How can we help our children not only engage more deeply in worship, but learn practices they can use the rest of the week in their walk with God and relationships with others? More specifically, how can we make the reading and preaching of God’s Word accessible to children rather than have them leave or be present but disengaged?
Reformed Worship recently had a conversation with resource developer and children’s ministry leader Karen DeBoer to learn how she might answer those questions. This is what she shared with us about engaging children with God’s Word in communal worship.
One thing the COVID pandemic taught us is that parents have largely not been equipped to lead their children in worship and faith formation. We thought that by offering Sunday School classes and running other youth programs that we would be encouraging faith formation at home. Then the pandemic hit, all the programs were put on hold, and we realized we hadn’t really equipped families or modeled spiritual practices. We’ve learned that we need to be more intentional about equipping parents and making these practices more normative.
Our weekly worship services provide worship leaders and pastors with opportunities to weave a faith practice into worship in such a way that someone can replicate it. Having experienced a practice in worship, people are more likely to try it at home, giving parents the tools to lead their children in a practice they are all familiar with.
Here are nine practices around the reading of Scripture and preaching that can help children engage more fully and that can serve as a model for all ages of how to engage Scripture outside of communal worship. Not all of the practices will work in every context, and some Scripture passages and sermons might lend themselves better to one practice or another, but each is flexible enough to customize.
1. Prepare the Body to Listen
Before reading Scripture, help people engage their whole body as they prepare to listen. I started doing this in my church, and I’ve been in other churches where they offer this invitation:
“Let’s take a moment to prepare our whole selves to receive God’s Word for us today. Put your hands on your heart and breathe: take a deep breath in, and a deep breath out.”
Or, “In a posture of acceptance, if you’re able to, put your feet firmly on the floor, and just hold out your hands for a moment and let the Holy Spirit know you are ready to hear from God.”
Extending such an invitation doesn’t need to take more than half a minute, but in that time you are modeling that what we are about to do is important and deserves our full attention, body, mind, and spirit. You are also teaching the spiritual discipline of silence and listening. It’s good for kids; it’s good for everybody!
2. Use a Picture Book
Another way to help prepare children to engage with the read and preached Word is to read a children’s book that carries the theme of the passage.
Recently my pastor was preaching on Philippians 4, centering on verse 14: “Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.” I chose to read the book The Rabbit Listened, by Cori Doerrfeld. You can also look online for a video of this book being read (just make sure the video isn’t a copyright infringement). The story is about a rabbit who showed empathy and the discipline of listening by staying with a boy who experienced a whole range of emotions.
Often we think that after reading a book we need to spend time talking about it and asking questions. But it can be powerful to simply let it sit and have people do their own thinking to find their own connections between the book and the Word. The book isn’t a substitute for the Word, but is a way to enter into it.
Interestingly, after the sermon, when everyone had an opportunity to talk about the message, worshippers of all ages had something to say: a senior shared how they were thankful for friends who had been listening “rabbits” for them; a young father wondered how he might be called to be a listener during conflicts; and a child simply said, “I like how the rabbit listened.” All were able to make a wonderful connection with the Scripture passage and sermon.
3. Lectio Divina
Another thing I have done is incorporate a form of Lectio Divina (holy reading) with the reading of Scripture. One option is to have colored pencils available for each person along with a copy of the Scripture passage that will be read. The first time the passage is read, invite people simply to listen. During the second time, have them choose a color and circle words that jump out at them. Then have them take a different color during the third reading to underline parts they want to think more about, either because it was a learning moment or because they have a question about it. This is a great opportunity to include more voices when reading Scripture, noting how even the different voices can elicit different thoughts and highlight different aspects of the text.
Include children by providing them with a paper with just a sentence from the passage. Encourage grown-ups to work together with their children, asking their child to whisper what words they thought were important to remember, then finding the words in the text and circling them. Through these actions you are teaching children that the Scripture and sermon are for them too.
Having just dwelt with the text, people are prepared to listen more deeply to the sermon that is then preached. Not only that, but the entire congregation has learned how to engage Scripture in a way that they can do on their own, with those in their household, or in a small group. If time allows, you can discuss what they heard, what questions they have about the passage, or what insights came to them. The wonderful thing is that there is no right or wrong answer, and young and old, new or lifelong Christians are equally able to bring insights to the text, and we are all blessed in the sharing. The Holy Spirit works in and through all.
Ideas and Inspiration
- Storypath (storypath.upsem.edu). Connects children’s literature with Scripture; searchable by theme or passage.
- Worshipping with Children (worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com). Written by a Presbyterian Church (USA) church educator, this is my go-to site for ideas and inspiration on including children in worship. Searchable by topic, passage, and lectionary years.
- Toolkits by Faith Formation Ministries (www.crcna.orgFaithFormation/toolkits).
Children’s Bible Story Resources
- Shine On: A Story Bible, from Menno Media (also available in Spanish).
- The Jesus Storybook Bible: Every Story Whispers His Name, by Sally-Lloyd Jones.
- Dwell Flex, a multi-age version of the Dwell church school curriculum; stories include wondering questions (dwell.faithaliveresources.org).
4. Use a Storybook Bible
Another way to engage children is to read the Scripture passage from a high-quality children’s storybook Bible before reading it from the preaching Bible. Perhaps a child could be the reader.
5. Picture Telling
Another thing I have done is used a picture to tell a story. I recently did this during online worship and was able to focus on different parts of the artwork, which was particularly helpful.
