Thursday, July 11, 2013

Including Back To School Sunday in the Congregation's Worship

The return to school, starting a new grade with new teachers and students, even new schools is HUGE for children and their families.  It feels more like the beginning of the new year than does the first of January.  When the church includes this in the congregation’s worship two things important things happen among children.
  1. They realize that they and their lives are important to the church.  They  see themselves as significant members of the congregation.
  2. They hear that God is with them at school and that their church cares about what happens there.  God and church are not “off to the side” or just a Sunday thing. 
There are many ways to raise the beginning of the new school year.  It can be as simple as including it in the church’s prayers or as elaborate as a back to school festival.   This post offers some background on children’s concerns as school begins again and a collection of ways to raise those concerns in worship.  Where specific August lectionary texts have a back to school connection, I will note it and offer ways to raise it in worship in the post for that day.

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VOCABULARY HEADS UP     Vocabulary is important.  Most elementary aged children think of themselves as “children” more than “students.”  Since my focus is on including these children in worship, I will use “children” in my suggestions.  Teenagers are not likely to respond well to this.  So, if you want to include them in this day, use the “student” in both advertising and liturgy.  Consider taking time early in the service to talk about what a student is and does to make sure the youngest know that they are students too.
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Questions Children Obsess About the Week Before School

Will I like my teacher/s?
Will my teacher/s like me?
Will I like the other kids in my class?
Will my friends be in my class?
Will kids who were a pain last year be in my class again?
     L  the kid who was constantly picking on you and making fun
         of you?
 L  the kid who always out-spelled you, counted further, and
          made a higher grade?
     L  the kid you just did not like and hated to be around
Will I be able to do the work?  Will this be the year I flunk?
Will it be fun?

Ideas to Explore with Children on the Sunday before School Starts

>  God will be with you every day at school.  No matter how good or bad things are going, God will be there.  You can count on God’s presence.  To explore this idea, include a litany with children.  This one was written by Rev. Karin Fowler  and modified by Rev. Larry Farris

Leader: When it’s the night before going to school, and I’m picking out my clothes and making sure I have all my school supplies…
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: When I’m waking up and eating a healthy breakfast to start the day
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: When I’m getting on the school bus or being driven to school...
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: When I meet my teachers and new friends in my class…
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: When I’m playing with my friends at recess…
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: When I’m finding the right school bus to ride home…
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: When I’m telling my family about my day at school…
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: When I’m praying at night and thanking God for my family, my friends and my school…
Children: Jesus is with me.
Leader: Let’s pray together:
All: Thank you, Jesus, for always being by my side. I know that if I get nervous or afraid, you will be there with me. When I see the cross on my backpack, I will remember that you are always with me. I know that I can talk with you any time – day or night – and for that I am so thankful. I pray this all in your name. Amen.

>  Give each child a small symbol to remind them of God’s presence with them at school.  It may be a pencil printed with a message,  a plastic symbol to clip or tie to their backpack or a sticker to put on or on the inside flap of their backpack.  Do check to be sure such things are allowed.  Some schools have banned clip-ons because the chains of them children were adding to packs created very real safety hazards.  And, some school systems will not allow religious symbols displayed openly.  In either case provide something that can be put inside the bag (maybe under the flap) where the student will see it. 

>  God loves you always.  Other students may cut you out.  A teacher may not like you.  But, God loves you no matter what.

>  God loves you whether you get As or Fs.  Some children go back to school excited about new things and expecting to do well.  (Think Hermoine in Harry Potter).  Other children dread the return to the classroom where they have not done well.  (More like Ron Weasly in Harry Potter.)  Even the academic super-achievers need to be told often that they are not valued for their success.  God will love even if, horror of horrors, they get a C.  Those at the bottom of the class need to be assured that God loves them as much as the super-achievers.  This theme needs to be revisited big time when report cards come out throughout the year.

>  Going to school is your vocation.  At school children learn about God’s world and practice skills they will need as they live and work in God’s world.  The challenge in school is to identify your gifts and talents and to become the person God created you to be.  This is an important vocation.


