A family walks into a church one Sunday morning. The children are dropped off at the children’s wing where they are further divided into classes by age. The parents go to adult Sunday school and then to worship. Three hours later that same family emerges from the church having spent some very important time there, just not with each other.
Our church had followed this time-worn template for years—generations actually—and it left many of us feeling that our faith experience was somehow incomplete. A few of us started asking that venerable question of the two-year-old, “Why?”
“Why are so many things in our church, from Sunday school classes to music groups to retreats, divided according to age?”
“Why do families, who see each other so little during the busyness of the week, see even less of each other in church?”
“Why don’t we focus more attention on the worship needs of children?”
“Why can’t we have a worship experience that reaches the whole family?”
And then, as so often happens during times of searching, “Why” turned into “What if?”—“What if we created that worship experience?”
This was the beginning of Children First, a worship experience designed specifically for children and their families. We started with a focus on elementary-aged children, but now see dozens of children between the ages of one and four at every service as well. There are also plenty of parents, grandparents, and teachers in attendance, so our age-range is wide indeed. But, as the name implies, we always focus on the children first.
Children First is 40-45 minutes long and takes place the first Sunday of each month. 40-45 minutes gives us enough time to really dive into the theme, while leaving our families wanting more, rather than less. And holding each service on the first Sunday of the month makes it much easier for families to remember. Offering the services monthly, rather than weekly, allows parents who normally attend 9:30 am Sunday school to stay connected with their classes without feeling that they must choose one over the other.
Each month, Children First focuses on a different theme that is relevant to the lives of children and families (for example, Love, Thankfulness, Prayer, Anger Management, and many others) and uses a multisensory, multidimensional approach to reinforce the theme. At any given service, one might experience the day’s theme through art, drama, hymns, world drumming, body percussion, puppetry, sign language, poetry, science, current events, and dance. Scripture, song, and prayer are a part of every service.
Children First offers children a chance to serve in leadership roles. Children serve as ushers, greeters, acolytes, musicians, liturgists, dancers, sign language interpreters, artists, puppeteers, and guest speakers. It is the role of the adults to facilitate, coach, and let the children shine.
Children love the energy, the music, the physical prayers, and interactive Bible stories…and so do the grown-ups. Before the first service, many adults worried that a roomful of children wouldn’t be able to make it through a 45-minute worship service. But when each aspect of worship is carefully planned with the children in mind, 45 minutes goes by in the blink of an eye. Believe it or not, silent reflection time is an important part of every Children First service. Over 100 children can, and do, get very quiet during those times.
One of the reasons Children First has received such strong parental support is that we include many traditional liturgical elements, such as a Gloria Patri, Doxology, Affirmation of Faith, and the Lord’s Prayer in each service. Children First brings many different styles together successfully. Our children haven’t yet learned that classical music is “boring” or that guitars “dumb down” worship. And we aren’t about to tell them. Children are so wonderfully open, and their openness inspires the adults around. In Children First a bouncy song with hand motions can be followed by a centuries-old hymn. A puppet sketch can be followed by an Affirmation of Faith.
Children First is intended to be enjoyable and meaningful. We want worship to be a positive experience for our children right now—in the present. Our hope is that when our children are old enough to choose for themselves, they will want worship to be a major part of their lives.
Our “what-ifs” birthed a new reality: A family walks into a church one Sunday morning. Later that same family emerges from the church having spent some very important time there—together.