I have being delivering assemblies in schools for 22 years (having cut my teeth in Edgware, north London at Stag Lane Primary School working with the legendary Heather Boyd) . . . both occasional and week in week out assemblies (depending on the school, the relationship developed and time allowing).  I first wrote this blog, re-published and re-edited, in response to a twitter query . . . the question asked was,

“Is there any evidence that Vicars doing school assemblies has any effects on children’s subsequent faith development?”

All I can do is respond in the affirmative based on my own practice and experience.  I am not a vicar, but I have taken regular assemblies . . . . in and, while they may sow seeds of faith, I think assemblies on their own have limited impact.

+++ Assumption Smasher +++

Ok, I’ve inserted this because, well – silly me, I’ve made an assumption. I’ve kind of assumed that if you take assemblies (in any school, faith based or not) that you would preface things you say with, “Christians believe . . . ” or “As a Christian, I believe . . . ” I do think we can be clear about what Jesus said as we have that written in the Gospels, we can talk of miracles and healings . . . but, we need to give some space between our “lived” engagement with scripture and Christian tradition and the experience and understanding of our listeners. 

+++ Assumption Smasher +++

If it is the only time children see someone from a church, or the only time the church does anything in or with the school and if it is not part of a wider dynamic of school engagement . . . then, I don’t think it can bear much fruit.

It is something happening in a vacuum, without meaningful community or relationship being integral.  In one school I did week in week out assemblies for infants and juniors – so two assemblies every week, for seven years.  After a couple of years, I was asked to help with other aspects of what was going on in the school – I did “hot seat” ask a Christian kind of stuff, I hosted visits for different year groups to visit the church and talk about what we did as a living faith community (note, I did NOT simply show them round and point at the Font, the Windows, and get them to do Brass Rubbings, if the school wanted those kind of activities, then they could visit a museum), we showed videos, we did role play, we did refreshments, we sang the kind of songs we sang in our family orientated worship services . . . we talked about all the activities that happen in the church for children and families).

We ran at the church a mid week kids club called “Breakout”, we were allowed (and encouraged) to put flyers into book bags.  At significant times of the year we hosted carol services for the school (they couldn’t get everyone together in one space at the school, so they were very please to take this up), we took in pastries for the staff at the end of term, we prayed for the school, staff and students etc.

All these things create a context for doing assemblies as part of something – not as something separate or distant from the mission of the Church, but as an integral part of ministry in and to the community, of which schools are a part.  The upshot of all this?  We saw “Breakout” grow to a regular attendance of 60+ we had children bring 4 or 5 friends at a time, we saw a significant number of children “stay” in our midweek work into their teens and a number became Christians.

We also realised there was something else with the kids club we hadn’t thought of, 50 adults who didn’t normally come to church, milling about outside the church to pick up their kids at the end of the club.  The Vicar made it a priority to try and hang out at the end of the club when he could and chat to these parents.  The profile of the church and the good will towards the church in general was raised as news spread about “Breakout” – to be clear about the ethos of Breakout, when I started the club, the purpose was to run an “open to all” club, staffed by Christians – we used videos and illustrations in some “upfront bits” which taught simple truths from the Bible and we always finished with a prayer, but predominantly, it was an activity club for the children, with gentle Gospel input.

The club’s effectiveness also, in part, led to the pews being removed from the church to make more space for our activities . . . !

All this from being in the school regularly doing assemblies.  Assemblies are a shop window on your values, your approach to ministry with children, how you see your community, what you think is important to pass on, how you talk about God with those of little or no faith.  Get them right and they can lead to so much more.

Here then are my tips ::

#1.  Be yourself.  This is harder than it might seem!  If you are week in week out conducting liturgy at the front of a church – you might, just might, over time have developed a “liturgical voice”.  You might sound and act differently leading worship than you would in conversation.  In order to engage well with a group of children, whatever age, I would always recommend a relaxed and conversational style – yes, you might be leading worship in a school (depending on the type of school) but most of the children will not be used to you, or your “liturgical voice”.

