Children in Worship

Two weeks ago my wife was alone leading the liturgy (our Senior Pastor was on vacation) and, as is the custom at our parish, she held the lectionary book over her head as she processed down the center aisle to the center of the nave for the reading of the Gospel.  Upon seeing Mommy elevate the lectionary, my 2-year-old daughter grabbed the Lutheran Book of Worship from the pew rack and held it over her head.  “Good job!” I enthusiastically whispered in her ear.

From the Gospel procession to the Lord’s Prayer to approaching the altar for a blessing to singing the hymns, my daughter is learning how to worship (she doesn’t sing the actual words to the hymns, of course, but she wonderfully sings something during the hymns).  And during the “quiet” times of worship – the readings, sermon and prayers – she usually colors or plays with a few toys or eats a snack, all relatively quiet.  And even though she doesn’t worship in the narrow sense that many of us hold – a concept of worship that would require abstract thought, intentionality, and knowledge of the faith – she is surrounded by the sights and sounds of worship as she, indeed, worships as well.

Some churches dismiss children after the initial Gathering (Processional Hymn, Kyrie, Hymn of Praise, Prayer of the Day), and welcome them back for Holy Communion.  Other churches simply discourage children from worshipping, while others offer seperate liturgies for families that seek to be child-friendly.  Many churches have a Sunday morning schedule that offers worship and Sunday School at the same time – parents go to worship (but never learn), and children go to education (but never worship).  I dont really like any of these options.  How will my child learn how to worship if she never goes to worship, or if the first time she goes to worship is when she is 6 years old or worse – when she is in 7th grade as a requirement for Confirmation Class?

But, some of you might ask, how can the parents worship if they are tending to their children the entire time?  Worship is not a consumer experience for me.  I do not attend worship in the same way I attend the Philadelphia Orchestra or the Philadelphia Phillies.  I go to the orchestra or ballpark to be entertained for a few hours.  A child can distract me from enjoying these experiences, but church is different.  Church is a lived, participatory, organic experience.  Church is that multi-layered gathering at the foot of the cross and outside of the empty tomb at which we see, hear and touch the life-giving death, resurrection and real presence of Jesus.

Is it a distraction to lift up my daughter so she can see the brass horns, even though I have to put down my hymn book?  Is it a distraction to help her with her crayons during the sermon, or pull her trapped foot out from under the kneeler?  If worship were simply about my singing and my hearing, yes.  But worship is more than that.  Worship happens in the gathering, in the standing and the sitting, in the hearing, in the praying, in the passing of the peace, in the eating and drinking.  For too many of us, worship is overwhelmingly a cognitive, abstract-thought kind of experience, and in this setting children can be a distraction.  Yet if worship can be more than an exercise in religious information transfer or spiritual consumerism – if worship can become a true gathering of community, of real, messy, organic community responding in faith to God – then children must be a part of it.

This past Sunday my daughter began melting down during the first reading.  She had little sleep the night before, and I knew she wouldn’t last through the whole service.  We went home.  Am I disappointed that I missed out on most of the worship service?  Sure.  I was looking forward to the sermon, the celebration for the confirmands, and the hymns for the day.  Yet the minor distractions she poses during worship and the occassional missed worship services are small prices to pay for the opportunity to bring my daughter to worship every Sunday.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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9 Responses to Children in Worship

  1. You share many good points. We’ve had several pastors that have made it clear that children are welcome in the worship time/space. The parents often wonder, “Does he really mean my noisy child?” Yes. But kids are individuals, some easier to have there than others. And at some stages in their lives, the nursery is a good place to park the kids for awhile.
    Some parents with kids hang out near the back so they can make a quick exit during a difficult time. But others have said that if these people were nearer to the front, the kids could see what is happening and perhaps feel more a part of the worship. If many of the young families did this, the pastor could address the kids at times.
    I’ve also noticed that some worship spaces magnify the children’s sounds; ours muffles them (and the singing) but that does have advantages when you have kids there.
    I think there are things that can be done deliberatly to encourage people to bring their kids, such as having an occassional song that the kids know (that is theologically sound.)
    Other worshipers can help parents as well, by holding a child or by holding the hymnal for the parent. Others showing positive interest in a child is very encouraging for both the child and the parents.

