kids.

Several of us at Tiny met this past Sunday to talk about Christian education in our congregation, and decided to see all of this as a creative challenge rather than a problem. We have the opportunity to think about Christian formation more holistically, rather than shuttling kids off to a separate room and trusting that they'll get everything they need there.

Starting this summer, Tiny Church will no longer have Sunday School.

Instead, we will continue work in our Upper Room, which is the kid-friendly worship space in our balcony. School-age children go up after the children's time and spend the rest of the service there. An adult leads them up and, before they go in, encourages them to "get ready to continue worshiping" by calming and centering, removing their shoes, and so forth.

There are always kinks to work out, but I'm happy to say that the Upper Room is working as well as I could have dreamed. Kids are able to wander, browse a children's Bible or picture book in one of the comfy chairs, draw or do a simple craft at the table, use the Buddha Board, or mess around with the wooden Noah's Ark or nativity set. And yet... they're listening. They'll walk over to the railing, peek over and watch what's going on. I was preaching about Pope Francis's recent remarks and a six year old walked up to Robert and whispered, "What's an atheist?" I love it.

That said, we also see the value in building intentional relationships between adults and children (which is one of the primary benefits of Sunday School), so we're thinking about planning a multi-week project maybe once a semester. At these times, children would have a "pull-out" during worship, perhaps to make a video about a Bible story, plan a puppet show, or prepare an anthem as an ad hoc children's choir. But---and here's the key---those activities would always connect to the life of the whole worshiping community. The video would be shown in worship, etc.

We also know we need to help equip parents. Like it or not, we are our children's primary faith educators. I've heard of a church that sends home a packet each month with stories, activities, questions to discuss together, rituals, etc. I love this "homeschooling" approach. Sometimes (when I have time and inspiration) I will put together a GPS guide (Grow Pray Study) in the bulletin that helps people think further about the scripture and sermon, and I try to include something for families. That might be something we do more regularly.

We are also still considering how youth fit into this mix. We can see them as co-leaders of the special  pullout activities. And we're considering some mentoring, as well as partnering with another congregation for a mission trip.

Have you moved beyond Sunday School where you are? Would love to hear what you're up to.

The Upper Room at Tiny Church Takes Shape

Read here about the plans underway at Tiny Church for a kid-friendly space in our balcony during worship, which we are calling the Upper Room. Yesterday we had the first of two scheduled work days to clean out the balcony. Here's one before photo. You can view the others here; as you can see, there was a lot of stuff up there.

I had no idea what to expect in terms of turnout for the cleanup. I've been preaching and announcing about the Upper Room for weeks, and the feedback has been positive. But sometimes in the church (not just my congregation, but church in general), enthusiasm for a project does not always translate to people rolling up their sleeves. I'm happy to report that we had at least 20-25 people stay after worship to box books, move bookcases out, and so forth. They were efficient and good-humored. By the time we were done, the space was empty and vacuumed.

I'll post pictures.

Of course we have to get rid of/find permanent storage. That will be a huge, not-fun job. (The green couch was taken by someone who bought a small historic building in West Virginia and need to furnish it. She will also take some of the chairs.) The main conundrum is books. There are a few historic books up there amid the boxes, I suspect. But for now anyway, they are out of our way and we can proceed with our plans.

As you can see in the photos, there are elevated platforms up there, which are useful when we need to use the space as overflow, but are a tripping hazard for what we're envisioning. I thought they were attached to the floor, and that was going to be a pain to rip up carpet and tear those out. Thankfully, they move. We pushed them to the side and stacked them under one of the eaves.

I wrote in a recent post about the emotional energy that's wrapped up in stuff, for good and for ill. I saw this in evidence yesterday. It overstates things to say that the balcony was dragging the church down energy-wise. But people got a great lift out of clearing it out to make space for something new. There was a lot of junk up there. The desire to be frugal and keep things that might potentially be useful is admirable. It's good stewardship. But it can also feed into a sense that we don't deserve new things, that we need to content ourselves with the same-old-same-old. (Another thing that's going on at Tiny is that we're cleaning out the kitchen---we recently had a major extermination treatment---and that process, too, will lead us to get rid of some things. Do we need 25 used aluminum baking pans?)

The experience got me thinking about how we do clean-up days at the church. It's hard to get people out on a Saturday, but people want to help. I started to envision a monthly/bimonthly date on which we ask people to stay 20-25 minutes after worship, then write down small, well-defined tasks and put them in a basket for people to draw and complete.

It also reminds me that, as a leader, I need to expect great things of these folks, because they deliver. My hopes for yesterday were modest---say, to have the books boxed and put in a corner of the balcony---it's large enough that we could proceed with a corner of the balcony used as storage. But they went way beyond that.

I'm also preaching a sermon series on change, in part to help prepare people for new things happening at Tiny. Yet people have embraced these changes with grace and enthusiasm. I could credit the series for that, but I don't think that's it. Churches have a reputation for being change-averse, but there are some places where things have stayed the same so long that people are really ready for new things. Tiny may be one of those places.


The Upper Room: "Before" Pictures

Read my previous post about our plan to create a kid-friendly "upper room" at Tiny Church. A reader requested "before" pictures---here they are with a bit of commentary:

Here's the view from the very back of the balcony, near the door. I love the archway and think one could do something creative with paint, to hearken it to the Upper Room commemorative site in Jerusalem. Or just something fun and warm.


Here's the view from the railing of the balcony. There are about eight rows of pews, so as you can see, the balcony sticks out into the worship space quite well. This means the folks in the upper room are still a part of things, but it also makes foot noise a problem. Thankfully, the building is solid as a rock, and it's carpeted, so there's no major creaking happening when people walk around. I was jumping up and down, trying to make noise, and it was minimal.

The fact that the balcony protrudes so much means we can do fun things up there, like on Pentecost when I had the kids drop red, yellow and orange balloons on the people below as a "tongues of fire" throwback.


The balcony has become home to all kinds of random things, including this fantastically retro couch. Unfortunately it's gone totally flat. Any cushiony feel comes from the sheer amount of dust residing in it. We are thinking Craig's List. That's rolled-up carpet behind the couch. The globe is awesome, but perhaps needs to live somewhere other than our church.


Nobody I've talked to knows where the rocking recliner came from, but it's got a lot of life left in it. I could see a little reading nook in the corner of the upper room. I could also see that being a bone of contention.

Figuring out what to do with the books is a major puzzle. I firmly believe that in the Internet age, most church libraries are going the way of the dodo. However, there is some decent stuff up there---check out the Interpretations series lining that top shelf, and owl-eyed readers can also spot an old set of Calvin's Institutes.


A long view of the balcony. These are the white shelves you just saw.

Our current plan for the church library (such as it is) is to give it a second life by allowing people to take the books they want. They are the church's books, so it makes sense that members of the church should be able to have them. Books that aren't claimed will be boxed up and given to... whom? I bet my readers have some ideas!


More stuff to be dealt with.




Views from either side of the front railing. One of our challenges will be to figure out what to do with all these chairs. Also, notice the two large raised parts of the floor. Those need to go---they are a tripping hazard, but I think that means new carpet. Interestingly, there's some more of this carpet rolled up behind that filing cabinet on the back wall of the last picture. !!

But as you can see, the space has two windows! How wonderful!


So there's your guided tour. I'll be posting updates about our progress as we go.

I'm also considering applying for a worship renewal grant from Calvin College to do some kind of programmatic work, perhaps about children in worship, to go along with these physical changes to our building.