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Worship That Is Friendly to Children - Part 1

Though there are many voices and influences that would lead us in the direction of separating the various age groups in worship, we consider the worshiping congregation to be an intergenerational group of worshipers.

An Intergenerational Assembly

As a matter of fact, the Christian church can be considered the last place in our society where intergenerational activity takes place. While the needs, experiences, and expectations of each age group can be quite different, these differences are not insurmountable.

The Scriptures give us good precedence for this practice of inclusion of all ages. When the Israelites celebrated the Passover according to God's instructions, they brought their children with them so that during the Passover Feast the children would be able to ask, "What does this ceremony mean to you?" (Exodus 12:26; 13); the parents were bound to take the inquiry as an opportunity for instruction. It is clear that a very high value among the Israelite families was the communication and worship between the generations so that one generation would learn of the deeds of the Lord from the previous generation and carry on the faith (see Psalm 78:1-8). In the New Testament we learn that Jesus went with his parents to Jerusalem for worship. In Acts and the epistles we encounter multiple references to the baptism of households. The picture is the inclusion of the family as a unit before God. In passages such as 1 John 2:12-14, we catch a glimpse of parents and children, the older and the younger, worshiping together.

True, it may take more work and effort to bridge the differences in expectation, but the benefit of intergenerational worship far outweighs the additional effort required. We aim to address some of the issues in this essay and give direction for accomplishing this worthy goal.

We suggest a list of principles such as these as worthy of your consideration for intergenerational worship:

  1. Our aim is the full participation of worshipers of all ages.
  2. A covenant theology embraces the children of our community as well as the adults.
  3. The word of God is appropriate to all ages.
  4. The call to Christian obedience comes to all ages.
  5. All ages are able to function in roles of worship leadership.
  6. In preparation for worship leadership roles, some will need additional assistance and coaching.
  7. Music must aim to be accessible to all ages.
  8. It is valuable for music to teach and draw each age into the form and expression of other ages.
  9. The structure and language of the liturgy should be accessible to the mind and heart of a child, and children should be instructed in the meaning of the liturgy and its elements.

Reexamining Our Worship

In the light of such considerations, it would be good for us all to take a closer look at the worship life of our congregation, and try to do it through the eyes of a child. A worship committee or worship planning team could greatly benefit by engaging in such an exercise together. Take a 20-30 minute period in one of your meetings to discuss the question "What do you think our worship looks like to a child?" You may even find it helpful to begin the discussion at one meeting and continue it at the next after all members have had time to reflect on the initial comments, and can perhaps consult with some children of the congregation.

Kelly Clem, a United Methodist ministry, put it this way: "Have you ever stopped to look at your church's worship from a child's perspective? From a height of three or four feet and a mind which comprehends concretely, not abstractly, your worship will appear very different. Too frequently in our churches, the Sunday morning worship service has become a ‘for adults only' experience. Our language excludes children's comprehension abilities, movement of choir members and liturgists is very limited, variety is almost non-existent from week to week, and children are treated as nuisances during the worship hour" ("Worship: For Adults Only?" in A Child Shall Lead: Children in Worship; John D. Witvliet, editor; published by Choristers Guild and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship; p. 11).

In the same book, John Witvliet makes the case for the full, conscious, and active participation of children in worship. He provides five guidelines to sum up how children should participate in worship:

1. Children should participate fully, not only in special moments designed for them like a children's sermon, but in all the prayers and songs and actions that make up the worship service.

2. Children should participate consciously. They must know and understand what each action of worship means and why it is done.

3. Children should participate actively. They must not sit in passive silence; rather, children should stand, kneel, process, move, listen, speak, and—of course—sing!

4. Children should be viewed as full participants not only for their sake, but for ours. Children have gifts to give from which we need to learn: a gift of faith, a gift of questioning, a gift of wonder, as well as loyalty, honesty, and trust. Of these virtues, our children may be among the best teachers we have.

5. Children's programs should be childlike, not childish. In programming for children, we must do nothing to "dumb down" what we are doing. When we choose music and dramatic scripts that are thoughtful and well-crafted, we take our children seriously. In contrast, when we choose music and dramatic scripts that are merely fun and entertaining, we reduce our children to a commodity ("A New Vision for Children in the Worshiping Community" in A Child Shall Lead: Children in Worship, p. 9).