  2. RevHRod says:

    I can see Miss T with her hymnal, clear as day!
    Know that you are an unusual parishioner. For one thing, you have all this glorious training that helps you see that worship is a participatory sport. Not everyone gets that. So dear LZ, keep being a great role model for other moms and dads.
    For ten years I served a congregation that held Sunday School and Worship concurrently. There were two, three or even four services to choose from at any given time. And so, Sodachick went to Sunday School and then went to worship with her dad. Other parents complained that they just couldn’t focus on worship when their kids were present. What could I say? I loved having the kids in worship! But after a while I began to notice that the folks who brought little ones to worship, were usually PK’s. (We had twelve in the parish.) Church junkies brought the kids. Others, not so much.
    I wish it was different. Our current parish splits the difference and Sodachick is frequently in church 1.5 times a week. As she is 13, she resists this with every fiber of her teenage being. But, mom and dad usually win out. At our house it’s not a choice. It’s like brushing your teeth, you just do it. You get up, you brush your teeth. It’s Sunday, you go to church.

  3. Replying to RevHRod comments about the teen in church. We took the same approach, this is what WE do on Sunday. (If dad doesn’t attend, that usually means that the boys don’t either, I’ve noticed.) After confirmation, we took the approach that we ask if they are attending. We encourage them to attend, but it was never mandatory. They were there often, on their own. Usually wouldn’t sit with mom or dad. This continued with 2 out of three going while in college.

  4. John Carlson says:

    Does the two-year-old commune? If not, would she be allowed to if she outstretched her hands? At my church I’m sensing a subtle change in the former “ten-years-old or fifth-grade” rule, but I doubt my pastor and community are as ready for toddler communicants as I am. And speaking of children and church, this Sunday I will see the first class I’ve worked with ( I assisted in Confirmation instruction this year) be Confirmed.

  5. Good question about communion. Our church has a class for the 4th graders and a special Sunday. But younger ones have communed.
    My second child communed at age 5 because he truly understood and talked to the pastor. But if truly understanding is the criteria, then we exclude people of limited intelligence, don’t we.
    I have mixed feelings on wee ones communing.

  6. liz says:

    I love this post. My biggest pet peeve about my church (which I think does an otherwise wonderful job with just about everything) is that they excuse the children right before the sermon to go to Sunday school. I am furious over this. Aren’t children part of the community of saints too? And if so, how do we expect them to be participants in worship when they outgrow Sunday school and have no idea what to do? Well, you’ve said all that already…
    Re: communion, our parish has no age rule – parents are encouraged to talk to the pastor when they “feel their child is ready.” Since we are sending children to the aforementioned Sunday school and they don’t get to witness communion, I’m not sure how a child is to become ready, exactly. Grrrr…

  7. Our two-year-old is ahem, energetic, and thankfully we have a wonderful nursery at our tiny church. At three he’s supposed to go to worship and leave after the Children’s sermon for church school. The Children’s sermon is often an age-appropriate version of the adult sermon. Sometimes I do them 🙂
    Occasionally we bring him in after the sermon to listen to the hymns and participate a bit. But he can be so disruptive to us and others so we are introducing him slowly. A child of the same age attends in a similar fashion and is somehow able to handle it better. She is known to interject church appropriate things like “Jesus loves me, he’s in heaven”, and emphatic Amens. MY child wants more communion bread and juice (we pass). He will run ANY object along the pews with a vroom car sound. But, I get your meaning Mr. Zephyr. Just give us some time.

  8. Caelius Spinator says:

    I was brought to church at six weeks, which must have had something to do with how long I could go without feeding. I ate like a pig at that age. My brother was treated similarly.
    I went to one of those churches that did Sunday School during the Liturgy of the Word. Fortunately, I had the full experience in the summers. I think it’s important to remember that one of the names for the Liturgy of the Word is “the Liturgy of the Catechumens.” There is something in that part of worship that is meant to instruct us all, but it was a major part of how I learned the Bible.
    As for Communion, I generally went with my father to the altar for a blessing. My first church was pastored when I was a toddler by an older priest who was used to the days (I’m an Episcopalian) when only the confirmed communed. But when my father was on the search committee for a new pastor, we went to a church in another part of the city where I had the audacity to put my left hand upon my right (had it backwards…) and was communed. My pastor was briefly horrified… I really don’t remember when I started to communicate regularly.
    I, of course, intend to bring my children up the same way, but this is hypothetical at this point.

  9. Wonderful comments. A few thoughts – I wonder at times how exceptional my daughter may (or may not) be – she is a two-year old who can spend an hour in worship relatively quietly (granted, she takes over half a pew, eats a snack and often gets stuck under the kneeler – she couldn’t make it in the cramped confines of a Christmas Eve service, I think). Who knows how kid #2 will do . . .
    Though I think that all parents should bring their children to worship, the decision of whether to bring your child to worship at age 6 weeks or 6 years is up to the parents. However, our congregations should never restrict children from coming to worship. Furthermore, we should work with parents to help them understand how to worship with their children and at what age they might begin to worship together as a family.

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