Before moving to Colorado, I had the joy and privilege of working with families at an international church in Amsterdam, for nearly a decade. While I didn’t grow up going to Sunday School as a child myself, like many of you might have, I have spent quite some time listening, watching and thinking about children’s experience of Church. Whether you are a parent or not, I don't think anyone would argue against the fact that our early experiences of faith communities, people of belief, religious events and places have a profound impact on the rest of our lives with God. So here you go, some of the “ex-puppet pastor’s” reflections on what a worship service might be like for a child.
The Knee-high Observers
A child observes and feels the ways how people walk into the church hall and greet each other – some kiss, some hug, others shake hands. All people look different: happy, tired, hurried, peaceful, and so forth. Some speak foreign languages to them. Others seem to have a task or a job in the service. Are there familiar faces to them and does someone greet them or only mom and dad? Although at first glance seemingly trivial, these first observations and the emotions connected to them might just form a foundation for their memory of 'what church was like' later on.
Body as an Instrument
Children are by nature active, feeling, spiritual beings. Their whole body is their own instrument that they want to 'play' by trying what sorts of sounds it makes. Movement and experiencing reality through movement is a natural discovery journey for a child. By making space for the child to physically experience the worship service through movement and senses, the place of worship becomes familiar and safe, opens room for imagination and awakens senses. A child might want to see the sanctuary’s ceiling from down up, feel how the sound of instruments on the stage resonate in their body if they rest their ear on the stage, or watch their neighbor tapping gently their foot on the ground and follow the rhythm by trying to stamp their own feet on the ground as well.
The Gift of Presence
Children don’t have to be taught to be present (unlike us, adults!). They spontaneously receive as truth all that is present and happens in the moment. This capacity makes children extremely receptive and sensitive to God. They are authentic in their surrender to the moment and want to experience the space, people, God and themselves with their whole being. To a child every Sunday worship service visit is a bridge to a new, deeper experience of God, self, faith and the Church community.
Early Childhood and Faith Formation
Yet, sometimes we might question how much of a value it really adds to the later life and faith formation of the child to be brought along to church week-in and week-out. Is it really worth the hassle? Don’t the kids have to make sense of God and themselves later in their teen years anyway? The developer of an early childhood education method, Maria Montessori noticed that the symbolism of faith life is much easier to understand in childhood rather than in adolescence. She observed that young children think with a help of pictures and symbols and that their behavior often follows rituals. Symbols and rituals are the language of faith. Children take in information about faith through their senses, they attach an emotion to the information, and finally form a value and attitude that is based on their experience and emotion. In the later age, understanding symbols will be hindered by logical and conceptual thinking. By engaging with the languages of faith (symbols and rituals) as well as being welcomed as participants in a community of faith, children build the deep foundations of their personal faith in the early childhood even before starting school and during the first years of school, long before they develop abstract and logical thinking functions.
If you think back to your own childhood, what is your earliest experience of God?
Where were you, and what happened?
What was your experience of faith community and Worship Services growing up like? (If you attended them.)
How has your image of 'your childhood's God' changed?
If you are a parent, my hope is that you, along with the whole church family, would know that children can be children on Sundays too, and not only that but that we need them to be themselves! Children remind us how to see, feel and be present in ways that we have forgotten.
Does your child’s current church experience encourage… - movement and opening of all senses? - unhurried rest and stillness? - wonder, exploration and curiosity?
- awe and celebration? - creativity? - experience of the Holy? - experiencing God’s love and care? - meeting others in the community? (Not only other children, but people of all ages.) - engagement in the liturgy, sacraments and hearing the Biblical narratives - opportunities to watch how other Christians behave?
Which of these do you value the most? What is missing?
Photo: A Children's Cathedral in Tampere, Finland that displays Biblical stories made of puppets and a children's altar where children are welcome to play with the puppets.