Small accommodations make big difference

Including children in corporate worship doesn’t mean ‘dumbing down’ liturgy
November 1, 2004

At Trinity Episcopal Church in Escondido, Calif., Sunday school begins, as many do, with a Bible story.

This day focuses on the Parables. But there seems to be a problem. As the Narrator begins, she notes that, according to the dictionary, a parable is “an untrue story.” How can an untrue story be in the Bible? And this story is about a seed growing into a tree. What’s the point? Where’s the action, the drama?

The Narrator begins to panic when, from outside the room, a voice is heard.
“Hark! Do I hear the sound of a Bible story in trouble? ... This looks like a job for Bibleman!”

Suddenly, Bibleman arrives and retells the story.

Not every church invites a Scripture-explaining superhero to entice children to worship. But from cathedrals to neighborhood churches to schools, religious and educational leaders are finding ways to make corporate worship comfortable for children.

Children entering the Cathedral of the Incarnation in Garden City, N.Y., discover Bags to Borrow filled with a book, a quiet soft animal and other toys with images from Scripture. Adult ushers squat to meet the children at eye-level, so “they are greeting them at their comfort zone,” says Ruth-Ann Collins, canon for Christian education.

The approach may differ, but the goal, leaders say, is the same as with adults: making disciples.

“The difference between adults and children [is] that they have different issues, different levels of maturity and different levels of attention span, but the issue of making disciples is the same,” says the Rev. Meg Decker, Trinity’s rector.

Some leaders say including children in the liturgy is customary.

The Very Rev. Ernesto Medina, provost at the Cathedral Center of St. Paul, Los Angeles, frowns when he hears folks refer to including children in the liturgy as a “special thing.”
“For us it’s just normal,” Medina says. “It’s the most natural thing we do … It’s not artificial, we are not constructing it, we do not make a distinction between children, youths or the elders in terms of liturgical participation. ... What we say is every person has the right to serve at the altar, and from there everything flows.”

To make things flow at Vicksburg Montessori Christian Day School in Mississippi, which serves Catholic, Episcopalian, Greek Orthodox, nondenominational and Baptist students, they focus on a loving God, says the head, Lyn Smith. “We begin our day by saying the Lord’s Prayer and allowing time for the children to offer their own thanksgivings and intercessions, which gives us all a good beginning. Each child has his own children’s Bible, and a lesson is read following prayer time. Then we have a color or puzzle sheet, which make the lesson enjoyable for the younger child.”

At local churches, leaders say, putting effort into enhancing children’s spiritual lives is paramount.

While the Trinity Sunday school class enjoys an occasional appearance of Bibleman, members also like attending worship. “They come in at the Peace and for Eucharist and are completely a part of the Eucharistic celebration,” Decker says. “They seem to have a reverence for Communion, and they are participating in the parts that they know, which is usually the Lord’s Prayer and the responses.”

At Incarnation, children sit on the steps at the foot of the altar for the homily, Collins says. “The challenge is the size of the building; if you are little you cannot see.”
But that doesn’t mean children don’t understand, Collins warns. “We don’t ‘dummy down’ the service. The children can relate and understand the homily; but, at the same time, the adults in the congregation are being nurtured by the words.”

Medina is careful not to compromise adults in the congregation. “A Children’s Sunday tends to exclude the elders of the community, and all people have the right to serve,” he says. “I am not going to set up a situation at the church where the elders of the community feel that they have been kicked out. The gifts of each person in the community are recognized because there is abundance in those gifts, and that’s our filter.”

Children serve as ushers, readers, lay Eucharistic ministers, acolytes and choristers -- and older members can do the same.

“The children and young people of the community bear the gifts and are stewards of the gifts of prophetic voice,” Medina says. “They can see things that the adults can’t.”