Content, Concepts and Language
The law requires that collective worship should be appropriate to the ages, aptitude and backgrounds of the pupils participating; this is an important directive to remember when planning acts of worship, and those who fail to observe it will never succeed as collective worship leaders!
During their school careers most children should participate in the equivalent of approximately fifty hours of worship per year. Multiply this total by the twelve years a pupil is in school, and it readily becomes apparent that collective worship is an important opportunity for Christian worship leaders to support the spiritual growth of the entire nation. However, pupils and teachers do not attend school with the intention of worshipping God, they are there for educational purposes. In most schools, even church schools, it is probable that the majority of those present in collective worship will not be Christians; some of these may be members of other faith communities, others will be of no faith at all. Thus for many present the only experience they will have of Christian worship, perhaps in their entire lives, is in school assemblies. In this scenario a worship leader needs to attract and sustain the assembly’s interest, by delivering a message which is memorable, yet at the same time readily comprehensible by people of limited religious vocabulary.
Frequently sermons begin with an anecdote or illustration from life that helps to set the scene for the Biblical message that follows, and this is a sound model to imitate in the school context. Younger children particularly enjoy hearing stories about the worship leader’s family or everyday life, or will respond equally well to references to their own culture, such as popular TV programmes or sporting heroes. It is most commonly when the speaker makes the transition from popular culture to religious message that pupils’ attention is lost. This is not necessarily through any aversion to religion, but because the worship leader has inadvertently signalled through change of tone, body language or the use of complex terminology that something “boring” or incomprehensible is coming. In collective worship, leaders need to be certain that any theological language or concepts they use are readily accessible to children, by explaining them at an appropriate level and with practical illustrations. Leaders who fail to do this are, in effect, speaking a foreign language; it is worth remembering that nobody can receive true spiritual sustenance from something they cannot actually understand! However, do not fall into the alternative trap of talking down to pupils in an assembly; pupils always spot this trait very quickly, and find it off-putting and unhelpful.
In some ways leading collective worship in a primary school is actually more demanding than delivering a sermon to a Sunday congregation, as the intellectual gap between the youngest pupils in the hall and the eleven year olds at the back (not to mention the staff) is, in real terms, much larger than that in an average congregation. Part of the challenge of collective worship is to plan an act of worship that makes everyone feel that something of the assembly has been for them.
The majority of schools now plan their collective worship around extended themes that may last anything from a week to half a term. These themes may be developed over consecutive days, or, in schools where there are several worship leaders, the theme may be extended over a run of e.g. Thursdays. It is always good practice for a visiting worship leader to fit into the school’s pattern of themes wherever practicable; this will both support pupils as they develop their thinking on particular issues, and lessen the opportunities for mental confusion. If the visitor is following the same theme as the rest of the school in their worship it is, of course, important to establish what materials have been used in earlier assemblies and, if possible, what the intentions of the later worship leaders might be, so as to avoid repetition.
In many acts of collective worship a standard pattern of song/address/reflection/ prayer is followed, but when actually planning worship it is worth considering whether an alternative order could be used to greater effect. One example of this might be to select a song that reiterates the message of the assembly, and use this as a summary to close the worship and reinforce all that has gone before.
Some schools set their worship in a liturgical framework of opening and closing responses, and if this is the case visitors may, or may not, be expected to use the same materials. If the school has not yet experimented in this way, visitors may like to explore the possibilities of doing so with the headteacher.
Use of Resources
Schools frequently use a selection of resources to set apart the time and space which is used for collective worship as sacred (“special”) and different from the everyday. A common device used is the lighting and blowing out of a candle to mark the time of worship, and to draw a clear line between the worship and the assembly notices. A worship table may be used which could hold a cross and/or Bible, or some artefact that acts as a reminder of the theme of the collective worship. Some schools will also use the display space in the assembly hall to support the collective worship with good effect. The visitor should be aware of what constitutes the normal practice of the school, and consider whether there is something they can bring to display that will support their worship theme.
It is often helpful to remember that people can be visual, audio or kinaesthetic learners, or any combination thereof. Young children, in particular, are strongly kinaesthetic, and so it is important when planning collective worship to think not only of the message, but also in terms of props on which children can focus or with which they can interact. Any artefacts used in collective worship should always be of good quality and appropriate – poorly chosen or badly prepared materials send a subliminal message of contempt for your fellow worshippers, or even for the worship itself.
