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Beyond the "Children's Message": Welcoming Children in Worship

The little boy came running over at a church gathering. “Pastor Mary!” he said, with a finger in his mouth. “Look!” I saw a fresh gap where his tooth used to be. “Ryan!” I said. “You’ve lost your first tooth!” He grinned back. “And the one next to it is loose!”

Whenever children feel safe in the church, whenever they sense that the place is as much about them as it is about their parents, whenever adults call them by name and notice their lost teeth or new haircuts, then something good is happening—something Jesus himself commands: “Whoever welcomes a small child in my name, welcomes me” (Matt. 18:5).

Welcoming children into the life of the church has been a delight during the years I have been a pastor. The church I belong to has a wonderful tradition: before the youngest children go off to their worship time, they gather on the steps in front of the sanctuary to offer the congregation a blessing, and the congregation extends one in return. This gathering time has been one of my favorite parts of Sunday morning worship. The children, well-versed in the liturgical year by their children’s worship leaders, are always ready to notice new things in the sanctuary.

When the season changes, I ask the children to look at the new banners and tell me what color they are, and why. We look at the symbols on the banners and talk about what they mean. They’ve become so used to this line of inquiry that when a guest speaker held up a pencil and asked the children what color it was, one child said, “It’s purple because it’s Lent!”

Noticing the colors of banners or counting down the weeks of Lent or Advent are good ways to allow the children to be full participants in sanctuary worship. They also serve to remind the rest of the worshipers about the meaning and significance of the liturgical year. But banners and the seasons of the church year aren’t the only ways we can invite children’s participation in worship. Here are some other ways to let children know they are an important part of God’s family:

• We use the occasion of a baptism or a profession of faith to talk about what it means to be part of a church family. We tell the children that they are big brothers and sisters for a newly baptized child and that they need to look out for the little one. We remind them to pray for those who have just professed their faith, not only during their worship time but also in the week to come.

• When new members are welcomed into our congregation, we introduce them and then ask the children to recite the first name of each new member. After the children have mastered the names, the rest of the congregation has an opportunity to recite them as well.

• When an artist in our congregation donated new communion ware, I led the children to the table and encouraged them to feel the chalice and paten. We talked about the symbols on the pieces and what they represented. We talked about how the pitcher and plate are used to celebrate a feast, just like the feast the children celebrate when they worship in their worship centers. Now when the table is set for communion, the children notice and we have the opportunity to talk again about celebrating the feast.

These seemingly small actions all help to enfold young children into our congregational worship. When they enter the sanctuary they notice the banners, the colors, the flowers, and the setting on the communion table. As worship proceeds they pay attention to baptisms, professions of faith, or the welcoming of new members. They learn that nothing that happens in worship is extraneous, and that they have a part in all of it.

Older Kids Have Gifts Too

In addition to incorporating the youngest members who depart from the sanctuary for part of the service to worship in their own space, our church tries to be intentional about using the gifts of older children too. During Advent and Lent we invited young artists to design bulletin covers.

Last year’s Advent bulletin covers followed not the sermon series, but the stories the children were learning in their worship centers. This reminded the congregation of the worship taking place in the worship centers and highlighted the children’s experience. When kids came to church, they wanted to see who had drawn the picture on the front. And when they saw the picture, they were introduced to their story for that day. For the Christmas Day bulletin cover, an adult artist incorporated images from each of those covers into a beautiful collage. The following Lent, bulletin covers were drawn by members ranging in age from five to forty-eight, including a cover e-mailed to us by an out-of-state college student.

Another way to include younger members is by inviting them to read Scripture or offer congregational prayers. Every Sunday one of the Scripture lessons is read by a lay member, and often the reader is under the age of twenty-five. We’ve also had students volunteer to lead the congregational prayer. In one case three fourth-grade girls wrote the prayer together and took turns offering the words aloud on a Sunday morning. Another time a young poet wrote all of the responsive readings that were used during the four weeks of Advent as we lit the Advent candles (see sidebar).

Young musicians also use their gifts to play the offertory or sing; on one occasion a teen played her guitar and sang a song she had written herself while a grateful congregation enjoyed her gifts.

Of course, there’s more to welcoming children than including their participation in the liturgy. Sermons too must be crafted with the needs of children in mind. Kids need to know that their life experiences are important to the pastor and to God, and that their needs will be addressed in the sermon. Pastors can accomplish this by weaving examples from kids’ life experiences—such as school or sports or families—into the sermon.

For instance, I might say, “If your teacher says. . .” or “When your Nintendo breaks . . .” or “When you’re fighting with your brother . . .” Directing language and illustrations to childhood occurrences such as struggles in friendship or being cut from a sports team helps not only younger hearers to listen well but adults as well. Adults easily translate these examples to their own experience. Better to use an illustration about soccer than one about insider trading, for example. Better to hit the 75 percent of folks who understand soccer and probably play it or watch it than hit the 8 percent who have a full grasp of the complexities of insider trading.

By incorporating the experiences of our younger members into the sermon, we are teaching them that the Word of God is for them and that it is applicable to their lives, not something they can’t understand until they “grow up.”

When a child comes up after a service and says, “I really liked that!” we can be sure that our worship has honored God. An eleven-year-old who visited our church recently commented, “That was so interesting I didn’t even have time to draw!”

Yes! “Whoever welcomes a small child in my name welcomes me.”

 

Excerpt
Bless the Children: A Litany

One day Jesus sat teaching,
the children came, their little arms reaching.
They wished to be blessed by his might,
to be cleansed and bathed in his light.




No one should be kept from Jesus, the King.
All should be blessed and rest under his mighty wing.


The disciples said he was busy and to go away,
but Jesus asked that they would stay.
Then he took them in his loving care,
all the children from everywhere.




No one should be kept from Jesus, the King.
All should be blessed and rest under his mighty wing.


He blessed them with his love and grace.
He looked upon every shining face.
He took them close and held them tight
and filled them with God’s glory bright.




No one should be kept from Jesus, the King.
All should be blessed and rest under his mighty wing.


—Gabriel Gunnink, age 12. Used by permission.