Reflection #32 on Worship in the Contemporary American Church

This is post number 32 in a series of random reflections I have been amassing over the past couple of years since retiring from steady, local-church, “weekend warrior” worship ministry.  These ruminations are in no particular order, and they vary in significance.  I welcome discussion on any of them.

Reflection #32: The contemporary American church seems to have very little room for children in “Big Church” worship.  

Several weeks ago on Palm Sunday, the church we visited brought a slew of children on stage to help lead the closing congregational song, one which the kids knew well enough to function nicely as worship leaders.  They waived no palm branches (as happened all around the world in many churches), but their enthusiasm brought sufficient energy to an annual Sunday service that should be focused on great hope–and hope manifested in as body-physical a manner as congregants can muster.

In both churches I served for the majority of my weekend-warrior ministry, we had children’s choirs that put on Christmas musicals by some of the best kids’ choir composers of that era: Pam Andrews, Kathie Hill, and Celeste Clydesdale, among others.  These were always well received, often well performed, and usually well suited for actual ministry that went beyond the “Aw, they’re so cute” factor inherent in these things.  I know parents who came to faith as a result of the Holy Spirit’s using an evening’s production (more often than not, the accumulation of several evenings’ productions) said parents wouldn’t have bothered with had not their seven-year-old scion been part of the occasion.  In part to promote the evening, I routinely had the kids sing a call to worship from the production a week or two before it was to be performed.

I know there are other churches that do similar things, but not many these days outside of Christmas and Easter, especially in churches trying hard to be culturally relevant.  Typically, if the kids are in the service at all, they leave en masse right before the sermon.  At least with this model, young believers get the opportunity to sing congregational songs with their parents and older parishioners, experience the giving of tithes and offerings, and hear some Scripture read and a prayer or two recited, thus beginning the process of forming the spiritual muscle memory related to the ebb and flow of corporate worship.

One of the by-products of the seeker-sensitivity movement, though, featured complete and totally separate programming for K-8 kids during corporate worship.  The strategy can be justified on many levels, and certainly is not universally misguided, but it does have the effect of removing children from what can and should be a weekly dose of spiritual formation for the total Body of Christ.  You don’t have to be a member of a “liturgical” church to understand and appreciate the special catechumenical potential for youngsters sitting among the adults when they absorb the week-in-and-week-out efforts of sensitive worship leaders and pastors.

51GWtbUMsCL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Marva Dawn, in her excellent collection of sermons and essays A Royal “Waste” of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World, addresses the benefits of encouraging children to be part of every aspect of our services in a series of 10 responses she gives to children who complain about having to go to church.  Here are the ones that support this blog the best:

 

  • We’re not going to church; YOU are the Church–and we go to worship so that we learn how to be Church. . . .
  • The congregation cannot get along without you.  Just as your body needs every single part . . . so the church needs every single person to make it whole.  Perhaps this Sunday some persons will need you to be eyes or hands for them.
  • You need the gifts of worship because you will learn things there that will make sense later.  Almost every week I learn something that comes up in the days that follow. . . .
  • Attending worship will teach you skills for your Christian life–skills like how to pray, how to sing, how to sit quietly in God’s presence, how to study the Bible. . . .
  • The congregation needs the talents you bring to worship–your singing voice . . ., your ability to learn new songs quickly, . . . your warmth and friendliness in the “Passing of the Peace” [or, for low-church evangelicals, the “Greet Your Neighbor”], . . . your modeling of reverence for the other children. . . .
  • Most important, God needs you there because he loves to be with you in his house.

Worship leaders in contemporary American evangelical churches, I encourage you to borrow from our mainline brothers and sisters, who typically incorporate children much better and more often than we do, adapting their examples for your particular contexts.  Does the future of the Church depend on it?  I don’t know, but is it at least somewhat possible that the great exodus of millennials from our churches (one article among 1.5M that popped up on a Google search) partly stems from their having been, every weekend for years, sequestered away to more kid-friendly digs, depriving them of the opportunity to acclimate to the sacred actions of their parents and grandparents in worship–to the extent that those same formative actions mean nothing to them now?  I don’t think it’s a ridiculous notion.

The Lord be with you as you consider utilizing children in worship!

Coming next week (Lord willing): Analyzing the worship set.

About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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