We’ve all been there: infants crying, toddlers running up and down the aisles, middle-schoolers smirking, and high-schoolers sleeping. That’s the kind of Sunday that can make any pastor wonder if there’s room in the church budget to build and staff a new wing of the church building where we can send all of the kids each week.
I’d guess that if you invited a group of pastors into a room, they could talk for hours about times their sermons, prayers, or celebrations of the sacraments were interrupted by an unhappy infant or an unruly toddler.
It can be really easy to fall into the trap of seeing kids as disruptions or nuisances on Sunday mornings. And gearing a worship service—including prayer, music, sermons, and the sacraments— toward kids as well as adults can be difficult and time-consuming. But you and I both know that every child is a gift from God. They are all special in their own ways, even if that might be hard to see at times.
Paul continually reminds us of this in his New Testament letters. Five times he talks about his listeners—and by extension, us—as being adopted children of God. He says that all of us, regardless of age, are adopted children of God. That means that the forty-four-year-old father and the twenty-three-year-old single mom and the eighty-six-year-old lifelong church member and the six-month-old that was baptized last week and the sixteen-year-old high school student all have the same standing as adopted sons and daughters of God. The crying infant is no more a nuisance than the coughing adult, and all are fully invited and welcomed into the family of God.
That being said, we adults do play a very special role in the lives of the children in our faith communities. In my tradition, when we baptize a child, the congregation promises as a part of the baptismal liturgy to love, support, teach, and encourage the baptized child. I like to carry the child into the center of the congregation and ask everyone if they will promise to do these things for the child. I ask the congregation if they promise to volunteer as nursery helpers, Sunday school teachers, youth group leaders, and mentors. When a congregation promises these things, they aren’t just promising to put up with the child when the child cries during a sermon. They are promising to help that child thrive in his or her life with Christ whether the child cries or is quiet, whether the child eventually participates in the choir or never learns to sing a note. They are promising to be there along every twist and turn of that child’s spiritual journey, and that can only be done when the whole congregation, children included, are learning from one another, watching one another, and caring for one another every chance they get.
That child that cried last Sunday might lead worship at your church one day. The toddler that ran up and down the aisles might run the soundboard in a few years. The smirking middle school student might have artistic abilities that they’d love to use in worship. The sleeping high school student might have a deep desire to lead people in prayer. If we build that separate wing of the church and seclude all the children and youth there until they are old enough to act as we think they should in worship, we might miss all the things that God created them to do—and our community will be poorer for it.
Yes, it’s difficult to engage children and youth and adults of all ages every Sunday morning. But the reward is worth the effort. Do something every week to make the songs and your sermon and prayers accessible to children. Sing songs they know and ones they can learn. Find sermon illustrations that speak to them. Ask them to read Scripture, litanies, light candles, and set up chairs. Have them join the technology crew or visual arts team to allow them to feel ownership of different aspects of worship. Explain confession and assurance in terms they can understand. Give them a challenge as they are sent into the world each week as adopted children of God.
Next time you have a Sunday like the one I first described, remind yourself what a blessing it is to have infants and toddlers and students of all ages in your community in the first place. And remind them that they are seen and known and loved by God and by your community.
Praying that we be given eyes to see as God does,
Your colleague in ministry