She is sitting on the steps with the pastor who asks a question. She offers what seems like a perfectly sensible answer and the whole congregation laughs. In that moment one of two things happens, either a comedian is born or a child feels humiliated. When a comedian is born, he often uses the children’s time to practice his new-found vocation, generally with beginner comedian results. He may even compete with the pastor for the attention of the congregation – especially if mom or dad is the pastor. The results can embarrass everyone – except probably the young comedian. But if the child who drew laughter feels humiliated, she often decides the conversations on the steps are dangerous. Humiliated children do not speak up again for a long time and eventually fold their arms across their chests saying emphatically, “I am not going up there anymore.” That response is the more common one and also poses the biggest threat to the growth of a young worshiper.
But congregations love this kind of laughter! Many adults look forward to it as possibly the only unscripted light-hearted moment in the whole service.
What to do?
* To protect and respect young worshipers stop asking children questions during the children’s time. No adult would willingly converse with the preacher on an unannounced topic in front of the whole congregation. Why ask it of children? Instead sing songs together, recite prayers and verses, tell stories, and explain things. The adults enjoy all those things and might at times laugh with the children during them, but they don’t put the children on the spot.
* Ask questions but teach the congregation to withhold their laughter as a baptismal responsibility to the children. Point out that no one likes to be laughed at unless they are telling a joke. When children make good faith comments that seem funny to adults, we need to love them by enjoying their comment silently. Congregations often need to be taught this practice. Articles in newsletters or printed in bulletins are good starters. At times it is necessary to flat out discuss it with a worshiping congregation. Most adults wouldn’t laugh at a child knowing the hurt it can cause. They simply haven’t thought about it from the child’s point of view.
* If a child does draw a laugh, support her immediately. If she is within reach, give her a hug. Say seriously, “that is something I never thought of before. I think that is why everyone laughed. But, I think you may be right. Why do you say that?” Or, say something to agree with or validate what the child said. Don’t let the laughter go unanswered.
Not letting the congregation laugh at a child is a little thing that can make a big difference in the life of a child. It is also a matter of congregational worship etiquette and keeping our baptismal promises to welcome children into the community of God’s people.