On a cold December evening, sixteen neighborhood, children responded to an invitation to hear the Christmas story at our house. I didn't even know all of them by name, but I invited them because I wanted to test a new way of telling stories I had learned at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. I had taken the four-day training session twice. But I was still somewhat skeptical of this children's worship program with its quiet, reverent environment. How could children sit as still as fifty-year-olds to hear God's Word?
The children bounced into our living room, and their rambunctious bodies soon covered the floor, chairs, and couch. One of the mothers remarked in despair, "These kids will never settle down to hear a Bible story." But I was determined to try. I invited the children, one at a time, to the "worship" room that I had prepared with soft lights and three-dimensional visuals. Soon they were all seated on a taped circle on the floor. And the rambunctiousness disappeared!
As I told the story of Isaiah, the shepherds, the wisemen, and Joseph and Mary on the way to Bethlehem, the children listened intently. Yet they seemed relaxed. When the story was finished, I invited them to choose one of four different response activities. They moved from one activity to another with purpose, but with no anxious rush.
Aha! The evening was a success!
I told myself that if it worked at home in the evening, it was sure to work in church. I was sold on the program.
How It Works
Children and Worship, a program described in Young Children and Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman, enables children to meet with God instead of just learning about God. The worship service at the center of this program includes approaching God, listening to God's Word, giving thanks to God, and going in God's name. Children know what is expected of them, and they are free to experience God's presence in ways appropriate for them.
Part of listening to the Word is wondering. Children are encouraged to imaginatively wonder about the story they just saw and heard. They walk slowly as they look at the display centers, because they have all the time they need. They talk softly so they don't interfere with those who may be talking with God. They sit quietly so they don't bump or disturb the individuals sitting next to them.
The focal point of every session is the Bible story, which takes place in the middle of the circle on the floor. After seeing and hearing the story almost word-for-word from Scripture, children respond by retelling it, making a picture, working with clay, reading a book, talking to God, or making a puzzle. They give offerings, hear a short passage of Scripture, and pray for other people.
Sometimes the group shares a feast in which children are given a bread item and a drink. The feast is served as part of the worship service and helps prepare children to partake of the Lord's Supper later on. And as each child leaves the day's worship, he or she receives a personal blessing from the leaders.
Experiencing God: Testimonies from the Churches
It's difficult to get a real feeling for what happens in these programs by describing them in print. They are so visual, so tactile, so "caught." But perhaps the following stories will help. They describe how programs are carried out in churches and how children and leaders experience God through the Children and Worship program.
Soon after starting their program, the leaders at First Christian Reformed Church, Langley British Columbia, drew children from outside the church family. Kenny, a boy found living on the streets of Vancouver, was taken into foster care by a family who attend First Church. When he heard the story of baptism and how we all receive the light of Christ, he was six years old. He had never been baptized. He went home agitated and very upset. He told his foster mother, "I want to receive my light!"
Now Kenny is eleven. He was recently baptized and received into full membership at First Church. During the service his peers joined him in the front of the church to hear the story of baptism once again. Each child held a candle that was lit by the leader. Then Kenny delivered his own profession of faith to the congregation.
Aha! A child off the streets of Vancouver receives the light of Christ!
Lights also go on for lifetime church members. Having read and heard Bible stories many times, Ann Jean Vander Veen, a worship leader at First Christian Reformed Church, Ripon, California, admits that it's easy to take stories for granted. However, seeing Bible stories as well as hearing them has brought back new light and meaning for her. Also watching the children find meaning has allowed her many 'Aha!" experiences.
One six-year-old in Ann Jean's program experienced the story of Easter and responded by making a picture of a cross and an empty tomb. She wrote on the picture "I love God!" A visiting child from the community prayed after her second week in the program, "I thank you, God, for all these people in my church."
Part of the feeling of belonging that this young girl felt is created through prayer times. Children are encouraged to feel comfortable praying aloud or silently. A little girl in the program at Im-manuel Christian Reformed Church, Ripon, California didn't want to pray aloud. So the leader reassured her and the other children that God hears both our silent and spoken prayers. One Sunday noon at the family dinner table the little girl told her family she wanted to lead in prayer—but silently. "Everyone close your eyes and be quiet. We're going to pray silently."