One important resource used in collective worship is, of course, the Bible and it is important to consider how this can be used to best effect. In most contexts it is probably more helpful to tell Bible stories than read them direct from the Bible itself as this has several advantages:
- it allows you to adapt the language to match the understanding of the children, and to add explanations as necessary;
- it makes it easier to maintain eye contact and to react to pupils
- it encourages the use of a variety of interesting story-telling techniques.
The assembly should always be made aware that the Bible is being used, and, on occasions, have the opportunity to hear key verses (but not long passages) direct from the text.
Timing and Pace
The timings of the school day are very precise, especially when the whole school has to be brought together for a joint activity such as collective worship. Normally about twenty minutes will be allocated to assembly time in any one school day (not including time for movement around the building) and an assembly which overruns, or is delayed by the late arrival of the worship leader, has a detrimental knock-on effect throughout the rest of the school day for teachers and learners alike. It is important that any worship leader is aware of exactly how much time is at their disposal when they lead an assembly – but also that they are able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances and rethink their projected timings should school circumstances dictate.
The time allocated to each of the component parts of the act of worship needs to be considered carefully and a balance achieved. It is often very tempting to allow the enthusiasm of the children to dictate the pace of an assembly; a mistake that all worship leaders fall into on a regular basis is to allow an opening attention grabbing activity to seriously overrun, so that they are then left with only a few moments to impart the core of their message.
In the limited time available in an assembly a it is usually most appropriate to plan to deliver one key, simple message, reinforced with stories, practical illustrations, music and prayer, rather than develop a complex theme or attempt to deliver several messages at once. If children are being presented with new ideas, or being introduced to religious beliefs and language, they need time to absorb and consider this new information and relate it to themselves. The worship leader can support them in this process by measured delivery (so that ideas are coming neither too slow, nor too fast) and allowing time for reflection at the end of their talk. Where this is done, it is helpful to give the children some key idea to focus on (rather than the vague “giving a few quiet moments to think about what’s been said”) as this will (may) prevent attention wandering.
Pupil Participation and Involvement
In many schools pupils have a regular role as worship leaders and this may include such tasks as: preparing the assembly hall and selecting music; leading and accompanying singing; reading passages and prayers; writing prayers. Undoubtedly pupils will also expect to be involved in worship in an impromptu way as directed by the worship leader, this could include such things as answering questions, being involved in role play, or working with props. It will depend on the practice of the school whether children are happy to take part in this way and, if they are in any doubt, new worship leaders should discover in advance what the school’s expectations are. Involving pupils in some way “up front” is a tried and tested way of holding the attention of an assembly, as children, who may not be interested in what the adult has to say, will nevertheless watch the actions of their peers. Many schools now have pupil worship groups composed of older pupils who both devise and lead entire acts of collective worship on a regular basis.
When you are new to a school, selecting pupils to take centre stage in the worship, without preparation, is something which needs to be done with care, and where it is often sensible to rely on the help of the teaching staff. An example of this might be where the leader selects an older confident looking boy as their volunteer, and then inadvertently publicly humiliates him by asking him to read aloud – a more sensitive approach is to spell out your requirements and seek assistance e.g. “ Mrs Clark, will you choose a good reader for me please?” Asking pupils questions can also bring some difficulties, but is an excellent way of checking whether your message is being understood, as well as a method of keeping the assembly’s attention. When questioning, it is wise to remember that if a whole room full of children persists in giving “wrong answers” then the fault probably lies with the adult, who is either phrasing the questions inappropriately, or is overestimating the children’s knowledge or understanding of his theme. There are a few obvious rules to remember when asking questions in collective worship:
- open questions are usually better than closed ones;
- be encouraging and/or praise children’s answers even if they are not exactly what you wanted to hear – they need to know that they can speak their thoughts with confidence and that you will take them seriously;
- especially with the youngest children, be ready for answers which are not connected in any way to what has gone before, but which is something they wish to share with you now (“I had a kitten for my birthday”).
- remember that when a child answers your question in all probability most of those in the hall will not have heard their response clearly (especially if the child is sitting near the front) – the technique of repeating back the gist of the answer in your response both helps everyone to stay focused and reassures people that you are listening to them properly.
