(This is part of our Children in Worship series.)
I love having children present in worship. It is sometimes louder and more chaotic. Yes, there are wiggles and thumps, a toy falls to the ground and clatters, an unexpected cry breaks out. But the Holy Spirit also moves in our children and teaches all of us if we are willing to follow its lead. One of my favorite lines calls the noise of children in worship “the heartbeat of the church.” The wiggles and giggles children bring to worship are life-giving traits.
What if instead of focusing on the challenges presented when children are in worship with us, we choose to focus on the life-giving traits and the gifts they bring? Including children in our corporate worship is not only doing what Jesus did in welcoming the children; it is not only about teaching our children so that they will learn how to be part of a worshiping community… someday. It is about allowing them to BE a part of the worshiping community today, offering their gifts alongside the rest of us.
I’ll offer some ways to intentionally include children in your worshiping community, whether it’s just for the summer or all year long. Some of these may work well for your congregation, while others may not be the right choice. But I’ll warn you: The breath of the Spirit may blow through your congregation if you are willing to try something new.
- Pew Art: Do you have something in the pew rack and/or bulletin that clearly states children and their parents are welcome in worship? Are there reminders for other worshipers that we are all called to be hospitable? A “Pew Art” card in the pew rack can serve two purposes: one side has a note from church leaders offering a comforting word for parents, while also reminding long-time church members how important it is to welcome children; the other side is blank except for “Pew Art” at the top. Create a “Pew Art” bulletin board somewhere near the worship space to display the cards. You may find illustrations from the Bible story, written prayers, and drawings related to the season of the church.
- Bulletin Artwork: This is a concrete way to include the gifts children offer in worship. We created a handout for children to draw artwork within a designated box; we scan the artwork, copy and paste it into our bulletin. We decided to commit to do this a certain number of times throughout the year as a way to highlight the gifts our children bring. We even have a growing stash of artwork on hand to choose one that fits best with any given Sunday.
- Liturgists: This is not a role reserved for adults, or even older youth. As soon as children can read, they may be ready to help lead in worship as a liturgist. Sometimes, it means we need to use simpler words (or draw small pictures to help, like two presents above the word “presence”), but having a 6-year old lead the people of God in the Call to Worship is inspiring, uplifting, and moving. Start with small parts, and as the children grow and learn, they may be ready to take on more.
- Acolytes: Many churches have children leading worship as acolytes, bringing in the elements of worship: God’s Word, the Light, and the Water. But do your acolytes know what they are doing and why it matters? Do they understand themselves to be worship leaders? Consider offering a workshop or class each year to orient the children to the role. They can learn more about worship, what it means to be a worship leader, why they wear a robe/alb, and why we carry the water and the light into worship each week.
- Choirs: Children’s choirs are a delight in many churches, but again, do the children understand their role as a worship leader? Consider having the children and adults sing together once or twice a year. Consider having an intergenerational choir where families can participate together. Or include a child or two in an adult bell choir with simple parts.
- Worship Space: Consider your worship space. When a child walks in, is it immediately obvious that s/he is welcome? Are there worship bags and/or children’s bulletins at the child’s eye level? Are there children helping to greet and usher? Consider having materials available for children to be engaged in worship and better able to participate: a shelf of children’s books, bags with paper, crayons, & markers, stuffed animals, small craft bags, etc. Consider including rocking chairs somewhere in the worship space for parents with small children to remain with the congregation while attending to a child.
- Sacraments: Are children welcome to celebrate the sacraments in your church? If so, do they have a special role in baptism or communion? Consider offering classes for children (and their parents) to help them learn more about the sacraments and understand why we do what we do. When someone is baptized, give the children a front row seat and include them in the welcome after the baptism. Children can say “Welcome to the family” to the newly baptized member. Include children in the communion liturgy, maybe even having a child read the prayer following communion every time the sacrament is celebrated.
- Choosing Liturgy and Music: If we actually want children to participate in worship, then we have to be thinking about them the entire time we plan the service and work on the bulletin. I am not suggesting that we take everything down to the level of a Kindergartener, but we can find a few places to be intentionally more inclusive. During a Call to Worship or prayer, choose a simple, repetitive response that even non-readers could hear and repeat. Especially in the opening parts of worship when children may be more attentive, choose simpler words and prayers. Think about the music: Which hymns do you want children to learn? Which hymns are most child-friendly? We’ve been singing “Where Children Belong” by James Ritchie (1999, Abingdon Press), which is #2233 in Sing the Faith, each week in worship. It’s a simple song that reminds children and adults where children do indeed belong: “Welcomed as part of the worshiping throng.”
- Children’s Sabbath: While I do believe children should be included in worship year-round, celebrating a children’s Sabbath once or twice a year can also be a really meaningful experience, and it offers ways to pray for and serve God’s children around the world. While there are many ways to do a children’s Sabbath in worship, I have often used such a Sunday as an opportunity for children to lead almost all parts of worship: liturgy, music, greeters, ushers, etc. Whether or not you have children in your congregation, you can find lots of ways to celebrate a children’s Sabbath here.
Is it challenging? Yes. Does it take more work in planning and preparation? Yes. But Jesus shakes things up, turns concepts and laws upside down and inside out. Jesus often calls us to do something that might make us uncomfortable or takes more time.
It is worth it? I think so.
There are many more ways children can be included as active worshipers and worship leaders. How does your church celebrate the gifts of children in worship? How are children serving your church as worship leaders?
(This is part of our Children in Worship series.)