Once monthly, the church I attend has an all-ages Communion service. The church serves Communion every week, and the children are brought back into the sanctuary from Junior Church to participate. In the all-ages Communion service, however, they stay for the entire service. This service is my favorite one of the month.
As we begin I can hear the shuffle of little feet as they make their way to the pews with their families. Throughout the service, there are murmurs and movement from the smallest worshipers among us as they sit, stand, pray, play, and listen. Various elements of the service are led by the children on this day; a pair of brothers lead us in prayer, and after each set of petitions, they lead us in a response to our merciful God. A young girl walks to the platform and leads us in the reading of Scripture, and at the end she calls us to give thanks. And then, perhaps my most favorite part, the children are invited to help the pastor prepare the Communion table.
The pastor introduces this part by saying, “All children are invited to help. Adults, please do not think your child is too young or too old, or that you yourself are too old to help. All are welcome. Of course, it takes longer when the children help, but it’s truly a wonderful thing to have them here with us.” Though seemingly simple, these words and actions bring a tremendous amount of joy to my heart because I see a church that recognizes the important place children have in the family of God, and one that believes in the importance of ministering to and with families and children.
It helps us remember and demonstrate our belief that they are not just kids who will one day grow up and be a part of the church; instead, it recognizes that children are a part of the church just as they are.
In a recent presentation on theology and disability, Dr. Jill Harshaw said, “If we had a true Christian ecclesiology, we wouldn’t need disability theology.” The same idea can be applied to all areas of ministry in the church. Ecclesiology—the theological doctrine concerned with the church—rightly includes all people and all aspects of Christian life together. Without children, without those who are disabled, without adults, without the elderly, without minorities, without the marginalized, the church is incomplete. God came to be in relationship with all of us! This makes the work of children’s ministry incredibly important because it calls attention to the role children play in the church as unique and active contributors to our worship. It helps us remember and demonstrate our belief that they are not just kids who will one day grow up and be a part of the church; instead, it recognizes that children are a part of the church just as they are.
In our ministry to children, we have the opportunity to intentionally nurture a child’s spirituality and personhood. We engage children through their work of play, and we invite them to contribute to the liturgy of our community. We communicate, You belong here. In our purposeful discipleship we develop lasting relationships that shape both the child and the community, and in doing so we recognize the kingdom of God in our midst.
In our care for children, it’s incredibly important to recognize their innate spirituality. All children possess a spirit, and it’s with this spirit that they make connections with themselves and the world around them. Though babies are not yet capable of speech or making a declaration of faith, they are in the business of perceiving the world and developing a relationship with it every day. By nurturing these connections, we extend God’s love and prepare children for grasping concepts of faith later in life. The work of being in the nursery with babies or in the back hallway with older children is far more than babysitting; our work there is sacred and nurtures the need for relationship that God created in each of us.
Intentionality can be simple; no funds are required to greet each child by name, at eye level.
In these hours with children each week, we also have the opportunity to invite them into the liturgy of the church. Liturgy simply means “the work of the people.” When we create space for children to do their work, we acknowledge the important contributions they make to our collective identity as the people of God. And because a child’s most important work is play, it’s especially great when this invitation is fun and engaging! Children make deep connections with their feelings, beliefs, and those around them in their play, and by inviting them to incorporate their play into worship, we rightly give them space to shape our worship along the way. Children find belonging when we show them that their work both matters and adds something that was previously missing to the spaces in which we gather.
And, of course, these things must be done with purpose. Though many working with children in the church experience limited resources, intentional discipleship need not require a large budget or expansive volunteer database (although I won’t deny that both would be nice!). Intentionality can be simple; no funds are required to greet each child by name, at eye level; a small group of volunteers is able to creatively adapt lessons that speak to the needs of a congregation at a particular time; only one caring person is needed to invite children to actively participate in the development of their own spirituality; and all of us are capable of remembering that, while things may take extra time or be a little noisier when children are present, we simply cannot be the church without them.
In Scripture we are given examples of Jesus welcoming children and giving us a unique vision of the kingdom of God through the life of a child. We as the church demonstrate our core beliefs and our calling as Christians through our intentional work with children and families.