Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ (Matthew 19:13-14) AND ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.' (Matthew 18:3)
I believe that children and youth are among God's greatest gifts to the Church, that is, to the Body of Christ. The Body may sometimes be more noisy and unpredictable because of them, but the Body is incomplete--even crippled--without them.
Children have so much to teach us, and whenever we strive to make the worship, prayer, and practice of our communities more hospitable and inclusive for children, we actually make the worship, prayer, and practice of our communities more hospitable and inclusive, period.
Below are some ideas for how we might make worship services more hospitable and inclusive for our youngest members. In the drop down menu under "Kids" you will find other resources to support the spiritual lives and development of children, parents, and those who care for them.
Why & How to Welcome Kids in Worship
The Eucharist is for the WHOLE people of God, and intergenerational worship is at the heart of a flourishing Christian community, but in our all too often age-segregated society, worshipping together may be a challenging learning experience for both adults and children! Below are some articles, resources, and ideas that I have found helpful in helping churches in their journey towards becoming inter-generational worshiping communities. I hope that you find them helpful, too!
Worship is at the heart of the Christian life. Whenever we worship together God is at work, forming and transforming us into a community that can reflect God’s glory and love in the world, more and more. Children are an essential part of the transforming community God is creating among us. When children (or any other group of people) are absent from our worship, our community’s worship is impoverished and our potential for transformation is constrained.
Children have something of extraordinary value to offer the worshipping community, and the worshipping community has something of extraordinary value to offer children.
Question 2: How do we do it, and how might we do it better?
We live in a culture that routinely segregates people in various ways, including by age. Cultivating an intentionally intergenerational worshipping community that expects, welcomes, and supports the full participation of all people, including children, is profoundly countercultural. We may feel ill-equipped to tackle the challenge of engaging a spiritual practice that feels so different from the other practices of our daily life. Below are some thoughts, observations, and insights from my perspective as both a priest and a parent of three young children, deeply committed to the radical spiritual practice of worshipping in a community that welcomes people of all ages.
1) Invite, support, and cue full participation. Often when people don’t participate in an activity, it’s not because they don’t want to. It’s because they haven’t been explicitly invited and they don’t know how. In order to participate fully at each point in a worship service, children need to know what’s happening, why it’s happening, and how they can help. For example, you might say to a child, “We’re gathering now, because it’s time to begin our worship service. You can help by going with Jane to ring the church bell and light the candles, then come stand with me so we can sing the opening song together.” “We’re standing up now, because Marco is going to read a story about Jesus from the Bible. You can help by keeping your eyes on Marco and the Gospel Book, and listening carefully.” “We’re going to the altar now to bless the bread and wine. The priest will lift up her hands and chant the blessing. You can help by lifting up your hands for the prayer, too.”
If you begin paying attention, you'll probably notice many tacit & explicit ways the worshipping community inadvertently cues inattention and discourages the full participation of children in worship. You can counteract these patterns! Begin looking for ways you can gently and intentionally cue attention and encourage participation of children in worship. Consider how your facial expressions, gestures, posture, body language, focus, and actual words (and those of other members of the worshipping community) communicate to children throughout the worship service, “This matters! You matter! We are all making church together!”
2) Actively welcome children to share in the “work” of the liturgy. Children want to feel like they belong. One of the principal ways that children feel like they “belong” is by making meaningful contributions to the life of the community.
When my youngest child was 2 years old, I remember her announcing, with obvious pride and delight, “at your church, I help with the hums.” At St. Gregory's, whenever the priest chants a prayer, the whole community creates a drone (a hum) to support the prayer. Whenever Lucia worshipped there, she looked forward to “helping with the hums.”
There are many obvious “jobs” that children can be invited to share when it comes to worship: setting up, lighting candles and incense, ringing bells, passing out books and bulletins, carrying ritual objects, washing dishes. In fact, there are very few, if any, “jobs” pertaining to the planning, set up, execution, clean up, and evaluation of worship that a child can not do, with varying degrees of support from an adult. Remember that the important “jobs” in worship aren’t limited to obvious, visible, leadership roles. Praying is a “job”, singing is a “job”, listening is a “job”, sometimes even “humming” is a job that every member of the community, including children, can do to support the community’s worship.
3) Encourage the whole worshipping community to actively support the full participation of children. The role of worship leaders and parents in welcoming and supporting the full participation of children in worship is extremely important, but, as the saying goes, “it takes a village…” It can feel confusing, even discouraging, for children to receive mixed messages about their importance, participation, roles, and expectations in the worshipping community. Likewise it can feel frustrating, even futile, for parents to come to worship with their children when they feel like they're "in it alone."
A few years ago I attended an Advent service of Lessons & Carols with my family. It came time for the first carol and the congregation stood to sing. My oldest child, then 8 years old, (who generally enjoys singing) remained seated. I gestured for her to stand. She shook her head. “Stand up, it’s time to sing.” I whispered. “No!” she insisted, scowling. “The community needs your voice,” I insisted. She shook her head more vehemently. I gave her an exasperated look. She shot a glance across the aisle. “Look around,” she whispered. I quickly glanced around. Kids were wiggling, crawling over the pews, poking their siblings. She continued, “Kids don’t stand up and sing at this church. No one expects us to. People here don’t think kids are capable of anything.” The moment was becoming a battle, and it looked like we were in it alone.
Children are experts at “reading a room”, looking not only to their parents and leaders but also to peers, older children, and the community at large for cues about expectations, norms, and behavior in various situations. Children (and their parents) need the robust, consistent, active support of the entire worshipping community—leaders, other parents and non-parents, peers and older children—encouraging and supporting their full participation in worship. This job belongs to all of us!
