I recall the thrill of my boys’ first major league baseball game. Their eyes darted around with so much to see: hats and uniforms, green grass, thousands of excited fans, their favorite players taking the field. Their ears tuned to every sound: "Gatorade! Peanuts!" The crack of the bat. The umpire bellowing, "Strike!" The roar of the crowd at a home run. There was so much to experience and do. Everything between sticky cotton candy fingers and singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Even though my boys did not understand all of the rules and could not distinguish a breaking ball from a fast ball, they were immersed in the game of baseball. They captured the joys of the game and learned to love the experience before they even understood what was going on.
Children’s senses are no less active in the experience of corporate worship. They hear the majesty of the pipe organ. They feel the thump of a kick drum. They are caught in the wave of congregational singing. They become familiar with the rhythm of the pastor’s voice and gather when the sermon is light or sobering. Children observe handclapping, hugs across aisles, and arms raised in a curious posture of surrender. They see the colors of the Christian year and get lost in stained-glass windows reminding them of Bible stories.
Although children do not understand every aspect of worship and cannot participate fully in many actions, they nevertheless are learning how to worship our triune God. They can’t distinguish between sanctification and salvation or providence and predestination. They do not always know how to read the congregational litanies or follow along in the hymnal. But they capture the love the people have for each other and the Lord. They are introduced to the postures of prayer and praise. They discern that worship is about listening, but also about speaking. They learn that this place is also home and that these people are family as well.
The celebration of the Passover recorded in Exodus provides a biblical precedent for this experience of learning in worship. Recognizing the presence of children at the Passover, Moses instructs the people, “And when your children ask you, 'What does this ceremony mean to you?' then tell them, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians'” (12:26-27). Moses accepts that the children will not initially understand the ceremony. But their participation in the ceremony is precisely the opportunity for them to learn!
Research into learning further recommends this process. Educational psychologists conclude that we learn best when we participate (see John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid, “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning,” Educational Researcher 18, no. 1 (Jan/Feb 1989): 32-42).For example, a child will learn on average three thousand words a year into her teenage years simply by being immersed in culture and practicing the language. On the other hand, a child can learn at best only three hundred words a year in a classroom through rote memorization (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning,” 32). Researchers explain that in the same way we learn all things. We learn to ride a bicycle by riding a bicycle. We learn to swim by swimming. We learn the piano by playing piano. And all this learning occurs by watching and listening to models, mentors, and teachers and involves scrapes and bruises, sinking and splashing, and lots and lots of wrong notes.
Learning to worship our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is no different. Our children learn as they participate. They wiggle and talk during the sermon, but they learn to listen to the Holy Spirit. They begin to tell us a funny joke as we are bowing our heads for intercessory prayer, but they learn to close their eyes and talk to their loving Father about their joys and fears. They can’t read the lyrics projected on the screen, but they are learning the tunes that carry the truth of Jesus Christ into old age.
Let us, therefore, invite our children to participate in the wondrous experience of corporate worship. Let them cry and laugh, let them wiggle and whisper. Let them interrupt even when we are trying fervently to pray. This is their opportunity to learn. This is our opportunity to model and mentor. This is the time to nurture our children’s faith and instill in them a love for worshiping together our triune God.
Paul Ryan is associate chaplain for worship, Calvin College, and resource development specialist for worship teams at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.