Display two posters each bearing a large printed word – VACATION and VOCATION.  Note the one letter difference in the words.  Talk briefly about the summer’s VACATION activities and the joy of not having to perform.  Then note that with the return of school, we all take up our VOCATIONS.  Define VOCATION, name a few in your congregation, and identify going to school as student’s vocation.   Note that there is as much joy in VOCATION as in VACATION. 

>  Children are Jesus’ hands and feet at school.  They are there on the bus, on the playground, in the cafeteria, and in small work groups in their class.  Neither the preacher, their parents, nor anybody else at church can be there.  So Jesus is depending on them to stand up for justice and to watch for people who need loving care.  Give students a hand or foot ornament or a symbol marked with a cross to put on their backpack to remind them of this task.

The Blessing of the Backpacks

Blessing the Backpacks is one way to celebrate the return to school.  Weeks in advance invite students to bring their backpacks with them the Sunday before school starts.  During the service, ask them to come forward with their backpacks.  After a few words about going back to school, bless the students and the packs.  It is most effective to bless each child and pack one at the time.  Put one hand on the student’s head or shoulder and the other on the pack and say a blessing such as:

God, bless this bag and the child who will use it. Be with him/her as he/she learns and grows this year. Show him/her how to serve you and help him/her to teach us all about your love. In Jesus' name. Amen.

In large congregations in which it would be unwieldy to bless the students individually during the service, the blessings can be done before and/or after the service.  A minister meets, speaks briefly with each child about the coming year and blesses him or her.  I heard of one congregation that sponsors a Back to School Festival with face painting, inflatable jump houses, treats, and a booth at which the blessings occur. 

Some congregations expand this blessing by inviting worshipers of all ages to bring the briefcases, totes, even diaper bags they take with them as they leave home each day for work/activities.  The negative side of this is that it horns in on the kid’s back to school celebration.  The positive side is that kids with their backpacks connect themselves and their school work with worshipers of all ages and their work.  It emphasizes the vocational nature of their schoolwork. 

Other Worship Ideas for the Sunday Before School Starts

>  The following responsive ”Back to School” prayer was written by Rev. Larry Farris for use at Ann Arbor Presbyterian Church.  I would replace “school administrators” with the more specific “principals, secretaries, and school board members” and add a prayer for custodians, cafeteria workers, and maybe librarians.  And, you will of course have to adapt the prayer for church programs for children to fit your congregation.

Leader: O Holy God, the time is come when school begins. As these your children begin their studies, we ask a blessing on their backpacks in which they carry the books and note books, markers and pens and pencils they will use to learn. O Lord of Life and Love,
People: Hear our prayer.
Leader: Bless, O God, all who will teach our children in the coming days and weeks and months. Give them the wisdom to find inspiration for each child. Give them the energy and creativity and love that will make their work a blessing to our children. O Lord of Life and Love,
People: Hear our prayer.
Leader: Bless, O God, all school administrators that they may be faithful stewards of the resources entrusted to their care. Make them fair and merciful, able to do their crucial work with a spirit of grace and compassion. O Lord of Life and Love,
People: Hear our prayer.
Leader: Bless, O God, each one gathered here that we will seek every opportunity to grow in our knowledge and love of you – in our church school classes, our 2:42 program, all our classes for youth and students and adult learners. Grant that we may see you more clearly, love you more dearly, follow you more nearly. O Lord of Life and Love,
People: Hear our prayer.
Leader: And bless, O God, these our cherished children, those whom we have promised to love and nurture at their baptism. Keep them safe, keep them excited, keep them ever seeking to learn more and to develop their gifts. Grant that through their study, they may gain the tools to grow in love and faith and service, all their days. O Lord of Life and Love,
People: Hear our prayer.
Leader: Bless, O God, these backpacks and the children who carry them. O Lord of Life and Love,
People: Hear our prayer. Amen.

