When I was growing up in the 1950s I had the impression that everyone in the congregation attended worship. Admittedly, my frame of reference is limited to what I knew my friends did in their churches or synagogues in urban Buffalo, NY. There were a few who went to Sunday School, but not worship. But their families didn’t go to worship either. If their families went, they went. They went to Sunday School and also to worship. (Granted, there were no youth sports activities on Sunday mornings in those days.)
My family sat in the second pew from the front so we could see everything that was going on. Since my mother sang in the choir (from her vantage point she could make eye contact with us) my father sat with us. Drawing on the bulletin was OK, maybe during the sermon. But at points where we were supposed to participate we had the hymnal open and my father pointed to where we were in the order of service. We sang and spoke the words of text as much as we were able.
As far as I knew, Catholic friends went to Mass and Protestant kids attended their services. When I got to know Jewish kids in high school I know they went to Friday night (and sometimes Saturday morning) services in their synagogue. Sometimes I went with them on Friday night for the experience, and I brought Jewish friends to my church. Then we compared notes. In fact, in high school I sometimes went to worship with friends and they came to worship with me in my home congregation. Perhaps I was showing a little teen age independence from my family.
In the 1960s things changed. For whatever reasons, “children’s church” became popular in Protestant congregations and Catholic parochial schools had “children’s masses.” So the intergenerational character of worship began to break down. The kids were being segregated out of the worshiping assembly so that parents could worship in peace and give attention (ahem!) to the sermon. In Protestant churches with longer sermons this was a real issue. The emerging megachurches of the 1970s and 1980s (e.g. Willow Creek) definitely provided separate children’s activities during services (even though one would think that the youth would be attracted to the contemporary music). But segregation continued and in many congregations there are now youth services with contemporary music being held at the same time as more “traditional” services for the adults.
Some congregations compromise on to extent to which children are in worship. In the Catholic parish in my neighborhood and in the Episcopal parish we usually attend, children are dismissed after the gospel reading for “godly play” and they return during the greeting of peace. I know it isn’t our rector’s preference to exclude the children from worship; she inherited the practice and has made improvements on the situation. On one Sunday a month all the children remain in the nave for the full liturgy and leave for “godly play” after their communion. Where Lutheran pastors might give a children’s homily, she engages the children in ritual actions. So they are invited to gather around the font for baptisms, gather around the reading from the Gospel book at the Gospel procession, and then carry the Gospel book in procession behind their own smaller processional cross to their classroom to study the reading, and then gather around the altar during the Great Thanksgiving where they are encouraged to hold their hands in orans position and bow together after the concluding doxology of the Eucharistic prayer. Most of them also receive communion. I don’t know how much more welcoming one could be to children.
I want to use this space to call attention to the published doctoral dissertation of a Korean Presbyterian pastor who received his Ph.D. from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary: Hwarang Moon, Engraved Upon the Heart: Children, the Cognitively Challenged, and Liturgy’s Influence on Faith Formation (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015). This is a scholarly work on the subject of including children in the congregation’s worship that draws upon ritual studies, liturgical history and theology, child psychology, and embodied mind theory.
Moon begins in chapter 1 with the role played by liturgy and ritual in public worship—a case that needs to be made to those in the Reformed tradition (and maybe for some Lutherans too!). Chapter 2 reviews Calvin’s thoughts about the role of liturgy in faith formation. Moon’s exposition of Calvin’s concern for stable liturgical order (which is comparable to Luther’s) will be revelatory to many readers. Moon then goes on in chapter 3 to discuss more generally how liturgy is a “tool” (not my favorite term here) for Christian faith formation and education (catechesis).
He goes on to discuss in chapter 4 how children and the cognitively challenged face challenges to their participation in church life in general and worship in particular. A rational approach to worship is especially difficult for them and Moon emphasizes the need to find more opportunities for bodily involvement in liturgy. (See the example of my Episcopal rector’s approach and consider that children’s homilies can also be pretty rationalistic.) In chapter 5 he discusses the research on what kind of religious concepts are available to cognitive abilities at different stages of development.
In chapter 6 Moon discusses “why children and cognitively challenged persons should (my emphasis) fully participate in the sacrament.” Here he applies Calvin’s sacramental theology to the issue. The proposal is that the Eucharist should be celebrated more frequently—a practice Calvin encouraged but was never able to implement in Geneva. But consider that the Eucharist is all about the body—what the body does externally and receives internally. Embodied mind theory recognizes that the mind is affected by what the body experiences and holds in its memory.
Finally, he asks in chapter 7, “what are the benefits for children and cognitively challenged individuals in worship” that is physically accessible to them? And what are the benefits to the church? I summarize Moon’s itemization:
- Development through experience forms a positive self-image, and teaches social skills.
- Including cognitively challenged children helps families who deal with these children.
- Intergenerational worship that is inclusive of all ability levels is a sign of the fullness of the body of Christ.
- Friendships are promoted between the youth and adults of the congregation.
- Worshiping together as a church community nurtures the spirituality and virtue of the church members who learn from fellow members of different ages and abilities.
- Inclusion of children and the cognitive challenged perfects the covenant community. The sacraments are god’s gifts of grace that are intended to build up the whole church.
In conclusion we need to remember that faith is not a rational assent to propositions; that’s belief. Faith is about trust and commitment. People gain faith not just by listening to words, but by acting on what they hear (Kierkegaard). Children and the cognitively challenged have as much to gain on this basis as any “normal” adults in the community, and much to give to those adults, as Jesus well know when he placed a child before his community of adult disciples as a model of faith.