13Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them. 14Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19.13-14)
I love having children in worship. I believe that children are important to a faith community not solely because they need to learn something from us, but we need to learn something from them as well. Having a faith community that loves children – their noises, outbursts, jittery movements, and all, is a wonderful gift to families as well as the whole community at large. This became very real to me when I had my own children. My son is what child development specialists would label “high-spirited.” I just called it “high-maintenance.” My son was a baby who could have benefitted from having an elephant as his mother. That way he could have stayed in the womb for almost 2 years versus a typical nine months. Let’s just say he was not ready to be born. And after he was born, he stuck to me for two years. This made going back to work very difficult. Because he refused to go to the church nursery, I would often preach with him on my back or in a sling. As he grew older, he would play dinosaurs at my feet or hug my leg as I tried to preach the Word.
One day I’ll never forget . . . in the middle of preaching, I can feel my son tugging at my robe trying to get my attention. Apparently, he was having problems connecting a dinosaur puzzle together. At first, I tried ignoring him, but that just made him tug harder. I then briefly paused and said, “Mommy is preaching. Please wait until mommy is finished.” In which, he decided to fling his body on the floor, kicking and screaming. If this happened at home, I would know what to do, but when all the eyes of the congregation are watching you AND you have a microphone clipped to your lapel, it is hard to think clearly. Well, like any mother or woman for that matter would do, I decided to multi-task. I preached and disciplined my son at the same time. (Pointing to my son) “If you don’t get up by the count of three . . . ” (to the congregation) “And God said . . . ” (to my son) “ONE, TWO, . . . ” (back to the congregation) “anyway, God said . . . ” (back to my son with glaring eyes) “THREE.” Well, it wasn’t a highlight in my pastor-ship, but what is a mother to do. Moments like these made me ever grateful that my faith community expressed understanding, patience, graciousness, and empathy. I don’t know if this response from my church would have been prevalent if we didn’t spend a lot of time shifting our thinking and intentionally making our worship space a welcoming environment for children.
In a previous post, I spoke about the importance of creating space for change to happen. Change takes a long time. It takes a long time to shift from “children are to be seen and not heard” to “we love the noises of children.” However, this shift needed to happen if we wanted to be relevant in our community. St. John’s sits in a neighborhood surrounded by young families. On any given day, you see mothers with babies in strollers, toddlers skipping alongside their parents, and children walking home from school. Our Outreach Strategy Team (formed to evaluate and implement a plan for St. John’s to reach out to the community) observed and evaluated how the way we worshipped was welcoming and a hindrance to young families in the area. Some immediate observations and changes were:
- the location of the nursery – It was previously located below the sanctuary and was nearly impossible to explain to parents where it was (“go down the stairs, take a right, go straight, etc.”) No parent, especially one new to the church, is going to feel comfortable being that far away from their child, even if you give them a beeper. So we moved the nursery to the chapel located right next to the sanctuary, where parents could go in and out during worship to check on their child.
- food & drinks – Our sanctuary is beautiful – high ceilings and wooden beams, old architectural nuances, and wonderful stained glass windows. You can check it out in the movie, “So I Married an Axe Murderer” with Mike Myers. To preserve a sanctuary like this, most churches have a “no food & drinks” policy, but for any parent with children, it is an unwelcoming policy. If you want children, then you have to accept the sippy cups, Goldfish crackers, and Cheerios too. Not to mention coffee for the parents.
- seating & space – Another obstacle to young families is space, particularly space big enough to fit a stroller through. Now, we could have provided stroller parking like amusement parks do, but any parent knows that strollers hold more than just babies. They hold the diaper bag, the sippy cups, the snacks, the extra clothes, the toys, and anything else you can squeeze in there. And if the child falls asleep (even in the midst of loud organ music) then it doubles as a bed. We decided to remove five back pews to allow for space – not only for strollers to move about but also crawling babies.
- interaction – If children aren’t in Sunday School or the nursery, then they are with the parents. It is a wonderful opportunity for the faith community to examine ways to worship intergenerationally. It is challenging for parents to focus solely on the preacher, the music, or the prayers. One eye is always on the child while the other is on the hymn book or the pastor. I set up throughout our sanctuary a variety of places and activities for families to sit so that their kids can engage in worship at their own pace and interest. Currently, we have a coloring table with coloring sheets corresponding to the lectionary; big pillows to lay on to read bible stories or play with stuffed animals & puppets; and a craft corner with a weekly themed lesson called COLOR, CRAFT, & PRAY in which parents are given simple instructions to guide their child through. More recently, we are experimenting with more conversation-type sermons that are more intergenerational.
- mentality – all the physical and logistical changes can be made, but if we as a faith community do not provide a welcoming presence than we are not being authentic to the changes we are making. The biggest hurdle of change is reprogramming our thinking about what is acceptable behavior in worship. By no means do I mean that there should be no boundaries set with having children in worship. It is a balance of welcoming the noises and movement they bring as well as teaching them appropriate respect for others in worship.
Right now, we are moving on to the next phase of making our worship more intergenerational which I will share in a future post. Some of this includes interactive prayer stations, redesigning the seating of the sanctuary, revamping worship and liturgy, and converting some broken pews into an interactive station for preschoolers.
Having children in worship challenges us to examine how we engage in worship, our faith, and with each other. They remind us that there isn’t a right way or one way to worship. They remind us to be open to the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. They remind us that God is present in the messy-ness of our lives. They give us opportunity to reexamine the meaning of sacred and holy. They provide us lots of opportunities to exercise patience, grace, love, forgiveness, and generosity. They remind us to worship with our heart as well as our head. They give us opportunity to broaden our acceptance of those who are different from us and challenge us.
Lately, I’ve been hearing the phrase said to young ones, “You are NOT the future of the church, you are the present of the church.” And yet we don’t value their presence, thoughts, and gifts. When Jesus says to the disciples to let the children come, he is modeling how we should include children – with open arms.