Tiny Church Gets an Upper Room

The "Last Supper Room" on Mount Zion in Jerusalem.

Two things:

Thing One: I read an article a couple of years ago about Ginter Park Presbyterian Church in Richmond that took out a few pews in the front of the sanctuary on one side, put in low tables and chairs, and stocked the area with paper, crayons and other art stuff. Elementary-aged children are invited to sit there during the service with their parents. Kids can be a bit more wiggly and, well, kidlike in this area than they can in the pews, but they know this space is different than a classroom or playground. They are learning reverence: they get that this is a space where special things happen. Someone in the article I read described the children as “weathervanes for the Spirit:” they will often be doing their own thing and then something extraordinary will happen in the service (a baptism, a special prayer request) and they will perk up, look around, watch and notice.

You’d think having kids down front would be disruptive—and maybe it is, in some ways—but don’t we put up with shrieking hearing aids, people coming in late or leaving to go to the bathroom, the occasional snore or honking nose-blow? Putting kids down front communicates something loud and clear: kids are an important part of worship. And kids learn how to worship—and what it means to be a Christian—from absorbing and experiencing the patterns of community life.

Thing Two: We have this balcony at Tiny Church. It’s spacious yet cozy at the same time. There are sloping walls and nice windows that let in sunlight. And our sanctuary is small enough that the balcony is still a part of things. It’s also full of all kinds of junk, with perhaps a few treasures thrown in. Ancient lamps, old hymnals missing their covers, musty issues of Interpretation magazine from the 1950s.

Put Thing One and Thing Two together with a lot of hard work, trash bags and some judicious use of Craig’s List, and what do you get? The “Upper Room,” which will be a kids’ space a couple of Sundays a month. Instead of going up to Sunday School every week following the children’s time, they will alternate Sunday School with Upper Room time. We hope to invest in excellent art supplies, locked cabinets, and comfortable seating. Kids can hear and absorb what’s going on but still have their own space. Like Ginter Park, we hope to cultivate reverence while being hospitable towards our youngest members and guests.

I also envision the Upper Room as a place for smaller services throughout the year–Ash Wednesday, Services for Wholeness and Healing, and so forth, which can sometimes have 15 or fewer people in attendance.

Right now we’re in the dreaming/communication/buyin phase, moving quickly to the cleanout/let’s-give-it-a-try phase. So far we’ve had little pushback—even our thriftiest elder agrees that the stuff being stored up there mostly needs to go. But there have been some good questions about whether sound will travel and how it would be “staffed.” We’d need adults up there for basic crowd control, which I also like—presto! Informal mentoring/relationship building with folks who might never feel comfortable teaching Sunday School.

One of the things I’m struggling with, though, is how far to take this initially. Other than moving the stuff out of there, there’s very little involved in making it basically usable as a kids’ space. Doing a bare-bones job means there’s almost no risk involved: if it doesn’t work, we tweak it some, but if it still doesn’t work, we call it a day and move on. (I’m all about agile ministry, remember.)

But I’m also sensing that kids will understand and embrace the space more—and see it as a special thing to be honored and cherished—if we really go the extra distance and make it truly beautiful and fun. I’m talking paint and furnishings.

Thoughts, reactions, suggestions welcome.

22 thoughts on “Tiny Church Gets an Upper Room

  1. Monica

    I love, love, love it. And I think (based mostly on gut reaction) that you have to go more all-in than just cleaning it out. I think making it special is important–paint and kid-sized furnishings for sure.

    If the balcony is over sanctuary space, the pitter-patter of little feet could get a bit noisy (can’t tell from your description if it’s over a foyer or what).

    And we seriously need some before-and-after pictures!

  2. Sue

    No suggestions – just reaction – awesome!! What a great example of making use of what you have already been given, rather than “wishing” for what you don’t have.

  3. lizperraud

    Love, love, love this! I’ve seen that sacred children’s space at Ginter Park Presbyterian and it’s wonderful…and yet unobtrusive. I didn’t witness it on a Sunday morning (saw it while touring around the church building another day) but was so impressed with especially the concept. I can’t speak to how it actually works.

    I’m thinking how special those children would feel to “get” to go to the Upper Room…as long as they don’t feel “removed” from the rest of the congregation. Certainly better than shuttling them off to another whole part of the building during worship. It would be fun to figure out how to prepare the space for them (and others’ use). I’m thinking it’s likely you’re familiar with Godly Play, but if not, I’m sure there would be lots of ideas there. If the sound doesn’t carry, it couldn’t be too difficult to install some kind of speakers.

    I know teenagers who would jump at the chance to use that space sometimes for liturgical readings (the congregation can HEAR us but they can’t SEE us)!

    And definitely an opportunity for adults to spend some time relationally with the little ones to help them understand what’s going on in worship and soooo much more than “crowd control.”

    Keep us posted!!


  4. Becca

    Bean bags! Kids love bean bags. Comfy, at their level, and a soft place to land. I know that my own kids love to sprawl and it doesn’t mean they’re not into what’s going on around them; they’re just comfortable, which probably means they’re paying more attention to worship than to how uncomfy the pews are!
    Our church also did the pretty standard worship bag for each kid. Crayons, pencils, small clip board and scripturally based puzzles, games and color sheets each week. We made iron-on designs with the kids’ names and a few that say ‘visitor.’
    I’m so into making worship an inviting space for kids! It’s been a struggle. I really wish we had a special, yet somewhat separate space like you have–I’d never get away with what Ginter Park did!

