I’m in search of a New Zealand-sold product to get some crayon drawings off of the folding tables in our church worship space these days. A two-year-old worshiper left them there, and I couldn’t be more delighted about it. She was exactly where she was supposed to be and fully engaged in the task at hand. Worship.
A few weeks ago, I spent some time scraping blue play-doh remnants out of our lovely mauve carpet. Apparently a rock-slide occurred when the earthquake shook the cave Elijah was hiding in and some blue rocks crashed to the ground. No worries. It was a certain boy’s first time to hear the story, and it was playing out in 4D play-doh as it sunk into his mind and heart.
You see, we don’t parade our kids out of the sanctuary every week for an age level worship experience. Rather, we worship together as a family. In the sanctuary. Every Sunday. We’re all there. The mums and dads and grandparents and widows and widowers and wiggly tots and bitty babies and boisterous big kids. All of us together. Every Sunday. We call it family worship. And we do it on purpose.
Oh, it’s not glamorous. Sometimes we have marker on our clothes, early note-taking attempts in crayon on the tables, and play-doh in the carpet to show for it. But it’s meaningful and it’s formational.
Born out of both practical need (hello small church with a tiny volunteer base, noisy plywood floors, and an unconducive floor plan) and an ecclesiastical and theological understanding of the roles of family and church in a child’s spiritual formation, we made a conscious decision to figure out family worship as a significant component of our church’s identity. We believe that parents are the first primary spiritual instructors for their children. In one way or another, they model it (whether they want to or not). They shape it through questions and conversations. They encourage it through priorities, family structures, and daily routines.
When we gather for corporate worship, we’re all being shaped, from the youngest among us to the oldest, into a collective reflection of the Kingdom of God. We’re not a full reflection of the Kingdom of God if kids are not a part of it. We’re also not a full reflection unless some more seasoned folks are there too. There’s something really valuable that happens when we’re formed together.
We’ve had some great children’s worship experiences both as children and as pastors. We’re not discounting that by any means, but this is where we are right now, in our current context, as parents and as pastors and as people who desperately long to see the children walk out a solid faith of their own from the time they take their very first wobbly steps.
Before you write us off as idealists with a quiet, angelic missionary kid who sings all of the songs and hangs attentively on every word of his pastor parents, let me reassure you. I am quite sure our child ranks on the 71st percentile for strong will, the 86th percentile for energy, and the 100th percentile for volume. Translation: he’s loud, he’s active, and he has a mind of his own. Yes, I have engaged in a full on wrestling match in the midst of “Amazing Grace.” I’ve marched a certain wriggling child across an endlessly echoing plywood floor to the back of the sanctuary for a come to Jesus moment all his own. I’ve said, “Use your whisper voice!” more times than I can count, only to be met with a 130 decibel response of, “WHAT!? I can’t hear you!!” I’ve handed out a hobbit’s feast worth of snacks before the third song. I’m that mom. I’ve been there.
But I’ve also had real and significant conversations with my four-year-old about the scripture text for the day. I’ve helped make play-doh loaves and fish and related peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the Story of God. I’ve sung worship songs into his ear and helped him fill out his tithe envelope.
And then, we’ve revisited those conversations both intentionally and spontaneously when we’re reading his Bible, when a song comes on the radio, when we’re on a bike ride, and at the most random of moments. Q’s little mind and heart are being shaped by corporate worship AND by our life together. What happens in family worship shapes our life together and our life together shapes what happens in family worship. It’s a beautiful symbiotic relationship that makes the more *ahem* challenging moments all the more worthwhile and the “aha” moments all the more precious.
There are lots of benefits to family worship done well!
- Our parents are being formed spiritually AND they’re learning how to engage their children on a spiritual level. At the same time.
- Our preaching is better. Who doesn’t benefit from a multi-sensory experience that draws us deeper into the story of God?
- Our kids have a sense of belonging in the broader family of God.
- Everyone in our family has a common experience that we can talk about and engage with.
- New families don’t have to worry about shipping their kids off to unfamiliar places.
- The whole church family gets to worship together.
Don’t worry! We’re not asking kids to sit still and listen quietly for an hour. Believe me. Been there. Done that. Wrestling a four-year-old monkey is not my favorite activity.
For us, family worship doesn’t look like:
- Kids sitting quietly in pews with folded hands and still feet.
- Children’s church for the grown-ups too.
- Watered down theology or avoiding the tough stuff.
- Parents getting the side eye for their little person’s noises or wiggles.
For us, family worship DOES look like:
- The option of sitting in a row of chairs or at a table (the flexibility of our space allows for this).
- Hands-on materials to keep little (or not so little) hands busy while ears and minds are working, imagining, and absorbing.
- Pulling a wandering tot on my lap now and again.
- Quietly guiding my own child (and others who may be around me) through the words and practices of the worship service.
- Offering an extra snack to another mum’s kiddo.
- Celebrating engagement through picture-taking and quiet high-fives mid-service.
- Opportunities for age-level teaching geared specifically towards kids at other times.
And then, the one component that took our family worship experience from harried and chaotic to rich and enjoyable…. Never mind that it took 20 Sundays to figure it out. In our context, family worship includes thoughtfully posed questions for discussion and ideas for ways to use the available materials to engage with that week’s text. We realize that parents don’t automatically know how to engage their kids in worship. Kids don’t always automatically know how to reflect on what they’re hearing. We’re here to figure it out together. It seems giving kids and families (ours included) some specific and meaningful tasks, greatly increased the level of engagement and decreased the amount of effort spent removing a certain child from under the folding table where he insisted on kicking the noisy metal sliders.
I don’t know what ministry with kids and families will look like in our context down the road. Ministries and structures will come and go. Trends and needs change. However, at Crossroads Church we’re learning together how to live out a Wesleyan-Holiness theology, and no matter what ministries come and go we are committed to the spiritual formation of entire families. Even if it means a little play-doh in the carpet.