Children in Today’s Church: Worshipping Together

March 24, 2010

Third in a series of three discussions

Many years ago, as I was beginning my career in ministry with children, I arrived at church early on my first Sunday morning to prepare for the day’s worship and education. I was excited—and a little nervous—but also very eager to meet the children that day. Looking back, I think that a lot of the parents in that congregation were looking forward to meeting me, too—and some were quite eager to express their POV to me about including children in the worship service.

One set of parents stopped me outside the sanctuary to let me know that they “hoped I wasn’t going to change the church’s practice of having children 11 years and younger leave right after the call to worship because after all, Sunday worship was their time and children are a distraction”, stunning me with their vehemence. Hoo boy! First week on the job and already in the thick of it!

What did I do? I’ll get to that in a minute….

As I read and research trends in today’s church, I see a movement towards having the whole family worship together. Any congregation that embraces this approach must then deal with how to make worship engaging for all who are present, regardless of their age—and having made this decision, must then convince/persuade all church staff and worshippers that it can be done without sacrificing relevance for anyone. Worship planning can be exciting when you think of all of the possibilities for creatively engaging all ages in the holy worship of God!

Back to my first Sunday dilemma: I thanked those parents for sharing their thoughts with me and moved on to worship. I prayed mightily for wisdom and guidance. I met the most wonderful children that day, children who loved God and who wanted to be with both their family and their church family as they experienced prayer and confession and forgiveness and music and offering and baptism and communion and hearing God’s Word and wondering about what it all meant for them—not much of which could be authentically replicated in a “children’s church” setting.

What did I do? Baby steps. From that day forward, I worked diligently to increase the time children sat with their families, made our time together a continuation of the adults’ worship, and lobbied for [and won!] the practice of bringing the children back into the sanctuary after the sermon. After a time, the only moments children were not in worship were the moments during a spoken sermon, giving them a chance to witness and experience all the richness of the tradition and ritual of worship in that church. After a time, no one could remember that it had been any other way.

Can families with children worship together in your church? Yes! It takes prayer, intentional worship planning, lots of creativity, patience, communication, and time, but your church can transform itself from a Sunday-morning-segregated group into the whole family of God at worship together.

What do you think?


Children in Today’s Church: At the Communion Table

March 17, 2010

Second in a series of three discussions

Several years ago, while leading a communion seminar for children and their families, a father came to me privately and expressed his concern that he would not be able to truly discern his children’s sincere repentance of the wrong things they had done, and therefore he could not allow them to take communion. He then proceeded to bring his children to worship and in full view of the other families, who had participated and graduated from the seminar, forbade his children to partake, passing the elements right over their heads.

How sad we all felt as we gazed at the bereft faces of those children!

One of the challenges in any congregation that wishes to be inclusive of children in worship is coming to an understanding or agreement about inviting children to the communion table. Every Christian congregation has its own set of understandings about when children should partake of the Lord’s Supper. Certainly denominational churches are governed by guidelines for worship; non-denominational churches usually develop their own policies.

Here are some thoughts:

“In the early church, baptism was the required admission to the Lord’s Table. This is still clear to us in the baptism of adults. But even to the early Christians, baptizing children and then refusing them communion would be like giving birth to a child and then withholding food until the child is old enough to ask for it and understand its significance.” [“A Theology of The Lord’s Supper” by Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez]

“The balance is a delicate one: on one hand, parents want to be sure that their children understand and appreciate the Lord’s Supper before the children begin receiving communion; but on the other hand, participating in the Lord’s Supper is one of the ways we gain understanding of and appreciation for the sacrament.” [“God’s Family at the Table” by Thomas G. Long]

When are children ready?

1. Children between birth and 3 years old can begin to learn about the Lord’s Supper while communion is being served. Parents can talk about what is happening with simple words such as “when we eat and drink we remember the special meal Jesus had with his friends.”

2. Children 3-5 years old are often quite curious about communion elements. Parents can share that “God’s people share a meal together as God’s family.”

3. Children aged 6-8 years old are reading and are often able to think both historically and symbolically so parents can talk about how we remember Jesus when we share communion. Engaging them in baking bread for communion, or helping to clean up afterwards, appeals to children of this age and helps them to feel included if they are not receiving communion in their church.

4. Children aged 9-12 years old are more skilled at abstract and symbolic thinking as they grow. They are gaining understanding of the presence of Jesus in the sacrament and that as we participate, we are receiving God’s love and forgiveness and saying thank you.

Learning about the Lord’s Supper is a life-long process. The most effective way we learn about anything in life is by doing it. It is the same for the Lord’s Supper. We do not really understand it until we participate in it.

In “Welcoming Children to the Lord’s Table”, David Ng says, “We now understand better that children, because of who they are, bring special gifts to the community of faith. Child-like faith is simple, direct, and trusting. It is not faith that is earned or learned, but faith that is a gift from God…. Indeed, Jesus used the faith of children to remind his disciples of the nature of faith.”

When we combine what we know about the Lord’s Supper with what we know about children, we find that children can participate with wonder and meaning, and can increasingly contribute to the entire community’s celebration.

What do you think?

Children in Today’s Church: Goals for Growing Spiritually

March 10, 2010

First in a series of three discussions

Over the years I have been asked many times by parents and church teachers about how to tell if a child is growing spiritually. Can we know if all the time spent in worship, Sunday school, midweek ministry programs, Vacation Bible school, and service projects is actually having a positive effect on the spiritual development of our children?

