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Children in the Liturgy


Once again Ben Myers hits the nail on the head. The liturgy, when celebrated well, is the matrix in which all are welcome – including all ages and stages. He talks about how we too-often encounter churches approaching children and church; and then how it might be done, and in many places is:

…The best-loved and most successful approach is what is known as liturgical babysitting. There are many different kinds of liturgical babysitting, but they all follow the same award-winning formula: (1) remove the children from the service at the earliest possible convenience; (2) in a separate room as far from the main worship space as is humanly possible, provide supervised games, crafts, and other activities; (3) don’t forget to establish some random points of connection between said activities and something to do with the Bible; (4) finally, shuttle the little treasures back to their parents after the latter have enjoyed an entire hour of that exquisite spiritual bliss that nothing but the temporary deprivation of one’s own children can induce. I suppose it would be churlish to criticise a system that is so perfectly calculated to meet the spiritual needs of adult worshippers. Suffice it to say that this approach would be an ideal solution to the problem of children’s participation in worship, except for the fact that it involves no participation and no worship.

In reaction to liturgical babysitting, some churches have taken the approach of adapting the entire liturgy to a child’s point of view. Bible stories in sandpits, creative responses to the story in paint and play dough, eucharistic juice and cookies – this sort of thing is aimed at getting children to participate for themselves in the great rhythms of the liturgy. There is a lot to be said for this, but there is also a risk of turning the Christian mysteries into a cult of childhood, so that adult participants are infantilised and deprived of the freedom to worship as adults. Anyone who has scoured the underbelly of liberal protestantism will be able to recall one of those grim gatherings at which full-grown adults are exhorted to draw crayon pictures on butcher paper or to exchange infantile remarks about their tenderest feelings. When Our Lord told us to become like little children, he was not referring to crayons and sandpit therapy. And a faith that is not large enough to accommodate growth into a full adult experience does not deserve the respect of children either…

As far as I can tell, it’s not that the liturgy is inherently inhospitable to smaller people. The great symbols of our worship are things that children instinctively love and understand. Indeed, they are such good honest things that even adults can understand them: water, bread, book, flame.

Is it too hard to imagine that children could be encouraged to participate not in some sanctified playgroup in a back room, but in these same symbols, as glorious for their simplicity as for their depth? When my son held his candle on Easter morning and bellowed out the church’s great “Amen” after every reading, was he just experiencing a child-friendly version of the real thing? Was his rapt waxy-fingered attention anything less than genuine worship, since even with his limited understanding he was able to draw upon the symbols of faith and to make himself at home within their world of meaning?…

Read the whole piece here.

In my book, Celebrating Eucharist, I have a chapter on Children at the Eucharist.

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4 thoughts on “Children in the Liturgy”

  1. Thanks for this, Bosco. I read the whole article with much head-nodding, and now I’ve forwarded the link to our parish priest and youth ministry co-ordinator.

    Our parish is of the “liturgical babysitting” variety, and I must say it makes Sunday worship much more relaxing than it would be otherwise! But I would “trade up” to the Ben Myers model in a heartbeat. His account of his son’s fascination with fire is just perfect (I speak as one with three kids, aged 6 and under).

  2. The best thing I’ve ever seen on children’s churching is this:
    1. The children, if ripe enough, serve as acolytes.
    2. After the Gospel reading, they are invited to talk about it. If they beat around the bush, the priest would drag the phrases out of them, with questions.
    3. They receive the holy communion.

  3. Our Sunday School model is that the children begin in class, and join the rest of the community at The Peace. One Sunday a month the children are in church for the entire service, and some children assist with greeting, ushering and a child reads one of the lessons. Every other week, after communion the presider (interim rector, associate or deacon) presents a short “children’s sermon” and one Sunday a month the children’s choir sings with the adult choir. We like to think that it is about as good as we can do; not perfect but not terrible either.

    What we have yielded, on the short term is good:
    1. the children feel comfortable in church
    2. the children are comfortable with the clergy
    3. children are exercising liturgical roles. Almost all the children have participated in one or more of the ministries; lector, usher, acolyte, greeter.
    4. parents feel that their children matter to the larger community

    The long range goals… I don’t know. I wish that we had a more integrated catechetical program that engages the parents. We don’t, and I think there is much work to do. But I believe that the children have a rightful place in the church, and if they feel they are in their rightful environment and feel valued, it’s a win on balance.

    1. Thanks, Lou. Particularly for highlighting that the paradigm: “children learn – adults worship” needs reviewing not just in relation to children worship, but also adults learn. Christ is Risen!

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