Thoughts on Bringing Children To Worship

Children in Worship

As parents bringing children and teens to a time of worship can be a struggle. We place a lot of expectations on our kids and often hope they won’t “misbehave” during church. Plus, it is easy to succumb to their rowdiness, distraction and desire for entertainment. The last thing on earth most parents seem to want to hear from their kids is “I am bored.” The response often tends to turn our time of gathered worship into an opportunity to have free babysitting or shuffle them away to some place else, entertain them, or even give them a gadget that will hold their attention.

These responses, while I can completely relate to them, do not honor the fact that our children can actually participate in our worship. They can listen for God. They can pray. They can pick up on the motions and the movements of our faith communities and begin to have them engrained in their hearts. They can even contribute to our meetings. Let’s not be so quick to put them somewhere else or separate them off from the larger group. Instead, let’s find way to engage them. Let’s as families talk about what it is we are doing. And let’s help them to find activities that they can do (quietly) that will help them listen and pay attention, while keeping their minds engaged. Every situation is different and parents know what their particular kid needs, but let’s resist taking the easy way out.

Quakers are no different when it comes to having Children in worship. It is hard to hold a space where children are truly welcomed and where parents feel comfortable bringing their kids, rather than being made to feel like they’re distracting others from their silence. As a Friends minister, I really believe that it is important to have our children with us in worship. While I truly love Godly Play as a children’s education, because I think it helps to mirror not only the biblical story, but the kinds of practices (of listening, of empathy, of participation) that we do in our meetings for worship, as our children get older I think we need to resist the tendency to create more programs for our children so we can keep them busy, entertained or even have age appropriate things for them.

A Quaker meeting for worship is always age appropriate. Vocal ministry may not always make sense, but then again, we as adults don’t always “understand” either. What is central is not necessarily that we always “get it” but that we enter into the practice, which shapes us regardless of how in-depth our theological understanding is. To continue to come back to these practices of listening for God, praying, reading Scripture, and practicing empathy for others is what matters most. Children are capable of these practices. My five and three-year-olds are capable of it, I have seen them make connections on a number of occasions in ways that I missed. And it’s okay if it is boring, either for you or for them. As James Alison says about worship, it is a:

“Long-term education in becoming un-excited since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surrounding or our neighbor, but which increases our attention, our presence, and our appreciation for what is around us” (46).

So much of our society is about constantly building people up into a frenzy, keeping people distracted by noise, lights, screens, and the sensational. To live a life that follows after God we actually need to unlearn these tendencies. We need to not constantly participate in worship that “abstract from our present or our surrounding or our neighbor,” because so much of what shapes us in life already does this. Instead the simple liturgy of singing, praying, reading and listening for God is to help us slow down and make us un-excited so that we may “[increase] our attention, our presence, and our appreciation for what is around us.”

This is hard for us to invite our children into, because frankly we either don’t know how to do it ourselves or we are afraid to truly let go of the distractions for fear of what we might find. Being quiet with group of people for even a couple of minutes can be a terrifying act. In fact, I’d argue that kids have less inhibition around this than we give them credit for. Can we as parents give our kids the tools they need to help them begin to value our gathering times, and not just value them, but participate in them? We might find that in looking for words to articulate to our children, we first must do deeper in our own understanding and practice. We need to trust that God actually ministers to our children and that we need children in our meetings to help complete “the body.” How might our meeting reflect the conviction that Children have an innate sense of spiritual connection to God? How might our meetings be more inclusive of all ages in our worship? How might we help our children feel connected and important as we worship together?

Let’s not be so quick to follow the pattern that many other churches do and constantly compartmentalize the body into ages, genders, and other unhelpful categories that only further splinter our worship gatherings. Let’s make this about being together and learning the language and practices necessary for being the people of God.

In line with this, I’d like to recommend this article from Friends Journal called “Bringing Children to Worship: Trusting God to Take Over From There, where many suggestions and activities are suggested from other Quaker parents.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Bringing Children To Worship”

  1. I’d like to share this, and Kathleen’s article with the group that’s meeting at my house this week to talk about what we want from First Day School for our children…

    1. Robin – I’m curious to know what the kids do in your meeting too. As I recall there was a certain age group that had first day school for part of the meeting? But it didn’t seem like all the kids/teens weren’t out of the room during worship? How does it work in your meeting?

  2. A most fine article!

    It also reminds me of a bugbear of mine – ‘all-age worship’.

    When a (liberal, unprogrammed – my own tradition) meeting for worship is described as being going to be all-age, I usually avoid it; whenever I’ve been in such a worship what it’s *actually* been is a poor hash at semi-programmed worship, with added content seemingly intended to engage the four to seven year old age group, whilst in the meanwhile the seven to 18 year old are feeling increasingly patronised, the 18-30s probably aren’t there, the 30s-45s are feeling embarrassed about how their 0 to seven year old children are behaving, and the 45s upwards are noting how lovely it is to see so many young people in meeting today, having forgotten their own childhoods to the extent of having forgotten that the younger one is, the greater the difference a year makes in one’s understanding of the world as one grows up, and that ten year olds generally *don’t* want to do the same things as five year olds. And in the meanwhile, the four to seven year olds for whom the ‘all-age’ event is actually designed are probably the least engaged people in the room!

