I’ve had a couple of conversations with parents over the past weeks about children’s church and its demise at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., where I am the minister of children.
I’ve heard a few different things. “It ended because we didn’t have volunteers.” “We stopped coming because we can’t have our children in worship.” “When are we going to offer that again? Having my children in worship is so hard.”
Parents of young children, I feel your pain. But I promise, I am not trying to torture you by asking you to bring your little ones into worship. And I am right there with you.
I have three children. Two are still nursery age (a baby and a 2-year-old), but my 6-year-old worships beside me for the whole service. We also attend church twice a Sunday — in the morning at the Methodist church, and in the evening at our home denomination, the Mennonite church. In the evening, all three of our children are in worship with us for most of the service. Our two little ones go to the nursery only for the sermon. My 6-year-old stays in both services the whole way through.
She is (God bless her) not easy. She doesn’t sit still and read a book. She is tired, squirmy, talks loudly, wanders, asks questions, spreads out her things and distracts. I once took my daughter out of the service to correct disobedience five different times. I’ve marched to the bathroom multiple times during every sermon I’ve ever heard. My husband and I have refereed fights. We’ve followed crawling babies around the sanctuary. We’ve created spaces to sleep, eat and play. Every Sunday one of us sits in the nursery with our anxious toddler and “stranger danger” baby.
But ending children’s church was strategic. The reason we don’t have it anymore is because we know that going to all-church worship is the best indicator that our children will stick with their faith into adulthood. We aren’t making this up. Despite our intuition about engaging worship, relationships with peers, having something fun, none of this actually matches the data on what helps faith stick. The National Survey on Youth and Religion, which followed young teenagers up through adulthood, extensively detailing their lives and their faith, is where we learned this.
When I am wrestling a toddler to the ground or deciding at what decibel coloring is too loud I remember this:
The closest our research has come to that definitive silver bullet is this sticky finding: High school and college students who experience more intergenerational worship tend to have higher faith maturity. Of the many youth group participation variables we examined, involvement in intergenerational worship and relationships had one of the most robust correlations with faith maturity. This is true for our students’ senior year of high school and their freshman year of college.
Congregations are the place where teens, and before them children, create intergenerational relationships that will stay them through the years. For us, starting those relationships now as young children, helps them be the church, not just show up once a week.
Being in church with our children shows them that they are accepted as they are because that’s what the church is. We don’t have to shuttle them off to their own private place, as if they are an embarrassment, or hindering us from worship. This season of life worship is about helping our church learn what it’s like to be a community of faith. It isn’t easy. It’s often messy and hard. But that’s also what church is.
We also know from the statistics that parents are the most formative influence on their children’s faith lives. Children overwhelmingly turn out just like their parents, despite our intuition that children are faith experimenters. So if my kids see that other activities trump going to church, or if they never see what adults do in worship, then chances are good that they are going to look the same way in 20 years. If we want children to learn the language of faith they actually need to see us worshipping, praying, singing and receiving bread and cup.
Knowing these things has made church a little easier for us. In the moment I, too, long for children’s church, for an age-appropriate, entertaining space away from me. I want to be fed on Sundays. I want space to be hear the sermon, to sing without interruption. And there will be a time for that. There will be a time when my children are engaged in worship, when they can listen and sit still, where they can participate. But right now we are working on something else.
Just when I am at the end of my rope I can start to see the fruits of our work. Our daughter has asked us to invite some adult friends from church to her birthday party. We have other adults who help us in worship, who will hold our baby, or stop our child as she runs out of the room. In the nursery, many adults without children volunteer to stay with our little ones. One day soon, when they too reach kindergarten and join in worship for the whole service, they will know those faces and voices. And there are other adults my daughter can sit with in worship, other adults who she can go to when she needs support.
None of this makes worship easy. It doesn’t mean that we’re not tearing out our hair, or wishing we could be away for the weekend. It doesn’t mean we don’t worry that our child will fall behind, won’t have enough extracurricular activities, won’t be fed spiritually. But we keep moving ahead, keep packing up our kids into the van. And we know our church loves our children and wants them to be a part of God’s good work. And we know we’re all in this together.
A few weeks ago I read Scripture during the service wearing our 8-month-old (see picture above). Paul was writing to the Thessalonians, encouraging them to be imitators. He writes, “You became imitators of us and of our Lord.” On the word “imitators” our baby did just that. Hearing Mama read she yelled “ahhh!” We hope she continues to imitate the lives of faith, old and young, single and married who surround her as she grows. We hope her imitation of Mama’s voice turns into imitation of mercy and justice, to imitations of the faithful people that surround her. Surrounding her with those people every Sunday starts now.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is a licensed minister in Mennonite Church USA’s Virginia Mennonite Conference and a member of Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. She is the minister of children at Duke Memorial United Methodist Church in Durham, N.C., and holds a master’s degree in religion from Duke University and an M. Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary. She blogs on a theology of childhood and other things at breakingnewbread.wordpress.com where this series on talking to your children about race can be found.