In the weeks and months to come, we as a worldwide church body will be sifting through the aftermath of this COVID-19 pandemic and working through strategies for recharging our church life onsite. As a Children’s Pastor, what is top of mind for me is how we minister to the smallest members of our church body as they begin to return to our church building.
As I have watched many conversations between pastors and leaders in different places, the issue of what to do with the children is a great concern for many. For some, welcoming children and their families back into the building will mean that you have made the decision to have children with their parents in the pew rather than in a separate Children’s Ministry area.
If this is new for your church, you may be wondering how a service will look when children are in the room for the entire time.
I am a Children’s Pastor at Woodvale Pentecostal Church in Ottawa, Ontario, and a number of years ago we made the decision as a church that we wanted parents to have more opportunity in church services to mentor their children in worship. We decided that the first Sunday of every month would be an intergenerational service. We call this our “Unite Service”. In this service our school-age children stay in the service for the entire morning.
We have learned some things along the way that may help you as you sort through how to do church with kids. Here are a few things that may help you to make a plan to welcome children into your Sunday services.
1. Embrace the silly.
Children do not have long attention spans. They “whisper” loudly. Their feet stick out straight in the pews so they sometimes kick the back of your seat. They munch crackers noisily and leave crumbs. They stand backwards in their seats and stare you in the face. Surprise, surprise, they are not like adults.
Have grace for the silly things. Make a little more space in the pew and learn to laugh.
When I picture Jesus with the children, I picture them tugging on His beard while He held their sticky hands. The Son of God made space for little children and chastised those who did not think He should be bothered with them.
So, turn around and give the noisy kid and their parent a smile. Both are adjusting.
2. Explain sacraments, traditions and other forms of worship.
In our church we have intentionally included baptism and communion into our Unite Services so that the children can observe these sacraments and participate. We ask parents to take responsibility for deciding if their child is ready to partake in communion, and encourage them to explain it to their children.
As a result, parents do not always get a quiet, solemn moment in communion. It means that communion time is sometimes spent explaining what’s happening and repeatedly asking them to not stick the communion cup on the end of their tongue. That’s okay. Remember that the same Jesus who asked us to remember Him at communion is the Jesus who dearly valued children. He will understand if parents are explaining it as they go. The act of passing this form of remembrance on to your children is also a solemn and holy act of worship.
As a parent who now has one adult child, I can tell you from experience that in the blink of an eye that little impressionable child will be grown and parents will have many Sundays of quiet reflection.
At Woodvale we believe that a child’s relationship with Christ is a real relationship, and that Christ has a mission for every one of His followers, no matter how young or old they are. We choose in our church to allow children to be baptized, as long as they are at the age of being able to fully understand and articulate (without coaching), the step that they are taking.
Paul encouraged young Timothy in this way,
“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith and in purity.” (1 Timothy 4:12)
In many cases, those of us who are older can be greatly impacted by the faithfulness and the example of children.
3. Don’t distract them – engage them.
I teach children in our church that a church service is not a time for you to just turn backwards in the pew and color. I tell them that they are meant to worship and participate. We teach children right from the moment they are born by what we do and what we allow them to do.
Children are going to be silly and wiggly during the sermon and should not be expected to sit and be perfectly quiet all the time. However, the church service is the time to teach about and model participation in corporate worship and listening to the Word. Children do not need to be distracted. They need to be engaged.
Children are going to fidget and that’s okay. Give them something that they can use to follow along and engage in the service. Many churches provide resources for children to “keep them busy”. However, our goal in having kids in the service is to be intentional about mentoring them. We need to teach them how to engage with the service, rather than having them distracted and “quieted down” with an electronic device or unrelated activity. Any tools that you provide should be interactive and cause the child to have to pay attention. One example of an activity that we have provided for kids during a sermon time is to listen for how many times the pastor says a certain word and to make a mark on their paper each time.
Give them interesting tools to get them engaged with the corporate worship experience and they will learn that they are a part of the church body and that God has something to say to them as well and in their language.
4. Make room for them to serve. (They have gifts too.)
Remember that children are also filled with the Holy Spirit. He can speak loudly through their ministry within the body of Christ. Invite children to participate.
At Woodvale we assume children into the service. We don’t make a big deal or talk about how cute they are. We also do not make our Unite Services a children’s service. We simply invite children to take their rightful place. They join the worship team, they step to the mic to read scripture, they assist the ushers, and they lead in prayer. At one of our evening prayer meetings, a little 4 year-old girl came up to the pastor at the front and tapped him, interrupting his talk. She simply told him that we needed to pray for children in our community. He handed her the mic and allowed her to lead the congregation of largely adults in prayer. She was comfortable asking to do that, because she had been taught that she was not too young to do so and that her voice was also welcome.
When given the space to serve, children take these acts of service very seriously and see it as their own worship to God. We want them from a very early age to learn that they have a place in service and in leadership.
Children have it in them to want to serve God and to lead in their own way. The adults in their lives have to make room for them to express their service to God and to allow them to be unrefined and learning as they do.
5. Empower parents.
Before my husband and I had children, we were welcome to eat at any restaurant. We could sit and pretend to be dignified, talk about adult-y things and eat in peace. Neither of us stood on our chairs or shot things out of straws at the other. It was peaceful.
When our children were little, we had to choose carefully where we could eat based on whether or not the restaurant tolerated shenanigans. There were just some restaurants that we could not visit with them. The ones we did visit were okay with more cleanup, were brighter, and offered things for them.
Church is no different. Parents will choose a church sometimes solely based on how much the church tolerates shenanigans. They can see immediately whether we have the heart of Jesus by how we welcome their child.
Tell parents right off the bat that their child is welcome, that you have ways to engage them, and that they are free to speak to their child to redirect them and teach them without judgement.
6. Finally, change how you see children.
When Jesus rebuked the disciples for holding children back from Him, He admonished them that “the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” Jesus did not view children as an inconvenience, but held them up as an example of how we as believers ought to approach Him.
We as adults need to see children through the eyes of Christ and embrace the things that Jesus valued in them. See a child in your services as a sign of life and growth. See them as a follower of Christ now, not a future prospect. See them as valuable and necessary in the Body of Christ.
In our church we teach our adults the “Ten Feet Tall Rule”, which says that, “Children should be loved, valued, honored and treated with respect. They should always leave our building feeling ten feet tall.” Lets create an environment in our churches where children feel valued.
Jesus said in Matthew 18:5 that whenever we welcome a little child in His name, we welcome Him. Let that be your guiding principle when it comes to bringing children into your services.
When you welcome children, you roll out the red carpet for the presence of Jesus.