We’re now entering the summer holidays, when many Sunday Schools will take a break. This means churches are likely to have more children in church for the whole service.
It’s important that children have this opportunity to worship with the whole inter-generational church family, but it can be stressful for parents. They may worry that their child’s behaviour is disrupting the service. They may feel judged by other worshippers if their children make noise. The person in the front pew who sings loudly and out of tune and the person who has a coughing fit in the middle of the sermon are not judged – these are seen as unavoidable side effects of worshipping as a community. Yet any children who make noise are seen as “disruptive.” I smell a double standard. As Christian educator Gretchen Wolff Pritchard put it, “there seems to be an unexamined assumption that worship is for grownups and the children are there only because there’s nowhere else to put them — that they are, basically, accidental and unwelcome guests at an adult event. People then become annoyed at children for ‘interrupting’ something that is “for ME,” not for all of us. Parents who are trying to be considerate of others will admonish the child for ‘bothering people’ but not intervene in ways that actually help the child join the worship.”
Parents who do want their children to be able to join the worship and regard church as a meaningful experience, rather than as an enforced hour of quiet and silence, may not know where to start.
Here are a few practical ways to make ordinary Sunday worship child-friendly. Some can be done by Children’s Workers, others need the help of parents.
- If you use the same Gloria, Sanctus and Agnus Dei every week, why not record the congregation singing them? You can then upload these clips to YouTube, or burn them to a CD, so parents can practice with their kids at home.
- Based on work done by the Rev. Betty Pedley, the Spiritual Child Network has put together a how-to sheet on making Liturgy Boxes. These are kits designed for children to use during the service – they have objects that relate to different parts of worship, and, with help from parents, children can learn which parts to hold and play with at different times. For more information, and a list of suggested contents, go to the Spiritual Child Network’s website.
- St. George’s now has a permanent “Pray and Play” area for small children. This includes a child-sized altar with chalice and paten and a wooden cross, baskets of toys related to Christian stories (lost sheep, Christmas, etc.), and toys related to Christian liturgy (a toy church, etc.). It is within sight of the altar, so children can see what is going on during the service, and allows children to move and play without being taken out of the sacred space, and to engage with sacred toys. (For more details, see the St. George’s blog)
- For older children, you can give them a copy of SPCK’s wonderful “Pray, Sing, Worship” book, which is a guide to the Common Worship service, along with a pack of markers and blank paper for them to draw. Very often, children will come up with amazing spiritually imaginative art during a service – this is how they process what they’re hearing and experiencing. It doesn’t mean they’re tuning it out. Often it means they’re engaged on a deeper level than if they were sitting quietly.
- Encourage parents to sit where their children can see the altar. Staring at the back of a stranger’s head, without seeing the candles, the bread, the wine, the cross, the flowers, and the stained glass windows, is not conducive to an atmosphere of awe and wonder. No matter how fabulous that stranger’s hair looks today.
- Similarly, encourage parents to whisper with their children about what’s going on in the service. Simple things like, “look, the priest is clearing the table, just like we do after dinner at home,” or “what pictures can you see in that stained glass window?” or “here come the cross and the candles up the aisle – let’s bow to the cross as it goes by” can refocus a distracted child and help them to understand the service.
- Parents can use the CBeebies “Sign Along With Justin” videos to learn baby sign language with their children. Many of these signs can be used in church. Send a link to parents and encourage them to use it, then have a children’s worker or volunteer stand at the front of the church and use signs at the appropriate times, encouraging parents to follow. Here are some of the signs from the video that you can use: “hello” (for the beginning of the service), “help” (for prayers), “sit down” (for when the congregation sits), “flower” (to point out the flowers – can be used as children come in), “sheep” (for the agnus dei), and “bread” (for communion). The videos are on the CBeebies’ website . Other signs that can be used in church are “eat” (if you include children in communion), “all done” (for the end of the service), “book” (for Bible readings or singing), “hear” (for prayers or hymns), all of which can be found in this Youtube video.
I’d be interested to hear from anybody who adopts one or more of these ideas over the summer. What works? What doesn’t? Were the parents enthusiastic or was it hard to get them involved? Please email me at margaret (Email: margaret [at] stgeorgescampdenhill.com) to let me know how it’s going.