Witvliet also provides a checklist for church staff or a worship team to use in an evaluative discussion:

  • We communicate in writing to all parents about the importance of children in public worship.
  • We make sure to announce or print the page number of every song or prayer or Scripture reading, so that children can find their places in the worship book, hymnal, or Bible.
  • Our pastor includes at least one example, illustration, or story in each sermon that relates to children's experiences.
  • Our church education program teaches children about the basic actions of worship and worship-related words that are difficult to understand (such as "alleluia," "amen," or "sacrament").
  • Our church education program teaches children to memorize the basic texts our congregation speaks in worship, such as the Lord's Prayer or other regular responses (such as the Doxology).
  • Our church uses symbolic colors for the seasons of the church year, and we teach our children why the colors change throughout the year.
  • There are children regularly involved in the worship leadership team of our congregation.
  • In the intercessory prayer, at least one concern is mentioned every week that relates specifically to children's experiences (perhaps the beginning of the school year, for example).
  • In every service, there is at least one song that all the children will know.
  • Our pastor has met with every church education class to answer the questions the children have about worship.
  • Our greeters at church make sure to welcome all of the children as they come to worship.
  • When people in our congregation greet each other during worship (sometimes called the passing of the peace, the welcome, or the mutual greetings), all of the children participate.
  • Our children have taken a tour of the worship space. They have all been able to touch the large communion cup or the water in the baptismal font or pool. They all have stood at the pulpit or ambo or lectern where the preacher, minister, or clergy stand during the
  • Our church uses banners which change for the seasons of the church year. We teach the children what the symbols on each one mean.
  • Children in our congregation regularly participate in the offering. Their parents encourage them to give part of their allowance to the ministries of the church or provide money for them to contribute during the offering.
  • During congregational singing, children in our congregation are active participants, following the music in a hymnal or printed order of service (or however the music is available) ("Checklists for Congregations Concerned about Children in Worship, A Child
           Shall Lead: Children in Worship,
    pp. 70-71).

We suggest that you set this list before the members of your church staff or worship planning team in preparation for the next meeting. Ask them to reflect on each of these while they worship each week. Then in your group evaluative discussion, make three separate categories on a marker board or overhead projector, and reach a group consensus on how your church is doing in each of the items on the checklist:

  • Matters we are fulfilling very well
  • Matters on which we've made a beginning but need improvement
  • Matters we've not considered and ought to
  • Other helpful matters not mentioned here that we are doing

How Do We Prepare Our Children to Come into Worship?

Many parents seem to fear that it will not work to keep their children in public worship with them. They believe the children will not understand anything, or they won't be able to sit that long, or others around them will be annoyed by their wiggling and noise. All such concerns come from the feeling that public worship is really an adult event. This doesn't have to be the case, and there are many things that parents can do to make their worship experience as a family "child-friendly."

Carolyn Brown is a Christian Education specialist and writer who has written several books on this subject. At the recent Conference on Liturgy and Music in Denver, she presented her "Guidelines for Taking Children to Worship" that parents will find very helpful.

1. Sunday morning starts on Saturday night. Lay out the clothes, ready the offering envelopes, and gather together everything you'll need.

2. Make Sunday morning different! Set the alarm early enough to allow a relaxed pace. Have a simple, special Sunday breakfast.

3. As a rule, sit as a family and do not separate to sit with friends. (Friends tend to distract.)

4. Bring no distracting books, toys, or games to the sanctuary.

5. Plan ahead to avoid bathroom parades.

6. Worship WITH rather than BESIDE children.

  • Stand children on the pew so that their ears, eyes, and mouths are near those of other worshipers as they sing, pray, and read together.
  • Hum or la-la along with those who cannot yet read the words.
  • Sing repeated phrases and choruses within the hymns.
  • Help young readers use hymnals and Bibles. Follow printed lines with a bookmark or the edge of the bulletin. Use the large-print hymnal. (Few children read music.)
  • Whisper instructions. "Now is the time we tell God about stuff we are sorry about." "Listen to this story. It is a good one!"
  • Whisper questions. "How do you think Jesus felt when that happened?" "What does this say about how you felt yesterday?"
  • Whisper comments about what it means to you. After the doxology say, "My best blessing this week was our picnic!"

7. Avoid criticism and complaints fueled by fatigue and hunger in the car on the way home. Instead, hear what people did, enjoyed, and wondered about.

8. Enjoy holy hugs. There is much to be treasured and little to be embarrassed about when a twelve-year-old lays her head on her father's shoulder in church.

9. Be firm and consistent. Apply the same discipline for worship failures that is applied in any other important matter.

You will find these materials, and many other valuable insights and suggestions, in Carolyn Brown's book, You Can Preach to the Kids, Too! (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997). The above guidelines are taken from page 109.