Happiness News – Children in Church

“…and a little child shall lead them.”

Last week the children led the worship service at our family’s church. Thirty kids from age four through eighth grade took responsibility for every aspect of our United Methodist worship experience: playing the prelude, serving on the Praise Team, leading prayers, taking up offering, singing the anthem, lighting candles, reading Scripture, and making announcements. Our pastor gave a sermon – another really good one, by the way – but the children led everything else. It was our fifth year to do this, and it continues to be more effective every year.

Let’s face it – we’re all around children at some point in our lives. Either we have younger siblings or cousins, we’re parents of young children, our friends are parents of young children, we’re grandparents, our friends are grandparents, we see children at the grocery store, or we work in a field that involves children. Children can be cute and cuddly and altogether adorable. They can also be loud, annoying, and utterly distracting. They can make us proud, and they can make us want to hide in a cave. One of the biggest factors in children’s behavior is the expectations of the adults in their lives. “You get what you expect” is an incredibly accurate statement where children are concerned.

What do you expect of the children in your life? I expect that the children in my life can handle some responsibility, and even some leadership. The littlest ones at church were responsible for leading the congregation in the prayer time. That’s a major responsibility – leading people in talking to God. Each wee preschooler had to say a one- or two-line prayer that they helped create as a group, and then wait for the congregation to say the one-line response printed in their bulletins. But because we make praying together a common practice in our Sunday School classes, our social gatherings, and our service projects, the kids from youngest to oldest are comfortable praying aloud and praying together. Our third, fourth and fifth graders comprise the pool from which the readers of Scripture, coordinators of Tithes & offerings collection, welcome & announcements, and children’s choir are drawn. They are expected to sit up in front nearly the whole service, to stand still and straight at the pulpit, to look up and make eye contact with the congregation as they speak or sing, and to speak in a way that can be understood by all present. And they meet those expectations. Yes, it’s due in large part to the fact that their parents work with them on their roles. But it’s also due to the fact that their church teachers, leaders and parents expect them to do well, and we understand that doing well includes some practice.

It would have been easier for me if I hadn’t had the inspiration to create this children’s service. I spend hours just figuring out which families will be in town, which of our two services they’ll be attending, what each child is most interested in doing, what role best suits their interests and abilities, and what distribution of responsibilities will be most fair and most successful for everyone. I’m exhausted when it’s all over. But I’m already making notes of ideas for next year because I see how good it is for the children, for their families and for our entire church. The children gain an understanding of, and respect for, the various ways that people serve in a worship service. They’re much more likely to pay attention and get involved in the worship service now – even the parts of the service that seemed boring to them before. Their parents are given an opportunity to be truly proud of their children for doing something meaningful, not just something cute. Yeah, “cute” has its place, but it shouldn’t be the only thing we expect of children in church or anywhere else. And the other adults in the Sanctuary have a chance to get to know a set of people that they might not otherwise notice, or that they might notice only with annoyance when they hear the repeated scratch of a crayon or the thud of a dropped hymnal.  We’ve been made a better church family through this child-led experience.

What about your family? Have you found ways to balance some of the leadership responsibility between adults of various ages and children? It has been interesting to watch the dynamics of the various families we’ve had as guests at Happiness Hills. Some families have high expectations of their kids, and those are often the ones we don’t have to clean up after. They remember to put the toys back in the Barn and the houses. They watch the animals rather than chase them. They still have plenty of fun, but they understand their boundaries. Then there are those who have low to no expectations for their kids’ behavior, and, honestly, those are the ones that make us most nervous. We find toys all over the yard after they leave, some irreparable after being stepped on or driven over. Things are dirty and out of place. We discover broken items hidden behind things, or in the back of a drawer. I think there’s ultimately less fun being had by those kids, because it’s tainted by a sense of guilt and covering-up of what they know to be bad behavior. That idea doesn’t just apply to kids, by the way – but that’s another blog for another day!

Maybe today is a good day to take stock of how responsibility is handled in your family. If it’s out of balance, it’s worth asking the God who set the universe in motion to help you equalize. It might not be easy, and some of it might leave you exhausted, but you’ll see the benefits and you’ll know a stronger sense of peace and connectedness than ever before.

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