Monday, February 06, 2006

Children & Worship

Yesterday was a frustrating morning for me at church. One of my roles at church is teaching "worship skills" to kids in our congregation as part of our Wednesday evening program. This is the first year that I've been doing this and I've really had to grow into the role.

The kids range in age from six to nearly thirteen. Quite a range, too, in attention span, energy level, and ability (or desire) to engage in conversation. It's been a huge challenge for me (perhaps too much of one) trying to teach to children what I'm also studying on a PhD level (as well as teaching on an MDiv level, too)!

I've tried numerous approaches. Everything from talking about worship, to doing worship together, to learning songs, to preparing for leadership roles in the service, to taking a 'tour' of the sanctuary and identifying different 'artifacts' of worship. While the Fall Semester was really focused on preparing the kids for various leadership roles (participating as leaders in litanies or singing as a choir), I thought for this semester I would concentrate more on actually worshipping together. Experiential learning.

Yesterday morning, though, I sat in a row with four of the kids who are a part of the group I teach on Wednesdays. One of these kids was my own. Three of the four (including my own) occupied themselves by either drawing, working on the puzzles in the children's bulletin, or knitting (or, more accurately, untangling and rolling a ball of yarn) for the entire hour. Near the back of the sanctuary, there were a number of other kids who were rambunctious and generally doing their own thing.

It was clear to me that the kids were seeing worship as a time they needed to endure--not something that required their presence and participation in order for the Body of Christ to be complete. The worship service was full of different experiences--not a flat service, but one that offered various musical 'styles', prayers, a children's sermon, and communion.

I felt really discouraged yesterday. I don't know how to help kids see worship as something they can engage. I feel as though we've been kidding ourselves by thinking we include kids in worship because we put them up front and ask them to perform as leaders once a month. While I see the value in providing leadership opportunities for children, it simply can't be enough. There has to be something more.

A couple years ago I visited a Russian Orthodox Church. I was deeply moved to see the way children were integrated seamlessly into the worshipping experience there. As is typical in Orthodox worship, people arrive throughout the duration of the service. When someone arrives, there is a series of ritual activities that s/he performs, like moving about the space kissing icons. It was beautiful to me to watch parents arrive with their children and lift their children up to kiss each icon. The children also knew their responses to litanies (as they're repeated each week). And during communion, there were a boy and a girl, both no older than ten years old, who were stationed by the wine (warmed with water) and the blessed bread (different from the consecrated bread). The presence of these children mattered. Not one was given a bulletin of Bible-based puzzles, or shuffled off to make crafts in the middle of the service. Nor were they given their own mini-sermon/object lesson. And each one of them was communed.

In such a ritually complex environment, it seems children are drawn inexorably into the experience. But in the more spare, familial, and informal environment of our free-church worship, what do we have to draw kids in?

I'd love your comments, insights or commiserations on this topic.


Being Shielded said...

Part of going to Catholic school was participation in Mass once a week. We took turns leading the services, too -- five years old to fourteen, it didn't matter. On the day before, we would practice leading. The church is basilica-size, so it was very intimidating to get up there and say the prayers or read the lessons by yourself, to the whole school.

As a first grader, I remember being taken by the hand by an 8th-grader who sat with me during the service, explaining, pointing to the words in the hymnal, telling me when to sit, stand or kneel and to keep my feet off the kneelers. As an 8th-grader myself, I repeated the experience for the 1st-grader I was in charge of.

I don't know if this applied to everybody, but Mass taught me the beauty of liturgy. The vestments were beautiful, sweeping the floor as the priest walked down the aisles, asking us questions during the homily. The movements we so complete, inviting, and the music memorable. When I feel low, I still sing, All We Have like I did in grade school.

Purechristianithink said...

We went to a more Pentacostal type service a few weeks ago where they begin with half an hour of singing very upbeat music. My son, who usually has to be pacified with all sorts of gimmicks to make church bearable for any of us, LOVED it. He twirled, he clapped, he jumped up and down--pretty much what he always tries to do in church only in that context it was appropriate. (They did whisk the kids off to their own activities before the 45 minute service started, however.) I think traditional worship is particularly torturous for boys, being more kinetic and less verbal generally, than girls. Since most Sunday school teachers are women, I wonder if a lot of the "worship education" we do slants more toward little girl needs? Just thinking out loud here. . .

see-through faith said...

Wish I could add something ... just to say I share your frustration. I wonder if it's that they sit (like at school) and are expected to feed themselves instead of the worship truly being something we (adults and children) participate in .

For adults too - often it's about being entertained and I don't like that :(

Quotidian Grace said...

One of your problems is that your group has too wide an age span. There's no way you can engage both a 6 year old and a 13 year old in the same class: their developmental levels are so far apart.

Is there any way to divide up into more appropriate age-groupings?

One strategy that sometimes helps is to enlist the older kids in the group as teachers to the younger ones. You really learn anything you teach.

LutheranChik said...

You know, when I was a kid I LOVED church; loved all the liturgical stuff.

In my present congregation the younger kids LOVE the church service. Many of them -- unlike most of the adults -- love to sit in the front pew where they get a bird's-eye view of what's going on. They know the responses, and more than that they've absorbed the worship choreography of the liturgy. During the Eucharistic portion of the service, when the pastor gives the Great Thanksgiving and says the Words of Institution and goes through all the liturgical movements that go with that -- the orans, the bowing, the lifting up of the elements, etc. -- the kids in the front row are modeling every movement, and just nailing it...they do a better job than I could after decades of watching the same ritual. It's really moving.

One suggestion: How involved can you get the kids in your service? We have no age guidelines in our church. If a five-year-old wants to be an acolyte, we pair him or her up with an older "pro," and let them acolyte together. One of our ushers sometimes lets one of his grandkids help pass the plates. One little girl in our congregation was so desperate to have a role in the Eucharist that we've found a job for her to do so she can be a part of that. If your church has any sort of formal or assumed age discrimination when it comes to assisting in the service, I'd say, change the rules. At our church we also have monthly youth services where kids who are older can be lectors, Eucharistic assistants, etc. And we have an afterschool program where tweens and teens can spend time helping out the pastor and staff in churchy stuff like changing paraments, making cards for our homebound members, etc. These are all ways to connect kids with the life of the church that have worked for us.

Our congregational conundrum, though...we have a strong youth group -- sometimes as many as 20 kids in our weekday confirmation class, some of them from families not affiliated with our church; they just show up from the neighborhood; the kids even lobbied for and got a second weekday afternoon get-together with the pastor! -- but it's like pulling teeth to get these same kids into church on Sundays. We just don't get it. It will be interesting to see if the same li'l kiddos whom we've integrated into our Sunday services will keep coming back when they hit adolescence.

Purechristianithink said...

Once they hit adolescence, I think a lot of it has nothing to do with how excellent,(or boring), the service is. It has everything to do with the power struggle going on between parents and kids: you want me to be someplace? Okay. I don't want to be there. This is really important to you? Okay. I'll diss it. This isn't to say we shouldn't work to make worship a welcoming, affirming place for teens. WE just need to know it gets more complicated with this age group and we can't assume that if they aren't showing up enthusiastically, that means we're doing something wrong.

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