In my previous post, I raised the question of how we include children in worship during the summer months when Sunday School is not an option. In thinking through various options, I realized that simply giving kids something “to do,” even it was spirituality-based or worship-centered, wouldn’t capture or convey the full potential of what worship can be. So I started making a list of what I think worship is all about and I came up with these five elements:
- When we worship, we intentionally place ourselves in God’s presence
- We hear God’s word
- We respond to God’s word (and God) through prayer, song, and gifts
- We pray for the world, our communities, our families, ourselves
- We receive the charge to go out into the world to serve God
My question now is, how do we translate these aspects for kids while keeping them in worship with adults. Without completely redoing our worship services, are there ways we can adapt the service in the summer to make them more “kid friendly”? Are there other opportunities we can provide for children as they sit in the pews? Are there are other spaces in our sanctuaries that can be used by kids during worship for things like experiential prayer stations?
In this post, I want to think specifically about how we can invite children to be aware of God’s presence during worship.
To be aware of God’s presence, it helps to have some idea of what God’s presence is, how we identify it, and ways we can be open to it. I can think of a couple ways to address these topics:
- Children’s sermons: children’s sermons would be a great time to have a conversation about what worship means, what we’re doing in worship, and how we can place ourselves in God’s presence. Specifically, I would be inclined to ask kids how we know when God is present, whether or not we can force God to be present, how we might ask God to be present, and ways we could help ourselves be aware of God’s presence
- Printed information: I’m guessing kids are not the only ones who would benefit from some ideas on how we can intentionally place ourselves in God’s presence. You could put a paragraph or two of invitation in the bulletin, write a newsletter article, put some ideas on your website, or put a pamphlet with ideas in the pews.
- Church-wide education: An intergenerational workshop on what worship is and what we’re doing in worship would be a great opportunity to both educate parents and kids as well as brainstorm ways we can place ourselves in God’s presence. You could have different stations set-up for people to experiment with different ideas (yoga, stretching, body prayer or other forms of physical movement; music: instrumental or singing; silence; art: mandalas or free-form, etc) or you could do group experiments with everyone trying different ideas and talking together about what they experienced.
Use of the Senses:
While awareness of God’s presence can be intellectual, connecting that awareness with one or more of our senses can often help us focus our attention and can even act as a trigger that reminds us of God’s presence.
Sight: Many churches already engage this sense by bringing in a lit candle at the beginning of a service. To help children connect this ritual with God’s presence, you could do a children’s sermon on light and light imagery for God; you could create an interactive prayer experience during worship that invited children and adults to come forward and light candles as a way of inviting God into the space.
- You could also use banners or wind socks with fans as visual reminders of God’s presence
- Closing our eyes to focus on the absence of visual stimuli is another way to move into God’s presence
- Have kids color in icons or mandalas; many of us listen better when our hands our busy. When kids are done, ask if you can display their work in the church. You could also include a handout with the bulletins that explains the spiritual practice of icon gazing, which kids and adults could then do using what the children have colored.
Hearing: Our church uses a handbell to signal the beginning of worship, and music is often an integral part of inviting people into the worship space at the beginning of a service.
- Why not have children make a joyful racket with instruments at the beginning of the service to remind us all that God is found not only in silence and composed music, but also in the midst of great noise?
- Just as closing our eyes can be a visual reminder, leaving space for silence can be an auditory trigger. Children often notice the absence of sound (and frequently try to remedy the situation by making noise); rather than hushing kids to keep the silence, we can use that observation as a time to explain why there’s silence and what the silence might mean about God’s presence. I think one of the keys here is helping congregations view these times of silence as opportunities to educate kids so that the silence itself doesn’t become something sacred that needs to be protected with dirty looks.
- It could be fun to experiment in worship (with kids and adults) with different noises to see what sounds most convey (for us) God’s presence.
Touch: The use of prayer beads is one example of how religion has incorporated this sense into our worship.
- Why not have children (and adults) create prayer beads and then pass them out to children during the service. A simple children’s sermon or bulletin insert or demonstration from the pulpit could explain and model how prayer beads can be used during worship (and at home). Little hands often like to be busy, so give them something to move and use.
- Holding hands is a great way to incorporate touch into an awareness of the presence of God. God is certainly present in and through other people. Make this connection for children (and adults) by having people hold hands at the beginning of a service as a ritual that signifies God’s presence in the congregation. (Just make sure no one is left out in a pew by themselves.)
- Have a selection of various materials (different kinds of fabrics, tin, glass, wood, etc) that kids (and adults) can pick up at the beginning of service. As a call to worship, have people touch the material they chose and ask them to reflection how it feels to be in the presence of God.
Smell & Taste: Incense and communion are the two traditional ways these senses are incorporated into worship. I’m combining them here because they’re two of the more challenging senses to engage during a traditional worship service.
- Depending on your congregation’s tolerance for strange smells (and their allergies) you could try using incense at the beginning of worship. Or, you could hand out scented items for people who were interested. The smell of baking bread (if you can program a bread maker in the sanctuary or near its entrance) is often popular. Smell is so infrequently associated with most churches that my guess is that its presence alone (in any form) will have kids asking questions. If you’ve equipped their parents to answer them, this could be a great way to talk about how we experience God’s presence.
- You could also ask children and adults to bring items whose smell reminds them (or makes them think) of God. These could be placed on an altar at the beginning of worship; or displayed as an offering outside of the sanctuary’s doors. That would allow both the sight and smell of them to remind people that they are entering a different space.
- Taste is a harder sense to engage easily. Both taste and smell tend to play the long-game I think when it comes to our senses. Both are connected to our memory and so it might be that a recurring smell or taste associated with worship will one day trigger those memories for children again. For example, I will always associate the taste of lifesavers with worship because my mom always had them in her purse and would give them to us during church. So, perhaps you can facilitate this for children by providing packets of life savers in the pews (this could have benefits for the passing of the peace as well …). Mostly, though, aside from communion, I’m drawing a blank on how to engage this sense to remind us of the presence of God during worship.
Multiple Intelligence Theory has been around long enough that most of us are now aware that we learn in different ways. Likewise we all experience God in different ways. Offer kids a variety of different ways to become aware of God’s presence knowing that what works for some won’t work for others.
In thinking through this first question, I keep coming back to the need for both education and experience; ritual and explanation. While I think the experience is more important than the language we use to explain it (e.g. it is more important to experience God’s presence than to be able to put God language around it), when we explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, we allow people to make connections of their own. There are a lot of creative possibilities for helping kids become aware of God’s presence by engaging their senses in different ways at the beginning of a service.
How does your worship service help kids become aware of God’s presence? What other ideas do you have?
Children in Worship, Worship for Children Series Links:
Part I: An Introduction
Part II: Inviting Children to Be Aware of God’s Presence
Part III: 7 Ideas to Help Kids Hear God’s Word (Through Scripture)
Part IV: 9 Creative Ways for Kids in Worship to Respond to God