The Experiment: Something New in Worship

July 31st, 2011

We wanted to give something a try. Many of us in the church—staff, clergy, and parents—felt that we needed to do more for children in worship. After many years of nudging, we finally had a children’s message at the 11:00 a.m. traditional service in the sanctuary. This was a nice first step. Our church is very traditional, and changes, of any kind, to worship do not come easy. The decision to add the children’s message had been put off many times out of anxiety for how some of our members would react. As it turns out, it was a whole lot of worrying over very little. The children responded very well and rushed down to the front of the sanctuary by the dozens (it’s not unusual for us to have 70–80 children come to the front) each Sunday. And our adult members have been very supportive.

But as I said, many of us considered this a good “first step.” We felt that the children deserved and needed more than just a few minutes devoted to them. Was there a way to make the entire worship service more inviting, more appealing for children? Are children’s worship needs any less important than those of the adults?

We wanted to launch a new, family-oriented service, in which children could worship alongside their parents without getting bored or being sent out halfway through the service. But as anyone who has been in ministry knows, introducing something new is tricky business. We considered it an experiment, something we would try and test and tweak--and seek lots of feedback from the congregation.

So one summer Sunday, after months of planning, research, and meetings with focus groups, we held a family service in the sanctuary. Reactions were mixed. There were some who truly enjoyed the service. And there were also those who were very upset and threatened to leave the church if we ever did it again.

One of the most important and difficult things we did was put out a written survey for people to express their opinions. And when you ask for opinions, wow, are you ever going to get them! It was estimated that, of all the people present in worship that morning, 33% turned in completed surveys. That may not seem like a lot, but in the world of surveys, it’s huge. Some people were passionate in their opinion that we should not change the traditional worship service that they love. Others were passionate that this kind of service represented a major step for us if we wanted to remain relevant in the twenty-first century. And while the majority had favorable things to say about the service, we certainly had not received a “mandate from the masses” to hold a weekly family-style service.

What the surveys told us was that there was a great deal of interest in a family service, but not every week. We knew that if we had a family service each week, many adults would have to choose between attending worship with their children and attending a Sunday school class in which they may have participated for many years. We felt it very important for parents to attend worship with their children as often as possible, so we wanted to take this difficult choice out of the equation.

We decided to offer a family service once each month—the first Sunday, so it would be easy to remember. The service would take place in our chapel, a space available from 9:30–10:30 A.M., that would keep us from disrupting any already-existent traditional services in the sanctuary. We then went to the adult Sunday schools where the majority of the children’s parents attended and asked if they would be willing to forego Sunday school once a month to participate in worship with their children. They all agreed!

What started as an experiment has now become one of our church’s biggest success stories. When we started to hold Children First services, the chapel would be half full. Now we routinely pack the space, and have even had several “standing room only” services. We are currently looking for a larger space to accommodate our family service and the community it has helped to foster. This is a very good second step. But in my opinion, our work isn’t done. I still believe that family worship should occur on a weekly basis. And it is my hope that the energy, enthusiasm, and goodwill generated by our monthly Children First services will inspire our church to take that next great step together as a true family.

For more on the philosophy behind and planning of family-oriented worship, see Mark's article, Children First.

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