First a bit of history. It was in the early 1980s when children were added to The Directory for Worship. Previously, while children often attended, there was little intentional involvement of them in the worship life of congregations. The intent of welcoming children was to engage them in the many acts of worship, and never by condescension or “dumbing down” anything that adults do.
Children can be encouraged to stand when others stand, bow their heads during prayer time, find numbers of hymns and follow along (standing on pews if necessary), participate verbally in times of passing the peace or sharing concerns, add coins or their own gifts of thanks to the offering plate. They can be encouraged to experience the sacrament of Communion without fully understanding that which retains elements of mystery for all of us. Granted that sermon time is not geared for full comprehension by the young, when children remain in the sanctuary they can be encouraged to listen for particular words or references in the sermon or in the rest of the service. Parents can plan quiet things for them to do that are not distracting to others. Know that children have an intuitive capacity for discerning meaning from that which they do not fully understand.
While in the Order for Worship there is no specific mention of a “time for children,” the practice of having children come forward for “their time” has become almost standard in many congregations. Following are some suggestions for making children’s time a valuable component of worship for all.
The Scripture of the morning can be paraphrased for children with the best of storytelling techniques in mind. Wise storytellers know how to simply “tell the story,” and in doing so need not strain to make a profound point. A “hook” for getting everyone’s attention is simply to begin, “Once upon a time,” and you can note context such as “Long before Jesus was born … ”, or “As people were listening to Jesus and asking questions … ,” or “The writer of the Book of Luke tells Jesus’ birth story like this.” Then tell the story.
Good storytelling relieves the teller from the burden of “interpreting,” or making a “moral.” Bible stories have layers of meaning, which may sometimes be pointed out, but “pure storytelling” (in Jesus’ tradition of telling parables) allows listeners to hear what they will hear. When Scripture is told in simple language, adult participants can say without apology that children’s time is helping all to hear in fresh ways the message of Holy Scripture.
Contemporary story books are also sources for presenting main ideas of Scripture. The “Stone Soup” fable is an excellent introduction to a theme of sharing. Other perennial themes can be found in such stories as: “Old Turtle” by Delores Wood, “In God’s Name” by Sandy Stone, “The giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein, and a whole array of children’s books by Max Lucado.
Children’s time is also an opportunity for interpreting local concerns of the congregation. Our denomination’ s seasonal offerings — One Great Hour of Sharing, Christmas Offering, Peacemaking Offering, Pentecost Offering — each include resources appropriate for children’s time. Highlighting these opportunities for children in their language enhances their importance for all.
What follows are some tips to be considered by any or all adults responsible for children’s time in worship.
Be aware that young children rarely (if ever) make the connection with an “object” or “gimmick” that you produce to get their attention. To do so is called “conceptual thinking,” a developmental stage which normally doesn’t take place before the ages of 10 or 12. Remember, your role with children is not to “teach a lesson” in ways that might be better done in settings geared specifically for children’s learning. It is to include their time as a valuable component in the congregation’s worship of God.
Avoid asking questions. Older children, like most adults, are reluctant to answer in front of a crowd. Younger children are prone to “pipe up” with the result that the congregation laughs, or they may offer something entirely irrelevant, thus putting the leader at a disadvantage.
Keep the message short. Be clear about a single concept or main idea you want the children to grasp and adults to ponder. Don’t belabor it.
Leaders are unduly challenged when children of all ages come forward together. When distracting toddlers are present with school-age children, leaders find it difficult to capture the interest of all. When inviting children to come forward, consider specifying that the message for this Sunday is for those of particular ages. A rough grouping could be preschoolers (not babies), or school-age with appropriate divisions if necessary. Very young children can be told that children’s time may be something to look forward to when they grow a little.
Yes, children are to be welcomed as full participants in the acts of worship. We must be careful that our attempts at welcome do not embarrass them or encourage them to make adults laugh.
Children minister to the congregation by their presence, which brings a sense of hope, energy, imagination, love and grace, thus reminding us that Jesus came to us as a child. When children are regarded as having roles to play in all of the many acts of worship, including coming forward for “their time,” the congregation is enriched as together we receive and respond to the Word.
THE REV. MARY ANNE EVANS-JUSTIN, a certified Christian educator and pastor, is recently retired in Lake Huron Presbytery, where she has served congregations in Rosebush and Ithaca.
JEANNE D. WANDERSLEBEN is also a certified Christian educator, now retired. She lives in St. Louis, Mich., and is Evans-Justin’s mother.