Mimi L. Larson on Keys to Involving Children in Worship
Scholar Mimi L. Larson explains how theology, beliefs about children's capabilities, and pastors influence whether or how children meet God in worship. She says that Black church culture offers valuable examples.
Mimi L. Larson specializes in children's faith formation. She has directed church children's ministries and co-edited Bridging Theory and Practice in Children's Spirituality: New Directions for Education, Ministry, and Discipleship. Larson teaches at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in metro Chicago and has taught at Wheaton College and Calvin Theological Seminary. She serves on the Children's Spirituality Summit board of directors and is the children's ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. In this edited conversation, Larson shares significant findings from her Vital Worship Teacher-Scholar Grant on how children are taught and encouraged to worship.
Since our last conversation, you’ve expanded your research sample to nine congregations.
Yes, because COVID-19 took away my plan of actually traveling to six churches, I was able to seek more variety. Most of the initial six congregations in my study were white and suburban, though they differed in size, denomination, life cycle, and geography. I worked through the networks of Calvin Institute of Christian Worship (CICW) to talk with people who knew people who also knew people.
I ended up studying three congregations each from sacramental (e.g., Anglican and Lutheran), covenantal (e.g., Presbyterian and Christian Reformed), and conversional (e.g., Baptist and nondenominational) traditions. The final sample included Black, Asian, and Indigenous churches.
What were you looking for as you interviewed pastors and children's ministry leaders and experienced virtual worship?
I wanted to see how—based on their theologies—churches viewed children, taught them to worship, and invited them into active worship participation. What we say we hold as a deep belief should shape our practice. But how does a practice actually emerge out of our theological beliefs? For example, every church would say that children are created in the image of God. But how is children's ministry different in a Lutheran church with infant baptism compared to a Baptist church with believer's baptism?
What differences did you see in how congregations viewed children?
I looked for whether they maintain a high or low view of children. A high belief or view is that children are full image bearers of God, are a valued part of the congregation, have roles to play, and have something to contribute—so we want them to worship with us. That means we must train children and parents how to worship together and train congregations how to welcome and encourage children in worship. In churches with this high view, children feel known, loved, and accepted.
A low belief is similar to when Jesus' disciples said he was too busy to "let the children come." This view of children says, "Right now, they're just kids. We'll educate them until they are old enough to behave in worship." A low view or belief about children sometimes correlates with an incomplete view of worship.
Worship is often seen as music, specifically praise music, or just the sermon. If you pass on this incomplete view of worship to children by allowing them to participate only in those things, then they do not grasp the entirety of what worship is. Churches sometimes dumb down worship by sorting youth into separate age groups for teaching and having fun. This approach minimizes opportunities for children to actually worship, wonder, and engage with God. It also minimizes the work of the Holy Spirit.
What did you find about how a congregation's theology shapes its children's ministry?
It turns out that a congregation's understanding of child development has more impact than its theology. All the churches I studied have a sense that children have spiritual capabilities, yet when I look at how they do church, there's sometimes a disconnect. If, from a Reformed perspective, you believe that covenant children are equal members, then do you give them equal value in worship and decision making? Or is worship for adults only?
I don't know whether being part of my study helped some churches realize that they're not really walking their talk when it comes to engaging children in authentic worship and faith formation. Two discoveries stood out. The pastor's role is crucial in how a congregation does children's ministry. And Black churches have an exceptional model for forming children as active worship participants and leaders.
Can you say more about the pastor's crucial role?
Pastors and other leaders either help or hinder how children engage in worship. There's no in-between. Some pastors never engage with children in worship, either within "adult worship" or by connecting with them in children's ministry programs. This disconnect can make children and youth feel ignored, dismissed, or even treated with indifference instead of love.
It is hard for pastors to champion children. Every pastor in my research talked about pressures to remove kids from worship. Parents, the coronavirus pandemic, and a desire for perfection all produce pressures. Yet God doesn't ask us to be perfect to worship. God asks us to come.
What Black model would you like other churches to follow?
I noticed something important while speaking with the Black congregation in my study. They engage with children and approach ministry with children with a distinctive passion and vision. They very intentionally bring children alongside, teach them how to take offerings, pray, lead worship, talk with people after church, and live as Christians. In other words, Black churches do ministry with children. This observation has me asking, "Why is this different, and what can we learn from our Black churches so that ministry practices with children can be improved?"
Since you had only one Black church in your research sample, might the difference be due to denomination or something else?
Thinking about this congregation reminded me of another Black church I'd visited, not part of this study. I remember watching how a young person was learning how to lead in the church and be the church. He was called up to lead a prayer. An adult coached him, whispering into his ear to remind him how to do it and what to say.
My research inspired me to talk with other Black pastors and worship leaders. Their response was always, "Of course! Of course! This is how we do church." And this approach didn't vary by denomination. It seems to be a cultural value. It's fascinating to see such holistic urgency and high commitment to prepare youth to lead. They know that their children are still kids or young people. And all the churches I studied have some sense that children have some worship capabilities. But Black congregations have higher expectations for youth.
Connect with Mimi Larson in her role as the children's ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America. Explore children's ministry resources. Consider applying for Calvin Institute of Christian Worship's Vital Worship Grants Program, either as a teacher-scholar or as a worshiping community