Andrea Roske-Metcalfe’s “pray-ground” has gotten a bit of national attention recently. I also enjoy Karen Ware Jackson’s blog about creative intergenerational worship. We’ve been tossing around ideas at Eliot for a few months. Last Sunday, Eliot Church celebrated its first “Children’s Sunday.” The plan is that on the fifth Sunday of each month, we will organize our worship service for the full participation of our youngest worshipers. I offer this debriefing of our first one as a resource for others who might like to find new ways to engage children in worship.
We made only slight modifications to the sanctuary, a very traditional space with fixed pews and a raised chancel. I moved the puplit and Lord’s Table toward the sides of the chancel and placed a projector screen in the center. The liturgist and I sat on the ground level to be closer to the children. We did not use a pulpit or lectern. I placed three child-height tables (taken from our Sunday School classrooms) in front of the front pew and surrounded them with child-sized chairs. Each table had a coloring poster from Illustrated Children’s Ministry taped down on all four sides, to prevent tearing. I put a handful of crayons on each table. Overall the space worked well. The children were close to me and the liturgist. The screen also helped keep their attention and gave a visual for non-readers. The only downside to the tables is that some children were sitting with their backs toward me and the screen.
Eliot Church already has a pretty relaxed approach to liturgy and a culture of flexibility, so people are generally open to a variety of styles. We kept most of our usual liturgical structure but wrote everything in language accessible to an early reader. For example the opening prayer went like this:
Dear God, We say, “Thank you,” for everything you made. We say, “Thank you,” for making us and giving us your Spirit. We hope our worship will make you happy. We love you. Amen.
Other prayers were led in “repeat after me” style. I worked with the liturgist ahead of time to help her think about how to explain the various parts of worship (prayer of confession, assurance of pardon, etc.) in terms that would make sense to young children. This simple kind of explanation also turned out to be meaningful for adults in the congregation with less experience in liturgy and ritual of the Protestant church.
We also chose songs that reflected the theme of the service and were either already familiar to our children or easy for them to learn. This month we used “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” “Halle, Halle, Hallelujah,” “This Is the Day,” “Every Move I Make,” and “Siyahamba.” We have a collection of children’s instruments which we laid across the chancel. During each song, children could choose an instrument to play and then return it to the chancel after the song was over.
Instead of having me pray on behalf of the congregation, I led the prayers of the people as a sort of bidding prayer. Members of the congregation were invited to say aloud in one sentence something they wished to pray for. Children were also invited to share, though none did. After each request, I said, “Lord, in your mercy,” and the people responded, “hear our prayer.” The children were able to share in that response. Moreover since the congregation was speaking their requests aloud they were less disturbed by any noise from the children than they might have been if I were praying and they expected silence.
The worship bulletin was redesigned using larger font to be more accessible for early readers. (I suspect some of the older members did not mind, either!) I also put together a PowerPoint slideshow to accompany almost every part of the liturgy. Anything that was supposed to be spoken had both the words and an image. One song had a music video. Other songs were images and words. It was not the flashiest production ever, but it seemed to connect well and helped the children focus. Thankfully the adults did not object to the slideshow even though we do not usually use much technology in worship.
I am usually the primary worship leader and that remained true on children’s Sunday. I also chose a liturgist who I knew to be good at engaging children. I met with her a few days before the service to go over her role and help her think about how to talk about the various parts in a way that a child could relate. My music director helped teach a new song to the children. At each table, I had a worship helper – an adult who would help the children recognize what was happening, nudge them to participate appropriately, and help with any behavior issues that might arise. These people were crucial to making the service a success.
It is important to me that the service also be engaging and meaningful for adults of all ages. I do not want children’s Sunday to become a day when the more mature members decide to sleep in because they feel that there is nothing for them in the service. To that end, I am keeping a sermon but it one that is highly interactive with a message for both adults and children. This week I decided to tackle the Trinity. If you really want to test your understanding of a complicated theological concept, explain it to a child! I am grateful for the help of Joanne Marxhausen’s book “3 in 1: A Picture of God.” Her apple metaphor is not perfect, but it gave me a starting point and an illustration to use with the children. During the sermon, I peeled, cored, and ate an apple! The book’s atonement theology is not quite the same as mine, so I dropped that and substituted my own language about what Jesus means for us. Tackling a difficult topic like the Trinity was engaging for the children and meaningful to adults who also need help understanding this idea. You can watch my whole “story sermon” on Eliot’s YouTube channel.