My work with children in worship begins from my own narrative — from what I remember of my worship experiences as a child. Like many other Black Baptist churches, the Canaan Baptist Church of Chicago gave children plenty of opportunities to participate actively in worship. We marched down the aisles of our church, singing and swaying to the hymns. We served as junior ushers, escorting parishioners to their pews. We collected money and prayed offertory prayers.
We sang solos, directed choirs, and played musical instruments—not as special music but as an integral part of worship. We also gave speeches and introduced or read Scripture passages.
As a child I was an important and living element in the worship narrative of that Baptist congregation.
As a new pastor in the Reformed tradition, I bring with me my Baptist narrative—the story of my worship. And it influences the way I worship with congregations and their children.
The story I want to narrate, however, is a Reformed worship story. It is a story that begins in the ancient and holy practice of infant baptism, a practice that signifies the inclusion of our children in a community of Christian faith and tradition. Ironically, this beginning is also an end in many Reformed churches—at least until children are old enough to make public profession of faith. In such churches, holy baptism is the only part of the liturgy in which young children can be seen and heard.
During my experiences as an intern pastor in Canada and an assistant pastor in the U.S. I discovered that, apart from baptism or children's choir, many Reformed congregations have no traditions within worship through which children can experience themselves as worshipers—no practices that provide children with a participating role in worship, no institutions that single children out to let them know that they are necessary elements in the story of their worship community.
I wanted to create such institutions. For me, what some churches call the "Children's sermon"—but which I prefer to call the "Children's summon"—became such an institution.
Summon the Children
At some point in the liturgy I call the children out from their pews. "I want the children to come down to the front of the church," I tell them. "I want to see your faces." Children of all sizes, temperaments, and racial groups come rushing to the front. A collage of faces that I love.
I used to invite only the children age nine and under to join me in front. But in one small congregation in which there were few older children, one ten-year-old boy met me after the service. He was used to identifying with the nine-year-olds, and I had alienated him. He was hurt. The following Sunday when I called the children forward, I mentioned no ages. Arid this ten-year-old boy was the first child to reach the front.
The children's summon gives me the opportunity to tell the children a story, to play a game with them, to ask them some questions. Sometimes I teach them a song and sing it with them. And sometimes we pray together about problems affecting them and their world. We pray about world hunger and about children in other parts of the world who have nothing. We pray for parents, schools, and teachers, and we offer thanks for what God has given us.
Sometimes during the children's summon I take my young group through the sanctuary, showing and explaining the many symbols that help the congregation rehearse the story of our redemption Sunday after Sunday. Whenever I wear vestments, I let the children touch and handle them, explaining to them the meaning of these garments or the meaning of the symbols embroidered in the stoles.
And sometimes during this part of the service I lay my hands on the children's foreheads and say to them, "The peace of Christ to you," words I have explained to them. Such moments are very special to me, my opportunity to bless the children and to let them know that they are living elements in the narrative of our worship story.
Learning to Lead
Learning how to talk to and worship with children was a gradual process for me. In the beginning I wasn't sure how to relate to children. I needed models. So I looked to educators for ideas on how to be more effective with children in public. Their advice has helped tremendously.
They suggested that I would get to know children better by understanding some of their world. I started reading children's stories and watching children's television programs. (Yes, I even faithfully keep up with the Smurfsl) But more importantly, I got the chance to see the children in their homes and to know them personally through informal family visits. Each face became a person to me.
I have learned most of what I know about leading children in worship, therefore, through the graciousness of those congregations which trusted me to care for their children. The insights I have gained from teachers, the media, parents, and the children themselves continue to help me in my search for creative institutions that will channel Christ's blessings for children in worship.
Upon reflection, I suppose several principles control my attempt to include children in the worship narrative of their congregation.
First, I remember my own style as a child in worship. And as a Reformed pastor, I remember the covenant promises made at the baptism of our worshiping children.
Second, I look for our children every Sunday. My eyes are always searching for them among the worshipers. I want to see them, to look at their faces. I want them to be seen, even as Christ held a child before his first disciples, admonishing them to be as children.
Third, I want to be the instrument of their blessing, to bless them with every blessing that is theirs in Christ through their baptism. For me the children's summon is only one possible institution. I pray that the Lord's Supper will be such an institution for the blessing of our children in every congregation that claims to be Reformed.
Finally, I know as a pastor that the narrative of worship, which my worshiping congregation and I write, will be the story that will be told by our children. I want them to be proud of that story and to tell it to their children in celebration.