I am a firm believer in families worshipping together. As someone who strongly believes that children can understand deep truth, and that the Word of God can work powerfully in a child's heart when a child is exposed to it, I want to do all I can to expose children to depth. I believe that there are times to teach directly to a specific age group (i.e. Sunday School) but I also think God can move through years of exposure to the deep things of God. I have seen my own children change from preschoolers saying, "The church service is too long. The sermon is boring." to young women who are dissatisfied with "fluffy" sermons because they have been exposed to deep truth at Bethlehem. I question that it is beneficial in the long term, to isolate children into a separate room for "children's church". I also have seen that something does not have to be "cute" or "silly" or "active" in order for a child to learn from it. In fact, I think many gimmicks which modern educators use detract from the learning experience for children rather than add to it.
However, in our presentation of the deep things of God, and in making our own worship visible to our children, I think we can take intentional steps to nurture the next generation. There are ways we can make these experiences more meaningful to children without sacrificing what adults value. Although it is mainly the responsibility of parents to make the worship experience meaningful for their children1, there are some things the pastoral staff and church body can do to assist parents in this responsibility.
Be consciously aware that there are children present.
1. Include them through comments.
When we are consciously aware of the presence of someone else, we sometimes make intentional efforts to include them. For example, we have probably all been in the situation of being a newcomer among a group of friends that have known each other for years. When they start talking about shared experiences, it is natural to feel on the "outside". However, once in awhile when in that situation, I have encountered the rare, sensitive person who will pause in the conversation to include me by giving me some background information so that I can follow the conversation and not feel excluded. It is not necessary to comment often, just the occasional comment makes one feel, "This gathering is for me too". Pastor John has at times done this from the pulpit (i.e. defining a difficult word for the children, calling the children's attention to something-- "Kids, if you are drawing pictures of the sermon..." or "Children, listen to this; it is really important...") This need not be frequent so that it is disruptive, but an occasional comment remembering children is helpful.
I think when we notice children in this way, not only do they feel included but they often work a little harder at understanding what is going on. Situations in which the conversation is "over our heads" tend to be boring, and the average person just tunes out of the conversation. However, I have been in those situations in which a person has taken the time to challenge me and I have found myself rise to the situation. For example, when my husband and another man are discussing a car problem (VERY BORING) and one of them has made the effort to explain the function of a car part to me. At that point, I have felt myself challenged to try to understand what they are talking about; "After all, if they think I might be able to follow the conversation, maybe I can." I have found myself not only becoming more interested, but have even learned a little.
Children love challenges and they love it when someone thinks they can do something that seems hard. Much of the content of the sermons are way over the children's heads, but all of it isn't and if a child is challenged to listen and to try to understand, he will glean truth from the sermon.
Another way of including children through our comments is by not commenting on some things. If we are aware that children are present, we will at times refrain from saying some things or we will say things in a more delicate manner. Just as women's conversation changes a little bit-- there are things we don't say-- when men are present and vice versa, so we should be careful about who is in our congregation on Sunday morning. I have once in awhile cringed at explicit statements regarding sexual situations, considering the effect on our younger members. Although this topic need not be avoided, we should delicately approach it when children are present because preserving the innocence of young children is important.
It is helpful for us at all times, as much as possible to thoughtfully be aware of who is in the congregation on a given Sunday. (i.e. On Mother’s Day being conscious that infertile couples and those who have experienced miscarriages are in the congregation as well as mothers. ) So just as we remember those with special situations, we should remember children.
2.Include children by inviting them to participate when appropriate.
Some suggestions of places where we can include children more are:
- Commissionings-- When we huddle around missionaries, we could specifically invite the children to come forward and pray-- especially if the missionary family has children.
- Special services-- Including children as readers for the Christmas Eve service is a good model for appropriate ways in which to use children to minister to others in the worship service. Occasionally, children have been involved in leading worship with their families. There is an appropriate way to include children without making things appear "cute" but rather meaningful. There may be other occasions in which we can include some of our older children in passing the collection place, passing out or collecting things, etc.
- Testimonies—Mid-week gathering testimonies could occasionally include a testimony from a child. They may need to be coached a bit. David visited a family the night of the death of the father’s father. He left the home marveling at the joy the grade-school-aged daughter felt that her grandpa was in heaven. She spoke deep truths and shared scripture. Wouldn't it be wonderful for the body of believers to hear this child's perspective of God's faithfulness?
- On occasion when we invite people to the front for prayer, we could also mention that we would love to pray for the children who have a need as well. 5. Fighter verses-- On occasion, we should ask for a child to say the Fighter Verse in the church service.
3. Accommodate children when appropriate.
We provide hearing devices for the hard of hearing, we ask our congregation not to use perfume during one service so that those with allergies can worship comfortably, we provide large print bulletins, and make other accommodations for some people. Just as we think to alter things when we are aware of the presence of special needs people in our group, we need to at times alter things for children. We invite children to come forward so they can see baptisms. A reality that we all experience is that when we cannot see the person preaching or singing, it is harder for us to listen to them. Children have the same difficulty. Parents can put young children on their laps, or can try to seat their child next to the aisle. Young children should be allowed to stand on the pew when the congregation is standing.
It might be helpful as well to reserve some back pews for parents who are trying to train their young children to sit in the worship service. This would make it easier for the parent to slip out of the service with the child when necessary.
One consideration for children in worship has been to provide church notebooks so that children can learn to listen more attentively and learn to take notes.
Cultivate a vision for the privilege and responsibility we have to nurture the faith of children through including them in the worship service.
We have a wonderful privilege and a sobering responsibility for nurturing the faith of the next generation. One way in which we can do that is through the worship service. A community of adult believers should be an example to children of joy in worship, eagerness to hear the word of God, agreement in prayer, and encouragement to the body. All these things can be observed by children during the church service. The opposite could be observed as well. So one way we can fan the flame of faith in children is to fan the flame in ourselves and in each other.
Children should be seen as an addition to the worship service, not a subtraction. If adults recognize their God-given faith-nurturing role, they will be pleased for the inclusion of children in the church service. This means that they will help children find Bible passages in their Bibles. Adults can follow the words in a hymn or worship song with their fingers to help children read the words and focus. Wiggling children will not be seen as annoyances but as the next generation learning how to worship their God. When children misbehave during the church service, adults should not be irritated, but pray for the children and for their parents.
This attitude and vision can be cultivated by a staff that believes that it is a privilege and a responsibility to nurture the faith of children and that part of that nurturing process is including them in the church service.
Recognize that children learn differently than adults and are more limited than adults, and make deliberate attempts to reach them without catering to them.
Attention to simple measures can help children pay attention and participate in the church service. This may mean printing the words to songs a little larger in the bulletin so they can be easily read. It could mean defining difficult words or pairing a difficult word with a simple synonym during the sermon. Perhaps showing a visual when appropriate, or making appropriate gestures to help children understand difficult thoughts would be helpful. It may mean explaining something to the children or giving an illustration.
When possible have worship information available to parents before services.
Churches could make the church bulletin available before the church service via e-mail or on a web site. Parents could then talk through the service and practice the hymns or worship songs with their children before the service. They could also read through the sermon text and discuss it with their children.