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Worship That Is Friendly to Children - Part 2

Perhaps the most common way of trying to include children in worship is by providing a "children's message" during the service.

The Children's Message

Though this practice is common, and potentially very valuable, there are also significant difficulties and risks involved.

The children's message can be a valuable time for the children to be "up close" to the pastor if they come forward to meet him or her, and it gives the pastor the opportunity to relate to the children in a much more personal way. This event often makes children feel that they are important by focusing the attention on them. If handled correctly, this can be an excellent time for teaching the children about matters relating to worship, the sanctuary, and the liturgy.

However, various problems can creep into this part of the worship service. Often the one presenting the children's message is speaking to adults more than the children, though not admitting it. Or it can become a time for children to "act out" in a distracting way, though it may evoke laughter from the congregation. If someone other than the pastor presents the message to the children it may raise in children's mind the fear that they don't count enough to warrant the pastor's attention. And if moralisms or object lessons are the focus of this message, they can easily go beyond a young child's ability to grasp or understand.

Whatever your practice, we offer the following guidelines so that if you include children's messages, you will be able to do them well:

1. The pastor should present the children's message most of the time so children don't get the message that you "turn them over" to someone else.

2. Don't try to engage in funny and unpredictable dialogue; it can be distracting in public worship.

3. If you bring the children forward, find a position where you face them and can speak to them, rather than sitting on the steps with them and facing the same direction they do.

4. Get down on the children's level (physically) and speak at their eye-level. Having a small stool to sit on can be very helpful.

5. Vary the placement of the children's message in the worship service so that its location in the liturgy is appropriate to the subject of the message.

6. Speak about the liturgy on a regular basis, using the children's message as an opportunity to teach kids why we are doing this or that in worship. (You will find the appendix of Marva Dawn's book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down [Eerdmans, 1995, pp. 305-307] to be very helpful in this regard.)

7. Use the children's message to speak to them about the different seasons of the church year, noting the change of the season, the purpose of the season, the color, symbols, etc.

8. Use stories of many different kinds to engage the children into thinking about their world and God. 

9. Teach the children liturgical responses that help involve them in worship (for example, "The Lord be with you" . . . "And also with you").

10. Include a prayer in your message with them. Be sure to pray about matters of interest to them. We suggest repetitive prayers (we called them "Simon Sez Prayers") in which the leader prays a phrase, and the children repeat it. This includes the kids in praying and models praying for them.

11. The children's message should be consistent with the remainder of the liturgy and reinforce its theme and purpose.

Children and Song

It has always been intriguing for us to see children grow into worship. Observing children—from the toddler to the preschooler to the elementary school to the middle school child—can provide insights into that growth. A toddler who works at getting a hymnal out of a pew rack, opens it, and holds it upside down shows that she knows this book is important in worship. A preschooler who searches for song numbers with a parent or older sibling demonstrates the same. Parents who help guide their children through songs and Scripture continue the process of drawing children into the worship life of their church.

Music of the church should be accessible to all ages. Children are eager to learn and open to a wide variety of hymnody. We sell our youth short when we type-cast them into a certain mold or form of musical expression. It has been interesting to us that when children have an opportunity to select songs for worship they are as often interested in singing a metrical hymn as a praise chorus. We need to introduce them to the songs of faith that have nurtured their parents and grandparents. We also need to introduce them to contemporary forms of expression that nurture their faith and bring glory to God. We encourage you to balance your musical diet between songs that teach and nurture faith and those shorter, more easily-learned repetitive choruses. We do not divide these songs up into categories of head or heart, but rather believe that the best of both metrical hymnody and cyclical choruses reflect both the head and the heart.

In some ways children learn congregational song somewhat by osmosis; their inquisitive natures help them observe and learn what the broader congregation and their parents are modeling for them. We believe churches can also be more directive in instructing children in the song of the church. Developing a process of determining the vital songs of faith that should stay with a child throughout his life and then devising a means of teaching those songs as part of the educational curriculum of the church could be a valuable tool for a congregation. Just as parents purchase clothes or shoes that children will grow into, so too a church education program can invest in songs that children will grow into. In addition, educational settings provide times for children to sing songs that are fitting just for them.

Children should know that their participation in worship singing is desired and appreciated. Each service should have at least one congregational song that the children know. Our church had two hymnals in the pew rack—a children's hymnal and the denominational hymnal. We used both in every service and never legislated how many songs from each hymnal would be used. We let the theme and flow of the service determine the song selection. In addition, songs or responses that are repeated from week to week encourage the participation of children who cannot read, and songs that the congregation is learning in worship can be reinforced in the Sunday school or worship center time. Youth choirs are also a wonderful way to teach the congregation sung prayers and Scripture responses, new songs of faith and anthems written to express the faith of a child in a child's language. In a time and culture where arts programs are being cut or limited in day schools, the church needs to step up to the task of teaching muscial language to its youth so that the strong song of the church may continue in future generations.

Sometimes it is very easy to think of children only as a group. But children are individually gifted people of God. Every church has a valuable—and in many cases untapped—pool of talent in their children. To draw out and encourage the development of musical gifts is a rewarding privilege. Children can be invited to play their instruments and use their voices in worship. Even younger children whose repertoire is limited to very short songs can be included when combined with other children who have equally short pieces! They will need some encouragement and some coaching along the way, but we have found openness on their part and a rich blessing for the congregation when they are participants in leadership too.