The sermon was about Jesus feeding the 5,000. I used the painting Jesus Multiplies the Loaves and Fish by JESUS MAFA, a Christian community in Cameroon, Africa, that has made a digital version available for free use in worship (see top of next page).
I didn’t do a lot of explaining, but rather told the story while zooming in on different parts of the painting. “Our story starts by the Sea of Galilee”—we looked at the corner of the painting where the sea was located. “Everywhere Jesus went a crowd would gather”—we zoomed in on the crowd. And so forth.
Using this painting did a few other things without our needing to say anything. It introduced our congregation to a Christian community in Africa, highlighting the global church. And in this painting the children (and all ages!) were introduced to a Black Jesus, a corrective to the dominant image of Jesus that has shaped imaginations and gospel messages.
6. Visio Divina
Another way to use images is to incorporate Visio Divina (holy seeing) into the message. During the sermon, pause to look at a picture (for example, art placed on an easel, a banner on a wall, or an image projected onto a screen) and draw the connection between the image and the passage. Ask questions like “How does this image connect with what we’ve just read from the Scripture passage?” Or imagine preaching a sermon about Mary and Martha, projecting several different renderings of the story, and asking, “Which picture best represents your understanding of the passage?” or “To whom do you most relate: Mary or Martha?”
If your congregation is small enough, you might be able to have printed images available for people to look through to choose one they think best represents the message. Then they can share their thoughts with a small group. This is again an easy way to help children engage with the message and, as with Lectio Divina, there is no right or wrong answer.
7. Use Children’s Artwork
Children are naturally creative and unencumbered by insecurities around their artwork, so they are very willing to share what they have made. You could let them know the week’s Scripture readings ahead of time and invite them to submit artwork that can be used for bulletin covers and sermon illustrations. These could also be framed and displayed so people can look at them more closely. Using children’s artwork says to every child present that they have something meaningful to contribute to the body and that they too can listen to and learn from Scripture. Of course, you can invite youth and adults to submit images too!
You can also offer paper and colored pencils or crayons to people of all ages to pick up before church and invite them to illustrate the Scripture reading or sermon. One pastor did this during a series on the Lord’s Prayer. After each message these images were collected and then hung in the fellowship hall before the next Sunday. They created their own art installation, an ongoing reminder of what they had learned in previous weeks.
One caution, though: When projecting children’s artwork, do prepare the congregation to receive it worshipfully so that the response to the image isn’t laughter or murmurs of “How cute.” Say something like “We’ll be using artwork created by the children of our church today. We are so grateful they have trusted us with their work. You are invited to quietly receive their work with love and respect as it’s shown.”
For an excellent example of how one church used children’s art in worship, read “How One Church’s Idea for Including Children Is Forming Faith Across Generations” (tinyurl.com/artformingfaith).
8. Pausing During the Message
Engaging children doesn’t always require a lot of preparation. One easy thing to do is simply to pause during a message. Research says that no one, regardless of age, does well at remaining fully engaged while listening to someone talk for twenty minutes. So provide a short break by asking a wondering question or two, giving people in the pews a minute to just wonder. Questions can be as simple as “I wonder what thoughts were running through Joseph’s mind at the bottom of the well? I wonder if you’ve ever felt that way?” or “Think of a time when you were afraid. How did God care for you?” Remind worshipers that there is no right or wrong answer; they are simply invited to ponder the question for a few moments. Depending on your context, you might also create space for people to share their wonderings with someone seated nearby. Encourage families with children to use this wondering time to wonder with their children right then and there; they might also want to recall and share their wonderings at home.
These simple interactions model how to wonder with children and how to engage with Scripture in ways that families can continue at home as they read Scripture together. You’ve given them the language they need, and if you practice it enough in worship, it will seem natural.
Taking Time to Wonder
Rev. Janet Ryu-Chan, a pastor from Morningside-High Park Presbyterian Church in Toronto, Ontario, calls her children’s messages Taking Time to Wonder. I love this invitational approach because it reminds us that all are invited to wonder, no matter their age.
9. Find and Use Faith Stories
Many of these suggestions for engaging children revolve around storytelling. Using picture books and art to tell a story is a natural fit for children. But we shouldn’t overlook the stories that reside in our own congregation, especially faith stories. It is always useful to have a few people on hand to invite to share a faith story that highlights a Scripture theme or illustrates a point in a sermon (another way to create a needed pause). If people are too nervous to speak in front of people, prerecord it and play the video.
Finding faith stories does not need to be difficult. Just open your church bulletin or listen to the prayer line. It is there that we find out about Marcel, who graduated last week; Charis, whose surgery was successful; the Jones family, who is mourning the loss of a father; and Betty, who is moving away. Behind each of these stories is a faith story. You just need to ask the right questions to find it—questions like “Where did you see God at school?”, “How did God work through the medical team or the body of Christ as you journeyed through your illness?”, “What was it that made you choose that Scripture verse for your father’s funeral?”, or “How has your faith been shaped during your time as a member of our congregation?” You might arrange for a regular two-minute story sharing by inviting someone in advance to share about a particular Scripture passage or song that has been a source of encouragement or comfort. Again, these stories can be told by people of all ages.
These don’t need to be long or particularly dramatic stories. Here’s one example: “I was worried about starting first grade because I had to be at school all day instead of half a day. Then my mom taught me how to sing ‘When I Am Afraid I Will Trust in You’ about God when I was scared. So I did that when I walked to school. I felt better because I remembered God is always with me.”
Children listen to these stories. They remember the stories. They have their own stories! By providing space to share them, all of us begin to look at the world differently and anticipate our own God sightings.