Church leaders are always surprised when I tell them that the average contemporary worship service is no place for children.
“But we created this new, hip, contemporary service to reach out to families!” they tell me.
“Yes, and it may … to adults,” I reply. “But what about the kids?”
From the vantage point of a child, most contemporary worship services look like little more than a concert and a speech. And before you think this article is another in the volumes of worship wars, let me clarify that the issue is not one of style but of content.
I'm talking about liturgy.
Liturgy is something that goes back to the beginning ... from the moment God repeated "It is good." Liturgy is about meaning-making, and learning, and sharing in faith together. Literally, liturgy means "the work of the people."
But in many of our worship spaces, our liturgy is the work of our leadership - pastors and musicians. We watch as they perform rituals, pray in our stead, and invite us to consider scripture in a new way, only to then send us away before we've had the chance to respond.
Unfortunately as our worship styles have moved toward a contemporary style, they have also moved away from liturgical content.
Liturgy has gotten a bad rap lately, thought to only be appropriate for a somber "traditional" worship service. But liturgical action and ritual are important for all of us - children especially – and liturgy is something that is both relevant and necessary in worship, regardless of style.
Liturgy didn't come out of a vacuum - it wasn't created so one day people could say "we've always done it that way." Liturgy serves an important purpose in both faith education and faith formation.
In worship, we practice liturgy to form our faith - we act out what we believe and we come to believe new things as a result of our actions.
And when it comes to younger members of the community, these rituals are even more important. Often we assume children will be uninterested in liturgy, believing they need something flashier to get and keep their attention.
But what keeps kids' attention most is when they are active participants. And liturgy and rituals allow us all to be active participants in the whole of worship.
If children do not participate in our rituals, how will they learn the faith? How will they learn what it means to worship? By seeing them practiced, kids learn to practice them even before they may know why they are so meaningful.
Engaging all our senses allows us to learn and internalize the meaning of an experience; and that is so much of what liturgy offers us - the opportunity to participate in shared sensory and participatory experiences in order to create meaning in our lives, both in the sanctuary and as we go out into the world.