    By saying our unprogrammed worship is not suitable for children without modification, as well as saying something quite negative about our children, are we not also saying something quite negative about our worship?

    1. Simon, yes – very intersting indeed! I was unaware of the this practice among unprogrammed Friends. And I agree it seems largely about keeping up appearances without any real dialogue or chance for change. Plus, it undermines the meeting for worship every other Sunday.

    2. Simon – this made me wonder, what does your meeting do for the kids and teens in your meeting regularly? Is there a children’s program during worship? Are the kids/teens normally with you in worship? How does it break down?

      1. We don’t have any children in my own meeting, but the usual practice in Britain is for the under 18s to be separated from most of the worship – how that pans out in practice will depend on the number of children, the age spread, and indeed number of adults available to work with the children. Did you ever go to Cotteridge meeting when you were here? At that time it was what Britain considered a large meeting, with around 70+ over 18s in worshi in the morning – the practice there was for the younger children to be in with the adults during the first 15 minutes and then go out to do their activity, whilst the teenagers would be out for the first half hour and come in for the second half. But most uk meetings having fewer people overall will usually have all the under 18s out at the same time, and joining the adults for either the first or last 15 minutes. Generally older children’s activities will often be discussion-based, whilst younger children will hear stories and do colouring in.

        In British meetings a meeting will usually consider itself lucky to have more than a handful of children anyway, which itself limits the scope of separate activity which can be done with them – thus making your point an even more valid one!

  3. I note that the practice of age separation during the time of meeting for worship was not part of the early experience of Friends, and slowly developed over a long period of time. There really is nothing Quaker about it. The practice developed among Friends as it also was developing among other Christian groups. It is not a traditional Christian practice but a modern innovation.

    When I grew up, I was always drawn to worship, both in the early years when my family was Methodist and after we began attending Friends. In one location, there was a Conservative Friends meeting nearby in which all worshipped together, and I really liked that. However, my parents preferred a liberal meeting farther away, where there was a strong belief in age segregation. I would sneak out of First Day School, in which I had no interest, and back into worship. Most of the adults considered me a bad boy for doing that, and my parents were scolded for not trying to force me back into FDS. Eventually they got used to it. But when it came time for them to ask me whether I wanted to join the meeting, I was clear that I did not want to be a member there out of my bad experience in the meeting.

    What does it say for us if we exclude children from what we consider the most important element of our faith community? Is it no wonder that we lose most of our children when they grow into young adults when the meeting has approached them with segregation and exclusion?

  4. Thee should have come to my Meeting for Worship with a 3-year-old. Our First Day School consisted of me and another member trying to keep him quiet. Our Meeting House was one thin wall between M4W, and my son was very, very talkative.

  5. Robin, I am just about to share this via FB with the two coordinators of that meeting at our house tomorrow night.

    I appreciated the article and the comments. Our meeting is looking at how to better integrate the children with the rest of the meeting, though I doubt we’re ready to ditch Firstday School.

    And I can certainly imagine being in an otherwise-unprogrammed meeting that did a semi-programmed one poorly. However, I wanted to share some of my recent experience of the last two years.

    Green Street Meeting, our liberal unprogrammed meeting in Philadelphia, has the children in Firstday School for the first 45 minutes (in two groups, elementary and middle school aged), and to worship the last 15 minutes. The teens generally come to meeting for worship.

    On the 5th Sundays, a few times a year, we have a mostly programmed meeting for worship. It’s _definitely_ a hash, and a tasty one at that!

    The one or two I’ve attended were led by a Friend who grew up expecting to be a minister in another tradition, so has some ability to lead worship; and more important, who is now a high school teacher, with a real gift for drawing young people at many different ages.

    One I missed featured my older son singing a Green Day song (“21 Guns”) with his peers playing electric guitar. Since he has never sung with those peers before or since, I’m sorry I missed it. (And it’s not like we’re about to organize a worship band or something; I have personally never seen anything more high-powered than an acoustic guitar or a violin at this meeting myself.)

    The warmth of the greetings at rise of meeting and expressions of joy following these semi-programmed meetings are enough to reassure me that we are saying something quite positive about our worshiping community. To me, it needn’t imply anything negative about expectant waiting worship the other 48 Sundays a year.

  6. Re: “This is hard for us to invite our children into, because frankly we either don’t know how to do it ourselves or we are afraid to truly let go of the distractions for fear of what we might find. Being quiet with group of people for even a couple of minutes can be a terrifying act.”

    My meeting did a year of “teaching worship” with our children — four weeks in a row at the beginning of the school year and then once a month for the rest of the school year. I was hopeful that the work we were doing with children and worship would somehow “infect” the adults, too. It didn’t happen, but we’re following the same pattern this year and maybe, with one year under our belts, we (being those who participate in the children’s program for “teaching worship”) will be more confident and better prepared to share our lessons with the adults.

    Our meeting has not been doing much in recent years about explicit teaching about worship with adults. We’ve had small discussion groups after worship, but that’s more about reflections about that particular week, which it great but not the same.

    The Godly Play stories about prayer and about meeting for worship are really incredible, and adults who listen and take them in are always moved by them. I wish the broader meeting were more open to hearing these stories so we could all, as a whole community, learn and grow deeper in God together.

Comments are closed.