Dear Teresa: My congregation is aging. They long for that time when there were children in worship. But there are no longer any young families. There are a few children in the neighborhood. Many play team sports on the weekend. But none attend. Sometimes we’ll be surprised by a visiting grandchild, but we no longer even plan for Sunday School or children in worship. The members just shrug and say “Why bother . . . we don’t have any children.”
Dear B.A.: This is a common place to get stuck. So let’s dig a little deeper. They miss children. But perhaps even more they miss a certain feeling of vitality, respectability, and impact of their ministry. So there’s likely a lurking fear of failure. With a vague sense of rejection. On top of all this, the gap between no children and the model of fifteen-regularly-attending children in a Sunday School program seems insurmountable. And all of this keeps them from planning for even one child. Why bother, right?
Except that our gospel insists on this one, outrageous truth:
Each. One. Matters.
Not just the ones willing to fit your Sunday schedules. Not just the ones who are polite and follow the rules. Not just the ones who show up with advanced notice. Not just the ones who will color quietly for 30 minutes then let you sit through worship uninterrupted.
And remarkably, an each-one strategy not only squares up with the good news. It’s also your superpower as a small congregation. The key is to bother anyway. In ways that fit your congregation and community. And here are five simple things you can do anyway to love and include children anyway. They also happen to grow imaginations, ministries and relationships anyway.
But we don’t have any children.. . .
1. So learn about the children in your community anyway.
The patterns of families and children in your community have likely changed. To love well, you must understand these changes. The children in your neighborhood may not be connected to a traditional family. They may not come with two parents and one-and-a-half siblings. They may be staying with a grandparent while mom works. Or a foster family. Or they may be visiting a noncustodial parent every other weekend. They may be so programmed with soccer and flute lessons that they can’t add one more thing. Or so left-on-their-own that folks assume they are up-to-no-good.
Talk to professionals at your schools. Ask your denominational office to get current demographic information.
Divine love is not simply nice and general. It’s persistent and particular. Jesus didn’t love the abstract idea of people. He loved actual folks. In the actual messes of life. It’s time to learn more. So you can love more. What are the needs, stressors, hopes, longings, realities of our neighbors?
2. So worship as if there are children present anyway.
Design worship so a child can participate fully. Then practice it every week. Really. Even if there are no children present:
- Set out fabrics and objects for decorating the altar or chancel. During the gathering, invite worshipers to bring them forward and arrange them.
- Include a children’s worship time (recruit some child-like adults to help).
- Prepare a set of lavish art supplies so that a child could interpret the good news with markers, paper, clay and pipe cleaners. Let the adults practice, too, if they’d like. Invite the creations to be displayed with the offering.
- Rethink lots of everybody-read-this-together worship. Remember that oral call and response works for every age and ability.
- Invite movement and comfortable seating for different body sizes. Not everyone can be still for an hour. Welcome pacing, sitting at a table, or lying on a soft rug.
- For more ideas, interview some favorite teachers in your community.
One small setting pastor used this approach. He told his congregation he wanted to be ready—just in case God sent them a child. So he sat down on the chancel steps each week to offer a children’s sermon. Anyway. And invited them to imagine and love the children who might hear this. Anyway. Within three weeks, a child came. Everyone was ready for her. And she experienced the I-just-can’t-wait-to-see-you love of our God.
It’s a premise for a great movie—if you build it they will come. But it’s also great hospitality. It will change the congregation’s awareness and let them playfully practice. Plus, child-friendly practices actually deepen the worship of all the people.
3. Plan for a Sunday School visitor anyway.
Don’t leave this to chance. Put on your Abraham and Sarah shoes. Anticipate holy visitors. Keep all the ingredients for an impromptu Sunday School feast ready. This means packing (and updating) a box with special toys and supplies. The very best. Not whatever has been left on your shelves. Each child is different. And you should be ready for these differences. You might need to color, paint, build legos, squish playdough, design a cardboard house, or fix a snack, while you tell the story of Jesus. And listen.
Don’t be surprised if all the preparing and anticipating change you. They changed things for Abraham and Sarah.
4. Ritually remember your call to include children anyway.
Once you’ve learned about the children in your neighborhood and community, place a children’s chair beside the altar. Our deepest meaning-making tools aren’t words. They are signs and symbols. We need them to connect our reality to the divine reality. So, tell the demographic story of children in your neighborhood. Let them see that chair sitting below the cross, candles, and Bible. Invite them to imagine what this might mean. Invite worshipers to pray for ones that we don’t even know yet. Drag the chair into every meeting, potluck, and planning event. Let it become a presence that changes the other interactions.
The reminder is not about a successful program. It’s about a relationship. Because each one matters.
5. Work outside-in anyway.
Go outside your church. To the organizations and agencies that already care well for children. Ask what they see. And ask what they need. Even if you do not have the resources for your own big-setting-style children’s program, you can support those who do. Maybe you could bake a birthday cake for any child living at the local shelter. Maybe you could help load snack backpacks that go home with food-insecure kiddos from school. Maybe you could plan some lavish care for overworked teachers.
Bring the fish and loaf that you have. Then let God do that trademark move of making abundance out of love that bothers anyway.
Let me know what you experience. I cherish the conversations.
Thanks for your ministry,