4) Create worship materials, spaces, and practices that welcome children’s participation. When we create liturgical materials, space, and practices that are intentionally inclusive of children, we increase our capacity as a worshipping community to be more inclusive of people in general, including individuals of every age with learning styles, physical and mental abilities, or cultural and language backgrounds that have not been historically typical or dominant in our communities.
Materials: The purpose of making materials available for children to work with in the worship space is not to distract children, or to “keep them busy” but to offer them opportunities to engage their senses so that they can be more present to the action of the community in worship. This can be especially helpful during those portions of a worship service when the action of the community is primarily sitting and listening (for example, during the sermon.). Some of the materials that we have found useful in helping children and other kinesthetic learners (like me) participate more fully and comfortably in the “listening” portions of worship include homemade play doughscented with various essential oils according to the liturgical season, wooden finger labyrinths, wooden lacing cards(with icons on one side, and textured Christian symbols on the other side), seasonal story boxes (with felt shapes, similar to Godly Play parable boxes), tiny icon boxes (tiny boxes filled with sets of small, laminated reproductions of religious icons, paintings, and photos), prayer beads, looms for weaving and soft puppets or dolls.
Space: Create several areas in the worship space that are “scaled” to smaller children. A few small chairs, soft rugs and pillows can indicate to young children “we were expecting you! There are spaces here just for you!” I have found that creating multiple spaces within the worship space that are especially hospitable to younger children is preferable to creating a single “kids’ corner.” For one thing, it respects children by giving them the same variety of choices that we give adult members of the community. Like adults, some children will be more comfortable and able to participate near the “front” or “center”, where they can see everything that happens. Other children will be more comfortable and able to participate towards the “back” or “edges”, where they can move around without feeling like they are on display. Furthermore, having a large number of children in a single area can quickly become distracting for children...and for the rest of the worshipping community. When children can choose from a variety of comfortable spaces mixed in with the rest of the worshipping community, it is easier for them to read cues about the primary action and expectation of the worshipping community throughout the service. In smaller groups, children are able to retain a sense of individual identity within the larger community; they aren't mentally lumped together in one group as "the kids." Many adults are able to interact more successfully and supportively with children when they encounter them as unique individuals, rather than as members of a larger (often intimidating or bewildering) group.
Practices: Elements of worship that rely heavily on reading can be adapted or expanded to include non-readers. The inclusion of some “paperless” music or music that is taught “by ear” may enhance the ability of pre-literate children to participate in the musical life of the worshipping community. (For example, at St. Gregory's children can practice all the songs for the upcoming Supper Service at home in advance.) The intentional incorporation of ritual gestures (the sign of the cross, the orans, etc.), postures (kneeling, bowing, standing etc.), and movement (processions, sign language, liturgical dance, etc.) may also enable children to participate more fully in the action and prayers of the worshipping community. 5) Practice embracing boredom. Even when we invite and support their full participation, children may sometimes complain that worship is “boring.” Yep. It is. Even for an ardent liturgy-loving adults, it is. A wise person once said, “boredom is the gateway to contemplation.” In our hectic, over-stimulating, overscheduled world, boredom is a precious gift from God for people of all ages. Instead of treating boredom as a problem to be fixed, we can encourage ourselves and our children to receive boredom as a gift--the gift of space in our schedules, minds, and hearts into which God’s Spirit will breath new inspiration, insight, creativity, and life.
6) Notice the mysterious ways that worship soaks into our hearts, minds, and bodies even when we’re “not paying attention.” One day after worship I asked my daughter (age 7) what part of the service she had liked best. After thinking for a few minutes she answered, “the sermon.” “Really?” I asked. Even as a preacher, I often assume that the sermon is one of the less engaging parts of worship, especially for children. I inquired further, “What did you like about the sermon? Was there something the preacher said that seemed especially important or interesting to you?” “Well,” she replied, “at first I wasn’t even really listening. I mean, I didn’t think I was listening. I was just working with my playdough. Then after a while I realized I was listening. But I wasn’t just listening with my ears. It was like I was listening with my whole body. And it was like the preacher’s words were getting inside me.” “Huh,” I responded. “and that felt like a good thing?” “Well, yeah” she continued. “Because, even though I didn’t exactly understand everything the preacher was saying, I knew that he was saying good words. And it made me feel happy to have those good words inside me.”
One Good Friday morning I came into the kitchen and discovered my two daughters, ages 3 and 7, singing a piece of music that I recognized from our worship service the night before. It was a somewhat complex piece of music—one that I recognized but didn’t know well enough to sing myself. I made an appreciative comment. They paused. Looking simultaneously startled and delighted, one of the girls marveled, “I didn’t even know I knew that song!” “Yeah”, her sister concurred, “It’s like the music just sneaked inside my brain when I wasn’t paying attention!” 7) Keep showing up. Keep holding on. Remember, at their heart, our worship practices are not a matter of personal preference. They are a matter of enacting our deepest faith, hope, and love. Our worship practices are a matter of showing up and doing something we don’t quite understand in the hope that God will show up and make us into something new, something we can’t even imagine. The practice of worshipping with children is no different. It’s one way we, as a Christian community, enact our deepest faith, hope, and love. We don’t have to understand it, or do it perfectly. We just have to keep showing up and doing it, holding fast to the unwavering conviction (or, at the very least, the fierce hope) that children have something of extraordinary value to offer the worshipping community, and the worshipping community has something of extraordinary value to offer children.