"Children at Worship" seems to have a narrow meaning in many congregations. Often, it means little more than the periodic children's sermon or the junior choir anthem. Unfortunately, sometimes both become more the entertainment of adults than the spiritual edification of children or the praise of God. How can we plan and practice worship so that it feeds ALL the baptized? How can we do worship so effectively that both children and adults are provided a means to encounter the holy?
A first step in reaching children is to understanding how human beings process and learn new information at various stages of development. Before they use language, young children use their senses to acquire information and infer meaning. As children grow older, language assumes a more central role in learning. As adults, language is usually the predominant way of acquiring information, even though we never stop learning through our senses.
Children are creatures of habit. Repetition, whether it be a night time routine or the reading of a favorite story, provides order and security in children’s lives. Such traditions enable them to bring meaning, understanding and maturity to their experiences. The need for ritual can make the liturgy an engaging and relevant means of worship for children.
Exchanging the peace and signing the cross are only two of many ritual actions in worship that can have meaning for children. Children learn the meaning of these actions by repeating them within the liturgy. Children don’t need to assign words to actions before they can find meaning in them. Because it features color and action, the liturgy is full of meaning for children. If we would really engage children in worship, we might see to it that ritual actions are as well done as our words are articulated. Children will understand body language or actions of the presiding minister, assisting ministers, and the assembly much faster than they will understand the words that are spoken. They will, in turn, use these actions to discover the meaning of the words accompanying the action. We will want to encourage children, as well as adults, to participate in worship through bodily gestures by making the sign of the cross, opening hands in prayer, and facing and bowing before the cross as it moves in procession. Even such simple changes in posture like kneeling and standing have meaning within the context of the liturgy.
As we consider children at worship, we will want to determine how the physical environment can present powerful symbols from which they can learn the central tenets of the faith. For instance, the water-filled font, the table, and the ambo or pulpit should be of significant size and centrally placed so that they immediately draw the eye. These focal "things" can speak clearly of the centrality of baptism, eucharist and scripture. Bold colors used in paraments and vestments that change with the seasons teach children that we live within the rhythm of the liturgical year. Seasonal banners with thoughtfully designed symbolism can effectively convey meaning. The best banners do not include words. Children are especially capable of interpreting symbolic meaning.
Children can provide effective worship leadership. Singing is often the most obvious way children can lead in worship, but the singing should not be limited to a children's choir anthem. A Sunday school class or children's choir might be taught to sing the psalm antiphon for the day as a refrain to the psalm verses sung by the rest of the congregation. Not only is this active leadership of an integral part of the liturgy, but the children also will remember a text they sing much longer than words they speak. Older elementary and middle school children are often quite capable of singing the psalm verses (let the congregation sing the antiphon), the assisting minister parts of the Kyrie, or the proper Alleluia verse for the day.
Children’s voices might be the choice for a particular stanza during the Hymn of the Day. Or, let children introduce a new hymn to the congregation. Children so readily capture the spirit of new hymnody, especially songs from other styles and cultures, that their enthusiasm can engage the entire congregation. Music that might otherwise be received somewhat grumpily by adults is often sung without reservation, thanks to the leadership of children.
Older children often read aloud quite well. Lift up the gifts of those who do by having them serve as lectors. Some readings have natural dramatic elements; they may record conversations between various people or relay dramatic action. Children might present these readings as a choral reading or a short, simple play.
Processions, with their emphasis on movement, offer an ideal opportunity for children to participate. Have the children bring forward their gifts, perhaps food for a local food bank or blankets for Lutheran World Relief, as a part of the offertory procession. If the hymn sung during a procession lends itself to the addition of simple hand-held instruments such as gourds, maracas, bells, or tambourines, children can participate in the procession by playing some of these instruments.
Marking the change of seasons can be done in ways other than changing paraments. A special song or short litany, perhaps one the children help to write, may accompany the lighting of the Advent wreath. At the Easter Vigil, encourage children to bring bells to ring during the Hymn of Praise, during an acclamation, following baptisms and at other times. During Epiphany, children can make alleluia banners to be put away in a chest during the final hymn at the close of the liturgy on the Sunday of the Transfiguration. Take them out and hang them during the singing of the alleluias at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Day. Children might be encouraged to make crosses that could be carried in procession on Holy Cross Day. The lifting up of symbols in simple ways is very meaningful to children and adults alike. These are just a few examples. Use your imagination to develop many more.
Yes, children will need adequate preparation–-more than the average adult might need–-but the end result will be capable worship leadership at their own level and a continual growth in participation and understanding of this communal event known as worship, which so profoundly shapes our faith.
- Bernstein, Eleanor, and John Leonard, eds. Children in the Assembly of the Church. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1992. ISBN: 0929650662.
- Cavelletti, Sophia. The Religious Potential of the Child: Experiencing Scripture and Liturgy with Young Children. Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications.
- Rotermund, Donald, ed. Children Sing His Praise. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1985.
- Sandell, Elizabeth J., Including Children in Worship. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991. ISBN: 0806625449.
- Sundays and Seasons: Worship Planning Guide.Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, published annually.