Letting the Story Stand; Developing a Separate Worship Center for Children

Worship is the heartbeat of the Christian community. Yet increasingly, children below the age of seven spend part, if not all, of the Sunday worship hour having experiences that range from baby-sitting to mini-worship. If you believe, as I do, that young children encounter, experience, and worship God, then perhaps you are also concerned with the kind of opportunities available for their worship experience. I have addressed this issue since 1985 when I developed "Children and Worship," a multisensory approach to worship with young children.

"Children and Worship" enables children to experience, not just learn about, God. It provides a special place for them to discover the ways and meaning of worship; to learn how to transform ordinary place and time into sacred place and time, how to discover the quiet place within themselves to listen and to talk with God, and how to bring their experiences into dialogue with God in the biblical stories.

"Children and Worship" has been endorsed for use in the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. This is the story of its formation and perspective.

In the spring of 1985, while preparing a seminar on Children and Worship, I read The Religious Potential of the Child, by Sofia Cavalletti. This remarkable account of children's religious experiences forced me to reexamine my approach to the Christian education of young children.

For more than thirty years, Dr. Cavalletti has been working with three- to twelve-year-old children. The children come to her center in Rome for two-hour periods during the week. Her observations have convinced her that, whether exposed to or devoid of religious instruction, all children experience God and have religious inclinations.

The results of Cavalletti's work significantly challenge some standard beliefs and practices of the religious education of young children. First, her observations that children expei, ence and love God challenge the view that preschool years are a time of preparation for religion and worship. Can it be that early childhood is not a time to get ready for worship but a time to worship?

Second,her center is filled with biblical and liturgical materials for working with the stories of God, challenging the view that the classroom is a nursery school into which teachers inject a Bible story and a prayer before the snack.

As I studied Cavalletti's work, I was consistently impressed by her results and more than a little curious whether her method which had worked so well within a Roman Catholic setting could be redesigned from a Reformed perspective. My colleague, Jerome Berryman, proved very helpful in this endeavor.

Berryman, who studied with Cavalletti, has a children's center at Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) in Housten, Texas. The first time I entered his center, I was amazed. Instead of the traditional nursery school materials and interest centers I expected, I saw, on open shelves, wooden figures and other materials representing biblical stories. We sat on the floor together as he explained his work to me and demonstrated by presenting the parable of the Good Shepherd (see box, p. 28-29).

The Children and Worship Approach

The aim of "Children and Worship" is to create and environment that enables children to encounter and worship God; to abide in God's love as experienced in biblical stories, parables, and liturgical presentations; and to live as Christ's ministers to the world

The environment of the room serves as a channel for encounter with God. Through the religious imagination the worship leader helps the children transform the room into a special place to listen to and talk with God. Ordinary, everyday time and place are transformed into liturgical time and space, the time and space of worship. In this new place we have all the time we need, so we don't have to hurry. We walk more slowly and talk more quietly, because someone might be talking to God and we don't want to disturb them.

The language of worship is religious language, informed by Scripture. Since preschool children can't read but rather are learning through their bodies-particularly their hands-the Bible is translated into materials children can use in a sensori-motor way. These materials are placed on trays and kept in the same place on the shelves, week after week, so children can return to them as they wish, or work with one story in relation to another, thus engaging in the rudiments of theology. In this room children have appropriate freedom to use the scriptural and liturgical materials that surround them.

These simple but beautiful objects are made of wood, felt, laminated poster board, and paper. They include three-dimensional models of Noah's ark and the temple, a desert box with sand, purple scrolls that connect the stories for Advent and Lent, and boxes wrapped with gold paper and filled with two-dimensional representations of the parables. All of these materials are designed for children to use.

Materials and symbols must always be accompanied by a story. Since early childhood is the time when the images that shape a child's faith are formed, I am preeminently concerned with which images, stories, and parables are presented. Which of these are both essential and appropriate for the young child? One test is to observe which presentations the children return to.

