I’m in search of a product that will get some crayon drawings off of the folding tables in our church worship space. A two-year-old worshiper left them there.
A few weeks ago, I spent some time scraping blue Play-Doh remnants out of our mauve carpet. Apparently, a rockslide occurred when the earthquake shook the cave in which Elijah was hiding (see 1 Kings 19), and some blue rocks crashed to the ground. It was a certain boy’s first time to hear the story, and it played out in 4D as it sank into his mind and heart.
You see, we don’t send our kids out of the sanctuary every week for age-level worship experiences. Rather, we worship together as a family. In the sanctuary. Every Sunday. We’re all there. The mums and dads and grandparents and widows and widowers and wiggly tots and bitty babies and boisterous big kids. All of us together. Every Sunday. We call it family worship. And we do it on purpose.
Oh, it’s not glamorous. Sometimes they leave marker on our clothes, early note-taking attempts in crayon on the tables, and Play-Doh in the carpet. But it’s meaningful and formational.
Born out of both practical need (hello, small church with a tiny volunteer base!) and an ecclesiastical and theological understanding of the roles of family and church in a child’s spiritual formation, we made a conscious decision to figure out family worship as a significant component of our church’s identity. We believe that parents are the primary spiritual instructors for their children. In one way or another, they model spiritual life (regardless of whether they intend to). They shape their children’s spirituality through questions and conversations. They encourage it through priorities, family structures, and daily routines.
When we gather for corporate worship, we’re all being shaped, from the youngest among us to the oldest, into a collective reflection of the kingdom of God. We’re not a full reflection of the kingdom of God if kids are not part of it. We’re also not a full reflection unless more seasoned folks are there too. There’s something really valuable that happens when we’re formed together.
When we gather for corporate worship, we’re all being shaped, from the youngest among us to the oldest, into a collective reflection of the kingdom of God.
Before you write us off as idealists with a quiet, angelic missionary kid who sings all the songs and hangs attentively on every word of his pastor-parents, let me reassure you: I am quite certain our child ranks in the 71st percentile for strong will, the 86th percentile for energy, and the 100th percentile for volume. Translation: He has a mind of his own, he’s active, and he’s loud. Yes, I have engaged in a full-on wrestling match in the midst of “Amazing Grace.” I’ve marched a wriggling child across an endlessly echoing plywood floor to the back of the sanctuary for a come-to-Jesus moment all his own. I’ve said, “Use your whisper voice!” more times than I can count, only to be met with a 130-decibel response of, “WHAT?! I can’t hear you!” I’ve handed out a hobbit feast’s worth of snacks before the third song. I’m that mom. I’ve been there.
But I’ve also had real and significant conversations with my four-year-old about the scripture for the day. I’ve helped make Play-Doh loaves and fish and have related peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the story of God. I’ve sung worship songs into his ear and helped him fill out his tithe envelope.
And then we’ve revisited those conversations both intentionally and spontaneously when we’re reading his Bible, when a song comes on the radio, or when we’re on a bike ride. My son’s mind and heart are being shaped by corporate worship and by our life together. What happens in family worship shapes our life together, and our life together shapes what happens in family worship. It’s a beautiful, symbiotic relationship that makes the more challenging moments all the more worthwhile and the “aha” moments all the more precious.
When family worship is done well, parents are formed spiritually and learn how to engage their children on a spiritual level—at the same time. The preaching improves because everyone benefits from a multi-sensory experience that draws us deeper into the story of God. Children gain a sense of belonging in the broader family of God. And everyone in a given nuclear family has a common experience to talk about and engage with.
Don’t worry! We’re not asking kids to sit still and listen quietly for an hour. Believe me. Been there. Done that. Wrestling a four-year-old monkey is not my favorite activity.
For us, family worship doesn’t look like:
1. Kids sitting quietly in pews with folded hands and still feet.
2. Children’s church that welcomes grown-ups.
3. Watered-down theology or avoiding the tough stuff.
4. Parents getting side eye for their little person’s noises or wiggles.
For us, family worship does look like:
1. The option of sitting in a row of chairs or at a table.
2. Hands-on materials to keep little (or not-so-little) hands busy while ears and minds work, imagine, and absorb.
3. Pulling a wandering tot onto my lap now and again.
4. Quietly guiding my own child (and others who may be around me) through the words and practices of the worship service.
5. Offering an extra snack to another mum’s kiddo.
6. Celebrating engagement through picture-taking and quiet high-fives mid-service.
7. Opportunities for age-level teaching geared specifically toward kids at other times.
One component took our family worship experience from harried and chaotic to rich and enjoyable (never mind that it took twenty Sundays to figure it out). In our context, family worship includes thoughtfully posed questions for discussion and ideas for ways to use the available materials to engage that week’s text. We realize that parents don’t always automatically know how to engage their kids in worship. Kids don’t always automatically know how to reflect on what they’re hearing. We’re here to figure it out together. Giving kids and families some specific and meaningful tasks, greatly increases the level of engagement and decreases the amount of effort spent removing a certain child from under the folding table, where he insists on kicking the noisy metal sliders.
I don’t know what ministry with kids and families will look like in our context down the road. Ministries and structures come and go. Trends and needs change. However, today we’re learning together how to live out a Wesleyan-Holiness theology, and no matter what ministries come and go, we are committed to the spiritual formation of entire families—even if it means scraping a little Play-Doh out of the carpet.