Acolytes … What good are they?

I need your input: what do acolytes do at your church?  I'm thinking about tweaking the acolyte role at my congregation, and I want your input.

I ask this because, in general, I think that most of our churches do a disservice to children by subjecting them to and limiting them to roles of candle-lighter and perhaps offering-plate-carrier.  That is, I think we're setting a pretty low bar of expectation when we ask our middle school kids to light a few candles and carry an offering plate fifteen feet.  In their schools they're doing work that is largely much more engaging and of a higher caliber than that which they do in our churches.  No wonder kids get bored …

[These are tasks that are arguably unnecessary, too.  Ever since humans learned how to harness the power of electricity and use it to illumine light bulbs candles really haven't been necessary … except to make the sanctuary look "churchy," since our image of church is stuck somewhere in the medieval era.  As for the offering plates … most of our acolytes simply carry the offering plates about fifteen feet, from the communion rail to a side table.  Of course, the whole act of bringing the offering forward is not without question, as the act of carrying plates to the altar can suggest that we're giving our offerings to God or that we're making some sort of sacrifice at the altar … which we're not.]

Surely acolyting is not the only ministry for our children in our churches, and worship is not the only arena for our young people to participate.  Hopefully in education and youth ministries our young people are challenged to explore faith and life and ethics and Scripture and theology in ways that will help them grow in and claim as their own this gift of faith, and the church as their own community of faith.  Set within a broad and rich youth ministry, perhaps giving kids very simple tasks to do in worship is fine … but I'm not so sure.

Nonetheless, I wonder:
  • how necessary is the acolyte role at all?
  • how can young people be meaningfully involved in the (very public, very visible) worship life of the church by serving as lectors, crucifers, ushers, communion assistants, even assisting minsiters (for older kids, likely, and with some training – I first served as an assisting minister in ninth grade)?
  • if we keep the acolyte role, does it necessarily need to be limited to children?  Especially if the other roles are opened up to children, surely an adult could be an acolyte, and a young person could be a crucifer or a lector …

Finally, I hear all too often a common complaint/comment about children in church: kids don't know how to worship and/or serve as a worship leader.  To which I respond: that's because we don't teach them or train them how.  I've seen way too many acolyte trainings that are done on-the-fly or, if a training session is offered, the training is often not repeated, refreshed, or reviewed.  So if we tell kids once, several months (or years) earlier, how to do something, or if we "teach" them at a rushed pace five minutes before the worship service, and they don't remember how to do it, who is to blame?  The complaining adults who didn't take the time to train the youth, that's who.

My rant is over.  You've got my perspective.  Now, rip it to shreds and/or offer alternative perspectives.  Thanks.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

7 thoughts on “Acolytes … What good are they?

  1. Our church has had acolytes of all shapes, sizes, ages. The lighting of the candles signals the worship part of the gathering has begun. Before the candles are lit, the people are more chatty than some would care for, but nothing that has been tried has put a stop to that. So now the announcements are made before the candles are lit.
    At one time the acolytes were of late-grade school age, they wore those white robe like things over their clothes, and they sat in the front pew. They don’t handle the offering plates, which are NOT put on the altar under the direction of the current pastor. But when the Sunday School program and acolyte program fell into disarray some years ago, that form of acolyte training also went out the window.
    Since then, some young children, youth, or even a family, are designated to acolyte. It is one of the duties assigned by the pastor to some of the confirmation students. They also usher, read the lessons, and assist with the communion, as do many other people in the congregation. The lay participation for every aspect of our worship services is phenomenal. The youth haven’t been worship assistants. Participation is, quite frankly, one of the ways to get the confirmation students into church. The present confirmation students, with one exception, are from families who don’t attend church at all. I’m not even sure that they are being “forced” to attend confirmation, but they are there, Praise God.

  2. we don’t have acolytes. the candles are lit before the service, without any special emphasis. HOWEVER, I did have acolytes at my first (small) church. There were just a few students, and I had a training session with all of them right after their first communion in the 5th grade. It gave me an opportunity to teach them things like: nave, narthex, sacristy, sanctuary, chancel, that I learned in Sunday School, and it saved me from just having one young person do it all the time (the son of one of the deacons). Just thought this was fairer.
    They lit candles, helped with offering, and also helped with communion. sure, it wasn’t a lot, and I think it ended after my tenure, but I still think it’s good. Of course, better would be more significant service.

  3. Just out of curiosity, do you have any idea where the practice originated? What was the original intent of children as acolytes?

  4. I was an acolyte as a child, and they actually modified the rules at my parish to let my sister and I start earlier because we assisted in a procession with ‘grave dignity’. When we got older, we transitioned into the Usher role because our parents were both ushers and also not liable to 1) leave us home alone on Sunday morning and 2) let us laze about when we can be handing out bulletins and greeting folks.
    My first reading was when I was in 6th grade, I first offered the prayers of the people when I was in 9th grade, and I was in choir from age 5 to— um, last year.
    One thing I’ve seen in a few parishes was that there wasn’t a rota for acolytes; any young person who showed up vested and processed and sat in the Designated Acolyte Area. This actually encouraged the youth (teenagers in this parish were the only acolytes) to come to church because they not only had a part to play in the service, they got to sit with their friends, well away from their parents/grandparents.
    At my current parish, the minimum age for acolyting appears to be 70. đŸ˜¦

  5. At our church, we have a traditional and a contemporary service, and I know things are different between the two re: acolytes. I regularly attend the contemporary service, and at that one the acolytes don’t do much at all.
    In fact, most times we don’t even have an acolyte. I think the policy is that there’s one acolyte assigned for each week, and whichever service they come to is the one that they serve at. I think. And yeah, they just light the candles and carry the offering plates about 15 feet.
    We have one 8th grader who is often the assisting minister at the contemporary service, and it’s worked out pretty well–I also know her brother, who’s about 10, has been an usher a few times. I think we need to be more vocal about the fact that that sort of thing is OK, and isn’t reserved for a super-involved kid.
    Although one thing I would like to hear your thoughts on, if you ever get a chance/feel moved to, is church attire. It’s come up a number of times surrounding the youth (I’m sure I’m included, but I’ve never been called out personally)–that they don’t wear “church clothes” or whatever, and we need to institute a dress code.

  6. Candles, offering, communion, baptism.
    Light em, collect em, assist with, assist with.
    The LCMS church I grew up in even let me collect “empties” at communion. lol. That simple role was something I remember taking pride in or seriously…Look where I ended up…seminary.
    Training was taken seriously. One person was put in charge of it (a lay person). There were semi-regular events for acolytes…like bowling or a picnic.

  7. Our acolytes participate in the procession (one with the cross, one with the thingy to light the candles – never did know what that was called), hand the offering plates to the ushers, and collect the little cups during communion, then they process back out.
    I’m trying to encourage our older kids who are either doing nothing or still serving as acolytes to move into other ministries, especially as assisting ministers. We have a couple who are ushers, but that’s about it. It is going to be a bit of a culture-changing effort in our congregation, like so many things during this transition year (we currently have an intentional interim, and we have been told that they synod will decide when we are ready to move on to initiate the call process. We’ve had some issues…).

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