The cost of COVID-19 has been horrifying on every level. So many lives have been lost or forever altered. Businesses and charitable organizations alike have been hit hard, and churches are no exception. But I wonder if the pandemic has also offered at least one gift to the Church: an unveiling, not of a brilliant new strategy to come, but of the reality that was.
Since the closing of our buildings, many churches have experienced serious financial strain. Some will have a hard time recovering. What does this say about the Church as the People of God? Haven’t we always told people “The church is not the building”? And yet, it appears it was more about the building than we thought.
And what does this crisis say about our structures and our goals? Were they helping us make disciples who make disciples? In many cases, it seems they were not. Perhaps during this time, when “what is normal” has changed overnight, we can begin to dream some new (and ancient) dreams for the Church.
Let’s think about this in terms of children and worship, for instance. In many churches, kids are largely absent from the main worship service. This is no doubt due to the twin desires to teach them at a level appropriate for their various ages, and allow the adults to worship in peace. But at what cost did we embrace this model of age-specific segregation in worship?
Sunday Schools were at their heyday in the 50s and early 60s, but many of those kids are the very adults who are now absent from the community of faith. In short, the Sunday School model did not serve the Church very well. We discovered that children who are rarely in worship don’t suddenly flock to it once they ‘graduate’ from specialized kids’ programs. Perhaps what we’ve really been teaching them all these years is that worship is for someone else.
But back to our original question. How might we dream something different for children when it comes to worship? There are many creative ideas out there. But here are three things I think the Church can do better.
Make Space for Them in the Main Worship Space.
Make space for babies. Yes, in the primary worship space. Ask some of the young parents what would be most helpful. Any of the following might be on their list: a sectioned-off area where people will be less likely to (a) be bothered by the noise or (b) want to hold the baby; some comfortable chairs in which parents can feed their babies; a change table nearby; a glassed-in room to take a fussy baby to while still feeling part of the worship service. They’ll let you know.
Make space for toddlers. Yes, in the primary worship space. Create some enclosed areas that will allow parents to be with their toddlers in worship but also allow toddlers to move around a bit. Include some quiet toys and toddler-size chairs and tables. Carpeting this area will reduce noise for those around them. Soon children will learn that this space is for quiet activities, all the while exposing them to the rhythms of worship.
Make space for early readers and young school-aged kids. Have some tables to one side equipped with simple bible story books and colouring supplies. Have a volunteer oversee this area and have planned times in the service when the children can move to this spot. I have heard of one church that has the children produce a banner related to one of the Scripture readings in the service. They create this during the sermon. This work of art is then brought up to the front during the offering and attached to the altar, after which the kids return to sitting with the rest of the congregation.
Make space for teenagers. Some teens like to sit with other kids their age during worship. Some prefer to sit with their family. Make both options normative. Above all, get teenagers involved in leading worship whenever possible, as part of the worship team or choir, reading the Scriptures, helping people find a seat, or composing congregational prayers.
Include Them at Their Level.
There are many ways in which children can be included in worship, while still being allowed to be kids. Have a box of simple musical triangles, tambourines, and shakers that younger kids can use during the singing. Offer simple activity kits containing bible story colouring pages and crayons that kids can work on if they’re too young to grasp the sermon. Invite the kids to write down some things they’d like the church to pray for and have these collected for use on subsequent Sundays. Include older children on your list of people who read the Scriptures, lead the prayers, greet people, or take up the offering. Invite kids that are musical to use those gifts in worship.
Expect Them to Participate Meaningfully.
In order to really shift worship towards full inclusion of kids, perhaps we need to first ask this simple question: do we expect children to be worshipping the Living God here, or have we come to think of worship as something that only adults do? How you answer that question will determine whether or not you will include children meaningfully, or continue, as the Church has often done in the past, to bring them into worship to either perform or to observe.
We include adults in worship of God by using a language they understand, by engaging them in rituals that become sacraments, and by accepting the many gifts they bring as part of the worshipping community. Let’s do the same with children.
Let’s ask kids to share about a time they have felt God’s presence, comfort or power. Let’s ask them what they would like to thank God for or ask God for. Let’s ask children to offer themselves to God as his children, making it clear that their worship too is a much-valued part of the Church’s common life. Let’s make sure that as the pandemic comes under control we don’t just re-open the church building to children. Let’s make sure we open up the Church’s worship to them too.