The elderly gentleman was adamant. Including a children's message in the worship service, he said, distracted other worshipers from focusing on God.
An equally elderly gentleman leaned forward to emphasize his disagreement. He said he was thrilled to see that finally the lambs as well as the sheep were being fed at the worship service.
A mother added her viewpoint. She said that she sometimes got more out of the children's message than the sermon.
"Well," said a father, "When I was young, children were expected to sit quietly through a service. So why don't we keep things the way they were? Then there would be no problems."
"I'd have a big problem accepting that kids in my family of God are being treated like that," responded a single woman.
Does this sound like a conversation you might overhear at a congregational meeting at your church? If so, you're not unusual. People have very different points of view about how to include young children meaningfully in the worship service.
But nearly all congregations acknowledge that we must do something. As Robert De Vries's article points out (see pp. 9-10), children are not miniature adults. Their way of worship is colored by their level of development. Children respond to visual elements more than to verbal ones. They are active, and so they want and need to be actively involved. They learn by watching and imitating adults.
To find out what churches are doing to meet the specific needs of the children in their pews, Reformed Worship interviewed fifteen churches. Results of that survey are printed on these pages
The Children's Message
Almost all the congregations surveyed present a children's message—half of them every Sunday, the others on a less regular basis. In five of these churches, the message was always presented by the pastor, while a variety of men and women spoke to the children in the other ten churches.
"We believe that in the worship service, all of God's people are gathered together. We want to honor the special needs of the children by presenting a message that they can understand," said Bob De Moor, pastor of First Christian Reformed Church (CRC) Langley, British Columbia. "However, it's also important to remember that the message is for all people. So we are careful to coordinate the message and the songs with the theme of the service." Such coordination involves planning worship themes up to sixteen weeks in advance to give ail worship leaders time to prepare properly.
At Calvary CRC (Loveland, Colorado), Pastor Dale Piers addresses the children every week during the Sunday school opening exercises rather than in the morning service. Piers speaks through Freddie the Fox, a lifelike puppet who has all kinds of adventures that the children love to hear about. The heart of the message is a lesson based on one of the questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. In the afternoon service, Piers expands on this lesson in his preaching.
Pastor Homer Samplonius (Second CRC, Brampton, Ontario), wrote that the deacons of his church are taking an increasing role in presenting children's messages because they believe childhood is the time to start teaching stewardship. For instance, at last year's Thanksgiving service, the children saw a video on world hunger during the Children's Time, and were given "Peter Fish" coin banks.
Alternatives to the Sermon
Of all the elements in the service, the sermon is likely the least understandable to children. Children are often restless during the sermon, distracting others from listening to God's Word; or else they tune out, developing undesirable habits that follow them in later years.
All but one of the churches surveyed have some of their children leave the sanctuary for at least part of the service, most of them just before the sermon. The age of seven or eight is the most common cutoff age for keeping children in church for the whole service.
The children are dismissed to participate in various other activities or worship experiences. Four churches use this time to conduct a church school program. About half of them continue the worship by using the worship program based on the book Young Children and Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman (see pp. 6-8).
Often children are dismissed from the sanctuary by way of a ritual—during the last stanza of a hymn, for example, or after a word of blessing from the pastor. At First CRC (Grand Haven, Michigan), children up to age four and their leaders follow a liturgical banner as they leave, while the congregation sings "Be Still and Know That I Am God."
Children's Involvement in the Service
Churches also showed a desire to have children participate actively in the worship hour. As Bob Zomermaand, pastor of Lafayette CRC (Lafayette, Indiana), wrote, "At each Sunday morning service ... we try to have something like a song or other meaningful content for the kids." Half of the churches surveyed had some form of children's bulletin and chose children's songs frequently or every Sunday.
All churches indicated that children participate in the service at least once a year. About half of them had children participate two or three times a year, and some had children participating at least once a month.
Participation happens in many ways. Half of the churches have a children's choir, which leads congregational worship occasionally or regularly. In some churches, children are also encouraged to play instruments, offer prayers, or read litanies.
Some parts of the liturgical year seem to be natural for children's participation. Many churches mentioned meaningful traditions that developed around Advent, Lent, Thanksgiving, and Sundays that focus on a specific ministry. Visual elements in the worship service are particularly noticeable at these special times of the year.