Anyone who is used to speaking in front of others should be able to determine whether the pupils they are leading in collective worship are listening intently, and interested in what is taking place. However, if only a few individual children appear to be disengaged, it is wise to recollect that worship is invitational, not compulsory, and no person can be forced to participate actively in collective worship.
Normally in an act of collective worship monitoring pupil behaviour is the responsibility of the worship leader, supported by the school staff. Where the worship leader is a visitor to the school, even a regular visitor, the responsibility for maintaining good order remains with the school staff, and the visitor will normally find that staff act swiftly should any issues arise. The visitor should confirm with the school what approach he should adopt towards inappropriate pupil behaviour.
School inclusion means that the visiting worship leader may observe pupils in the assembly who are acting in what seems to be an unsuitable way. These may be pupils with special needs who are not misbehaving, merely exhibiting their normal behavioural traits. Over-anxious visiting worship leaders may unwittingly draw unwelcome attention to this behaviour, and seek to discipline such children because they are not aware of the personal issues involved. It can readily be seen that an error of judgement of this kind may damage the visitor’s relationships with both pupils and staff, and this demonstrates, yet again, the need for a visitor to be briefed on the special circumstances of a school.
Whilst thinking about pupil management it is worth considering what effect one’s own worship leading style has upon children: dynamic, buzzing assemblies are enjoyed by children, but it is easy to get them over-excited and to send them back to their classrooms in an unruly state. Is this what was really intended? Will they remember the message or just the gimmicks?
Atmosphere and Ethos
Collective worship is not “just” worship, it is also an educational process, and a vehicle for establishing the ethos of a school. Within an assembly the leaders of the school community are, consciously or unconsciously, modelling acceptable behaviour and relationships, and signalling their expectations to the pupils. Thus one would expect the school, for example, to be a listening culture, with a holistic concern for individuals, and a place where people’s views and beliefs are treated with respect: this may be particularly demonstrated through occasions such as sharing assemblies, and the celebration of personal achievements and events within the context of worship. The values which permeate a school’s life will be outlined in a document such as a School Statement of Aims or Mission Statement; for church schools there is also the Ethos Statement within their Instruments of Government. The school’s ethos will undoubtedly affect the atmosphere of collective worship.
In addition to the general school ethos, many different things help to build an appropriate atmosphere in which to celebrate collective worship, and a worship leader needs to take these into consideration, e.g:
- the music played while the children enter and leave sets the tone of the worship – a bouncy Souza march will not assist quiet reflection!
- the manner in which the worship leader speaks to the assembly, and the way in which other adults present support them (both verbally and through body language) – do the adults encourage reverence?
- seating and layout of the room may make the worship feel inclusive or distant
- the use of a focus to channel attention, perhaps also including candles
- the pace of the worship
- sensitive handling of opportunities for prayer and reflection
- open relationships of trust in which spiritual issues can be explored
Worship and Prayer
One “gift” a visitor can bring to a school is their own rich worship heritage, of music, songs and prayers. Church schools, in particular, will be interested in how their worship can benefit from links with that of their parish church (and vice versa) and should be open to experimentation with a wide variety of worship styles, including those from other areas of the world church.
The place of prayer in collective worship is constantly debated in schools as it is a very real issue whether children who do not have a personal faith of their own should be made to pray. Of course, in reality nobody can be made to pray, for prayer is not something we do, but the focus of our relationship with God and the way in which we co-operate with the mysterious work He is doing in us. However, the argument runs, young children are in a vulnerable position in collective worship because they may be anxious to please their teachers, or so used to following instructions, that they are somehow forced or tricked into uttering prayers which they do not mean. This remains a live issue, and schools normally deal with it by making it clear that prayer is invitational, not compulsory. In real terms this can mean using the traditional formula “Let us pray” (after having spent time early in the academic year talking with the children about what prayer is), or, alternatively using a more convoluted introduction to each prayer (e.g. “I am now going to say a prayer that Christians use, if you agree with it and want to make it you own then you can say “Amen” at the end”). Visitors to a school need to understand the approach a school has decided to adopt to prayer, and whether the expectation is that they will use the same formulae, or be invited to speak from their own faith stance.