The children’s time is the hardest part of worship. I stress about making that message meaningful far more than I worry about delivering the sermon. Though there is much debate in seminary classes about whether the children’s time is an appropriate way to minister to kids at all, it still shows up in many church liturgies. As much as it stresses me out some weeks, it’s also a part of worship that keeps me grounded and joyful.
In the past, I was used to having tiny kids come forward “to join me on the steps for our time together.” I’m accustomed to meeting with kids who are four years old up to those still in early elementary school. But in my present call, older kids are the ones who meet me up front. They are in fifth, sixth and even seventh grades. There is a part of me that wonders, “Are kids in this age group too old to keep coming forward?” Although I suspect there may be a parental push causing them to do so, I also wonder if the initiate might really be theirs. Perhaps they know there’s something inherently valuable about that time not only for themselves, but also for the congregation. Without a lot of younger children in the church, perhaps it’s a way that those young people are ministering to the whole body. In continuing to come forward, they give us space in worship to talk more freely and move outside our traditional style, if only for a few minutes. Their presence opens a time for discussion when otherwise there is none. Their attitude creates a space in which we can laugh together and sometimes eat cookies or drink glasses of cold water – all to learn about Jesus.
When planning the time with them, I am always careful to make the message for the kids. I am still learning how to pitch it for this older group, but their development is something I consider every week. I get frustrated when leaders use the children’s time as a convenient way to advertise upcoming events or share a message that’s really geared toward the adults. So I would never ask kids to suffer through a children’s time solely for the benefit of the adults. But recently, I have found that the children’s time might be better thought of as an intergenerational moment.
The presence of children of any age sets that atmosphere of playfulness that allows adults to join in the fun without feeling encumbered by the seriousness of worship. The time a 60-year-old woman got involved in the relay race as we talked about Jesus passing the baton to his disciples meant that the message was no longer just for kids. Instead, it became a time for all to laugh and learn together. This month we blessed students and their backpacks as they headed back to school. Alongside them we also blessed teachers, cafeteria workers and office staff. Having people of so many ages present forged a new bond of faith among congregation members as they re-enter the rhythm of the school year. The ritual could no longer be viewed as something sweet and cute just for the children, but was seen as powerful sign of the Spirit’s presence for everyone.
Involving many generations in the children’s time means it’s not a performance for the rest of the congregation to watch. Instead, these moments are transformed into a dynamic time of learning, blessing and interacting as the whole people of God. Remembering this wisdom might also mean that I can stop gritting my teeth the next time a person says, “I always get more out of the children’s sermon than the ‘actual’ sermon.” If this special time is designed to nurture all ages from the get-go, then I can stop hearing that comment as a dig to my preaching and instead, hear it as a complement on my ability to engage all generations in a lively, meaningful way.
EMMA NICKEL serves as stated supply pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church in Greensburg, Kentucky. She is passionate about small church ministry, cooking and playing with her cat, Scout.