Including Kids in Worship

March 14th, 2011

“People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”—Mark 10:13-16 (NRSV).

We all know this story and these words of Jesus, and I suspect we all think fondly on them. What a kind, child-loving man Jesus was. But in practice—at least when it comes to worship—I suspect some of us are a bit more like the disciples, occasionally “stern” about the presence of children in worship, particularly when we perceive that presence as disrupting our own worship experience.

Having children in worship is an inherent paradox. On the one hand, if we take Jesus’ words seriously, our faith demands that we welcome children in our midst just as we would welcome Jesus. This isn’t a part of the levitical code that we can argue is irrelevant today, this isn’t something we can argue Paul just wrote on a bad day, it’s not an enigmatic passage from the latter half of Daniel—this is a point straight from the horse’s mouth, and it deserves our attention. Regardless of whether Jesus actually spoke the words, the fact that they appear in three of four gospels means that they were an important part of the early Christian tradition. It is not a Christian church that does not welcome children in its midst.

More than that, though, children are a vital part of our Christian faith and, consequently, of Christian worship. Children help us understand our faith better, and help model Christ for us in a way we might not have otherwise imagined. There is something innocent and pure about a child’s faith—or their understanding of God or religion, or however you choose to define it—that we adults can all learn from. Sure, kids may think their pastor is God, they may not understand the Trinity, they may be a little confused about why we drink “the blood of Christ” on Sundays (eww). But in terms of modeling the Christian spirit, children can all teach us a thing or two. In terms of approaching the world with awe and wonder, children are far beyond most of us in their appreciation of God’s creation. Have you ever watched a child as she spends an hour in a meadow picking flowers and watching bugs? With all of our liturgical preparation, hymns and prayer books, we would be hard pressed to recreate such an honest and grateful spirit of thanks for God’s work. Even if children don’t necessarily understand that their natural sense of play and wonder is a way of giving thanks to God, we adults can learn much from a child’s relationship to the divine.

And then, there’s that other hand. It’s not something we like to talk about, not something that is polite to say out loud (at least not to parents), but children in worship can seem like little more than a distraction. That is, it is sometimes—when the infant in the third row is screaming, for instance, or when the toddler in the row behind you is crunching his Cheerios too loudly—easier to think of children as detractors from worship rather than people especially blessed and affirmed by Jesus.

During worship, the time most likely to bore children and, consequently, for children to fidget and be louder, is during the sermon. Sermons are long, and they most often consist of a single person talking. The sermon time combines three difficult elements: it is a time when adults should be listening closely, a time when children are likely to lose interest in the service, and a time when usually only one person is speaking, which means a child’s sounds cannot be covered by music or shared congregational words (such as a spoken responsive psalm). Every church has a different approach to the issue of what to do with children during sermons. Some churches invite children to stay with their parents and listen to the adult-styled sermon. Other churches invite children to stay in the sanctuary, but try to make the sermon more child-friendly. Still other churches whisk the children off to another place at an appropriate point before the sermon—often after a short “time for children”—where a children’s sermon, Sunday school or another child-centered activity is taking place. The children are then deposited back in the service some time after the adult sermon is over. All of these approaches have their pros and cons, and the particular style in place in a congregation is often part of a tradition and therefore difficult to change. (This is a short way of saying I won’t presume to tell your church how to do it!) But it is worth noting that sermon time is a particular challenge for the issue of children in worship.

Let me give a personal example of both the paradox I referred to above and the particular issues surrounding sermon time. About a year ago, I was sitting in the back row of a Presbyterian church—though this could certainly happen anywhere—with my two children, who were then just a little under ages three and one. For children of almost three and about ten months, they were doing very well. An elderly woman sitting down the aisle from us smiled at the boys during the early part of the service, and was generally very friendly. Shortly after the adult sermon began, though, she caught my attention and said, “You’ll have to take them outside.” They hadn’t gotten appreciably louder, but her tipping point between the two poles—welcome of children and unadulterated worship experience—had been crossed, because she wanted to hear the sermon.

As worshiping adults, I dare say many of us have had this experience, from either the parent’s or the disturbed congregant’s side. There simply comes a point—usually having to do with a certain volume level—when we feel children become too distracting, and our Christian charity turns suddenly into glares, shifting uncomfortably in our seats, and occasionally saying something to the parents. (I include myself in this, and sometimes it is my own children!)

As church leaders, how do we address the need to welcome children (and their parents) into worship and still offer a meaningful worship experience for all involved? How can we foster an attitude that fully appreciates the gift of children in worship, regardless of their level of perceived distraction? Here are a few suggestions for striking the right balance in your church, so that you can have your liturgical cake and invite children to eat it too.

