ONE OF OUR articles this month encourages us to more intentionally incorporate the lives and wonders of children into our worship, which is a great idea, because if all the kids are in the sanctuary you don’t have to volunteer for child care.
But seriously, tapping the natural energy of the young would create a more holistic experience and open the door to a greater connection with the divine, assuming the divine has a short attention span and a constant runny nose and tends to giggle during silent reflection. Not to mention drawing pictures on the collection envelopes in the backs of pews. (If they don’t want children’s graffiti on those envelopes, they shouldn’t put them right next to those little yellow pencils, which the child invariably drops and, with cat-like speed, goes after it before the parent can grab him. A short time later, pencil in hand, the young one looks around under the pew but sees no familiar legs or shoes. He is lost, not unlike the sheep the preacher is at that moment talking about, the difference being that the parent now pulling the child backward by his feet is less the Good Shepherd of the New Testament and more the Vengeful God of the Old Testament who doesn’t give a crap about sheep. But I digress.)
A child-centric church is something I experienced firsthand growing up in the warm embrace of the Southern Baptist church. For me, Sunday was the best day of the week. There was no school, so no gym class with humiliating taunts from peers questioning my athleticism, no condescending teachers refusing to give credit for my book report on TV Guide (so much to watch, so little time, what with homework and all that).
Church was a place of safety and support, a time for the social outcasts of weekdays to finally feel appreciated and valued, particularly by the adults, who gladly drew us into the heart of the church, just as soon as they finished their cigarettes. (In those days, all have smoked and fallen short of the glory of God, although I think God cut you some slack if it was menthol.)
DURING ALL THE Sunday mornings I spent in church as a child, I only cried once. After months of encouragement from my parents, I decided to go to our Catholic parish’s children’s liturgy (their version of Sunday school). I remember nothing else about that morning except that I stood in the corner crying while kind volunteers tried to calm me down with a few cookies. I never went to children’s liturgy again, and I’m thankful the experience didn’t leave me scarred for life, unable to eat another cookie.
My dislike of children’s liturgy wasn’t about what it was; it had to do with what it wasn’t. I grew up watching Mass unfold from the front pew, where I could be as close to the action as possible. Going to the basement meant that I had to give up the beauty, wonder, and fascination I experienced during church services.
It’s been more than 25 years since I lost my composure on that fateful Sunday, and my dissatisfaction with children’s liturgy is now echoed by ministers, Christian educators, and parents who realize the importance of including children in corporate worship. But as I see it, including children in corporate worship isn’t a matter of choice or changing trends; it’s a matter of justice.
“When your children ask you ...”
Practices for including children in worship are far from new. Children’s ministry leaders refer to Deuteronomy 6 so often that memorizing this passage might as well be a prerequisite for working with kids in churches! Many interpretations of this chapter focus on the first few verses—“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children ...”—and emphasize the importance of teaching God’s commandments to children in all times and places. Yet a crucial point in this text appears in verse 20, which begins, “When your children ask you ...”
Former president Jimmy Carter was late to his Bible study class Sunday morning, something he said never happens as he walked up to the front of the sanctuary. There he received hugs from those who likely already knew why.
His service started with an announcement of something Carter’s voice indicated was weighing heavily on his heart.
His grandson, Jeremy Carter, who had spent Thanksgiving with him just weeks ago, died suddenly in the night.
Confession: I cannot say the books of the Bible in order. Sometimes I still feel embarrassed when I have to flip around a little bit to find a certain book or, even worse, use the table of contents. It seems like I was supposed to learn this Christianity-defining skill at some point in my upbringing (preferably to the tune of a cutesy song or chant), but I never did. I am 28 years old, a teacher, and have a master’s degree, yet beyond the first few books after Genesis and “Great Electric Power Company” (Galatians-Ephesians-Philippians-Colossians), I get mixed up.
The realization that the order of the books does not particularly matter, then, comes with a bit of relief and freedom. In the Protestant canon, the Old Testament books are arranged by category (law, history, poetry, major prophets, minor prophets). The New Testament books are similarly arranged by type (Gospels, history, Paul’s letters, general letters, and prophecy). The Great Electric Power Company and friends — I mean, Paul’s letters — are actually arranged by length!
Certainly, there are reasons for knowing the order of the books in the Old and New Testament. It is simply more efficient to know exactly where to find a book. Knowing the names of all of the books does give you a general familiarity with our sacred text. These reasons, however, are functional, not crucial to one’s faith or salvation.
This year, as we start Sunday School and churches come back from summer schedule, I want to introduce you to one of my favorite singer/songwriters, Bryan Moyer Suderman. It’s rare that you find music that appeals to all ages with a strong social justice focus, healthy theology, inclusive language, environmental concern, and really good musicianship.
As Brian McLaren and Dave Csinos wrote in the intro to Bryan’s new CD:
Bryan takes up the challenge of uniting the old and the young, the tall and the small, with songs of faith that echo the depth, beauty, struggle, complexity, and unconventionality of walking in the way of Jesus.
Bryan is a minstrel, a prophet, a visionary, and a follower of Jesus who invites listeners of all ages to join him in “infiltrating the world with the love of God.” His music is captivating, his lyrics are theologically-rich and thought-provoking, and his voice invites us all to live God’s kingdom wherever we are.
Could my mission really be confined to seeking the best for the children to whom I gave birth? Or, as a Christian, should I define "family" more broadly? I'd see images of women and children suffering around the world, and those puzzling verses returned to my mind. Maybe, instead of obsessing over the happiness of my babies, I should stick my head out of the window, so to speak, look around, and ask, "Who is my family?"
It didn't feel right to simply shrug my shoulders and blithely accept my good fortune as compared to that of people born into extreme poverty. I'd buy my kids their new school clothes and shoes and then think of mothers who did not have the resources to provide their children with even one meal a day. I'd wonder: what's the connection between us? Does the fact that $10 malaria nets in African countries save whole families have anything to do with my family buying a new flat-screen TV? Should it? Is there any connection between me, a suburban, middle class mom, and women around the world?
You don't need a ton of proof to know that more and more churches are struggling to survive. It seems churches that are in this predicament have one of two options: revive or die. There are a lot of books, seminars, and workshops given on how to go about reviving a church. However, there is not one cookie cutter, full-proof, and effective strategy in reviving a church. Having said that, it doesn't mean that it is impossible. There are many examples of struggling churches that have successfully revived the congregation, increased the health of the church, and expanded their ministry.