Olivia Stewart on Young Children and Worship

It sounds counter-intuitive, especially today. But it turns out that helping children learn to get quiet in their own ways is huge for helping them encounter God.

Olivia Stewart was in the first worship center taught by her grandma, Sonja Stewart, who helped create the Young Children in Worship (YCW) program. Now, three decades later, Olivia Stewart trains others in this worship approach to help children joyfully encounter God. She earned an MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary, is director of children’s discipleship at Central Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and works in the national office of the Disciples of Christ Church as a minister of Family and Children's Ministries. In this edited conversation, she talks about how children learn to worship.

How has Young Children in Worship changed since your grandma and Jerome Berryman started it?

The fundamentals have remained the same, which is what makes the program so successful. [YCW is also known as Children & Worship.] What has changed is people’s understanding of how the church looks at young children and their ability to worship. Also, the reality of our lives has changed. Kids are busier than ever, so they have even more need for a place with quiet moments where they can sit down with God.

In what ways has YCW expanded into new settings?

It started out for children ages 3 to 7 but has been adapted up to fourth, sixth or even eighth grade. (Older children explore where the stories fit on a timeline.) It’s also used in hospitals, in nursing homes with people who have Alzheimer’s and in many countries—Australia, Brazil, India, Japan, Mexico, South Africa, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Which denominations or nondenominational churches use YCW?

It’s pretty much used in mainline denominations and has also been adapted by Quakers and Mennonites. In my experience, most nondenominational churches are geared toward a more active technological approach to worship. What we do is too dissimilar to their worship services.

How did participating in this program shape your faith and life?

I was given the gift of knowing Jesus Christ and Bible stories at a very young age—and they stuck with me. Because of that program, I have the ability to get quiet, listen to the Word and discern where the Spirit is moving. I’ve been able to listen to God my whole life.

In high school, like most kids, I had some traumatic times. I knew some of my friends weren’t the best influences, but my foundation in biblical stories and morality helped me navigate decisions. Children & Worship instilled within me that God is always with me and that it’s okay for me to wrestle with God, the stories and my beliefs.

What do you hear about how this approach to children and worship affects others?

I hear constantly that children who go through YCW are more able than others to integrate into worship with adults. They’re better able to listen and experience the rhythm of worship. They know how to respond to God’s invitation to worship. In fact, some children feel mad when they hear people all talking together in the worship space, because they’ve learned how important it is to get ready to meet God. Parents tell me things their children spontaneously say, like, “Mom, you know what? I really think we should pray about that” or “Dad, don’t worry. The Good Shepherd is always with us.”

Can you say more about the rhythm of worship in YCW?

It follows the rhythm that so many worshipers have followed for centuries. We gather, hear the Word proclaimed, respond with prayer and thanksgiving, and are sent into the world. Some churches want children to have something to walk out with, like a craft. But the response time is for children to respond to God in their own language, whether that is through dance, art, prayer, telling a story or building something.

When kids come out of a session that’s done well, they’re filled—joyful yet settled, peaceful yet not blah. They feel whole, excited, calm and joyful all at the same time.

How well does the YCW rhythm work for different personalities?

YCW is extremely structured and focuses on quiet, but learning the rhythm creates an incredible freedom. There is chitchat and movement. Kids are allowed to lie down or fidget with Play-Doh during the story time. For fidgety kids, one of the best things you can give them is the chance to learn how to be quiet—not in a rigid way—but within their own capacities and skill sets. Children have their own ways of entering into quiet. It’s not easy, but it’s freeing when they get it. For example, it took us a while to learn that one boy with autism loves maps so enjoys marking the story on a whiteboard.

How have churches changed as a result of what children learn in YCW?

I know there are churches where adults have now learned why the colors of paraments [banners, coverings on pulpit and communion table] change. They know more now about the why and what of the rhythm of worship. The feast in YCW helps children understand the communal aspect of communion, but it’s not the Lord’s Table, because that’s something we do with the whole congregation. However, I haven’t heard of churches increasing communion frequency because of YCW.

What do you advise parents and grandparents to ask their youngsters about YCW?

It’s best not to ask, “What did you learn today?” We don’t want to force the idea that they’re supposed to come out filled with knowledge, although they will learn. Remember, this approach is about having an experience of worship, like talking with, listening to or praising God. Sometimes, like us, they don’t have words for the experience, or they’re not ready to enter into worship. That’s okay. Simply respect the experience and relationship between the child and God.

Think instead about wondering together: “I wonder what prophets are like. I wonder if there are prophets today.” It’s so neat when you can be in wonder with them and a child has an ‘aha’ moment, like, “Oh! Jesus is in all places and all times.”

How can parents help engage children in worship at home?

I recommend reading John Roberto’s article on best practices for children’s faith formation. Learn the stories and the “wondering language” by getting the books Young Children in Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman and Following Jesus: More about Young Children in Worship by Sonja Stewart. You can see or order the figures used in YCW at WorshipWoodworks.com. Find life-giving ways of talking about faith on these websites: Disciples of Christ Family and Children’s Ministries and Vibrant Faith at Home.

At the 2016 Calvin Symposium on Worship, Olivia Stewart presented about new research on children’s spirituality. See slides from her webinar on helping children experience God.

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