Who are you?  Who are you when you don’t have a collar on, when you are relaxing with family and friends, when you are chatting with a mate, your primary aim in doing an assembly is NOT, simply to come in to the school and do an act of collective worship as the Vicar of “Such and Such” – you are Brian, or Peter, or Wendy or James, or Sue . . . the aim (in my opinion) of doing an assembly is “Firstly, to share our excitement about our faith and the Gospel in an attractive and accessible way for those who may never have heard that Jesus loves them.  Secondly, to leave them with ONE thought to reflect on and maybe ONE action that will help them remember what we have shared.”  Thirdly, you want to leave them with the impression that Christian’s are normal!

#2.  Start Where they are.  I regularly spoke at a Wednesday school Eucharist at a church in Ealing and the curate there was just about to do his first assembly, he dashed up to me asking for some help and, to quote him he said, “I didn’t know what to speak about – all I can think of is Saint . . . . something or other (so obscure, I can’t remember now who it was he mentioned).”

I was worried about a couple of things!  The main thing though is – for a first assembly – starting with something that is very familiar or comfortable for us because of our faith and existing relationship with God might not be the best place to begin for the children.

We need to start where they are.  We cannot expect them to know things, in fact – increasingly, we shouldn’t expect them to know things.  Until recently I was going in to a Church of England primary doing monthly assemblies, there is a great Christian ethos in the school, but a significant number of the children arriving in reception do not know about the significant events in Jesus’ life, they have never heard the parables.  Never mind talking about obscure Saints, however worthy, they don’t know anything about Jesus.

The challenge again about doing an assembly in this context is getting out of the habit of saying things that we might say in church, by force of habit, for example, “You remember the story of the Good Samaritan?” (not if they have never heard it they won’t!), or “as it says in Romans” (what is Romans?  Aren’t the Romans those people in togas that we learnt about in Year 1?  What did the Romans say?)

Starting where they are means – getting to know the children, getting to know the school, getting to know the community . . . which might be different from the one that makes up your church!  (I was in a predominantly white Baptist church in Edgware at the end of the 90s, we had one Asian family who attended regularly – the school I did assemblies in at the time was 90% Asian, with 70% of those being from Muslim families).  Starting where they are will often mean starting at the beginning.

#3.  Be Visual.  Metcalf (1997)  Carried out some research on what people are able to retain.  These were his findings, we remember: 10 percent of what we read; 20 percent of what we hear; 30 percent of what we see; 50 percent of what we see and hear; 70 percent of what we say; and 90 percent of what we do and say.  There are a bunch of things to look at here, but I want to focus on the need to be visual.  It is still only 50%, but way up on 20% if you are just standing at the front talking at people, they will struggle to remember what you said . . . but, make it visual with an aid and the dynamic of engagement, interest and memory are stirred into greater action.

You might be talking about the lost sheep (have a bunch of things that get lost easily e.g. keys, a sock, a pencil, a hair clip, a comb, a pair of glasses etc), just having those things and holding them up is more visual than you just speaking . . . the more interesting you can make the visual aid the better obviously!

A CLASSIC illustration is to use an Ox tongue when you are doing an assembly about how we use our tongue, how we speak – you could start by talking about the fact you are going to show them the most dangerous thing in the world, it has caused pain and death, wars and suffering . . . NOW – you could just have it a box, and then show it when you say that you are talking about the tongue – OR, you could put on a lab coat, special protective goggles, long thick work gloves, decorate the box with toxic signs – and come across like some kind of mad scientist, and THEN when you have freaked everyone out – get a child to open the box!)

How creative and imaginative you get will depend on time and – to some extent, knowing your audience.  But, BE visual.

#4.  Tell a Story.  A couple of awesome quotes:

There have been great societies that did not use the wheel, but there have been no societies that did not tell stories“. —Ursula K. LeGuin

(Ursula is one of the greats of Science Fiction writing, if you have never read anything she has written – I recommend:  “The Dispossessed” or The “Earthsea” books . . . she was a living legend, sadly recently departed).

You have yet to understand that the shortest distance between a human being and Truth is a story“. —Anthony de Mello.

(Again, if you have never read any DeMello, can I recommend “Awareness“?)