Rewarding results like these have encouraged churches to adapt the program for a variety of settings. Trinity Presbyterian Church, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, uses this style of telling Bible stories in a Saturday program called 'Arts for Kids." About twenty-five to fifty children from kindergarten through fifth grade attend the program and act out stories, use puppets, draw, and paint. One of the Sunday leaders of children's worship suggested the carryover from the worship-center approach to the arts event, and it's been a great success.
Some churches, like Pitcher Hill Reformed, Syracuse, New York, want the children to be part of congregational worship with their families. Therefore, instead of pulling the children out of the normal worship service, the leaders at Pitcher Hill use children's worship as a church education program for three- to seven-year-olds. The effectiveness of their ministry was displayed when a three-year-old played with a miniature set of visuals of the Good Shepherd parable all afternoon after experiencing it at church in the morning. She talked her way through the story again and again, her mother explained, and after a while she began calling the sheep "children."
Aha! A three-year-old discovers a deep truth of Scripture!
A garage was the setting for a neighborhood Bible Club run by Sharon Stewart, a member of Pleasant Hills Community Presbyterian Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. A sheet covered the junk and held a banner of the good shepherd and his sheep. The children, aged three to twelve, had not heard Bible stories before and asked to hear them, so Sharon told them Children-and-Worship-style.
The children didn't know the "right" answers to fact questions, but they wondered and wondered about how this could have happened, and what it would have been like if they had been there. The program drew the neighborhood together, and two children came to know Jesus as their Savior. Two others attended Christian summer camps as a result.
Hearing, Seeing, and Touching the Word
No matter what the setting, the Children and Worship approach remains the same. All the stories are told with visuals, which are placed on trays or in baskets. These baskets are placed on shelves, so children have access to them for retelling.
Children's worship centers need wooden figures for all the New Testaments stories, a desert box for the Old Testament episodes, and gold-wrapped boxes to hold two-dimensional figures for parables.
Church members can help make most of the items, especially the wooden figures. However, the wooden figures can also be purchased from the Distribution Center of the Reformed Church in America. You'll need a minimum of $500.00 to furnish a worship center.
First Presbyterian Church in Janes-ville, Wisconsin, paid for their worship center materials with a Presbytery grant. First Church's pastor, Rev. Calvin Harfst, was deeply impressed when he observed children's worship, and is now actively involved in the effort. He bases his sermons on the same Scriptures used in the centers each Sunday to bring continuity for families whose children worship apart from them.
Although people like Calvin Harfst can be enthusiastic about the program, fewer people are willing to commit time and energy to leading children in worship each week. Helene Vander Werff, trainer and leader of the program at Good News Reformed Church in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, has found a solution for this problem in her church. Forty children come to the center each week, and Helene uses second graders who have "graduated" from the program to be helpers and greeters. She gives them some training, and they take their roles seriously.
Helene also has only thirty minutes for her program, whereas most programs take a minimum of forty-five minutes to an hour. But although there is no time for a feast and little response time in this Good News program, prayer has become a very meaningful part of their time together. Through prayer this group helped a four-year-old boy, who had lost two siblings in a year and a half, process his grief. They have prayed continually for the babies that died and for the family. Baby Scott has become so real to these children that when they placed nests and birds in the mustard tree during the parable of the mustard seed, they wondered if Baby Scott would like to nest in the tree.
Aha, once again!
This group has also prayed for Ada, who was in a prolonged coma after an accident. Although doctors told Ada she would never walk again, these little children believed she would. Every week they asked the Lord to make her legs strong One Sunday Ada walked into church, and the children shouted, 'Ada can walk! Ada can walk!" They felt their prayers had been heard, and they held a celebration!
How wonderful for children to be able to hear, see, and touch the Word of God in such a way that it becomes real for them. How great that they can sense God's presence. How blessed it is to see them talk with God and know God is listening. "Let the little children come to me," said Jesus, "for to such is the kingdom of heaven."