Let the Children Come
Splitting into age-divided worship each Sunday doesn't necessarily result in kids who go on to choose worship as adults. That's why Carolyn C. Brown and several pastors are talking about intergenerational worship. A feature story exploring the inclusion of children in worship.
Ask preachers about services they remember from childhood, and common themes emerge. Sri Lankan Charles Jansz recalls sermons on David and Goliath and Daniel in the lions’ den, both illustrated on flannel graph. The preacher dressed in costume for one sermon and had kids act out the story in the other.
Canadian Peter Bush was only eight when a preacher told about a man who had little room left in his suitcase, but still needed to pack a light, a sword, a book of poetry, a collection of letters, and a history book. The solution? He packed a Bible.
American Dave Poolman remembers narrating a Christmas play, choosing songs for a hymn sing, singing in children’s choir, and watching the pastor and church leaders burn the church mortgage papers during a service of thanksgiving.
Visuals and personal involvement made those services powerful. But the pastors’ memories depend on something deeper—being present in worship with people of all ages.
Congregations are all over the map on when they expect children or youth to attend an entire service. In some churches it doesn’t happen till high school graduation. Read on to discover why and how churches are making it a priority to engage children in worship, especially in sermons and prayers.
Being a family of God
There is no separate children’s worship among Dutch Reformed churches in Sri Lanka. “We follow what is called ‘the unified plan of worship.’ Culturally, Sri Lankans are very strong on the family being together,” says Charles Jansz, a pastor in Colombo, the capital city.
“There is most of the time a bit of explanation about the Scriptures being read, which is helpful even to the adults. We use different versions and often ask the children to read,” he adds.
While preaching, he may include a visual prop or provide a printed sermon help for kids, like pictures to color or fill-in-the-blanks for the sermon text and theme. He tells stories that help kids apply the sermon and, directly addressing a child by name, asks simple questions. Kids often do sermon skits for special occasions.
The church bulletin highlights exam times and other children’s concerns. “Either the pastor or a Sunday school teacher prays specifically for such concerns. There are also special prayers, led by a pastor or someone else, that children are asked to pray audibly,” Jansz says.
Claiming all our children
Small churches may have an intergenerational advantage, according to Peter Bush, pastor of Knox Presbyterian in Mitchell, Ontario, and co-author of Where 20 or 30 Are Gathered: Leading Worship in the Small Church.
“Small churches have a sense that the children belong to all of them, so they’re thrilled to see ‘their’ kids reading Scripture. There’s a family atmosphere that makes it easier for the congregation to accept clear attempts to reach children.
“And maybe in a small church, it’s easier for kids to sit through worship that meets the older generation’s needs…because Mrs. Smith calls them by name and Mr. Park, who loves this hymn with strange words, gives them a mint on Sunday,” Bush says.
Six or more intergenerational services a year prepare Knox Presbyterian kids to become full-time attendees by grade eight. During these services, kids read Scripture, participate in drama, or enjoy a retelling of the Bible passage during the sermon.
Service planners think through what the sermon will mean to each age group, such as the Sermon on the Mount advice to settle disputes with a brother or sister before coming to worship. Bush may give kids a sermon-related task, like drawing a picture of something they’re thankful for. They bring forward their lists and pictures to be included in the pastoral prayer.
When Dennis Scheibmeir arrived as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Larned, Kansas, his three teens doubled the youth group. Only one family in the tiny church brought children to worship.
Now there are up to eight kids, third grade or younger, in worship. “The congregation is thrilled! On Easter, children will help roll away a (fake) stone from the tomb. We’ve finally got enough children to put on a Christmas program,” Scheibmeir says.
During the school year, kids often gather around the pastor for the Scripture reading and an object lesson based on the text. Then they leave for children’s church. But they’ll probably stay in for the whole service during summer, as vacations reduce the number of kids and teachers.
Trying new things
At Princeton Christian Reformed Church in Kentwood, Michigan, children join their families for worship by second grade. Pastor Dave Poolman is always looking for new ways to include them.
He’s invited kids to do dramatic readings during praise and confession. Teens have co-led the congregational prayer, one person per section for praise, confession, thanks, and petition.
“I try to keep kids engaged by using stories, illustrations, and language they can understand. I avoid excessive use of ‘big words’ and theological terms. When I use them, I explain them. I write my sermons as if I am preaching to a 12- to 15-year-old who isn’t interested. If I can get that kid to listen, everyone else will understand what God is saying to them,” Poolman says.
It’s up to parents at Fredericktown United Methodist to decide whether to worship with their children or send them to Junior Church, offered three Sundays a month through fifth grade. Fourth Sundays, though, involve the whole family in this Ohio congregation.
While leading a project to teach Fredericktown parents and kids about worship, Mary Elder noticed that the “congregation was really drawn to the message of a drama given by three generations of one family.” Families also enjoyed creating pieces of banners that now hang in the sanctuary.
The latest idea is to start an Ask the Pastor option. “Parents and Sunday school teachers say kids sometimes ask questions that are difficult to answer. Students can put their questions in a box or jar. The pastor will help decide how to address these during worship,” Elder says.
Read about intergenerational unity at Princeton Christian Reformed Church and family worship education at Fredericktown United Methodist Church. Listen to an interview with Charles Jansz about Christians in Sri Lanka.
Listen to excerpts from an interview with Carolyn C. Brown on engaging kids in worship.
Read Carolyn C. Brown’s practical books on engaging children in worship:
- Forbid Them Not: Involving Children in Sunday Worship (one volume for each lectionary year)
- Sharing the Easter Faith with Children: Helping Children Observe Lent and Celebrate Easter
- You Can Preach to the Kids, Too
Book her for a workshop or conference to help your church or denominational region think through new ways to include different generations in worship.
Expand your thinking on worship for children by reading about 50 ways to honor children in your congregation, pre-Boomer norms in worship, and why churches include kids in worship or opt for children’s church.
Sign up for a Friends of the Groom workshop for ideas on engaging kids through scripture dramas.
Start a Discussion
- At what age do children join worship for the entire service in your congregation? What are the blessings and risks in your approach?
- How would you describe the unstated norms in your church regarding acceptable behavior for children and youth in worship?
- In what ways and how often do children and teens help lead worship in your church?
- What three things might you do to make worship more welcoming and inclusive for your younger members?
Share Your Wisdom
What is the best way you’ve found to bring all ages together to, in Carolyn C. Brown’s words, “cook up some worship”?
- If you developed a method of educating parents and children about worship, will you share those resources with us?
- Have you created a system, formal or informal, to track kids as they move from one age division of ministry to the next (e.g. nursery, children’s worship, church school, intergenerational worship, youth group, college ministry, etc.)?
- Which books, magazines, videos, websites, seminars, or other resources have you found most helpful in writing sermons that include something for every age group?