I'm often told that a common question, when our members invite their friends and neighbors to worship with us, is, "what do you offer for children and youth ministries?" I'm sure this is a considerable factor for many, and of course as a parent I can fully understand why this is such a frequent question. It may be a difficult one to answer, too, since our congregation's life together as a body is so little-oriented toward program-style ministries.
When the Session announced a few weeks ago that we saw both practical and theological reasons for scaling back our congregation's nursery offerings, most of the discussion focused on the practical side. I thought it might be helpful to consider some of the theological rationale behind this, as well.
The conventional wisdom behind offering a strong and prominent children's ministry is that they need "age-appropriate" ministries to communicate to them the truths of the faith, and that they will be bored and un-engaged in structured events and practices that are geared toward adults. I recognize both the prevalence of this perspective and the grounds offered to support it, but I think it carries with it several pre-suppositions that deserve reconsideration:
- First, it presupposes that corporate worship, as a prominent example, is geared exclusively toward adults. Is that so? And if it is, then must it be so? Or could it be that corporate worship is for all ages, and can (and should) be viewed and structured as such?
- Second, it presupposes that the best — and maybe the only — thing we have to offer to children is what we can cognitively teach them. But is there something else that corporate worship (and other events as well) offers? And could it be that the other offerings are even more important?
- Third, it presupposes that the systems and structures posed by the "experts" of modern-day educational theory know best for our children. Yet, isn't the general shortcoming of our contemporary educational system one of the things that most Christians would agree about? And shouldn't we hope and believe both that God knows a thing or two about how to train our covenant children, and that He may have communicated something about this to us in the Bible?
With these in mind, I want to steer our thoughts on this subject back to some of what we've been discussing so persistently in our sermon series on worship: specifically, that the act of worship is formative, not merely in the cognitive ways that we are instructed by the teaching and preaching of the Word, nor even in the didactic value that the other parts of a worship liturgy contain — those both of these ARE greatly and helpfully formative for us. More than that, though, it is formative in how it builds in us habits, instincts, desires, and love that are Godward in their inclination and godly in their function. It is formative not just in what it represents on any given week, but in how it builds and grows in us cumulatively over time through the week-after-week practices that we engage in.
I recently read the reflections on this from a pastor in the Memphis area, named Joshua Smith. I don't know Joshua, but my thinking on this subject resonates with his. He said:
"A liturgical service is an experience of compounded interest. It can't be evaluated in its component parts or one service at a time. It must be submitted to over many seasons of life in order for its impact to be perceived. To participate in a liturgy is to be shaped by its story in a semiconscious, primal sort of way. It is more of an extended baptismal catechism than a single encounter.
“We are immersed and indoctrinated over time into a faith that holds its power not in the effectiveness of a moment's expression (e.g., a killer offertory song), but in the potency and universality of its narrative."
So let's bring this back around to children: when we invite and bring our children into worship with us, we are offering them this same sort of formation! This is true even if/when they engage in it only peripherally, and even if they don't fully grasp what it is they are doing when they participate.
I had a teacher in middle school who grew to be a friend as I moved into high school. He once told me of his own experience as a child: he grew up in a large metropolitan area, and his parents enrolled him in a 1st-12th grade magnet school, whose focus was primarily performing arts (especially theatrical performance). In that school, they started reading the works of Shakespeare in the very early grades — he remembered reading through entire Shakespeare plays in third grade. This wasn't because the teachers believed that the students would obtain a full, or even partial, comprehension of the content of the plays. It was, rather, for another reason: he also remembered when, in 7th grade, he was first expected to take part in the performance of one of these plays, he thought, "oh — it's Bill! Bill Shakespeare! Yes, I know this stuff!" And the performance of 7th graders contained much of the meaning and substance that the plays demanded, because the students knew already the patterns and stylings of the author.
This is, at very least, what we hope will happen in our corporate worship: as our children grow up, Lord willing, to embrace the faith we are teaching them, they will have been shaped and formed by the habitual, instinct-building practices of worship so much that they engage in worship meaningfully, because they already know the patterns and stylings of the Author of such things.
But it is more than that, too. In my 7+ years as a Youth Minister, I found that, unequivocally, the events that the children grew and thrived in were the ones in which they were integrated into the life of the larger body. No matter how great the programs or ad-hoc events were, no matter how elaborately-planned or well-led they were, the real lasting impressions and growth opportunities came when the children and students were working, playing, fellowshipping, worshiping, and growing alongside their parents and other adults of all ages in the church.
In my own childhood, too, I found this to be so. One of my very earliest memories is when (my mother says) I was about 3, and I recall my father carrying me out of worship and walking to the car. Perhaps simply because it was a different time (insofar as "children's ministry" goes anyway), I was brought into worship at a very early age. As a result, I learned to be quiet, respectful, and even reverent instead of distracting or disturbing other worshipers around me. I also learned the words to favorite hymns, grew in knowing the patterns of our worship liturgy, and could recite creeds, doxologies, and frequently-read Scripture passages by heart.
And I see it in my own children. Jack has a growing list on one of the blank pages of his Bible, where he records the names of favorite hymns. Both Jack and Molly approached us a few years ago, asking: "you say to us every time our congregation has the Lord's Supper that it is for those who believe in Jesus as their Savior. WE believe in Jesus as our Savior! When can WE take the Lord's Supper?" These things are the direct fruit of their inclusion in worship — at times by necessity, but often by choice — from an early age.
We have work to do yet, of course, and there are many ways we can improve from where we are. We still need to have some sort of nursery offering, at least as a ministry of hospitality to visitors and others with particular needs — and we're working on that and trying to figure it out. And we can always do better with actively including our children in worship and in other events and body life. But from a theological perspective, I believe we are on the right path.
So, what do we have for this kids? Here's my answer:
"We offer our children the best thing we have to offer — they are included in our congregation's life of worship, and welcomed into the identity-forming and faith-shaping practices of week-by-week service to Christ in corporate worship. Rather than implying that corporate worship is no place for children, we show and tell them how much we want them to join us. The adults in our congregation love the children, and take seriously their congregational vows to come alongside them in the nurture of their faith: I watch as an older widow converses with my 10-year old for a lengthy conversation, as our pianist shows my 8-year old how to work out a difficult scale, and as a Deacon's wife plays hide-and-seek with my 4-year-old twins, and I know that they are loved and cared-for in ways that no children's ministry program, however great the leaders, could offer them."