“Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there” Matthew 19: 13 – 15
In recent weeks I have been feeling challenged by the provision churches make for children in worship. I have met with a number of churches and individuals who are exploring new ways to bring different congregations together, create a new approach to all-age worship, start children’s groups or reach out to children and young people in the community. But I have also had conversations with people who don’t fall into the category of child, youth or young parent, who have been led to question their place within these services. As a church, we have a real desire to see the next generation coming to know Jesus and begin a relationship with him… What we aren’t necessarily sure of is how to do that!
At a recent Praxis event in Birmingham Cathedral, this question was being addressed directly. One lady I spoke to had lots of children in a lively charismatic church and wanted to find ways of making sure that worship was more than just singing and dancing. Another gentleman I spoke to came from a traditional church where the desire was for younger people to join the congregation without losing the distinctive nature and tradition of how they did worship.
There seems to be a growing challenge in a consumerist culture where we look at what we get out of church – but we need to readdress our attitudes. Worship isn’t for us, but for God. We’re there to bring an offering of praise and celebration (and some days, lament) in response to life’s journey and God’s presence with us. As such, church isn’t there to “entertain” or “put on a show” for the congregation, but to draw them into God’s presence.
How then do we bring children into an environment that is authentic worship, teaches theological truths and yet is accessible for them to feel that they have something of value to offer alongside the adults in the congregation? Based on the conversations and conferences I have recently been involved with, there seem to be a few key things to bear in mind.
Children are smart. There can sometimes be a feeling that we have to “dumb down” worship or teaching to make it “easy” for children. However, are we actually giving them an introduction to the faith? Are we helping them understand the nature of God’s love and the saving grace of Jesus? If all we do is put on a circus, with a vaguely moral message, they may as well be watching Cbeebies, and we’re actually cheating them out of something far more meaningful. Creativity or metaphor isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but they must be properly explained and put in context. We shouldn’t sell them short – the children I have come across have a hunger to really understand these wonderfully rich Bible stories and often ask the pertinent questions that we adults feel afraid to.
Secondly, we can’t presume that all children enjoy worshipping in the same way (or in the way we plan for them!). Adults and children alike are all different from one another in the way they approach God in worship. For some, it’s a gentle spirituality that seeks time and space to be still as an offering of worship to God. For others, a lively and charismatic setting, with music and dance is more their scene. Some like the depth of tradition found in the beautiful old hymns, others like the relevance and accessibility of modern worship songs with a more contemporary feel. When we welcome anyone into our churches, we need to offer them the opportunity to just be themselves.
Creating variety, space and opportunity for children and young people to offer their own ideas and suggestions will probably be very enlightening. If you’re doing a lively action song, make sure that you also have times of stillness and quiet. If you’re having an interactive “everyone shouting out the answers” type sermon, make sure there’s a space and activity for those who don’t feel able to join in to be nurtured and learn God’s word (particularly if you have children or adults in the congregation who perhaps struggle with over-stimulation or lack of clear routine). We need to be aware that catering for certain demographics should not mean alienating others and any changes we make to the services we hold still need to reflect the ethos and identity that first drew people to the congregation.
Finally, children love to feel like they can offer something to the wider life of the church. Get them on the prayer or reading rota. Let them take up the collection. Get them to write a bit of liturgy or have an interactive preface where the whole congregation can offer the things they’re thankful for. Interview all ages about their life events or achievements as a “testimony” slot in the service then pray for these things. You’ll be surprised how little services actually need to change in order to cater for children. The fact they feel involved and valued is far more significant than whether we do action songs (which I know for a fact some children find excruciatingly awkward!). The bonus is that, by involving all ages in all elements of the service, you overcome the idea of a “family” service or “children’s service” and develop an environment where all generations, in whatever stage of life they may be feel like they can belong. Church is the family of God, and a family is a spectrum of ages. We need to ensure that each member has their place, and can be drawn into God’s presence through authentic and inspiring times of worship.