* The most important thing you can do is to set the tone for your church so everyone knows that children are a vital and important part of worship. It’s all well and good to tell parents who bring children to worship that their kids are welcome and to hand them a few crayons, but the point is lost if everyone in the congregation doesn’t hear that message frequently. If you are a pastor, preach about the importance of children. If you are a church music director, have everyone sing “Jesus Loves the Little Children” in worship. If you are a congregant or other church leader, tell others at coffee hour what a joy you find the sounds of peeping (or screaming) children during worship. Essentially, you have to create a culture of welcome to children in your church in order for children and their parents to be truly welcome.

* Next, imagine how your service can be made more child friendly. There are plenty of creative ways—from the beginning of a service to its close—to both include children and make them feel more welcome and engaged. Let children (maybe with their parents, but maybe not) serve as ushers, handing out bulletins, taking the offering and bringing communion elements forward. Let children take on various turns doing various liturgical tasks, in increasing importance and responsibility as they grow older. For instance, children can walk in the procession (carrying the cross or just merely walking along—children love to do this, and even the very young can participate), light candles or serve as acolytes, read scripture lessons, help with the prayers, and so on. The more children are in front of the congregation in positions of (quasi) leadership, the more likely your congregation is to welcome children. Some congregations invite children to gather around the font during a baptism or the communion table for the words of institution, witnessing to the mystery. Children have a natural sense of awe and wonder for the sacraments, and their example can enhance profoundly the worship experience of all. The point is to involve children in every aspect of worship, as often as possible.

* Think creatively within the space you have about how a special place for children might be created. The single best example I have seen of a church welcoming children into its midst at the physical level is St. Thomas Episcopal Church in New Haven, Connecticut (see below). The sanctuary at St. Thomas is a fairly traditional forward-facing sanctuary. However, there is one space on the left side of the sanctuary at the front, just in front of the altar. Traditionally, this seating would be used for choir or congregation, but St. Thomas has transformed this side into a space for children. One pew is placed against the wall, with about six feet of carpeted floor space in front of it, and finally a walled partition. This enclosed space is where families with small children are invited to sit, and toys and books are provided for any who need it. This unique arrangement means that children and their parents are at the front of the congregation, with a full view of the priests and altar, but slightly off to the side so as not to obstruct the view of other congregants. The children are not placed at the back, as in some churches (the church in which I was raised had a sound-proof “crying room” at the back of the sanctuary), but neither are they perceived as a distraction. Furthermore, because this is a place where several parents come to sit with their children, the kids tend to play together and therefore give their parents a good chance to actually experience the worship service. How can this success story be brought to your congregation? Can you move a few pews around (or out) and create a welcoming place for children and their parents? It may take some time, effort and creativity for the change, and it may even ruffle a few feathers (which is where creating the right culture around children at your church comes into play), but it will be worth it for both theological and liturgical reasons.

* Take advantage of liturgical resources intended to both entertain and teach children during worship. A good example of one resource—which is also free—is lectionary-based coloring sheets available at For a small fee, but more educationally-minded, is The Sunday Paper, which costs $85 per year or $70 per school year. Cokesbury offers a full line of children’s curricula. Two other web sites —Beulahland Enterprises and Text Week have other resources for children— Beulahland has many Sunday School-related products for purchase, and Text Week has free ideas in the “For Children” section at the bottom of each Sunday’s page. Sift through what is helpful and what is not in these sites, but many of these resources can guide you toward a solution that keeps children engaged, interested and amused while the adult sermon is being preached (whether they are out of or inside the sanctuary).

* Plan special services just for children. Services planned with children in mind are a particular way congregations can put their welcome of children into practice, and if you are creative about it a special children’s worship service can be planned for even the most unlikely of times. My spouse, the Reverend Jennifer Creswell, led a unique and successful Good Friday service specifically designed for children and their families, getting across the message of Good Friday in a way accessible to kids without making the service either judgmental or guilt-ridden. Services planned specifically for children make kids feel like they are a special part of the congregation, which indeed they are.

* The counterpart to the last tip is to be honest when a particular service is not for children. This tip should never apply to a regular Sunday morning worship service, which ought always to be accessible to and welcoming of children. However, there are services that are planned not only without children in mind, but specifically for adults to have a quieter, more meditative worship experience. Any service that requires long periods of silence or sustained prayer may be a time to either provide good nursery care or simply advertise the service for what it is. Peace vigils, services of healing or mourning, or contemplative prayer liturgies are all candidates for this tip.

Including children in Christian worship is both a theological necessity and a liturgical “joy-challenge”. When it is done well, communities of Jesus Christ are enriched by new energy, unexpected grace and radical welcome. Is that high-pitched scream part of the service? Absolutely. Even Jesus would say so.

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