When we invite children to join us in the congregation’s worship, we invite them to an activity unlike anything else they experience during the week. If we want them to worship rather than endure, we must identify what they need to be able to do, what repeated words they need to know, and what they need to understand about worship in order to participate fully.
What children need to be able to DO
They need to be able to sit and listen. That used to be a fairly common experience for children. But, today’s children, even in school, move quickly from one activity to the next, and most of their activities involve seeing or doing rather than sitting and listening. So, we need to help children learn how to sit and listen. We need to introduce them to the practice of quiet meditation in a fast-paced world.
They need to be able to read. Most worship services require the use of printed songs, bulletins, and Bibles. We need to help young readers learn how to use these printed tools. Following the words in songs printed with music has to be explained and then practiced. Finding chapters and verses in Bibles requires adult help for several years. Learning how to use a bulletin to figure out what comes next is easier with direction.
They need to know what to do when, that is, when to stand, sit, and kneel, and how to pass the offering plate, how to share the bread and cup, and how to pass the peace.
What children need to KNOW
There are responses, songs, and prayers that worshipers simply need to know by heart in order to participate easily in any congregation’s worship. Even though such words (or sources for them) are often printed in bulletins, worshipers worship most easily when they know the words by heart. The list of responses, songs, and prayers varies from congregation to congregation, including The Lord’s Prayer, the Doxology, the Kyrie, the Apostle’s Creed, the Gloria Patri, responses to the reading of scripture, sung responses used during the communion liturgy, and others. We need to help children learn to sing and say these important words with growing understanding.
What children need to UNDERSTAND
To truly participate in worship, children need a growing understanding of what worship is and what it means to be part of God’s worshiping people. They need to know that they belong and that their presence is valued by the community. They need to begin understanding the meaning of the parts of worship and the sacraments.
Remember that none of this happens by accident!
We cannot assume that if children sit with us in worship, they will one day know the Apostle’s Creed or sing the Kyrie from their hearts. We have to teach them. Congregations keep their baptismal promises to their children when they identify the needed worship skills and develop an intentional plan for teaching those skills to their children. The best plans include a variety of venues.
We can teach worship skills in church school. Many congregations and parents assume that we do. Therefore, it is important to look at your curriculum to be sure that it does indeed teach worship skills. Many do not. If your curriculum is not published by your denomination it is also important to be sure that any worship vocabulary and explanation fits your congregation.
Worship readiness courses can be planned for children at key times to prepare them for next steps in their participation in the congregation’s worship.
Young Children and Worship, by Sonya Stewart and Jerome Berryman, provides a very structured weekly worship experience to introduce three- to eight-year-olds to the flow of congregational worship and the experience of quiet participation in shared large group worship. Many congregations provide this for children for the year before they are expected to be regular participants in the congregation’s worship.
Children Worship! by Mary Jane Pierce Norton, offers sessions for younger elementary children to explore the parts of worship and begin learning some of the songs and prayers they must know by heart. This flexible curriculum can be used for a six- to thirteen-week class with children or with families. It is best used when children are already participating in worship so they have immediate opportunities to recognize what they have learned about worship and to practice their new skills.
There are also teachable moments when children move into a new level of participation—when children become regulars in the sanctuary, when they begin staying for the sermon, when a sibling is baptized, and so forth. At these times a special learning event may be helpful. But a one-page pastoral letter with a few very specific suggestions for parents may reach more people (see page 120 of You Can Preach To The Kids, Too! for a sample letter to parents when children begin staying for the sermon).
Alert worship planners also do a lot of on-the-job worship education during worship. This helps both the children and the adults who may be new to your worship. The shape of such education changes weekly and includes such things as
- Children’s sermons exploring different parts of worship: When possible, set these children’s sermons just before the part of worship they explore
- Verbal introductions to hymns: “Martin Luther wrote this hymn hiding in a castle from people who wanted to kill him. As you sing, think about times you have been scared and needed God’s protection.”
- Using familiar prayers in fresh ways: Use “forgive us trespasses as we forgive . . .” as the congregation’s response in responsive prayer of confession.
- Preaching on different parts of worship
If we want our children to participate meaningfully in the congregation’s worship, we must equip them with worship skills. When we explain and teach these skills and help children practice them, the children come to sanctuary able to participate more and more fully. They increasingly see themselves as members of God’s worshiping people.