In my opinion, the answer is yes. While the growth of our faith is part of a life-long journey and certainly a unique personal experience, there are some measurable ways that we can use to test the general effectiveness of our ministry with children:

1. Children will increase in their understanding of God’s promise to always love us, to always forgive us and to always be with us. (Birth – 7 years)

2. Children will grow in their ability to pray. (Ages 1 – 7 years)

3. Children will participate in age appropriate worship experiences. (Ages 3 –7 years)

4. Children will increase in their knowledge of the stories of the people of God. (Ages 2 – 7 years)

5. Children will develop the ability to express kindness and to demonstrate generosity. (Ages 2 – 7 years)

6. Children will develop the ability to extend forgiveness and to make amends. (Ages 3- 7 years)

In his book “Talking to Your Child about God” David Heller says that like sexual or cognitive development, spiritual development is a natural process which unfolds spontaneously if a child is supported and encouraged. When development is suppressed or inhibited, however, a child is neither adequately equipped to confront religious questions healthily, nor sufficiently secure to get the most out of life.

How is your children’s ministry doing?

For a more evaluative and detailed tool to measure the effectiveness of your church’s ministry with children, use the free Children’s Ministry Effectiveness Model available at

A Review of Ivy Beckwith’s “Formational Children’s Ministry: Shaping Children using Story, Ritual, and Relationship”

March 3, 2010

Three kids of different agesLegal Disclosure: Baker Publishing provided me with a free copy of this book to read and review it. Personal Disclosure: I would have purchased it anyway! I read most books with a pen or pencil in hand (or finger in the case of Kindle). I underline either “amen” or “remember that new thought” passages—so I can easily return to them later.  I began underlining Ivy Beckwith’s “Formational Children’s Ministry” in the introduction.  Ivy has an extensive history of educational and experiential exposure to children’s ministry having taught on the college level and worked in the local church and for big ministry publishers. I appreciate her non-linear career path—local church…professor…church consultant …curriculum editor…local church. She has learned and collected a broad understanding of what works to connect children to the church and to Christ. I keep her “Postmodern Children’s Ministry” on the shelf next to my office desk and it too is a well marked book! I was very excited to learn that she had written another book on the topic and welcomed the opportunity to devote the time to reading it.

In “Formational Children’s Ministry” Ivy purports that what is critical to spiritual formation of children is the need to tap into their imaginations. She believes there needs to be some “compelling pull” for them to be drawn into living in the kingdom of God rather than delivering information with the hopes that it will work its way into their souls and emotions. The book explores what it takes to manifest the compelling pull—people—who themselves “have had their imaginations captured by the kingdom of God.” She makes a strong case for three things that the church must use for “shepherding children into a life with God”: Story, Ritual, and Relationship.

I nodded and underlined away all through the chapters on,,,

STORY–the need for our children to know God’s story through the Bible, to hear the church’s story in a historical context, to understand the community’s faith story, and to be given the language to tell their own faith story

RITUAL–the catalyst for passing along the faith, the kinesthetic connection to God’s story, and that which brings the faith community together

RELATIONSHIP–within the family, in the church community, and with peers

But the compelling pull for me into this book on transformational ministry for children was Ivy’s cry for the need for intergenerational ministry—interweaving the entire community’s story together through ritual and relationships to understand and embrace God’s story. That was a huge “AMEN!” for me.

She begins to make the case in Chapter 7 (Children in the Worshiping Community) to help parents understand and to help church leaders help parents understand that children need to SEE their parents living out their faith as a priority–a challenge when we segregate worship by age groups. She supplies other compelling reasons for children to be a part of worship with the whole community—not only what this offers for the children but what it offers for the rest of us as well. My only—really only—twinge of regret with the entire book is her shift from the critical need to incorporate children into worship with all ages to how to do “children’s worship” well. It’s like she is saying, “Please don’t…but if you must, then here’s how.”  Sometimes I’ll scribble questions in the book margins as I read and at the end of this chapter I wailed, “But what happened to making worship meaningful for all ages together?”

After reading Chapter 10 (Facilitating Spiritual Formation through Community Relationship) there are more underlined passages in the chapter than not!  She espouses the need for bringing the generations together in our congregations…

…as places where we share life together

…to buck the prevalent culture of ageism

…for plugging the rite of baptism into the power of the entire community

The best way to build community, she explains, is through shared experiences—continuous, shared experiences—to allow relationships to grow.  She is concerned (rightly so) that the church too often has settled for being “just another place where adults, teens, and children come to participate in their own interests and have their own worldviews confirmed.”

Ivy is honest about all the roadblocks that face the church interested in bringing all ages together to learn, worship and fellowship.  She encourages the church leader to start small and think intentionally and offers several specific examples of how it’s been done before and encouragement for all churches (especially small to mid-size) to give it a try.

I’ll offer up a time tested solution for Ivy and all the churches seeking a way to implement intergenerational ministry—it’s LOGOS. It was LOGOS that drew my family into the relationships in our church and many other families as well—setting the conditions right to nurture spiritual development and transformation. LOGOS is not a program or a curriculum but a system that facilitates intentional multi-generational ministry through study, worship, and fellowship. I was so charged up by how well it worked that I started getting asked to talk to other churches about it. Now I’m on staff of the international organization and get to talk to churches ALL DAY about how to implement and troubleshoot and maintain just the kind of thing that Ivy is convinced churches ought to be doing.

There is a need, as Ivy says, for a shift from the “formal education” or “schooling model” for children’s ministry. And there is a need for churches to learn how to incorporate the story, ritual and relationship within the context of the whole church community. Read the book and be prepared to be inspired and motivated to do children’s ministry a new way.