So, how are songs selected? We encourage you to invest in a variety of children's hymnals to help inform your choices. We also encourage developing a list of songs all children should learn as part of their faith development. That may certainly vary from one congregation to another, but it should also represent the unity of the church from one location to another, one time to another, and one culture to another. Here are a few resources that we suggest you look at:

Children's Hymnals:

            All God's People Sing, Concordia Publishing House

            Rise Up and Sing: Young People's Music Resource, OCP Publications

            Songs for LiFE, Faith Alive Christian Resources

            To God with Love, Selah Publishing Co.

            We Sing of God, The Church Hymnal Corporation

Periodical Resource:

            The Chorister, a journal of The Choristers Guild

Children and Prayer

Prayer is at the heart of Christian worship. Learning how to pray is at the heart of a child's spiritual formation. Therefore, involving children in worship prayers is vitally important. Those who write and lead prayers in public worship should regularly include concerns of the children, and the language used in prayers must be accessible to children. But we also suggest that children themselves write and lead prayer for worship. What can be more meaningful for an intergenerational congregation of worshipers than to sense the freshness in praying words that a child has written, and to be led in prayer by a child!

A variety of resources are available to worship planners who are searching for prayers and readings that are accessible to children. The Worship Sourcebook, recently published by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, Faith Alive Christian Resources and Baker Book House (available from your bookstore or Faith Alive Resources, 1-800-333-8300), contains many resources and prayers that are child-friendly. More such resources can be found in A Child Shall Lead: Children in Worship (pp. 84-89).

We also encourage you to include your children in writing prayers for public worship. Teachers in your Christian education ministry will be able to identify children who have gifts that can be used for this purpose. Some will be gifted to write the prayers, some to lead in prayer, and some to do both. Encourage the teachers to work with the children on a continuing basis. Make it an exercise in the worship center or church school class. Worship will take on a whole new relevance for children when their prayers are included.

For example, in one of the worship services at the Conference on Liturgy and Music in Denver this summer, Lynnae Keeley, a middle school student, participated with other adults in leading the liturgy. For the service of confession she wrote the prayer of confession that contained the freshness of a child's expression, and it became all the more meaningful when she led in the prayer. A child's voice expressing these words infuses a new spirit in worship. Here is Lynnae's prayer:

            Dear God,
            You are a great and awesome God.
            Today we come to you in a prayer of confession.
            We are sorry for the many things that we have done that are wrong in your eyes.
            We are also sorry for all the things we should have done but we didn't do.
            We are asking now for forgiveness for these things,
            and for other things that we have done wrong and don't even know about.
            Please forgive us.
            In your name alone we pray, Amen.

This may have been a special time in worship for Lynnae, but it was for everyone else too. Identify some of your gifted children and begin to include them in writing and leading some prayers.

A Series of Services

Still another possibility to consider is planning a series of worship services with an intentional focus on children. How exciting to plan liturgies, prayers, and sermons that will be aimed at the concerns of children instead of adults!

We did this in the pastorate we served and found it be highly appreciated by adults and children, not as something novel and new, but as an excellent way to experience intergenerational worship. A series of four Sunday evening services was included under the theme of "Kids of the Covenant." The brainstorming for this possibility began in the worship committee, and soon drew in other key people from our children's ministry. Many helpful ideas were suggested, and we agreed that the following guidelines would be followed:

1. The pastor would set the basic direction for each service by his selection of the passage of Scripture and theme of the sermon.

2. The primary focus of the entire service should be on children, with a secondary focus on adults (just the opposite of our usual worship).

3. The children should serve as worship leaders wherever possible and appropriate. We wanted the services to be worship by children as well as for children.

4. These services, though different, should include certain standard and recognizable features so that there would continuity with the normal worship life of the congregation. We didn't want a once-a-year-extravaganza that could prove how out-of-the ordinary we could be.

5. The messages should be written and addressed to the life issues of elementary and middle school children. We decided that, because children have shorter attention spans than adults do, several short messages would be more appropriate than one larger one.

6. Congregational songs should be intergenerational, those that are known and recognized by children but are able to draw all ages together in unity. We wanted these services to pay credence to the unity of the body while highlighting children.

In our planning process we focused on several additional matters: a special banner that pointed to the role of children in the church, a liturgy that included personal expressions of faith by children and families, children in liturgical and musical leadership, and sermon outlines that were appropriate to children.

We found this to be a fascinating and rich experience. The four services, with service notes, were printed in Reformed Worship 36.

Helps and Resources

It will be very helpful for all worship planners to have a variety of resources in either their personal library or the church library. Here are a few of the resources that we highly recommend on the matter of children and worship.

Brown, Carolyn, You Can Preach to the Kids, Too! Designing Sermons for Adults and Children, Abingdon Press, 1997.

Dawn, Marva J., Is It a Lost Cause? Having the Heart of God for the Church's Children, Eerdmans, 1997.

Ng, David, and Virginia Thomas, Children in the Worshiping Community, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1981.

Reformed Worship magazine theme issue on Children in Worship (June 1995).

Sandell, Elizabeth J., Including Children in Worship: A Planning Guide for Congregations, Augsburg Press, 1991.

Witvliet, John D., ed., A Child Shall Lead: Children in Worship, The Choristers Guild and the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship, 1999.

In our attempt to make the worship service and worship space friendly to the children, we also suggest that you consider using several other types of aids. A children's bulletin that includes activities and incorporates elements of the liturgy and the theme of the sermon will be an excellent tool. Sermon outlines that are written with children in mind can be included. Sanctuary visuals are particularly meaningful for children. A variety of postings appearing in the sanctuary will speak to their minds and hearts. Colorful banners and other sanctuary colors and symbols that reflect the season will also be helpful.