In this way Cavalletti observed that children relate in the deepest way to Christ as the Good Shepherd and Christ the Light. These two images of the incarnation are a key to the children's understanding of the sacraments of the Lord's Supper and baptism. She also observed the children's interest in several parables: the mustard seed, the leaven, the pearl, the hidden treasure, and the seed growing in secret

But what about the use of biblical stories for younger children which is so important for us in the Reformed tradition? In collaberation with Berryman, we agreed that I would edit some of his Old Testament stories for use with younger children and that I would compose some New Testament presentations. But which stories should be told? What are the stories most essential to the Christian faith?

Taking my cue from the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving-that ancient Communion Prayer said at the beginning of the Lord's Supper-I selected the following stories: Creation, Flood, Covenant, Exodus, Law, Land, and Exile. The New Testament stories, chosen to correspond with the church year, present Jesus' proclamation and actions of the kingdom of God: Jesus' death, resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.

You will find all of these stories in our book Young Children and Worship. Told from a worship perspective, these stories may lead to prayer, to awe and wonder, to a dwelling on the mystery of God. To these stories children bring their own experiences of joy and suffering, security and fear, freedom and oppression. Through their experience of God in biblical stories, they can experience the security, love, protection, and mystery of the God to whom they belong and whom they may glorify and enjoy forever

The Flow of the Sessions

The time with the children is ordered by the flow of Sunday worship

Preparation for Approaching God. As pastors and elders meet before the service for preparation and prayer, so the worship leader and greeters arrive early to make the final preparations of the room and the "feast." The leader sits on the floor, praying and becoming centered in God in order to be ready when the first child arrives. Greeters wait at the door to meet the children. Outside the door the children prepare to enter this special place to be with God.

The Approach to God. The leader greets each child as he or she sits down on the circle. They talk while waiting for others to arrive. When all are present, we sing a formal liturgical greeting such as "Be Still and Know That I Am God" (we use the signing for the deaf instead of finger play or random actions). This is the signal to get ready to hear one of God's stories.

The Word of God in Proclamation. A story begins when the leader goes to that story's permanent shelf and brings the objects to the children's circle. The leader says, "Watch closely where I go so you will always know where this story is kept."

The storyteller's purpose is not to entertain but to lead the children to encounter God. The narrative style is meditative, encouraging the children to focus on the story so that they can enter into it and experience God. This may happen as the storyteller interacts with materials.

The leader carries the materials carefully and handles them lovingly to express that they are objects of value and love. This stimulates the imagination's ability to transform them into something more than objects. The teacher tells the story and moves the materials very slowly, without eye contact. Such contact only distracts and draws the children out of the story. The materials are moved slowly because young children learn by watching, and because they themselves will be moving them later.

Only necessary and carefully chosen words are spoken. Detail is omitted. Words and materials interact economically. The very silences allow the religious imagination to work. The leader does not interrupt the story with explanations. Some of the delight the children experience comes from this artful storytelling.

The leader's presentation of the story is followed by a time of wondering together about it. Then the leader, "remaining in" the story, returns each piece to its box or basket with great care and respect. The container is returned, carefully, to the shelf.

The children now make their own responses by choosing either to fashion something with art materials which expresses their feelings about the story or to work with the story materials themselves. One at a time, as each decides what to do, they leave the circle to get their materials.

After the response time, the children return to the circle. One of them brings the Bible, and the Christ candle is lit. The leader touches the Bible and says, "This is the Bible. The story we heard today is in the Bible." The Bible is then opened to the story and turned so the children can see the words which have been underlined. The story, or a verse, is read, and a marker with a symbol of the story is placed in the Bible so the children can find the story by themselves.

The "Feast." After the Bible reading, the children and leader offer prayers of thanksgiving, thus reflecting the meaning of the word Eucharist. In this way the traditional nursery school snack is transformed into a feast. The feast is a sign of the Messianic banquet and a reminder that every Sunday is a feast day in celebration of Jesus' resurrection. Fruit, cheese, bread, andjuice are served.

The Response to God. The children go into the world as Christ's ministers. As each child departs, he or she goes to the leader and receives a positive, personal word which affirms his or her gifts for ministry. A benediction closes the session. The rhythm of the order of worship in the worship center enables children to experience meeting God in a way that they themselves can experience, anytime, anywhere, in corporate or personal worship.

