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.