Born to Worship

A challenge to include children in all our worship activities

by Patricia Nederveld

Dear Lord God,
I pray to
You every day
For what I need
And you give it to me.
I will keep on praising
Your name.
Jesus, I love You.
"A Psalm of Jasmine"

A friend of mine recently gave me a book called Psalms of the Dawn Treaders, a collection of psalms written by young children who attend the Dawn Treader Christian School in Paterson, New Jersey. Reading these beautiful, uncomplicated praise selections straight from the hearts of small psalmists convinced me of something I've long suspected to be true. Young children have deep within them a very real sense of who God is and how he would have us worship and adore him.

Throughout the ages the church has recognized that all human beings, to one degree or another, have this special sense of God. John Calvin believed that everyone "has a sense of divinity" which becomes the "seed of religion," capable of flowering into human worship. According to James Dejong, author of Into His Presence: Perspectives on Reformed Worship, Roman Catholics and Protestants agree that all people, even those outside the Christian faith, are born with an innate impulse to worship. Although there seems to be little agreement, even among Christians, as to the structure, methods, or words of worship, our unity in Christ is marked by the fact that through his name we feel compelled to bring our corporate praise and worship to God the Father.

While it appears easy for the church to acknowledge this universal and innate sense of the divine as well as humankind's drive-to worship, the principle begins to lose its simplicity and shine when one faces the difficult question of what to do with children in the service of corporate worship. Does "innate" really mean that children have a sense of God, an impulse to worship him? How does this innate sense of God relate to the covenant promise of baptism and the Holy Spirit's expected work in the hearts of our children? Are children really capable of understanding worship, of articulating their own praise to God? How, if at all, can children participate in worship in a way that satisfies their need to approach God, without interfering with adults' pursuit of a worshipful encounter with their Lord?

An Amazing Bond

In her book, The Religious Potential of the Child: The Description of an Experience with Children from Ages Three to Six, Sofia Cavaletti, internationally known religious educator of young children, makes a strong case for a "mysterious bond between God and the child" (see "Letting the Story Stand" p.25). Based on years of working with little ones inside and outside of the church, Cavaletti cites several cases which support her belief that young children, even those who have not been born into Christian homes, have a profound, innate sense of who God is. For example, she tells of a three-year-old child who was growing up without a trace of religious influence:

The child did not go to nursery school; no one at home, not even her grandmother, who was herself an atheist, had ever spoken of God; the child had never gone to church. One day she questioned her father about the origin of the world: "Where does the world come from?" Her father replied, in a manner consistent with his ideas, with a discourse that was materialistic in nature; then he added: "However, there are those who say that all this comes from a very powerful being, and they call htm God." At this point the little girl began to run like a whirlwind around the room in a burst of joy, and exclaimed: "I knew what you told me wasn't true; it is Him, it is Him!" (page 32)

Reading Cavaletti's book can raise almost as many questions as it answers. It also raises the reader's awareness of the spiritual nature of little ones—their deep sense of who God is and their unabashed, spontaneous response to him. I'd recommend the book to every pastor, worship leader, and worship-committee member who has pondered how young children understand and respond to God through worship.

This issue of Reformed Worship is intended to challenge the church not only to welcome young children into the mainstream of church life, but also to nudge each adult reader toward the childlike humility that marks kingdom citizens. It's a challenge grounded in the words of Jesus: "I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me" (Matt. 18:3-5).

A Biblical Imperative

Jesus seems to suggest that the two are tied together—welcoming children in his name while at the same time learning from them how to live and worship with simplicity and humility.

That's radical!

Consider all of the time and energy we adults put into programming, curriculum selection, teacher training, and building expansions for educational facilities as we seek to take seriously the challenge of Deuteronomy 6:6-9 to nurture and educate our children in the faith. And rightly so—except that by putting such obvious stress on our adult role of leaching and passing on the faith, we may be suggesting to our children that we regard them as spiritual nonentities, unable to respond to God until we bring their thinking and theology into sync with our own, until we augment their simple faith vocabularies with our catechetical definitions.

