Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Observing Lent and Celebrating Easter

Most congregations work hard to include children in Advent and Christmas celebrations.  Lent and Easter are another story.  Often the children are not expected at and not even wanted at these worship services.  The hope is that they will hear the stories in church school or at home and join the congregation celebrating the stories when they are older and understand them more fully.  I think that is a mistake.  The Lent-Easter stories are the key stories of our faith and the worship services of Lent, Holy Week and Easter are our high Holy Days.  Children need to be part of them with the entire congregation.

I feel so strongly about this that I have written a book, Sharing the Easter Faith With Children.  It includes

information about what children understand about these stories at each age, 

-commentary on the Holy Week and Easter texts from a child’s point of view,

-detailed plans for Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services at which children are expected to be part of the congregation, 

-study session plans for parents, teachers, and worship planners, and

- an annotated bibliography of children’s literature related to Lent and Easter

The book offers LOTS more than I can put in a blog.  So, I encourage you to invest in it.  Buy it now and you will have lots of ideas for all the Lenten and Easter services immediately.  It is available at many of the usual on-line book sellers and in many religious bookstores.

But, until you get the book J here are a few ideas about including children in the congregation’s observation of Lent and celebration of Easter.

Children can hear the passion and resurrection stories.  From an early age they can be told that people who were angry with Jesus killed him on a cross, but that God would not let Jesus stay dead and made him alive again on Easter.  Over the years they add the details.  The younger the children the more they follow the emotions of the story rather than the facts.  For that reason it is important to always tell the whole story.  Even on Good Friday, mention the surprise that we know is waiting. 

Children also find different kinds of good news in the passion and resurrection stories than adults find in them.  Older preschoolers celebrate God as most powerful super power in the universe and are glad to be allied with God.  Younger elementary schoolers, who are moving out into the world on their own more and more, find comfort in the God who knows us and promises to be with us always even after we die.  Older elementary schoolers identify most strongly with Peter as he lived through Holy Week.  Jesus’ forgiveness of the best friend who betrayed him proves to them that God will forgive anything.  Adults find comfort in the promise of new life.  All these different versions of “the best news” enrich each other when they are woven into the congregation’s worship.

Exploring the stories in the sanctuary in worship gives them more power for children.  For example, a palm parade with other children in a classroom may be a kid thing, but a triumphant parade in the sanctuary with people of all ages communicates that this is indeed an important parade.  Hearing the story of the Last Supper is one thing, but celebrating the Last Supper on the “anniversary” of very night that Jesus invented it with the whole church brings the story to life.  Same with hearing the crucifixion story on Good Friday or getting up before sunrise to hear the story outside on Easter Sunday morning.

So, as you begin planning for the season as a whole, consider the following….

Make a big deal about changing the colors in the sanctuary.  Do it together on either Ash Wednesday or the first Sunday of Lent.  This can be fairly formal with people carrying out the white or green cloths and banners and others processing in with the purple ones.  Or, it can be more informal with worship leaders inviting worshipers to help change the paraments and explaining in the process the meaning of Lent and the purple.  Describe the changes in the sanctuary that will come on Good Friday and again on Easter.

In an Anglican church the children drew
 alleluia posters which were put in this chest
and set under the altar until Easter.
Hide the ALLELUIA!  Many congregations ban the use of the word “Alleluia!” in the congregation’s worship during Lent.  To highlight this, create (or get young or older artists to create) a beautiful poster of the word, show the poster at the beginning of the service on the first Sunday of Lent, then put it in a box and tuck it somewhere in the sanctuary.  Leave it there until Easter where young children can check on it, if they wish.  On Easter morning, bring it out, shout it, sing it and enjoy it.

Encourage a Lenten worship discipline for children and their families.  Because Lent is basically spring training for disciples, it is an opportunity to encourage children to grow as worshipers. 

If you tend to use historic prayers of confession and assurances of pardon or repeated sung responses during Lent, introduce and explain them to the children during worship and encourage them to join in on praying and singing them.  (Many adults will listen appreciatively.)

Encourage households to pray together at home each day during Lent.  This can be as simple as challenging them to pray before one meal each day or at bedtime each day or to pray  the Lord’s Prayer together each day (perhaps learning it in the process).  Or, it can involve providing printed devotionals for households of different ages.  Young children learn the practice of daily prayer by praying with their parents.  Older children often begin to pray on their own when provided a printed guide to be followed for a set period.  If you do this, don’t simply set the discipline at the beginning of Lent.  Mention it throughout Lent encouraging people to keep with it or get back to it if they have let it slip.  Congratulate them at the end of Lent and give specific suggestions for keeping the discipline going.

As you plan services that include children, be sure to invite them and their parents repeatedly.  One parenthetical “children are welcome” will not do the job.  You will have to say that children are not only welcome, but are encouraged to attend.  Be sure to set times of weekday services with children and families in mind, i.e. before bedtime on a school night.  Explain to the whole congregation why it is important that children participate in these services. 

If reading this is recalling ways congregations you know have included children in the Lenten and Easter worship, share it in the comments section.  We all need all the ideas we can gather on this one!


  1. Carolyn, may I use these excellent comments (suitably attributed and with a link to your Blog)on my website?

  2. My parish has a Good Friday service for all ages which takes the form of a pilgrimage round the church, pausing at 6 'stations' to hear the story.

  3. Mary (and everyone else), feel free to use some of the comments on your website. I think the usual laid back approach to "respectful borrowing" is to give credit and to use material only for non-income producing resources.

    1. As a preschool program director and a Sunday school teacher at an Episcopal Church using the Godly Play Sunday school curriculum, I am always looking for supplementary lessons plans and useful advice relating to religious formation for young children. If it's fine with you, I am hoping that I can use a few of your hints in my March preschool newsletter for the children's parents. Of course, I shall give you full credit, note my source, and urge parents to get your book about sharing Easter with their young children!

    2. It is very fine with me if you share anything in this blog with credit to me and to others whom I credit when I share their material. You may want to take a look at my book before suggesting it to parents. It is probably more than most of them want to know since a lot of it involves planning for children in the congregation's observance of Lent and Easter.

  4. I am from an Anglican Parish in Cape Town, South Africa, the parish intends to have a Good Friday service specifically for children ages 5-13. This will be the first service of it's kind for our parish, any idea's for the format of the service and/or resources.

  5. kgrifths, since the texts are the same for every Good Friday, I put all my Good Friday ideas in Year A. Go to to see what is there. I hope there is something useful to you.

  6. On Easter Sunday, our church hands out tiny bells to all of the children. They ring the bells every time they hear the word "Alleluia." (Of course, the bells in busy little hands sometimes ring during many other parts of the service.) This is a beloved and anticipated tradition that emphasizes the return of "Alleluia" to our worship.


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