Involving children in the flag ceremony on Faith Promise Sunday at Bradenton CRC (Bradenton, Florida) serves as a visual reminder of the missionaries in eight different countries. The children also wave palm branches on Palm Sunday, and during Advent they help with lighting the Advent candles and putting symbols on a Jesse tree.
Pullman CRC (Chicago, Illinois) celebrates Christmas by presenting "Black Nativity," a Christmas program involving drama and song written by Langston Hughes. This production involves all ages, from very small children through adults. Other churches mentioned Christmas cantatas or musical drama presentations.
Children's Worship Services
Worship services that are led by the children, or are designed primarily with children's needs in mind, are not common. However, one of the congregations surveyed, Resurrection Reformed Church in America (RCA), Flint, Michigan, is very intentional in its ministry to children. "The children of Resurrection Church know not only that they are important, but that they practically run the church," noted Pastor Pratt wryly. Three children's choirs serving children from the ages of three to fifteen, a "Children's Moment" of Bible reading and prayer (led by children) in every service, and two or three services per year that are entirely conducted by children and their leaders prove his point. (See p. 4 for more details on the programs of Resurrection Church).
At Madison Square CRC (Grand Rapids, Michigan) the second Sunday evening of every month is designated as a Children's Praise Service. Children participate in the worship team, read Scripture, lead in prayer, take the offering, and act as greeters. The message at this service is directed to children. Sometimes it takes the form of drama presented by a group; at other times it's a story brought in from the Children's Worship center or a presentation by a guest storyteller. At the end of the service, during the parting benediction, adults place their hands on the head or shoulders of a child, and repeat the blessing after the pastor.
Valuing Children's Gifts
The survey showed that churches value children's sense of awe and wonder, their appreciation of visual elements, and their desire to be actively involved. And various congregations have discovered many ways that children can contribute their unique gifts to the worship service.
When a call went out for new banner designs at Westwood CRC (Kalamazoo, Michigan) the only person to respond was a fourth grader. A graphic designer in the congregation worked the girl's design into a banner that was used during Lent and Easter.
The choir camp offered by Fairlawn CRC (Whitinsville, Massachusetts) for members and community children ages five to twelve affirms and develops childrens' talents. Activities include prayer, singing, Bible stories, teaching of musical skills, rehearsals of secular and sacred song, sports, crafts, performance time, and orchestra rehearsals. A Saturday picnic includes parents and friends of the campers. On Sunday morning, the orchestra and the four choirs developed at camp add their gift of music to the worship service.
Children also contribute bulletin covers for Christian Education Week, art posters for Faith Promise Week, or add elements to a display for Thanksgiving. Several churches mentioned children's participation in prayer requests and in choosing songs for the service.
An important way of meeting children's needs is to have a worship service that is intentionally more visual, invites more movement and action from the congregation, and is more dramatic in its presentation.
For example, children generally enjoy a praise and worship time in a service. Although it is not especially geared to them, they, along with the rest of the congregation, can clap, move, and feel free to express themselves in song. Using liturgical colors that change with the church year, banners for special occasions such as baptism and Lord's Supper, and having open microphones for prayer requests are other ways that the worship service can be more inclusive for children.
At Pullman CRC, Helen Breems, director of music, admits that there are not very many special elements in the service that are specifically designed for children. "However," she said, "there's not a thing in the service that is not accessible to children. We have dramatic preaching that includes many stories. It is not uncommon to have people give testimonies to their faith, or for adults and children to come forward to kneel for special prayers. At the time for prayer requests, children participate freely."
Advocating for Children
Of those surveyed, only three churches had any written goals for including children in the worship service. One church's goal read: "We will be aware of all the ages present at worship, with a special attempt to remember to enable children to worship together with the whole covenant community." Another church is in the process of establishing a worship committee, and suggested that they will be looking at many of the ideas in A Family Affair: Worshiping God with Our Children by Edith Bajema (CRC Publications) when they write their goals.
Those who are responsible for planning the worship serviceóworship committees or worship leaders—can have an impact on the degree of children's involvement in the worship service. But they are not the only ones who are responsible. The whole worshiping community is challenged by jesus' words: "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." With these words, Jesus laid his hands on the children and blessed them. And with these words, he gave a directive to all who come to church to worship.