It is in congregational worship, however, with its focus on the coming together of believers of all ages to praise God and receive his blessing, that a child's sense of who God is and how we respond to him is truly deepened and strengthened. Congregational worship that involves children and adults together pictures to both what it means to belong to and celebrate our life as the body of Christ.

It's interesting that churches of the Reformed tradition, with its emphasis on covcnantal theology and corresponding implications for Christian families, are increasingly turning toward programming separate worship experiences for the little ones of their congregations. Although as Reformed Christians we firmly believe our young children are Young children have deep within them a very real sense of who God members of Christ's body by virtue of their baptism, we sometimes fail to consider how that conviction gets lived out and demonstrated to our children as they enter into the "family life" of our congregations.

What exactly does it mean that God's promise to Abraham in Genesis 17:1—14 was to Abraham and his seed? And what do we make of the Old Testament references to worship (see Ex. 10:8-9, Moses' request to Pharaoh for worship time in the desert for everyone from young children to old people) and the celebration of feasts (Ex. 12:24-27, God's command regarding observance of the Passover with children; Deut. 31:10-13, God's instructions to men, women, and children for celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles)?

Side by side with repeated references to adult role in passing on the faith to our children, the liible pictures and describes gatherings of God's people in which children are present—presumably to hear for themselves, to learn by personally experiencing worship, to contribute to the celebration and praise of God's covenant people with their own simple expressions of adoration.

Children's status as full-Hedged members of Christ's kingdom is highlighted in the New Testament by Jesus himself. The gospels shed light on Christ's view of little ones and their place in the community of believers. Jesus not only takes time in his ministry to be with children (Mark 10:18-16) but also holds them up as models of true discipleship. In order to become disciples of Christ and citizens of his kingdom, Jesus tells us, we must be willing to be reborn, to become infants, in the Spirit (John 3:5). For it is to little ones, insists Jesus, that God reveals his secrets (cf. Matt. 11:25). Throughout Jesus' ministry, the image of a Father with his children permeates Jesus' descriptions of the kingdom—and our role in it.

Childish or Childlike?

The distinction between the thildlikeness to which Jesus calls us and the childishness that Paul puts behind him in 1 Corinthians 13:11 is one that today's worship planners need to take seriously. Christ doesn't call us to be immature, infantile, or developmentally arrested in our faith and worship; rather, he invites us to be eager, wondering, spontaneous, and open in our expressions of trust and our exclamations of praise. While acknowledging the limitations of childhood and recognizing the need for children to learn and develop and mature in their faith, Scripture deliberately calls us "children" to gently remind us to approach our Father in childlike ways.

I will sing a song to the
Mighty One.
I know He has a lot of
names
They arc Father, God,
Lord, King
and the Mighty Lord
King.
He has all the power.
He is my other Father
And He's in heaven.
"A Psalm of Nicole"

Childlike? Yes! Childish? Hardly!

Congregational worship that invites and involves members of all ages to participate in faithful, joyful praise is not an ideal the Christian community may blithely dismiss as impractical or impossible. But neither is it a reality that's easv to find demonstrated in most churches today. Pastors, worship leaders, and committee members who struggle to make worship more inclusive will agree.

According to David Ng and Virginia Thomas, authors of the practical and helpful book Children in the Worshiping Community, the ideal must be pursued relentlessly. For worship that is meaningful to all generations will provide immeasurable blessings for God's people.

Beyond the problems and tensions of all ages joined together lies the exciting opportunity to be the body of Christ. In a unique way we can use the gifts of each member to enrich the worship of all. We can develop a vital and enriching interplay between grown-ups and children in the presence of God. We can respond to our call to worship God with the voice of the whole people of God.

Children in the Worshiping
Community
, p. 17

Ng and Thomas offer realistic guidance for churches that struggle to achieve this ideal-—a faithful balance between theological integrity and meaning for little ones.

The Sacraments— A Good Beginning

Because young children and adults are poles apart on the cognitive developmental scale, those parts of the liturgy that depend largely on words and abstract concepts to communicate with the worshiper (e.g., sermons) will provide greater challenges to conscientious pastors and worship committees than those parts that are more concrete to the senses. According to Ng and Thomas, the sacraments stand out as especially tangible elements of worship.

