It Takes a Congregation...to Nurture the Children
Since multigenerational worship services involve all generations, why focus on children? First, children need advocates because they are seldom allowed to share their thoughts, primarily because no one asks them. Second, the inclusion of children seems to be the biggest stumbling block when congregations begin to discuss gathering the generations together. Finally, adult generational issues most often focus on style and preferences. There is really no theological debate as to their inclusion.
Our culture, which permeates our churches, is permeated by ideas like these:
- Children should be seen, not heard (or even, Children should be neither seen nor heard).
- Children are a burden (or an embarrassment).
- Children are OK as long as I don’t have to deal with them.
- Children would be okay if they just grew up and acted like adults.
Even if these thoughts are not spoken aloud, they are often expressed in concrete ways. Children are excluded from worship and other functions of the church simply because they are children. Why? Because it makes attending church easier, or more meaningful, or less distracting for adults. But where is it ever written in God’s Word that these are legitimate reasons for excluding children?
Called to Spiritual Nurture
What God’s Word does say is that children are welcome in God’s kingdom (Matt.18:2-5; Mark 9:36-37; Luke 18:15-17). It says that children are a gift from God (Ps. 127:3) and the continuing expression of our spiritual heritage (Deut. 6:2, 4-9). It says that children can be God’s ambassadors (1 Sam. 3:1-19) and that children reflect how we are to enter the kingdom (Luke 18:16).
Furthermore, children are agents of God’s unconditional love. Children have a propensity to love God and others without question. Their love for parents is so profound that even in the midst of abuse they continually seek to both love and receive love from the very ones who are hurting them. Likewise, children give their parents and the entire church community an opportunity to love unconditionally. Nurturing children toward a deepening faith requires a great deal of energy, patience, grace, and ultimately unconditional love. This is both a challenge and a blessing.
God’s Word is clear that it is the role of the church and parents to nurture children in faith. The Word of God is for children (Deut. 31:10-13), and the promise of the gospel is for children (Acts 2:38-39). We are called to teach children God’s Word (Ps. 78:5-7; Prov. 22:6). Parents are called to be spiritual mentors (Deut. 6:4-9; Prov. 1:8; Eph. 6:1-4; Titus 1:6; Col. 3:21; 1 Thess. 2:11-12), and so is the entire faith community (Deut 6:4-7).
Ironically, the church is one of the few places in our culture where generations come together . . . and we divide them up.
The Roots of the Division
It has been noted that the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason took the church from doxology (right praise) to dogmatics (right belief). Children no longer participated in faith but rather learned about faith. What also began to emerge was a deeper understanding of human developmental levels and capacity for learning.
In the past, children were treated as miniature adults; we now have a greater understanding of what they can and cannot understand. But instead of using that information to make our worship both more inclusive and engaging, we have in many cases taken the simpler route of segmenting the congregation into groups defined by developmental levels. Once again, this can be traced to a growing emphasis on learning about faith over and above the importance of participating in faith.
First Corinthians 12:14-22 makes it clear that the church is one body made up of many parts. All of these parts are needed, all are chosen by God. Moreover, even those parts that seem to be the weakest are indispensable. The church loses out when we exclude children from worship. Conversely, when we include children in worship we are blessed by their presence, spontaneity, receptivity, enthusiasm, and self-giving love. And we are blessed by their expressions of thanksgiving, hope, and joy.
Including children in worship also fosters in worshipers a deeper relationship with God and provides a sense of relatedness to the body of Christ. It communicates acceptance that children are an important part of the body, helps children understand the importance their parents and other significant adults attach to their faith, and enables them to participate in worship and the sacraments.
Inclusive worship runs counter to the direction the church has been headed in the last few generations. Many churches have yet to tackle this issue. It’s true that multigenerational worship services require more time and effort to prepare. They require a willingness to give up individual preferences for the benefit of the larger community of faith. They also require sensitivity to the developmental stages of children, to generational preferences, to cultural and historical heritage and diversity. Finally, they require a partnership with parents in preparing and engaging children in worship.
Nevertheless, worship services that separate children from the gathered body of Christ convey a message to congregations and to the broader community. Because whom and what we choose to exclude from our worship says as much about our community of faith as whom and what we choose to include. Our willingness to wrestle with the commands of God and the challenges of nurturing children into faith within the context of multigenerational worship will bring spiritual blessing not only to children but to the whole of the church as well.
Whom and what we choose to exclude from our worship says as much about our community of faith as whom and what we choose to include.
The disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child . . . and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
—Matthew 18:1-5, NRSV.
Art by Julie Lonneman, from Clip Art for Sundays and Solemnities (© 2003, The Liturgical Press, 1-800-858-5450, www.ltp.org). Used by permisssion.
Worship Ideas for Welcoming Children
Here are some practical ways that both parents and the church can help to engage children in the context of our gathered worship.
Ideas for Parents
- Serve together (as ushers, readers, greeters).
- Review what will happen in worship with your children.
- Don’t rush in at the last minute.
- Be a positive model.
- Remind children our focus is on God.
- Express your own enthusiasm for worshiping God.
- Assist, include, affirm, answer questions.
- Model enthusiastic singing.
- Hold hands when praying.
- Demonstrate participation: when to rise and sit down, and so on.
- Help children follow the Scripture reading.
- Invite children to help with younger siblings.
- Have children fill out the registration pad.
- Have children contribute to the offering.
Ideas for the Gathered Church
- Use vocabulary children can understand.
- Have the pastor use sermon illustrations from childhood experiences.
- Solicit liturgical contributions from children, youth, and families.
- Use children as liturgical leaders.
- Form a multigenerational choir.
- Maintain routines in worship that children can follow.
- Repeat a variety of music.
- Use stories, not object lessons.
- Involve children and family in worship preparation and planning.
- Use some music that is familiar to children and youth.
- Plan some physical movement in the service.
- Train and use children as ushers.
- Incorporate drama, use children and youth.
- Experiment with dividing the sermon into parts.