What’s in that backpack, Mister Mark?

By January 12, 2018

By now you’ve probably seen the familiar blue backpacks that kids have been toting into the Sanctuary as part of creating a family-friendly worship experience in our 11:00 am traditional service. If you’ve been in proximity to a family enjoying the contents of this thoughtfully designed worship kit, you may have even gotten a glimpse of what’s inside.

But there’s a whole lot more to this little kit than meets the eye. What’s inside — and behind — this unique strategy for engaging young minds in worship has garnered the attention of worship designers nationwide. As Mark Burrows, Director of Children’s Ministries, puts it, they are generally “gob-smacked” by not only the backpack and its contents, but also the 8-page children’s worship guide that mirrors the regular church bulletin each week with special features designed to help kids connect with each service in intentional ways. “There’s a large open space for drawing what they’re connecting with in the sermon,” Mark says, “with some prompts around the edges to help them think about different aspects of what they’re hearing.”

Even more important than the attention these nifty backpacks are receiving, seeing First Church children and families fully engaged and worshipping together sends the message that all ages are welcome to actively claim their own worship experience while worshipping together side by side.

And, while lots of churches provide “worship bags” for kids, this backpack will have none of that. “Most of the things kids are given in church are just busy work,” Mark says, “to keep the kids occupied while the grown-ups ‘have church,’ is neither theologically or scripturally sound, and it tends to divide rather than connect families around the experience of worship.” He shrugs. “It’s just the way everyone has always done it,” he adds. “Because worship is for grownups, right?”

Mark says that much of this creation grew out of his studies and observations during his 2016 renewal leave — and his desire to find ways for families to really worship together, not in their own separate services but as an active part of the whole congregation. So began the thoughtful design of this creative new approach for making traditional worship not only accessible to children and families, but also engaging for all styles of learning.

“We wanted the bag itself to be more than just a bag,” Mark explains. “That’s why it’s a backpack. There’s just something about seeing kids putting on their backpacks to go to school. For kids it’s like putting on their business clothes. They’re getting ready to go do their thing.” Mark says that the backpack itself is key to creating an excitement about learning and being a real part of what the adults are doing in worship. “I wanted to give kids that same sense of excitement and readiness for learning when they’re walking in the Sanctuary every Sunday,” he adds.

Laughing as he describes the thought, trial, and error that went into selecting just the right backpack contents (ask him about modeling beeswax), Mark says the goal was not only to provide kids with specific kinds of objects and prompts — but also to offer solid suggestions about how to use each item in ways that are unique to each service.  As he devised each item, Mark took into consideration different learning styles and made sure to incorporate items and features to appeal to each.

For example, in seeking to provide something for the tactile/kinesthetic learners, he knew he wanted them to have a manipulative — something to keep their hands busy to help them focus and settle down. After several failed ideas and attempts, including the aforementioned modeling beeswax that he calls “fidget spinners before there were fidget spinners,” Mark and his team decided on “tangles,” a manipulative toy that can be shaped and used to correspond with specific feelings. “We wanted something easy to use and quiet that they could shape to express any feelings they’re having during worship,” he says, demonstrating as he talks. “The instructions might say, ‘Use the shape to mold how you feel: Open and ready? Tangled and confused? Calm like still waters? Unsure?’ It’s as much about what you give them as it is what you expect of them.”

Some of the items are deceptively simple. Kids can use the pipe cleaner to make or symbolize something from the Scripture reading, fashion a friendship bracelet for a new member, or shape it into the initial of someone they are praying for. A small prayer cross with a string of knots to correspond to each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer helps kids focus on the phrasing in a way that will help them remember the meaning of each phrase. A cloth figure is also part of the backpack contents to give kids a way to act out what they’re hearing in the sermon. “We try not to call them ‘dolls,’” Mark adds, “We just call them ‘figures.’”

Mark says that the closest thing we have to busy work in this worship kit is the Treasures of Nature box. This small, flat cardboard box is filled with items from the natural world — things like a rock, a seashell, an acorn, a feather, or an insect encased in acrylic — with a small magnifying glass for closer examination. “The very specific reason for this box,” Mark explains, “is that on the worship style survey we did prior to developing this kit, being outside was the number one vote-getter.” Calling the Treasures of Nature box a simple way to bring nature from the outside in, Mark says that beyond just seeing pictures of these items, actually holding a feather or acorn makes it feel much more real. “Then they’re not just observing nature but holding it in their hands,” he adds.

Another idea unique to this kit is the Eye Spy card and small telescopes to help children actually see and understand the powerful symbols of our faith all around them in our Sanctuary. “This space we worship in each week is rich, rich, rich in symbolism,” Mark says, “but sometimes it’s hard to see it very well. There aren’t many churches in the United States that have so much symbolism embedded everywhere you look. I want our kids to be in touch with this symbolism — and maybe to share it with the adults and older kids in their families.”

Mark says that the goal of this backpack worship kit was to provide something kids could use to engage in worship, and after just three months of use, happy FUMCFW families are reporting that the idea has been spot-on: “The backpacks have been great!” “My own child anointed me with balm from the backpack and it made my day!” The bulletins are amazing! Where was this when I was a kid?”

And FUMCFW children and their parents aren’t the only ones who are fans of the backpacks. Every other Thursday, members of the Mary-Martha UMW Circle meet Children’s Ministries Assistant Janice Cooper in the Children’s Area to help fill the backpacks. “They take great care to make sure every single pack has everything in it!” Mark says. “Together, we’re all providing something that helps connect our kids with our worship space, our traditional United Methodist worship, our weekly sermon, and our sacred music,” Mark says. “By becoming participants in the service, our children can feel more connected with others of all ages and walks of life in our faith community — and to God through worship.”

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