Disney know what they are doing . . . they tell a great story, many of their recent films look like the same story, again and again, but – draw the children in with characters they like, think are funny, can do amazing things . . . and they will get lost in the story, rapt attention in the Cinema is not just the magic of something visual (as per point 3 above) but the power of story.

Jesus nailed it with the parables, so much of his truth telling was illustrated – and, NOT in a black and white or linear fashion, his audience sometimes had to do some work . . . we don’t – in telling a story – have to telegraph every single parallel or analogy with a sledgehammer sentence that reminds children we are really talking about Jesus.

Tell a story, and let the story do the work.  Let them think about it!  I would rather they went away from an assembly, being gripped by a story and wondering about it – than went away from an assembly with the thought, “I knew what was being said, but it was pretty boring” and then thinking no more about it!

#5.  Response.  Whatever you have done, visually, story, being yourself, thinking about where the children are at and trying to begin there . . . you have to stop.

Often, you have maybe 15 minutes to include everything you might want to do, saying hello, introducing your theme of the day, (a song – which might be obligatory depending on the school you are in).  Plan in some time for a response, have in your mind this question at the end of what you have said, “So what?”  Big deal, what’s it to me?

The value of what you have just shared rises or falls on what you do to equip the children to make the most of it!  You may have delivered a cracking assembly, but, if you run out of time – wrapping up can be a bit like falling off a cliff, a quick prayer and off they go to the next lesson or out to the playground . . . thinking back to what we retain – we retain 90% of what we do and say.

So – as part of the response, what are the children going to “say”?  It used to be that teaching bible memory verses was the norm, then it seems to have fallen out of fashion and is now lost in an era of fuzzy felt and flares.  What a disaster!  No wonder so many children (in our churches, never mind in our schools) can’t remember anything from the Bible!

So, if you have used a particular verse then get the kids to say it out loud, e.g. “Man looks at the outside, God looks at the heart.”  (in fact, with that bible verse – which is 1 Samuel 16 verse 7, there is a great song you could use too which would teach the verse, “Man Looks At the Outside, God looks at the heart.”  So, they say it, they repeat it – now what . . . ?  Years ago Juan Carlos Ortiz wrote “Disciple”, in it he talks about the time he preached the same sermon again, and again, and again.

It was on “love”.  Eventually, after maybe a month, some in his congregation started to say “didn’t you preach the same sermon last week?” He replied, “I am going to keep preaching about love until we DO IT.”  Wow, how long would we need to preach for in our churches if we kept saying the same things until we were doing that thing?  Give the children something to do!

As an example, going back to the “tongue” assembly, when I have wrapped up that assembly in the past I have used T.H.I.N.K. to encourage them to stop and think before they open their mouths and use their tongue – T is it True? H is it helpful? I – is it all about you “I want this, I want that?” N – is it necessary and K – is it kind?  Maybe next time they are about to say something they will stop and THINK first!  It is just a little thing, but it is an action a response to what they have seen and heard.  To get biblical about this, James Chapter 1 verses 23 – 24, links what we have heard with what we do – and why it is so important.  We need to consider this in all of our public speaking – but particularly in a school context – AND, the school will LOVE it.  Teaching uses response stuff all the time to reinforce what is happening in the class, the purpose of homework is to reinforce what the children are learning . . . creating the opportunity for the children to respond within the assembly time is critical, AND giving them something to “take away” and do.

I have called this my top 5 tips, there are more things . . . but I hope some of the above might be useful.  One final thought, not a lot has changed in the way we are “wired”, (our engagement with digital media is doing stuff to our brains, but that is for another post) Metcalf carried out recent research to get to his percentages highlighted in this blog, but Confucius said this, 500 years B.C.

” What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand.”

If you ever wonder why discipleship seems to get harder with each generation, we have got out of the habit of “doing” our faith and become increasingly reliant on a few people telling us about our faith and seeking to impart truth in an auditory fashion.

Bring your whole self to your assemblies and think holistically about the mission of your worshipping community as you serve your local schools – there are so many possibilities, half the fun is doing what you can to add value, bless and support your local schools and then just see what God does through his presence and the relationships you build!