Baptism and the the Lord's Supper invite participation by the whole family of God because they dramatically picture for us the mystery of God's grace. We receive the concrete symbols of water, wine, and bread with open hearts—by faith and not by virtue of our intellectual understanding. When children participate in the sacraments, the entire congregation is reminded that we don't earn God's grace through persona! knowledge or intellectual understanding—we simply receive and celebrate God's gifts with childlike trust and grateful praise.

The sacrament of baptism provides the opportunity to celebrate God's promises to everyone in a congregation, but especially to its children. Although children baptized as infants will not remember the moment of their own baptism, each baptism they witness can highlight for them the story of that special Sunday and that particular worship service in which they were welcomed into God's family. Churches committed to heightening this sense of belonging in young children have used a variety of tangible reminders—baptism banners, special music, baptism candles, and personalized baptism stories—to help families remember and reflect on baptism and its significance for God's people. ("Baptism: A Celebration of God's Presence!" is a helpful program for churches wishing to do more to make the sacrament meaningful for children. See review on p. 45)

If the sacraments are signs and seals that picture God's grace to the community of believers, where do children fit at the Lord's Table? Currently Reformed and Presbyterian churches are searching for an answer to this question (see "The Toughest Issue," p. 30). Some of these churches are now opening the door to testimonies of faith at earlier ages followed by participation in the sacrament.

Authors Ng and Thomas suggest that, above all, participation in the the Lord's Supper requires the childlike quality of trust:

Trust is the attitude required of those who receive the water of baptism and the bread and wine of communion. This emphasis on trust, while it is in keeping with an appreciation of the mystery of the sacraments, has not been the common emphasis in the practice of some churches. Some churches have chosen to stress the proper discerning of the body of Christ—to ensure that those who partake of the bread and wine have a certain level of understanding of the meanings of the communion. Toward this end such churches have required communicant training, church approval, and confirmation prior to first communion. What makes this practice problematical is the suggestion that the efficacy of the sacrament rests upon right knowledge rather than trusting faith…

To permit children to partake is to admit that beyond a general knowledge of the sacrament it can hardly be fair to expect children or adolescents to know about the mystery of the sacraments what adults in a lifetime may never come to know.

Children in the Worshiping
Community
, pp. 29-30

Can a child sense the mystery of Christ's death and celebrate it with the body of believers? Here's one that does!

I praise You, Lord!
You are the God almighty.
You are the wonderful King
of the universe.
I know to call on You
for help.
You are the Almighty King!
You let Your Son die
So that I wouldn't.
"A Psalm of Ben"

Becoming Young

The challenge to the church to include children in its worship and praise extends far beyond the celebration of the sacraments. If your church is searching to find new and helpful ways to invite children and to encourage their participation in all aspects of your congregational life, you'll find this issue of Reformed Worship stimulating and helpful.

While it certainly is not a how-to manual intendend to transform adult-cen-tered worship overnight, we think you'll find in this issue useful insights for examining several dimensions of worship in which children can and should participate more fully. Articles on children's sermons, liturgical colors, liturgical dance, and music will give you some concrete ideas for including children in all parts of the liturgy. Reflections of a pastor and of a mother will help you sense how important it is to do so.

Someone once quoted Pablo Picasso as saying "It takes a long time to become young." Crafting worship experiences that invite us to praise with "young hearts" takes time too. On the one hand, change must be thoughtful and responsible, with great care taken to preserve the theological integrity and design of worship, as well as its centrality in the life of the church. On the other hand, the church must continue to reform and reshape the climate and tone of its worship to excite and invite little ones to express their own praise to the Father.

Praise the Lord throughout
the earth.
Praise His holy name.
The planet that spins round
and round
is where I live today.
The book that guides me
into His arms,
The book that is for you
and me.
A church He has given us
To worship and praise His
almighty name…
From "A Psalm of Arlene"

The psalms in this article are reprinted by permission from Psalms of the Dawn Treaders, a collection of psalms written by the students of the Dawn Treader Christian School in Paterson, N.J

Patricia Nederveld is director of Faith Alive Christian Resources.