For parents of small children, worshiping with small children can feel daunting; what happens if they are too squirrely? too uninterested? too noisy?
The truth is, making space for children in worship is just as important to the faith development of our children as their time in Religious Education classes.
Worship is the primary way that our community gathers together– it is the time that we set aside for naming that which is of worth; it is when we can sit together in the awe and wonder of our community and that which is larger than any one of us. Worship is an experience that can help bind us together as Unitarian Universalists and as humans; if our children (and their adults) have any chance of knowing (deeply, in their bones, Knowing) that they are part of the fabric of our community, then they need to be regularly welcomed into this space.
Worship exposes our children to rituals, music, words, stories, and rites of passage that they might not otherwise experience in a Religious Education classroom, and, most importantly, they get to experience the spirit of our church– the love present in the room when a sanctuary full of people of all ages gathers together to hold this time and space sacred. Worship is made holy by the presence of our children, too.
And, just like the work of Religious Education, making space for children in worship does not fall solely on the shoulders of parents; this work belongs to the entire congregation.
Here are a few ways that everyone can help make our children and youth feel at home in the sanctuary:
- Make literal space: If you have children with you, find a place to sit in the sanctuary where they can see. If you don’t have children with you, help make space for the families around you so that the children can see. Children are much more likely to be engaged with what they can observe.
- Engage a child and their adults(s) in a conversation about worship:
- Before the service begins: ask them what they are looking forward to hearing or seeing in the service that morning. Do they have a favorite song? Do they remember the opening words? Who are they holding in their hearts that they want to lift up during the meditation?
- During worship: worship spaces come with a whole new set of rules that children may not be used to. Adults tend to pick up on expectations simply by observing, but children might need these unspoken rules explained to them. Softly narrate the service for them: for example, “this is the time when we stand and sing,” or “this is the time when we try to be quiet and listen,” or “this is the time when we light our chalice. It is the symbol of our church.”
- After the service: ask what words, music, sights, smells they remember. Did they have a favorite part?
- Get Involved: Sign up with the children in your life to usher or be on a welcoming team together. If your child is 10 or older, they can also sign up to be a chalice lighter. Children are great helpers!
- Worship Together. With the permission of the child’s adult, engage the child in front of you, in back of you, beside you by sharing a hymnal, an order of service, or even a smile! This helps children (and their adults!) feel more at ease in worship.
- Expect A Little Noise. We all are noisy in worship from time to time; we sneeze, we cough, we knock over our coffee mugs… it happens. Community is noisy from time to time, and children are no exception. Know that a child that needs to be wiggly might not seem to not be listening, but they are probably still absorbing a lot of what is happening around them. And sometimes, like all of us, children can get overwhelmed or tired or hungry, and they need to be crying. Be kind to those children and their adults; remember that they are all doing their best to discern what those cries mean and to navigate the worship space. Offer words and gestures of support and kindness and support instead of judgment.
- Honor Their Presence. Sometimes adults are surprised by the things that children say and do, and the natural reaction can be to laugh. Try to honor our children by taking a breath first; and wonder how you might feel if someone laughed or scoffed at you for showing genuine emotion, for crying, or for sharing something that you think is important.
Over the years, I have so often heard adults talk about how their time in the sanctuary has sustained them throughout the week; whether it is our call to worship (“Come into this place…”) or the words in a sermon, or music from the choir–these are things that we carry with us far beyond the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Why wouldn’t we want our children to carry all of those things with them, too?