Mimi L. Larson on Pastors, Pressures, and Intergenerational Worship
Pastors play a crucial role in promoting or preventing intergenerational worship. Scholar Mimi L. Larson explains why, despite the pressures, pastors should treat children as full image bearers of God. This choice influences how all ages engage with God in worship.
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 pressures to keep children out of worship.
What kinds of churches did you study during your grant?
I researched how children in nine congregations are taught and encouraged to participate in worship. I studied 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 sample included Black, Asian, Indigenous, and white churches. They differed in size, denomination, life cycle, and geography.
I learned that pastors are crucial in involving children, that Black church culture uniquely equips youth to worship and lead, and that pastors deal with enormous pressures.
What did the pastors you studied say about these pressures?
Everybody shared that there's a pressure to remove kids from worship. Pastors feel pressure from parents who say, "This is my time with God. I don't want my kids here!" Kids cry, wiggle, and need coaching and direction. Sometimes we as adults are not willing to engage with them in worship. There's also the pressure of perfection, whether that comes from the congregation or from within a pastor. It requires sacrifice to accommodate wiggly, noisy kids in worship.
What's an example of how pastors can lead despite the pressure to send children elsewhere during worship?
In my very first church job, the pastor would say, "If you have small children, I encourage you to sit in front so they can see. I won't be distracted." In this church, a glass barrier separated the foyer from the worship space. The pastor also reminded people that the last two rows were for parents who might need to slip out and let their kids run in the foyer while the parents watched and listened through the glass.
This pastor would conclude, "So, if you find that children distract you, then you should sit in the middle rows." That kind of leadership sets a tone for parents and congregations.
Is it really that easy to make room for children in intergenerational worship?
No. It's messy, it takes effort, and it may result in people leaving your church. A pastor in my study said, "When we made the decision to see children as equal members in worship, we lost some significant people who'd been longtime members but saw kids as 'getting in the way' of worship."
Yet when she talked about the rewards of intergenerational worship, her face glowed. This fascinating church moved pews around and configured seating in a semicircle around the altar so everyone can see. She tells the congregation that it's okay if kids come up and sit next to her while she preaches.
How else does this pastor involve children?
Well, in contrast to pastors who never engage with children, she talks with them and makes them feel welcome in worship. She runs sermon ideas by high school kids. This church has become very tactile in worship activities. During one worship service, everyone—adults too—created handprints. Then, the next week, the handprints became part of sanctuary visuals.
How much does church size affect the possibilities for intergenerational worship?
I'm the children's ministry catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries, a ministry of the Christian Reformed Church in North America, and we leaders talk often about the need to belong. I often suggest that pastors and congregations frame worship as more like a family dinner than a formal banquet. I like to ask, "How do you create an intergenerational sense of belonging when you put kids in another room?" Kids learn so much by observing. It makes a difference when they can see their parents and others worshiping.
Still, it's true that church size affects options for engaging children. One church plant pastor in my study told me, "When we get bigger, we'll have to systematize children's ministry. These freedoms will probably go away." But I encouraged him to find ways not to lose what they have.
Can larger churches do intergenerational worship?
Of course bigger churches need systems, but the means and end goal really matter. I studied two megachurches. One was very intentional that its end goal was to deliberately integrate children into worship with everyone else. So they took the children out during part of the service to equip them with the tools and practices of worship. At age five, the kids are celebrated and get badges. By first grade, they are back in intergenerational worship full time.
The other megachurch systematized in the opposite direction. Like churches all over the U.S., they have made the decision to remove children and youth from worship—all the way through high school. Yet they were very intentional to teach kids about worship. All the way through high school, kids would go to their own spaces with fun activities, and the adults would "go to worship." It would be fascinating to find out in ten or fifteen years whether there's a difference in how many kids stayed at each megachurch.
What other pressures did your grant project reveal?
The coronavirus pandemic really did a number on churches, especially on how to engage children. Every church I spoke with said they struggled hard to engage children well on Zoom. Some just gave up. When pastors and congregations could let go of seeking perfection, then it became a little easier to engage children. It helped to see Zoom worship as more of a family gathering than a formal occasion.
Yet so many churches admitted, "Even in the best of times, it takes work and intention to engage children. We just can't do that right now." After my CICW grant, I was also part of a global study. We found that most churches didn't even try with the kids. A few provided resources for families or made a point to talk directly to kids during the service. At the beginning of each Zoom service, one church in my study would ask kids to gather things they'd need during worship, such as a candle or plate for communion bread. The churches that tried to do separate Zoom services for kids didn't think it worked well. Someone from another church in my study said, "We put our kids in another room, because that is how my church does it when we are in person."
What needs for further study can you share?
I noticed that we need to pay attention to active and passive participation for everyone. When kids are bored, they act out. We as adults have learned to behave well yet check out. When the value is that children are seen, not heard, we are training them to disengage. To authentically engage everyone in worship, worship must be more interactive. It must stop becoming so much of a performance.
Many churches need a more robust congregational understanding of worship. We need to equip churches to wrestle with theological issues so that what they claim and believe is actually lived out. And we still need to know more about how children learn and make meaning of their faith. But these values must come from the pastor and worship leaders. They have to want it.
Where can congregations learn from pastors who value intergenerational worship?
I would recommend starting with:
- Theresa Cho, pastor of St. John's Presbyterian Church in San Francisco, California. She blogs about creative use of the arts in prayer and intergenerational worship, and you can follow her on Twitter.
- Carolyn C. Brown, a certified Christian educator and children's ministry consultant, has written You Can Preach to the Kids Too! and other books. She blogs at Worshiping with Children.
- Intergenerate Australia supports interdenominational, intergenerational faith communities. Check out its blog, its archived webinars, and its global virtual conference, which happens in odd years.
- Children's Spirituality Summit is a Christ-centered organization of scholars who research and promote best practices for helping children engage deeply with God.
Read more about Mimi L. Larson's Vital Worship Grant and hear her summarize it in this 2021 Teacher-Scholars Vital Worship Grants presentation (3:48 to 13:32). Watch Larson's webinar "Engaging Children in the Worshiping Community."