Integrating Children Into Worship

November 15th, 2011

How do we help prepare children for the experience of worship? Should they have their own form of church until they are "ready for big church" (which usually means ready to be still and quiet for extended periods of time)?

I propose that children have an essential place in the corporate worship of the church; AND that the classroom-whether it be Sunday school classroom, Wednesday-night ministries, or even a form of children's church-can play a crucial role in the task of integrating children into the corporate worship of the believing community.

Guiding Theological Assumptions

What is going on in worship? This is a serious theological question. How it is answered reveals something about how we understand God and ourselves in relationship to God. What theological assumptions flow from the witness of Scripture and the practice of community in worship then?

Worship is formational.
Worship is not an informational experience where we go to passively receive information. Instead, we are called to be made over in the image of God through the experience. This is not something that we do merely by our own efforts. It is God's work in us that forms and shapes us which leads to the next theological assumption.

Worship is an experience of God's incarnational grace.
Our faith instructs us that God's grace is active throughout all of God's creation seeking to restore that which is broken and lost. This informs our practice of worship. We celebrate the fact that God is forming and leading this child even now to moments of decision and commitment.

Children are invited to worship.
How do we take to heart Jesus' admonishment to his disciples to let the children come to him? Children are not "junior" or "probationary" participants in the life of the church. That is to say, our work in children's ministry should not be informed by a belief that the "real life" of the church occurs at the adult level, and thus ministry with the children should take the shape of activities designed merely to occupy the children until full maturity can move them successfully into the life of the church.

These theological assumptions help serve as directional guides as we think of what can be done in the classroom to help integrate children into worship. The goal here is to see how the classroom can be an occasion to help prepare children for full inclusion in worship.

Guiding Educational Assumptions

How we understand the ministry of Christian education with children is shaped by our theological assumptions and leads to a particular type of education. Let's explore what assumptions might flow from the theological commitments highlighted prior.

Christian education is formational.
To understand what occurs in our educational ministries as being in the service of helping children experience a relationship with God means that we see the educational ministry as more than just the passing on of information. If we understand teaching as formational, then there are natural connections to our theological assumptions about worship.

Christian education addresses the whole leamer.
To proclaim, as we did previously, that God's grace is active in all of life and creation is to affirm the importance of all of our activity. That is, it respects our bodily existence and the fact that we learn and experience in multisensory ways. Thus, activities should seek to address multiple learning styles such as verbal, logical, visual, physical, musical, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. We do more than simply tell children about worship; we engage them in practices that attend to the whole of their being.

Play is serious work.
Too often we can succumb to the temptation to view children's play as nonserious and a leisure activity we serious adults no longer have the time for. Play is serious work which helps children negotiate the world and engage creatively in their surroundings. Playing is crucial and important in their formation. Imaginative play is not a flight from reality, but rather a creative engagement with reality where children can give expression to experiences and concepts in meaningful ways. Attending to the way children play can open up new insights for us as teachers.

Preparing for worship is a multigenerational ministry.
It is very possible that the educational and formational benefit will extend beyond the children involved and help educate the community in the depths of worship. Thus, what happens in the classroom is not a substitute for worship, but a supplement to it. Separation from the larger congregation in the classroom is for the purpose of more fully including children in the life and the ministry of the church. It is for the purpose of nurturing our children's spiritual gifts into the larger life of the church. One way all persons prepare for worship is to be open to the spiritual gifts of every person in the community.

Integrating Practices

Applying the theological and educational assumptions we have discussed, here are some suggestions for the classroom that may help to integrate children into the larger worship experience of the community.

Use the colors and symbols of the church season.
If your church follows the liturgical calendar, be sure to plan time to use the colors and symbols in class. As children see the colors and symbols around your church they will begin to recognize them and will see how they are used in church.

Attend to the importance of ritual and structure.
Structure and limits are essential for all of us. They give us a sense of place and identity. our worship has a structure and movement designed to open us to relationship with God. Think of the ways in which certain forms of intentional structure or classroom rituals can be incorporated into your class. Are children greeted at the door, or do they enter on their own? A ritual of meeting children at the door can help signal that they are entering into a special time and remind them that entering the door is entering a special space. Look for other ways in which transitions in class are made. How do you signal the move from one activity to another? How is music used in this transition? The goal is not to create an alternate worship, but to teach how ritual and structure move us to particular experiences.

Engage in the work of imaginative play.
Imagination is not a childlike version of something more sophisticated that we develop as adults. Instead, imagination is crucial to the worship of God given the immeasurable mystery of God's being. Encourage imaginative play. Perhaps during one class, you invite the class to play church. It could be very instructive to get a sense of their experience through their play. The experience of the children in engaging in this "work" may deepen their awareness of the act of corporate worship. Take time to talk about the different roles and activities people take part in during worship, let them role play.

Affirm children's contribution to worship.
Use occasions in the church's life to affirm children's contribution to worship. An upcoming baptism can be a teachable moment to deepen their worship. As a class, explore what their role is in helping the community nurture and care for this new little one. If you have the time and resources, a class could make bread for use in Communion, and participate in other tangible ways.

Take time to transition.
Many days it seems that it is all we can do to get to the end of the class in one piece. But being intentional about the end of class as a transition period can be meaningful. Allow time to put aside the work activity and put away materials. This closing time can be a time to slow down and help your children anticipate being picked up. Use of silence, music, or the blowing out of a candle can all be significant ritual signals to transition to worship.

Keep the congregation aware of what you are doing in classroom activities to integrate children more fully into the worship of the whole community. You might find that the community's worship is enhanced by the work of preparation you lead in the classroom.

comments powered by Disqus