In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul urges the church to take care lest their liberty (the liberty to eat food offered to idols without guilt, in the case of the Corinthians) become a stumbling block to their brothers and sisters who may yet find such a meal idolatrous or who might believe it carries some kind of power not related to God.
Well, it has become clear that the congregation I serve also has its share of liberty-becoming-stumbling-block issues, as I imagine most do. For us, one of the biggest is children in worship. See, for some, having the squirming, squealing energy of little ones in our Sunday service is a source of much joy. The movement and sounds of infants and toddlers, the fidgeting and whispers of children and youth are signs of new life within the church family, which brings hope to these particular worshippers.
But for others, having the squirming, squealing energy of little ones in our Sunday service is a source of much distraction. The movement and sounds of infants and toddlers or the fidgeting and whispers of children and youth are signs that it’s time for their mom or dad to escort them outside… at least until they can settle down. Crying and delighted shrieks make it impossible for these folks to set their minds on God, no matter how hard they might like to, no matter how hard they might try to.
So we have been faced with the question: how do we ensure that the liberty of one group doesn’t become the stumbling block of another? How do we welcome infants, toddlers, children and youth (and their parents) without being unwelcoming to those among us whose souls yearn for a space of quiet retreat? How do we do this and remain united as one body, instead of fragmenting into a “noisy” service, and a “quiet” service (the very notion of having more than one service is almost laughable for us, considering we are a very, very small church)?
I was puzzling over this question when I stumbled across an essay from an ELCA pastor whom I had met a couple of summers ago at a training event. She told me about her church’s magic quilt. Each Sunday, they spread out a quilt on the floor in the front of the sanctuary. The children were invited forward and they got to sit on the magic quilt to listen to the children’s message. Afterwards, they were given an activity and invited to imagine themselves on the quilt soaring through the air or drifting on the sea – but the magic in the quilt would only work to take them places if they remained quiet and seated while doing their activity. Thus, little hands and minds stayed in worship, but explored the Bible story or message through other means than the sermon.
Now, the honest truth is – this is the best that I can remember of what she said from several years ago. I know it’s not as theologically robust or creative as her actual explanation. But the very idea of it sparked the creativity of our congregation. We have a corner of the sanctuary right up front where there isn’t any carpet. So we put down an easy-to-clean mat, got some art supplies and set up a couple of chairs for adults. Each week, after our children’s message – which is more and more frequently becoming an imaginative retelling of the Scripture – we invite our children and youth (and the young adults who often help out) to the creative corner where they can creatively reflect on the story throughout the rest of the service. Then just before the charge and benediction, we invite them to come and share their creative work with the congregation.
For the most part, this has been working well for us. Though I still sometimes forget to invite the children to share with us when they do we find ourselves enriched by their perspectives on the morning’s passages. It keeps children in worship where they’re a part of the community, and because they remain pretty calm while engrossed in the activity, we’re ministering to those who crave the quieter moments of worship too. The one difficulty, however, is those kids who are really too young to engage with the craft. How do we welcome them?
The natural response for us was the nursery. We have one that’s beautiful. There’s just one problem. In a congregation as small as ours, we don’t have enough volunteers to man it. People don’t want to miss worship, and since we require at least one person of a two-person team to have a background check, it severely limits our volunteer pool. So we started looking at other churches. Many of them, we noticed, had set up rocking chairs and toys in a designated section of the sanctuary where parents or guardians could take young children. Thus we embarked on our next project: cleaning out the little room just off our sanctuary and making it a safe place for the youngest among us. While we haven’t yet completed this endeavor, we’re looking forward to moving some of our nursery furnishings to the room so that little ones and their adults can still be a part of the service, even if they need their own room for a little while.
The final question for us was the matter of Christian formation. How do we live into our baptismal vows and nurture our children in faith? The traditional answer is, of course, Sunday school. But we found that it was hard to get families to our building before worship. So we’ve decided to have a short class with kids and their parents after worship. We’ll sing songs (and incorporate them in worship as we learn them), then use Godly Play to tell a biblical story and respond to it. For now, this too is still in the works as we are training in using the Godly Play program. But we’re excited to get started!
Jennifer Barchi is serving as the Solo Pastor at Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where she lives with her dog Cyrus.