The argument for this approach is that children and worship as it is generally practiced are incompatible. Children live in a fast paced world that is very visual and participatory. Where else do they mainly sit and listen in a situation that is planned for people other than just children? They wiggle and add noise to a quiet room. The fear is that they will be bored and therefore will decide before they are able to appreciate it fully that worship is not for them and leave worship forever.
But when they are not part of the worshiping congregation children miss out.
In the congregation's worship we take our place among all of God’s people. Simply being in the room and walking through the rites and rituals connects us to people of all ages in our community. Children see the youth and adults that they know as teachers, coaches, and the “big kids” singing and praying. Families worshiping together claim the faith for the entire family. In some families it may be the only time they see their parents express their faith in a visible way. The stories told and songs sung by people of all ages have a different importance than those same stories and songs told and sung with only other children. Finally, worship is not an activity a child expects to outgrow moving on to another group. Instead it is a mysterious way of coming into God's presence with people of my community. I may not understand it fully now, but I do expect to understand it more fully later and to be part of that community for my entire life.
Children frequently participate in activities they do not fully understand. If they feel valued in those activities and if the adults around them let them know that the activities are very important, children participate as well as they are able and look forward to the day when they will understand more fully what is going on.
Also, during the elementary school years, children are focused on the larger world. They want to know how everything around them works and who gets to do what. They want to try almost everything. That will not last. During adolescence the focus turns to my peers and our special activities. That means we have a very important window of opportunity to invite children into the congregation’s worship between the ages of six and about twelve. If we do it well, they will have both a home within the larger congregation and a foundational understanding of worship on which they can build throughout their lives.
So, how do we include children in the congregation's worship?
First of all we do not dumb worship down for the sake of the children. We offer the full feast. But we plan that feast expecting worshipers of all ages to be present.
At the very least we include the concerns of children. If prayer requests are made publicly we hear with respect a child’s grief over a dead pet. When school starts, report cards are eminent, and the school year ends we include them in the church’s liturgy. (Many congregations are incorporating a blessing of the book bags into congregational worship at the beginning of the school year.) Holidays such as Halloween that are of special interest to children are noted in sermons.
We can also throw young worshipers life lines. We can tell the story behind a hymn before we sing it. Key vocabulary words can be identified and defined before a scripture is read. One aspect of a sacrament or ritual can be explored just before it is celebrated. The texts for the day can be presented in a lively way that both captures the essence of the text and catches the attention of children rather than simply read in a monotone. Such short moments of worship education are often appreciated by adults who are new to worship or need a refresher course.
Children are most sure they belong in worship when they become worship leaders. Children can sing, play musical instruments, read scripture, light candles, serve with adults as greeters and ushers, take up the offering, and more. In smaller congregations all that is required is alert adults to invite children to take leadership especially suited to their interests and abilities. A child playing Jesus Loves Me with one finger on the chimes is a real call to worship for the whole congregation. In larger congregations, plans must be made for groups of children. So, there are children’s choirs and acolyte groups. Children’s classes are asked to help prepare a scripture presentation. And, more.
Years ago I had a fight with a music director about a prime piece of time. He wanted it for a children’s choir. I wanted it for a kid’s club. He finally said, “Let’s be honest. These kids are going to grow up, probably disappear from church for a while at some point, and hopefully come back. And where will they come? They will come to the sanctuary. And, if they have been in my choir and learned the ways of the sanctuary, it will feel like coming home and they will stay.” He is right, of course, and that is why it is so important that during their elementary years we welcome children to the sanctuary and intentionally find ways to help them grow as worshipers there among God's gathered people.