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Carolyn C. Brown on worship as a true family table

Carolyn C. Brown talks about intergenerational worship. A feature story exploring the inclusion of children in worship.

Years ago, while minister of education in a large church, Carolyn C. Brown was negotiating a schedule conflict between church school and children’s choir.

She recalls backing down when the children’s choir director said, “Let’s get real. Children often fall away from church during college. But if they come back to any church—and have been in my choir—they’ll feel comfortable in a sanctuary. And they may even join a new choir.”

Realizing that the same transference wouldn’t apply between children’s ministries and adult worship, Brown acquiesced.

Consider the consequences

“Roman Catholics use Psalms weekly in church during the Liturgy of the Word. We sing a psalm that fits the lectionary. Sometimes the children sing a seasonal psalm or a common theme psalm. In church the refrains are sung by the congregation, and the cantor sings the verses. Therefore the refrain remains in your thoughts and heart for weeks,” says Grace Schwanda, who directs four children’s choirs at St. Robert of Newminster Catholic Church in Ada, Michigan.

But this intergenerational experience of spiritual formation doesn’t happen in churches that split age groups for worship.

“The Lord’s table doesn’t look like a family table when we’re worshiping in age-divided groups. Let’s gather the whole family around the table and cook up some worship,” urges Brown, now an author and intergenerational ministry consultant.

Leaders in churches with separate worship groups sometimes confide their regrets. They tell of 22-year-olds who don’t know their way around a sanctuary and feel that—compared to children’s church and youth worship—church for grownups is like landing on Mars.

“Even 13 is a lousy age to come into intergenerational worship, because you’re more interested in your peers,” Brown says.

She recommends ages 7 to 11 as the window of opportunity. Youngsters want to be in on what adults are doing.

“The people up front should look like the people in the pews. Leading worship is a way to experience yourself as God’s people in a way you cannot experience in the pews,” Brown says.

Educate parents about kids and worship

You wouldn’t expect to have a baby and then, for 18 years, eat next to your child with no interaction. It’s the same with worship. Brown says to expect “wonderful moments…and disasters.”

First grade is a good time to bring parents and children together to learn what worship means. For an hour or two—perhaps during the church school or summer recess—they can do joint activities and find out about the whole sequence of a service, from praise, confession, and God’s word to our response and the order of communion.

“The announced purpose is to teach children about worship, but parents learn, too,” Brown says.

That rings true for Mary Elder, who organized family worship education at Fredericktown United Methodist. “Parents get insight. They reassess their expectations of their children after learning about developmental stages. They understand why children ask the questions they do. Those questions shape how we think about worship. And thinking about how to influence their children’s worship helps parents reflect on their own worship,” she says.

Brown advises parents to focus on participation, not discipline. “Hang off on behavior concerns on the ride home. First talk about what you sang, prayed, or learned in worship. Give kids tips on how to do things, like use a hymnal.

“Clergy and worship leaders need to make clear that it’s okay for parents and children to whisper gently in worship, especially when there’s a sermon point for kids. Kids may get a little wiggly. That’s all okay, within limits, as long as everyone around them can still hear the service,” Brown says.

Plan sermons with all ages in mind

Brown likes to say that 70-year-olds are no more 30-year-olds with white hair than 7-year-olds are pint-sized adults.

Continuing her family table metaphor, she compares worship to cooking up a big feast where each person will find at least one dish to like—and you have to try a bite of everything served. “Maybe sermons, instead of using sequential points, need to have a point for each age group,” she says.

As Mary Hulst, a Christian Reformed preacher, suggests, “Weave the images of iPods and Nintendos with AARP and aching joints so that everybody knows that this sermon is for them.”

After deciding on a theme or text, but before beginning to write, preachers should ask what a child needs to understand the sermon.

“Do they need to know certain vocabulary? How might this text play in a child’s world? Consider Abraham not quite sacrificing Isaac. Adults hear, ‘Give God your very best. Trust God.’ Kids think, “Oh, my goodness. Would God ask my parents to kill me? And would they do it?’ ” Brown says.

It’s enough to seed each sermon with one thing to grab children’s attention. This might be an illustration from childhood, prop, children’s literature reference, or a lily bulb to hold during Easter worship. The kids’ point doesn’t have to be at the beginning of the sermon.

“Parents can clue kids in when something’s relevant. Little heads pop up all over the sanctuary when the preacher says something to them. They listen as long as they can and then tune out. The goal is they’ll turn into sermon listeners,” Brown says.