Children's Church: Gateway, Not Detour

January 25th, 2011

Worship is the heart of the congregation. Members of the community gather in sacred space to retell the Story that shapes their lives and to celebrate who they are with important liturgies and rituals. It is hard to imagine any adult being a full member of a congregation without regularly worshipping with that congregation. The same is true for children. Only in the sanctuary can children hear and recognize Bible stories as treasures of the entire congregation, learn and be shaped by the liturgies and rituals that are so important to people of all ages, and see themselves as full members of God’s people. Children need to be in the sanctuary as early and regularly as possible.

The currently popular children’s church services in which elementary-aged children are separated from the congregation for worship work against this. Children who are welcomed to the sanctuary view worship as a life-long activity into which they will grow. But children’s church participants often see these segregated worship experiences as age group activities they will outgrow. All too often children’s church is not even worship but a second hour of Sunday school, an activity hour, even free play time.

The only child-centered reason for sending children from the sanctuary is to equip them to reenter it with additional understanding and skills for worship. Nurseries for children three years old and younger are often in order. But once children turn four or five, it is time to lead them toward the sanctuary. During the elementary years children are turned outward learning about the larger world and wanting to become full-functioning actors in it. In adolescence their interest turns to themselves and their friends. Thus the elementary years are a window of opportunity for intentionally welcoming children into the sanctuary.

That said, there are three models of children’s church that do lead children toward the sanctuary.

Young Children and Worship, by Sonya Stewart and Jerome Berryman, offers a highly structured, Montessori based worship introduction for three to seven year olds. It is designed

- to introduce children to the possibility of being in a group of people without interacting with them directly,

- to explore liturgy and ritual, and

- to learn reverent silence.

Children are quietly welcomed to a special room set aside for this experience only. Each week they walk through a pattern of activities in which they sit and listen and work entirely on their own beside other children and adults. A scripture text is carefully and beautifully presented using small figures. Each child has a chance to respond using art materials of his or her choice. A simple feast is celebrated in a patterned manner. After a year or two in this program children move into the sanctuary with their parents aware of the expectations and possibilities offered there.

This form of worship education requires dedicated space and a collection of small wooden figures and props for storytelling. The figures can be purchased or made by woodworkers in the congregation. Setting up for the first year takes time and serious adult work. The weekly worship services require three or four adults who fully understand the model and participate regularly. (Many adults report that they worship as fully with the children in this pattern as they do in the sanctuary.)

Welcome to the Sanctuary Classes are six to twelve week courses designed to teach younger elementary children the parts of worship followed in the sanctuary. In these classes children

- explore the significance of what happens in worship,

- learn how to use a hymn book, Bible and bulletin in worship,

- learn some of the repeated parts of worship (doxology, prayer of confession, etc), and

- are introduced to the logistics and the meaning of the sacraments.

Such courses are often scheduled during worship so that children and their leaders can move in and out of the sanctuary to experience in the sanctuary what they study in the classroom. Some worship planners see that the children’s worship focus is demonstrated in a child friendly way in the sanctuary.

Children, Worship!, by Mary Jane Pierce Norton, is one of the best of these curricula. Though it is Methodist based, most protestant congregations can easily adapt it to the vocabulary and liturgies of their denomination.

A Children’s Version of the Sanctuary Service at its best is a replica of the sanctuary liturgy with all parts being presented in child friendly ways and with children involved in the leadership as much as possible. When pastors and staff are involved in leadership, choirs of all ages take turns singing, and the quality of the experience is similar to that in the sanctuary, children learn the ways of worshipping by worshipping with leaders who are focused on their worship and learning experiences. When the quality of the service is “second rate” children quickly realize that this is not “real” worship and often begin acting accordingly.

There are numerous children’s church plan books. Most of them do not follow the liturgy of the sanctuary and tend toward “the cute.” But, many of them do include ideas that can be adapted for use in this setting. Similarly, I wrote the Forbid Them Not series to help worship leaders include children in the congregation’s worship in the sanctuary. For each Sunday there is commentary from a child’s point of view on the day’s lectionary texts, vocabulary children tend to misunderstand, hymns children can sing at least parts of, and suggestions for both liturgy and sermon illustrations that are child-inclusive. Many people report using this series in planning children’s service. Adapting is the key.

Two warnings: Parents looking for a “one hour Sunday morning” often treat these services as replacements for Church School for their children and freedom to worship on their own. Therefore, it is essential that the congregation own a vision about the relationship between church school and children’s church. Since these same parents often want to extend this arrangement as long as possible offering their children as “helpers” after they have aged out of the program, firm congregational commitments to getting the children back in the sanctuary are also essential.

All three of these models are as strong as the congregation’s shared vision. Parents and non-parents who share the vision of children growing up worshipping with the congregation and understanding the goals of the congregation’s programs to raise worshipping children are able to welcome the children as they take their places among God’s people in the sanctuary.

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