Since the audience for the Symposium is primarily Protestant, I asked Mothering Spirit readers on Facebook to share how their church welcomes children. They sent photos and descriptions of every model of welcoming children that we debated within the ecumenical conference (e.g., Sunday school, nursery/cry room, children’s message, family service, quiet bags, children’s bulletin/missal, etc.).
As a Catholic, I believe children are part of the Body of Christ who belong in Mass. Below is an excerpt from what I shared at the Symposium. How might it inspire or challenge you to reflect on how you worship with children – whether at church on Sunday morning or at home during the week? Be sure to check out my new resource pages for church ministers and parents, too!
Why welcome children within churches?
“People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
“Christ already has unambivalently welcomed children. If the church and world want to welcome Christ and the God who sent him, then the church and the world had best figure out how to welcome children.”
(Joyce Mercer, Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood)
“…churches sometimes communicate antithetical understandings of evangelism. We want more members, we need young people, we say, while at the same time we fail to nurture the people we have, especially the young ones in our midst…Many congregations exclude or ignore children and youth in congregational worship…We are the inheritors of a sacramental tradition that is often unwelcoming, cognitively based, individually focused, separated from religious education, divorced from the practice of faith, and tied as much to social traditions as religious affirmations. We separate life from worship, worship from the sacraments; the sacraments thus become twice removed from life.”
(Elizabeth Francis Caldwell, Come Unto Me: Rethinking the Sacraments for Children)
“In the past, churches were among the few places where families, singles, couples, children, teens, grandparents—all generations—came together on a regular basis. Yet the societal trend toward age segregation has also moved into the church. Age-based classes for children as well as adults, programming for teens, and various worship options tend to separate families and age groups from each other. As a result, children and adults may go through their whole lives experiencing the gathering of Christians as an age-segregated phenomenon.”
(Holly Catterton Allen in Shaped by God: Twelve Essentials for Nurturing Faith in Children, Youth, and Adults)
How do children worship best?
When a place is prepared for them: whether symbolically (through the attitude of the pastor and parishioners toward children’s presence in the pews) or literally (with a particular resource offered to engage children at their level).
When they are part of the preparation and leadership of worship: those who prepare for worship keep in mind the needs of children as they plan the liturgy and invite their involvement where appropriate.
When there is music and movement that allows them to express themselves: not that worship should be tailored to the needs of any single group within the faith community, but that the church’s communal prayer includes moments that can speak to children (and that adults are encouraged to teach children how to participate in the gestures and responses of the liturgy).
When our Christian symbols are present in the fullest extent of their symbolism: Montessori-based approaches to religious formation like the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd have shown how even the youngest children are drawn into the beauty and power of rituals that involve light, water, and other symbols that speak to all the senses.
When we embrace them as children, instead of expecting them to act like tiny adults: the way a congregation welcomes children often reflects how it treats people with differing abilities, special needs, and mobility issues, too.
When children can share their gifts: keeping in mind the formative power of Christian practices, children can serve as greeters, proclaim the Word, sing in the choir, offer petitions, pass the peace, give to the offering, carry up the gifts, etc.
When they hear their own experiences, concerns, and needs included in the community’s prayers: intercessions offer a place to include petitions for the challenges children face and blessings for milestone moments, while hymns that speak about children and preaching that gives examples from children or childhood send a clear message: youth are part of the family of God.
Wise words to remember when we (adults) argue about how to welcome children:
“Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’”