A longer version of this article appeared in Reformed Review, vol. 40, No. 3, 1987 (available from Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan)


Textbooks and Training

Two resources are available to help you organize and lead a children's worship program in your congregation:

  1. The textbook Young Children and Worship by Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman gives a detailed description of the Stewart/Berryman worship program and outlines a complete series of lessons based on parables of the kingdom, selected passages from the Old Testament, and stories that are part of the liturgical year. The book will be available later this year from Westminister Press adn CRC Publications
  2. To prepare leaders to guide children in the kind of worship Stewart and Berryman describe, Christian Reformed and Reformed churches are setting up training centers in the following cities:
Harrington Park, New Jersey Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Annandale, New Jersey Pella, Iowa
Schenectedy, New York Spencer, Iowa
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Oklahoma City, Missouri
Grand Rapids, Michigan Denver, Colorado
Rockford, Michigan Seattle, Washington

For information on which churches and people can provide this training in your area, call either the Office for Education of the Reformed Church (800) 828-8013 (Michigan, [800] 331-2546) or CRC Publications (800) 333-8300.


The Parable of the Good Shepherd-As Told By Berryman

The parable of the Good Shepherd is presented through materials resembling a felt board on the floor. The shepherd and sheep are made of laminated poster board so they slide easily over the green circular felt "pasture." A piece of blue felt becomes the still water; three navy blue pieces of felt become places of danger; strips of brown felt are used to construct a sheepfold. An "ordinary" shepherd and a wolf are also made of laminated poster board. The scene is laid out in a way that invites the children to help "build" the metaphor and thus enter the story through their imaginations.

The experience begins with Berryman seated on the floor with the children in a circle. He gets up slowly, saying, "Watch closely where I go, so you will always know where this material is kept." Carefully, he takes a sparkling golden box from a shelf and places it on the floor in front of the children. They are curiously attracted to it. Slowly and softly breaking the silence, he says, "I wonder if this is a parable… It could be.... Parables are very precious… like gold…and this box is gold." He gently runs his hand over the box… "This looks like a present… Well, parables are like presents. They are given to us. We can't buy them or steal them. They are gifts. But I still don't know if this is a parable."

He places the gold box at his side so no one can see in it, but opens the lid a little. Then he removes a large green felt circle and lays it on the floor, smoothing it out very gently. "This is so green," he says. "It is soft and warm… I wonder what could be so green?"

He continues to remove the pieces from the box, always looking at them with great respect and wondering aloud what they might be. Gradually the pieces of felt and cardboard are transformed into a place where something very important is surely about to happen.

Then Berryman begins the parable: "Once there was someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people began to follow him. But they did not know who he was. One day they simply had to ask him, and he said:

I am the Good Shepherd,
I know each one of my sheep by name.
They know the sound of my voice.
So when I take them from the sheepfold,
they follow me.

(The Good Shepherd is placed on the grass and moved as the parable progresses. The sheep follow.)

I walk in front of the sheep to show them the way.
I show them the way to the good, green grass.
I show them the way to the clear, still water.

When there are places of danger,

I show them the way to pass through, so they can safely return home to the sheepfold. I count each one of my sheep as they go inside to be sure that all have arrived home safely. And if one is missing, I will go anywhere to find that lost sheep:

Through the green grass,
by the still water,
even to places of danger.
When the lost sheep is found I put it on my back,
even if it is very heavy,
even if I am very tired;
and I carry it back to the sheepfold.
When all the sheep are safely inside,
I am so happy.
But I can't be happy all by myself…
so I call all my friends.
And we have a great feast.
Now here is an ordinary shepherd.
When the ordinary shepherd takes the sheep
from the sheepfold,
the ordinary shepherd does not walk in front of
them to show them the way.
Then the sheep wander and scatter.
When the wolf comes,
the ordinary shepherd
runs away.
But the Good Shepherd
stands between the wolf and the sheep,
so the sheep can return safely home to
the sheepfold.
Now I wonder if these sheep have names?
I wonder if you have ever been close to the Good Shepherd?…

Reprinted from Young Children and Worship by Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman. Copyright © 1988 Sonja M. Stewart and Jerome W. Berryman. Soon to be published by Westminster/John Knox Press.

Sonja Stewart is a professor of Christian education and director of the Master of Religious Education degree program at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 12 © June 1989, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.