Children in Worship

He was an intelligent boy of about five, observant and inquisitive filled with questions. His mind went from one thing to another, and each new thing brought a new question for his father, and a patient, brief reply. The problem was that this took place in the pew immediately behind me throughout the Sunday morning worship service. I presume the 12-14 other worshipers immediately surrounding father and child were all unwilling hearers of their conversation, and I suppose the 12-14 others were as annoyed with it as I was, although no one reacted to the ongoing disturbance.

We all come to worship with needs and expectations, child and adult. So, what are they?

CHILD. A child needs space to move and a chance to stretch growing muscles and limbs. Children live on a higher energy level than adults, and being still and silent is an unnatural state for them. Children are always learning new things, and how wonderful for that to take place in worship! They need to feel the love and support of their family, and they will turn to a parent for answers to their questions. Childhood is a time to test the boundaries of behavior. Even young children sense that worship requires different behavior than playtime, and worship provides an opportunity for them to test the limits of both behavior and parental indulgence. They may choose actions that really ask the parent, "How important am I to you? Can I continue to occupy the center of your attention, even here in worship surrounded by all these adults?" But there is another need, and that is the need for the child to learn about the nature and practice of worship, to begin to develop responsibility for his or her own behavior, to begin to respect the needs and wants of others, to become part of the group. This, too, is growing up.

PARENTS. Parents want to bring their children to worship and to experience it as an important family activity. They need to provide space for those growing limbs and energetic bodies to move. They should encourage their children to stand and sit at the appropriate time, and to sing the songs and read the words together with the rest of the congregation at the appropriate time. Point to the hymn's words during singing; follow along in the bulletin and Bible. Make available and encourage the child's own use of bulletin, hymnal, and Bible. Focus the child's attention and encourage their participation in baptism and Holy Communion. Encourage and answer their questions, immediately if necessary, after worship if possible, when you can have a deeper conversation. Bring a book, a favorite toy, drawing or coloring materials for the youngest children. Lead children to grow in the understanding that they have a responsibility to others in the congregation. Parents must balance their role as provider for their children's needs with the responsibility to keep their children from distracting other worshipers.

Congregation. The congregation should welcome children as valued and full participants in worship, just as Jesus did. Be understanding and tolerant of the limitations and special needs of young bodies and minds. Be supportive of parents who take seriously the vows they made at their children's baptism, and remember the vows we took at that same time. Celebrate those moments in congregational worship that may be especially prepared for young children.

Worship Leaders. Welcome the children! Recognize them as part of the community. Voice on behalf of the entire congregation that your church values children and their presence in the worshiping community. Speak directly to young children and older youth, in their language and on their intellectual level, somewhere in the sermon. Go out of your way to explain a point or concept to children. Include congregational prayers and songs for children. Provide worship materials especially for children, such as children's bulletins or coloring sheets tied to the sermon theme or scripture. Affirm and support parents as they provide for the spiritual growth of their children in worship. Offer words of encouragement in the service, classes, and newsletter articles. Provide opportunities for children to lead worship, such as choir, use of children's art, scripture reader, communion server, acolyte, usher, and greeter. Allow children to serve and give of themselves on an equal level with adults. Have the whole congregation sing James Ritchie's song, "Where Children Belong" (no. 2233 in The Faith We Sing.)

We all have our individual roles and responsibilities children, parents, congregation, and worship leaders. We should exercise them in a balanced manner that welcomes children and encourages the spiritual growth and meets the worship needs of all ages.

For helpful resources in the area of children's ministries, visit www.umcdiscipleship.org/ministries/children, or contact Mary Alice Gran, toll-free telephone 877-899-2780, ext. 7143, or e-mail [email protected].

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