>  Hymn for the Day  “Earth and Stars” is a great hymn for this day.  It is filled with concrete language and short words that older children can read.  Even the youngest can join in on the chorus.  To encourage children to sing…
  1. Read verses 3 and 4 making the obvious school connections before singing
  2. If you are emphasizing the vocations of all worshipers, point to the images in verse 2.  Even suggest phrases for other professions – computers and desks, etc.
  3. Practice singing the chorus once so the youngest readers can join in on that even if they miss some of the verses
    “Sing to the Lord a new song!
    God has done marvelous things.
    We will sing praises with a new song!”

>  Invite members of the congregation to help all the town’s children get ready to return to school by filling backpacks with school supplies for children who will need them.  The Boys and Girls Club, a shelter for homeless families, or some other organization can probably provide a list of what is needed for each bag.  Some families will want to pack a bag on their own as they fill backs for their own children.  Others will want to bring one or two items.  A school office can probably direct you to the organization behind this effort in your area.

>  Because many families are settling into more structured schedules as school starts, it is a good time to encourage them to make one “new year’s resolution” for the new school year as a family.  Suggest the resolution (only one).  Make it clear and simple.  Then, check up on it over the first month.  The goal is to encourage families to undertake one activity that will enrich their spiritual life.  Possible resolutions:

  • Bedtime prayers.  A parent may tuck in each child, taking time to review the day and say thank you to God for what was good and ask God  for help where needed.  In some families all the children and parents may be able to gather for this.
  • Attend church school regularly.  Many families start off with intentions of doing this as school resumes, but soon fall off the bandwagon.  When this discipline is named and worship leaders gently check in with the whole congregation about sticking with it, families are more likely to keep coming. 

>  For a one-word-to-a-line litany prayer about going back to school that will invite young readers to join in and fascinate older worshipers go to Vicar of Hogsmeade.

More ideas for 2013! 

>  The Methodist Children’s Ministry website sites two approaches to asking members of the congregation to pray for a specific child as school begins. 

One made foam crosses each bearing the first name and age (or maybe school grade?).  A magnet was glued to the back making the whole thing a refrigerator magnet.  Members who took a cross promised to pray for that child each day for a set period of time (the first day or week of school or maybe the whole school year).

A second asked children to make a bead bracelet featuring the letters of their first name and to fill out a small form about their interests and place in school.  Members took both of these and word the bracelet as a reminder to pray for the child. 

>  The lectionary in the first Sunday of August raises the possibility of exploring with children how they can live the Ten Commandments at school.  It would be possible to make and give children a bookmark bearing a version like the one below.  (It is mine and you are welcome to use it to create bookmarks for your church.  If you do, what about sharing what you did with the rest of us?)

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10 Commandments for School

God is God – even at school!

God is more important than anything
even grades or friends

Always say God’s name respectfully

Don’t get too busy for church

Speak of your father and mother with love

Don’t hurt anyone
      Watch where you sling your bookbag and
      lookout for the younger kids

Be a loyal friend

Do not steal other people’s stuff or
       the answers on their work

Don’t tell lies about other people
       to get them in trouble or make yourself look good

Don’t get jealous of what others have or what they can do

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One Idea from 2014

Go to Back to School Fair Plan Back to School Fair for a description of the festival one congregation created this year.

Links to More  New Ideas for 2015 

Go to:

>  Families in Faithfor directions for a liturgy in which children place their hands on their own backpacks and participate in the blessing.

>  Service for a New School Year for a back to school liturgy aimed at older students.  It does not a blessing of backpacks but guides students in praying about the coming year.

>  On the Chancel Stepsfor a collection of children’s times focused on the first day of school and backpacks.  My favorites features a light bulb and a cabbage.

>  Building Faith for 6 tips for planning for blessing the backpacks

AND look in the weekly lectionary posts for ideas related to the specfic texts for specific weeks during August. 


  1. This is such a brilliant site - thank you so much!

  2. Here is another new idea.


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