Sunday mornings can be the low point in a kid’s week. Tired parents hurry them off to church, where they will count ceiling tiles during a long sermon, sit silently during much of the music, feel uncomfortable around people they don’t know, and finish their allotted candy way too soon.
Sunday mornings can also be a highlight for kids, a time to sing favorite songs about God, to listen to compelling stories about what God is doing in the world, to meet a whole community of people who know and love them, and—lest we sell them short—to think thoughts about God and pray prayers that are more profound than most of us adults would give them credit for.
Our goal, obviously, should be to move as far as possible from Scenario 1 to Scenario 2. That takes the collaborative teamwork of parents, pastors, musicians, church school teachers, and congregation members. To imagine what that teamwork might look like, consider the following imaginary letters. Each conveys a vision for children’s full, conscious, and active participation in worship and some practical ideas for pulling that off. Not every idea suggested will work for every congregation, of course, but I hope that most congregations will find a few ideas for helping kids to worship more deeply. As you read, consider what adaptations you would make for a letter to your congregation.
We are grateful for the privilege of working with your child in our church education program. We believe that people of every generation, including our children, are vitally important members of our church. Not only can children learn from us, but we can learn from them.
We hope to incorporate children more fully into the worship life of our congregation. In our church school classes, children are being trained to understand worship better, and we will teach them many of the songs that we sing in worship. In worship, we will work to make sure that every service has at least one element that ties in with our education program.
But we need your help. Helping kids worship is ultimately your job. They need encouragement to participate in worship just as much as they need encouragement in learning to read or play soccer. To help you in your role as “worship participation coaches,” we’ve gathered suggestions from several parents about how to make worship more meaningful to children. Here is some of what we heard:
- “After church, we take home the bulletin or order of worship and use some of the same Scripture readings, prayers, and songs in our family devotions.”
- “I was surprised at how young my kids were when they wanted to look up the songs in the hymnal.”
- “When I get to church, I always look around for new artwork or symbols that I can explain to my kids.”
- “We found some good books at a local Christian bookstore about going to church, which we read at home on Saturday nights.”
- “During the passing of the peace or welcome time, I try to start by hugging or shaking hands with my kids. It’s good for me and helps them participate. Also, they have no problem saying “Christ’s peace be with you,” whereas I often simply stumble to say “Good morning.”
- “After church I always reward our kids when they can remember the first illustration the minister uses in the sermon. It may be a little much to expect them to listen for 20 minutes or more, but having them listen for the first story or name they hear teaches them not to tune out right away.”
- “Our kids always connect more in worship when we don’t arrive at the last minute.”
- “At my brother’s church, the pastor provides a sermon outline so the older kids can follow along and fill in the blanks. That really helps them learn to listen.”
- “For our family, the offering is a big deal. The kids always put the money in the collection plate. After church, we always look up on the Internet some information about where the money is going.”
- “Our kids love to sing at home, so we found some CDs and piano music of songs we sing a lot in church, and we try to learn a new song every month or so.”
- “It sounds simple, but when we read a prayer or litany from the bulletin, I make sure my kids follow along as I point to the words—the same thing I do when we read books at home. We also like to take the bulletin home and use the same words later in the week.”
Let us know some other tips that you’ve discovered. We’ll keep a complete list posted on our church’s website.
To further help you, we’ve assembled a series of children’s books about worship in the church library. Please let us know if you have any questions about our worship services or suggestions to help us incorporate children more fully.
Your Pastor and Children’s Ministry Committee
Dear Pastor and Members of the Children’s Ministry Committee,
Thank you for all the work you are doing for our congregation. We value your leadership in programs for our children. You asked us to give some thought to our role as “worship participation coaches,” so here you go.
Your point about being worship coaches was quite a new way to think about Sunday. We’re so eager for an hour to simply rest a bit from everything that we’ve left our kids’ participation mostly up to you. The extra effort you ask from us will take some adjusting to.
Sunday morning is a big challenge for us as parents. We do our best to get everyone organized and out the door in time for church. But with working the night shift and keeping all the kids’ activities organized, we usually pull into the church parking lot during the first song. I guess I do have to admit, however, that we’re almost never late for gymnastics class on Saturdays. We’ll have to prioritize church a little more.
On vacation this summer we visited a church that changed the “children’s moment” in worship from a mini-sermon into a prayer time. We really appreciated that. Our kids never really get the point of a lot of children’s sermons, even though we kind of like them ourselves. When we ask them after church what the children’s sermon was about, they say things like, “It was about a flashlight,” or, “It was about a bag with something in it.” By having a special prayer time with the kids, you give us something we can repeat at home. And they really seem to sense the difference between being talked at and being led in prayer. They learn so many lessons in school all week, but there are never enough opportunities to learn to pray.
Having said that, we think that what you want is for our kids to participate not just in “the children’s moment” but in other parts of the service. Would it be too much to ask to have one song, one sermon reference, and one prayer item every week be kid specific? We noticed that one of our guest pastors prayed for kids who worried about bullies on the playground and then used a sermon illustration about going to gym class in the middle of the school day. Our kids sat right up when they heard that. And we certainly have enough good songs in church school that we could sing one of them in worship each week.
One problem for our kids in worship is the lack of repetition. I know we do a lot of the same stuff every week, but the stories, songs, and prayers change all the time. At home our kids love to hear their favorite books over and over. When we sing songs at home, even when we learn a new one, the kids won’t let us stop singing until we’ve sung our favorites. Could we take some basic songs and prayers and use them regularly in worship for a season at a time? Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer would be a good place to start. We could say it every Sunday of Advent, for example. And could we also use the Bible the kids are learning in their church school classes? Psalm 23 or 100 or John 3:16 would be good for all of us to say in worship. If we did this, perhaps we could get a note in the bulletin to prompt us to work at using that text at home throughout the week too.
In closing, we want to add that while we deeply long for child- friendly worship, we’re not interested in having worship that is child- centered , as if the other generations aren’t important. And we certainly don’t want worship that is child ish . Our kids need practices to grow into. They spend much of their lives with people their own age. Worship is one of the few times they connect with people of all ages. We hope that never changes.
Thanks for taking the time to think about our kids!