I’m a youth ministry guy.
I was an un-ordained youth ministry director before going to seminary for two years, an un-ordained youth and college ministries director for 3 years after seminary, and now as an ordained Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, I work primarily with youth and college students.
So when I started at my current call, and realized that I would be doing children’s ministry as well…you probably could have seen my jaw drop.
You see, I definitely have thoughts about children in worship. And I’ll be sharing some of those below, but I hope you’re not reading this article with high hopes for wonderfully creative ways at incorporating children into the worship life of a congregation. This is more of a confession: I’m someone who believes it’s important, but is very much still in the trenches of figuring out how to make it work and so I have more questions than answers.
Many of our churches today don’t do well at incorporating children and youth into worship services, aside from the annual “Children and Youth Sunday.” Kids talk. They like to squirm. They don’t like to sit still and be quiet like “they should.” So what do we do with them?
It doesn’t help that many of our churches have set into place structures that inhibit children from fully participating in the worshipping life of a congregation. If your congregation is a member of the Presbyterian Church (USA), we actually have a section in our Book of Order that states:
“Children bring special gifts to worship and grow in the faith through their regular inclusion and participation in the worship of the congregation…The session should ensure that regular programs of the church do not prevent children’s full participation with the whole congregation in worship, in Word and Sacrament, on the Lord’s Day” (W-3.1004).
Yet, how many of our churches offer their Sunday School programs for children during worship?
We also have congregations of people who aren’t sure what to do with children in worship, and others who are, frankly, annoyed at children being in worship. I’ll never forget when I heard someone in a church I served say that they didn’t want children in worship, because they’d raised plenty of their own children, had dealt with kids of those ages, and thus, didn’t need to be around them anymore. How do we begin to educate our congregation and share a vision of full inclusion in the worship life of our churches?
I feel like if you ask churches if they want children and youth involved and present in their services, some would answer with a resounding “YES.” But why? Do we want children in worship to make us feel like we are a young and vibrant church? Do we want children in worship to make visitors and guests to our church assume that we are a growing church?
And many of those churches that would say they do want children in worship aren’t making any changes to their worship services to make that a reality. It’s as if they want the children to sit there and act like mini-adults, little Mini-Me versions of older saints in the church. And you don’t have to be a children’s ministry expert to know that doesn’t work.
So where does all of this leave us? What steps can we and should we be taking to find new and creative ways to integrate children into the worshipping life of our congregations?
Kids aren’t stupid. Kids can get a lot more than we give them credit for. They can engage and listen and participate and interact in ways that can often surprise us. So we need to stop treating them like inferior creatures, and trust that kids of all ages have something to bring to worship, and have things to teach us.
Worship needs to change. We cannot continue with worship as we always have been doing it, and expect it to be something that kids and youth even want to be present for. That’s a ridiculous assumption. And so we need to be able to try new things, we need to be able to think of outside-the-box ideas and have the permission to try them.
We need to lose our fear of failure. Of course, everything we try is not going to work. It’s just not. We might try something that completely loses the kids’ attention. We might try a craft that gets glue and play-doh all over the sanctuary carpet. Whatever it is – we (the staff and the congregation) need to set aside a fear of failure and get on with the hard work of creating!
Congregations need to set aside nostalgia. Part of the problem of working toward having children more fully integrated into our worship services, and the effect that will have on what our services look like, lies with some members’ nostalgia and love of the way worship “has always been.” We need to respectfully help our members get rid of that desire for nostalgia. Sure, things were good “back then” – but most likely, those things aren’t working for us now, and in order to move forward toward a fully-inclusive way of worshipping together, things are going to look a bit different.
Hopefully – by taking some small steps toward inclusion, being creative, and being willing to live into a new reality of worship in our congregations, we might be able to find ways to incorporate children more fully.
Adam Walker Cleaveland is Associate Pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Ashland, Oregon. Adam blogs at Pomomusings.com, where he writes about youth ministry, theology and social media. You can find Adam online at adamwc.me, facebook.com/adamwc or on Twitter at @adamwc.