Let the Children Come to Me: an Interview with Norman Thomasma

Some churches have Kinder Kirk. Others offer a children's message. Some have a children's worship center. Others largely ignore children in public worship. All of them are responding in some way to the question. How should children be involved in worship?

The New Hope Christian Reformed Church of Kincheloe, Michigan, is one of many congregations that have struggled with this question. New Hope regularly has about one hundred worshipers, many of them families with young children. For a long time church leaders felt they weren't succeeding in including children under ten in the worship service.They began searching for a special way of meeting the needs of this large segment of the congregation. What they came up with was a special evening service aimed at children— not just once a year or once a month, but every other week. In the evening service, New Hope decided, the minister would speak directly to the children, and children would participate freely in the service.

Pat Nederveld, Education Editor for CRC Publications, and Harry Boonstra, Associate Editor of RW, interviewed Rev. Norman Thomas-ma, pastor of the church, asking him to describe the service and to reflect on its effectiveness.

Q. Before we begin talking about your evening service, could you say a little about New Hope's morning service, especially in relation to children?

A. Although we're not doing an exceptional job with children in the morning, we do involve them where we can.I'll often introduce the message with a children's segment, and we have the children take the offering sometimes. I am committed to including the children in the service whenever possible. In fact, that's the predominant feeling at New Hope-—that we should be worshiping as a community of faith and not pulling the children out.

For a while we experimented with a separate children's worship, but we found the program difficult to staff in our small congregation. Also, we became more and more convinced that we ought to exhaust all possible ways of including the children before we decide to send them out.

Q. Now to your evening service. You've made a deliberate decision to have a service that involves children as much as possible?

A. Yes, but we don't have a long history with these services; we've had them every other week for the past half year. Even though we are very pleased with the services, we can't tell how effective they will be in the long run.

We had a number of reasons for going in this direction. Above all we felt that we ought to spend more time as a whole congregation in an informal worship setting. We also were concerned about our children and their participation in worship. So we formed a committee (called, of course, the Sunday Night Committee), and they brainstormed on how we could achieve those goals.

These Sunday evening services have been at least part of the solution—we've succeeded in involving children. But we still haven't involved the whole congregation in a "body life" gathering.

Q. Do these informal evening services have any set structure?

A. The services follow an overall pattern which is fairly consistent. We meet in the basement, we fan out the chairs in a semicircle, and we don't use a pulpit. After singing a number of praise choruses together, we focus on the theme of the service. We ask five or six children to read selected Bible passages.

Later in the service we have a prayer time, using a hand-held mike that has really drawn the children into the prayers. We've had some heart-touching prayers. I also give about a ten-minute talk, often in a dialogical way, frequently with an object lesson.

Once our theme was loneliness. The kids talked about their loneliness, and we were able to respond to their needs in the worship setting.

Q. Do you use a different style of delivery in this evening service than you do in the morning?

A. I often use a dialogical mode, so I never know what response I'll get from the kids-—up to a point I have to go with the flow of their questions. I have a basic progression in my own mind, but I've found I can't be too rigid in my planning.

Q. What musical instruments do you use in the evening service?

A. So far mostly guitar and mandolin, primarily because we don't have a piano downstairs. If we do get a piano, we'll certainly use that too.

Q. How do you teach new songs in the evening?

A. Sometimes from the book or song sheet. At other times a song leader will teach them to us by rote.

Q. If you had the evening service upstairs in the sanctuary, would the kids' response be the same?

A. Generally, I think they would be more inhibited. The sanctuary is a bit intimidating. But holding a special children's service upstairs from time to time is effective. During Advent we moved upstairs for two special services. Each family brought in and explained a Christmas tree ornament that captured something of the Christmas message. In another service we had the children put on a recital of their music.

Q. Is the size of the congregation crucial to this kind of service? Would it work in a much larger congregation?

A. It might work even better with a larger congregation because the praise dimension would be enhanced. Also, the larger the group, the better the chance of finding a fair number of adults who are willing to get very involved with the children at their level, to break the ice for the children. In order for the children to fee! comfortable in such a service, the adults have to be willing to be childlike.

Q. Would such a service really work in a church of three to four hundred worshipers sitting in pews in a traditional sanctuary?

A. The congregation would have to try different formats; a lot depends on the mood that is set. For example, we're going to be doing two services in March. The first one will be typical of what we usually do in the evening: we'll meet in the basement and have a service that involves puppets. The other service will be a drama and will take place in the sanctuary. We'll be dramatizing some of the scenes of Christ's suffering, leading up to the crucifixion. And we'll conclude the service with a communion service. In terms of participation this will be more of an adult service, but we're trying to create a spirit that will involve the children as well.

A service like that could take place in a church of any size. Limitations, it seems to me, occur more because of the mind-set of the members than because of the particular size or configuration of the congregation.

Q. Have some members of your congregation felt excluded in the children's service? Do the adults feel as involved in the evening as they do in the morning?

A. The parents are involved, and they have a strong desire to be modeling worship for the children. If you're not a parent, I suppose, the service doesn't relate as much. Still, the overall response of the people has been good.

Q. Who's responsible for planning the evening service?

A. I generally set the themes for the services and prepare the message. The committee plans around those themes. And we try to plan well ahead. Right now we have themes planned for the next several months.

Q. Is planning a message for the evening service much different from planning a sermon for a morning service?

A. For the evening service I certainly focus more specifically on the needs and understanding level of the children. Having three children of my own, I have a fairly good feel for what children are thinking. For example, I once brought my barbells into the service and discovered how enamored many children are with body building and the concept of strength. From the idea of physical strength and health I moved to the inner character of strength in the mature Christian.

Q. Will you have the same service three years from now?

A. I'm sure we won't. The evening service should be malleable, changing creatively as the congregation changes.

Q. Is there a transfer in approach from the evening service to die morning service?

A. Not directly, but our thinking through the evening service has certainly prompted questions about the morning service, and the congregation has become more flexible and open. Musically, we now see more variety in our morning worship.

Working closely with the children in the evening has also made me rethink my morning children's message. I used to call the children forward. But now that I have a better feel for the children as part of the worshiping congregation, I usually don't do that. I now address the entire congregation with the children's message—including the children in the group rather than singling them out. Both children and adults seem to appreciate that.

Q. Isn't there a real message in that—that adults don't give up some of their earlier ways of learning and thinking; that concreteness or stories are still very important?

A. Definitely.

Q. If a change such as yours is so successful in drawing children into worship, what is the main roadblock to other churches trying different approaches to worship?

A. Probably fear of change and not being willing to put in the time that is needed to produce meaningful, creative services. Church leaders should keep in mind that it's usually best to introduce change gradually. We "need to give the congregation a chance to talk about worship changes. Sometimes the changes are introduced too abruptly and radically.

Q.What is the main thing that you have learned so far from your experience with the children's worship service?

A. It has taught me especially that we can be much more creative about worship than we often are. I'm not advocating "putting on a production" in our worship services, but we need not be bland or locked into the same approach for years. If our creativity is one of God's gifts and part of our being in the image of God-then we need to use that gift in our worship.

Excerpt

The interview with Rev. Thomasma had to be conducted in two sessions. Halfway through the first session our photographer arrived to take some pictures. Thomasma's last words on our tape recorder were: "I was just reading the other day… (Where did I pick that up? Oh, yes, in The Banner) that a camera robs the spirit of…" Then complete silence. Thomasma graciously consented to repeat the second half of the interview. We did not invite the photographer to come back.

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.