Methodist House Churches: Intergenerational worship and children

September 20th, 2018

The following article is part five of a ten-part series exploring all aspects of organizing, worshipping, and growing as a house church community. Read the previous parts here.

What Do We Do With The Kids?

Unless your house church is positively huge, what generally gets called “the children’s program” in a conventional church doesn’t exist. There is no education building and there are no paid staff to whisk the kids away to Children’s Church while the grown-ups do their thing. And, because of the interactive nature of house churches (see my last blog post on House Church Homiletics), a “Children’s Moment” or “Children’s Sermon” where kids give their candid input is neither novel nor remarkable.

Many years ago, after reading John Westerhoff’s 1976 book Will Our Children Have Faith?, I resolved that I would not be complicit in the thin form of Christian education that pervades the church. Westerhoff lamented that the church mimicked our secular, industrial-age educational model by creating age-level ministries for Sunday school, and that instead of their faith being formed by discipling communities, they were expected to do Bible word-searches and cheesy crafts. Even worse is the implicit philosophy of individualistic, hierarchical education. Our secular educational system has evolved to create workers for employers, not form citizens for society. Church education, by copying this model, implicitly teaches an individualistic faith. Faith formation, he argued, was more likely to come from being surrounded by adults in an intergenerational community who did acts of service and justice together. That’s what I hope to create in our organically-reproducing house churches.

But while I’d like to wax rhapsodic about intergenerational worship with children in house churches, the fact is it’s hit-or-miss. How we incorporate children in worship, or not, depends largely on the choices of each particular house church. Sometimes the demographics of a house church are just weird: we may have an infant and two pre-teens, or half-a-dozen third graders, or stair-step siblings from one family and an only child from another. Our strategy for helping them grow spiritually is a mix of standard discipleship practices, material we create or borrow, and improv.

For house churches with toddlers and younger, we pay a childcare worker to keep them in another room, using a volunteer adult and a baby monitor to maintain Safe Sanctuary standards. For kindergarten through third grade, we have an adult volunteer share the Bible story and have discussion and crafts around the text for the day. For kids in fourth-or-fifth grade or higher elementary grades, we encourage them to be in worship. They might draw or color during the service on the floor or at a nearby table. But they can and do speak up during worship. Pre-teen and teenage students participate in worship as adults.

Incorporating Elementary Students in Worship

In one of our first houses which had a number of second- and third-graders, we introduced them to participation in worship by inviting them to set the coffee table, which was our communion table. At the beginning of worship, they brought in a table runner, a chalice of juice, the patten with the bread, an electric candle (we learned early on not to use actual fire), and a vase with flowers. We could add tableware or subtract it based on the number of kids we had. They also were eager to help with communion. The biggest problem was (and continues to be) preventing squabbles over whose turn it is to serve as helper.

I remember the first time I asked for volunteers to read scripture or lead liturgy and one of our early readers piped up. She read like a pro. I love having children lead the liturgy. Moreover, everyone in the room is pulling for them to succeed; nobody is annoyed when they stumble over words, or if they have to be reminded to speak clearly and loudly. We have a sense that we are all learners and leaders.

At this particular house church, we do send the children downstairs during the message with an adult volunteer who presents to them a similar message and sometimes does a particular craft or multisensory project. This also allows adults to have more adult conversation around the text, especially if it involves something more controversial or disturbing.

Singing remains popular with the kids. Although one of our more adult-oriented house churches opts out of singing entirely (having come from being “done” with church), the children in other house churches learn the simple songs that have become part of our standard repertoire. Some of these include justice and protest songs. After one particular turbulent election in our state, some parents told me about how their kids were singing “I'm Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table” in the backseat of their car while tears streamed down the parents’ faces. They shared that’s when they knew that the way we were doing church was affecting their children in a way they hadn’t experienced before.

Teenage Students

We are blessed to be part of a cooperative youth ministry shared with like-minded progressive churches. I think this youth ministry is essential in order for there to be more time with non-parental adult mentors, especially from other churches. In this way they get to see that our house churches are part of a broader network, that there are many ways of doing church, and that as they grow they can find a faith home in any number of contexts.

It’s also important, since we have a number of LGBTQ teens, that they feel welcome to be in this intimate Christian community and to have a voice. Their faith experience and questions are part of the conversational homiletic that informs our worship practice. Caitlin Ryan of the Family Acceptance Project has shared with faith communities how important it is for long-term well-being for LGBTQ kids to be surrounded with a supportive, nurturing community. Even those who have rejected the church altogether (because of the toxic religious culture we live in) know that their parents are part of an accepting community and that there is an extended network of adults who value them.

Adults of Many Generations

When I began church planting, Jim Griffith shared with us the age distribution rule: Most of our church folks would be ten years younger and five years older than the church planter. Our experience validates this rule. He suggested that this is because people in and just below the church planter’s age cohort see the pastor as a “big sibling.” Those who are just a little older tend not to value the pastor’s leadership as much, and those much younger tend to see the pastor as an out-of-touch authority figure.

But while our averages hang around that ten-and-five year bell curve, we have a healthy population of folks much younger and much older. We have retirees as well as college students. This diverse age distribution is, I think, due to the family feel of our house churches. Because we do not have age-level ministries, we are not reinforcing the cultural prejudice that only people in our generation are worth listening to. While many churches capitalize on developing affinity groups, we are deliberately trying to break down the barriers between generations by rejecting narrow notions of who our peers are.

For this reason, we’re currently using the book Manna and Mercy, by Daniel Erlander, as a church-wide curriculum. I’ve encouraged our adults to color this illustrated book with crayons and colored pencils during worship while we have “Story Time.” This is a simple but profound re-telling of the Bible story, and it gives adults a chance to engage other senses. In Protestant worship, our worship practices can become very “talky and thinky,” and adults can forget that there are other ways to express their faith.

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