  5. Brittany

    A church in our area has tables set up around the sanctuary, with crayons, pens, scissors, paper and glue or tape for the children to use. Parents are asked to sit at the table or close by. After the sermon, during offering, the kids are invited to bring their art project to the front of the sanctuary and one of the Pastors hangs them on a bulletin board in the front of the sanctuary. I loved that the kids were encouraged to listen, to create and to participate in the experience!

    I love your idea, especially calling it the Upper Room!

  6. Teri

    As you already know, our attempt to do this in the front of our sanctuary (we have no balcony, alas, or I would SO do this!) was a humongous failure, in part due to other things going on in the congregation, in part due to communication failure, and in part due to who-knows-what. However, if we were to try it again, I’d head directly for theresa cho’s blogpost about kid-friendly worship space.
    Good luck!

  7. bookgirl

    I love this. As my son edges closer and closer to 3, I feel more and more trepidation about what will happen during worship when he is too old for the nursery.

  8. susan

    My first response: fabulous
    My second response:ooh!ooh! I know just the person for you to talk to!!!
    My third response: well, maybe I can just tell you what wonderful environmental kid magician lady does.

    So, the environmental kid magician lady works at our JCC and she took this “lounge” and turned it into the most amazing drop in child-care/birthday party spot ever. And she did it for something like 300 dollars! Here are some of the easily recreatable highlights of her room.
    1) She bought something like 15 of these http://www.ikea.com/us/en/catalog/products/40104270
    Put ’em all in a row and you have a table.– or bunch ’em up for a square table, or put them into a diamond shape, or….you get the picture. Some kids sit in little dollar store plastic chairs, some sit on cushions, some on the floor–depending on how tall they are. Kids need private space? One Lack per kid. Kids want to nap–take all the floor cushions and make a cozy nest. Want to do something that requires large floor space–everything stacks. The rest of the furniture is cast offs from elsewhere in the building, repainted and repurposed. (My favorite, which probably wouldn’t work for a worship space, is the old TV cabinet, in which a fish tank has been placed where the TV would go.
    2) The room is constantly rearranged, but the materials stay the same. It seems to be developmentally perfect—you can find all your “favorite” things but there’s also an element of surprise–things seem new when they’re just in a new location. (hmmmm liturgy, much?)
    3) no shoes. Magic Lady says that they don’t wear shoes because it’s holy ground. (This would also reduce the clomping noise).
    4) She’s also a kicking artist, so that helped.

  9. arnez5

    Please let me know how this works for you. When I started here, there were no children to speak of. Then we started a Sunday School class with one little girl, which has grown to about 10 to 12 each week. Like many churches, they leave for Sunday School following the sermon, which I have always seen as a short-term compromise until we have enough teachers/staff to do Sunday School at a different time. In the meantime, I’m concerned that we are teaching the students that they do not belong in worship. We have a balcony that would be great for an Upper Room. Let me know how this goes.

  10. Jenn Wilson

    I got confirmed at Ginter Park Pres. it really is a cool place. Also my dad used to be at coolspring pres in delaware and they used the space in the balcony for exactly what you are talking about and it was never an issue.. you should contact him if you have any questions about logistics…
    good luck it sounds like a great plan…their main issue was the heat in the summer because of course heat rises and they don’t have air conditioning

  11. sherry

    I suggest looking up information about Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. It is a Montessori based program. The “centers” and “materials” would be wonderful things to incorporate into a space like this.

  12. MaryAnn

    Great comments! Jenn, I will send your dad a note.

    We’re having a walk-through today and I will take some “before” pictures.

    The balcony extends over about half the pews in Tiny. The good news is they will really hear what’s going on below, but noise coming from upstairs could be an issue. Thankfully it’s carpeted, and I am all over the no-shoes thing. I’ve also thought about adapting the Godly Play thing of inviting people into the space at the door, with something like “Are you ready to enter the Upper Room?”

    I also love the idea of inviting kids to share their work as an offering. One of the things I’ve wondered about is how. Let’s face it, it’s really the sermon time that’s hard for the kids. The back half of the service is full of stuff they can participate in: affirmations, hymns, and the prayers of the people. So having them come down before offering time might be a good way to reintegrate them.

  13. Mary Harris Todd

    Cool, Mary Ann! I’ve seen that space at Ginter Park, and I’m glad to read about another way to do this. We wrestle with these issues, and I’ll save this to share with folks at my own Tiny Church.

  14. Mary Thorpe

    Fascinating – you’ve inspired me to chat about this with folks here in Lakeside. We have just converted an old kitchen into a beautiful space for special needs kids, for whom the service and Sunday School don’t quite work, but I love the idea of converting a little used balcony into an “Upper Room.”

  15. susan

    Something you said just clicked for me. A lot of churches do kids ther for a bit, then chilfDren’s message and then off you go. But when you think about it, kids take a lot longer to integrate into a space, and might not it make sense to have them in the upper room FIRST, where they would trickle in, and have the option of of individualized work while they warm up…they can hear worship, and get used to it, then go down for the offering maybe then followed by words with kids….they are used to each other and you, it’s not e last thing before leaving mom and dad….

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