Thursday, September 17, 2015

Let all the people praise you: on children in worship

From The WORD, the monthly newsletter of Saint Timothy's, Herndon
Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you.”  Ps. 67:3

“Is tomorrow Sunday School?”   Our youngest son doesn’t quite follow the days of the week yet, and from about Wednesday at supper he wants to know how soon the big day will arrive.  Coming to Saint Timothy’s has been a big event in the religious life of our family for several reasons. 

First, we all get to worship together on Sunday mornings.  Since our older son was quite young, the boys have gone to my wife Allison’s rural Lutheran church for service each week, while I led worship at the Episcopal church.  With Allison’s pastoral ministry on hold during her graduate work, we now gather in the same place—though generally on different sides of the Altar rail.  Sunday School is also new for them, and they love the stories, the crafts, and the fun time spent with other kids their own age.

My wife and I, like all the other parents we know, want the very best for our kids.  So we were so excited to learn about the strength of Saint Timothy’s children’s ministries, under the leadership of Christine Hoyle and so many dedicated teachers.  I had introduced Godly Play in another church before our oldest son was born, and was delighted to see that it provides the core instruction for kids in our boys’ age group. 

But we’re also afraid that our boys might fall behind in one part of their spiritual lives.  They might be losing out on the opportunity to grow as worshippers, as regular active participants in the common work of the people of God.   

Though that tiny Lutheran church didn’t have a big Sunday School to offer them, it did teach our boys to be liturgists.  They learned to “do the aerobics” properly, to sing the canticles, to join in the hymns, and (sometimes) to sit fairly still during the sermon.  We’ve had lots of help in this from helpful pewmates, who were patient with their squirminess, pointed out the proper places in the worship book, and encouraged their progress with smiles and pats on the back. 

But here, that will be harder.  Because like many Episcopal churches over the last few decades, Saint Timothy’s decided to conduct children’s Sunday School during worship, bringing children in just for the final third of the Eucharistic liturgy.  In most places, the decision was made for the sake of time and attention spans.  Families these days, we are told, don’t have enough time for both worship and Sunday School.  Kids will be bored to tears if asked to endure an hour and a quarter of worship. 

Maybe that’s right.  But maybe training children to worship, to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers” (BCP 304) is just as important as teaching them Bible stories in a class with other kids.

We’re in a time of discernment now about the Sunday morning schedule at Saint Timothy’s, and this issue of whether it might be advisable to ask parents to bring their children to “the full service” each week has arisen in the task force’s discussions.   As someone who cares deeply about forming children to worship, I feel I need to present my case to all of you, especially to the parents of young children.

First, worship is really important.  We are redeemed by God to praise Him, and we offer our richest praise when are gathered together, when “all the people praise Him.”  There is a particular beauty and power to the worship of children, an unselfconscious joy that puts the rest of us to shame.  In addition, The Book of Common Prayer is the source of our doctrine as Episcopalians.  Its texts were formed through extensive (and heated) processes of deliberation, and its beautiful prose is widely regarded as the model for liturgical text in English.  If it is so important to us, if we love it so much, why in the world wouldn’t we want to teach it to our children?

Second, worship doesn’t come naturally, but there’s no better time to start than when kids begin Sunday School in earnest.  Liturgy’s repetition and its variable posture (standing, kneeling, sitting) sometimes strikes adults as tedious, but kids love this kind of thing (think of children’s games, after all).  Research into faith development in children stresses that the ages of 7-10 are especially valuable for liturgical formation because kids love being part of a group  at this age, and aren’t embarrassed to join in with activities that are important to their parents.  Elementary school children also have a high capacity for memorization.  If we can get the liturgical texts and hymn lyrics in their heads now, these resources will nurture faith in the days ahead when this kind of learning is harder.  Plus, our Godly Play curriculum is specifically designed to support liturgical participation, by cultivating a love for the central symbols and stories that form the Eucharistic liturgy.  It’s great to teach kids how to worship through a liturgically-focused curriculum, but it’s very odd to simultaneously deprive them of the experience of worshipping. 

It’s not always easy, of course, to worship with kids.  Many of them do find it hard to sit still, and maybe it will be necessary to take out a book or puzzle during those long-winded homilies.   But, learning to follow an extended argument does have its advantages.  Think of how the presidential race might be different if more Americans had learned complex reasoning in childhood.

More seriously, several extensive studies have documented the waning of religious participation among young adults, particularly those who grew up in mainline churches like ours.  In an important recent study, Almost Christian (2010) Princeton’s Kenda Creasy Dean found that a majority of American millennials who had attended church in childhood had ended up believing in “moral therapeutic deism,” a weak, self-centered shadow of authentic Christian belief.  Dean pins the blame squarely on churches who don’t expect enough of their kids, streamlining the Sunday morning time and failing to discuss and reinforce the faith at home. 

Our practice of keeping kids out of church and only expecting them to attend “the full service” when they have been confirmed as teenager certainly isn’t the only culprit in this slouch towards deism.  But I think it’s a major factor, at least for Episcopalians, and it often seems to speed kids out the doors.  If we’ve missed our great opportunity to form young people in the patterns and habits of liturgical participation as elementary school students, it’s difficult to expect it of them at an age when social pressure against organized religion (and doing anything with your parents) grows stronger.

If we decide to invite children to join us for the full Eucharistic liturgy each week at Saint Timothy’s, this will require that we all learn a bit more gracious and hospitable.  There are new resources we can use to help kids engage, maybe a few things will need to be shortened or moved around.  It might well be worth the effort to share in the profound ministry of training another generation of God’s children to praise Him with joy. 

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