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silhouettes of six children facing a sunset over water with hands raised and birds in the sky above

Focus on Leadership: Let the Children Lead

A common phrase you hear around churches is, “Children are the future of the church,” in reference to the children and/or youth around your church. This often is said as you discuss children’s programming, or hear a youth lead liturgy or pray. You hear it on confirmation Sunday and Children’s or Youth Sunday, those days we set aside for the young people to lead us. But what would it look like if it were not a novelty for children and youth to lead us, but rather their voices and active participation were regular parts of our church life?

We hope to attract young families and we love to see them sitting in our pews, participating in Sunday School, or singing in the children’s choirs. But how much of your worship and general church programming (not specifically aimed at children or young families) is designed for young members of our community?

Instead of assuming what children and youth want and need, let’s ask them directly as a regular part of our worship, education, and fellowship planning. Yes, it can be difficult to elicit helpful conversation and responses from children and youth who are unaccustomed to having those conversations with you. By including our youngest members in those conversations, we are helping them learn how to have those conversations, as once we ourselves learned. The best way to learn how to do something is by doing it. Yes, making missteps and mistakes. Yes, slowing down discussions and decision-making. Those are part and parcel in the Presbyterian process, however. We do not want to rush discussions and decisions without understanding what we do not yet understand.

Instead of making assumptions about what children, youth, young adults and young families need, and asking questions based on our assumptions – Would you like more contemporary music? Do you think we should have a prayground? Is this a good mission project for all-ages? – we need to ask open-ended questions. If we instead asked people of all ages to share what they like about church – in the areas of worship, education, fellowship, service, etc. – and what they want to see added or changed, we will get better answers.

If we start with imagining what church could be, then figure out how to live into it meaningfully, it is better than trying to “fix” what is not working for our youngest members. Just as Jesus lays out examples of what a world looks like where God is at the center and we figure out how to live into that divine imagination, we should start with what we imagine church could or should be for a vibrant, God-centered community, and figure out what we need to do to live into that vision.

You might have younger members name the very real issue of a lack of bodily movement or congregational engagement in worship. If we are just trying to “fix a problem,” we might simply have people move around more during worship or add in more call and response aspects to our liturgy. To begin casting a vision for worship where you hope to include meaningful movement and more integrated congregational participation and leadership will require taking the act of worship seriously.

That is a conversation that understands that God calls us to worship with our whole selves, including our physical bodies. It also acknowledges that each worship participant is part of making our worship happen. This changes the whole conversation of how you might approach worship planning, also taking seriously about how to fully include those whose mobility or other participation is more limited. This is a conversation about the whole body, not just parts of it.

Changing how we have these conversations, and who we include in our regular conversations, as we create church together is important for all we do together. It isn’t about attracting young families or training up children and youth to do church the way we know church for the sake of church growth in numbers or tradition. It is about naming the reality that those who have been baptized into our community at any age are full members and co-creators of church and a Christ-centered world. We are more fully living into God’s call to be the Body of Christ when we do not neglect the needs of parts of that body. And, in fact, we will probably find that we were neglecting some of our own needs as well.

paper stars with glitter tossed over them

Doing the Work: Vacation Bible School

Vacation Bible School (VBS) takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of organization, time, preparation, volunteers, snacks, space, glue sticks and energy. It will be one of the most exhausting weeks of your life. And…it is worth every bit of it. The relationships built between the children, between your adult volunteers, between the children and volunteers and, definitely not least, the relationship between the children and Christ, are powerful and lasting.

But not every church has the resources to do a full-on VBS every summer. Or, you’ve done VBS for years and love it, but you need a new leader or new format. How can you dive into this ministry and still love Jesus at the end? We have some suggestions.

If you are a pastor– Be there. You don’t have to be there the whole time, you don’t have to lead the crafts or make the snacks, but show up. Be there every day at the opening or closing sessions, or both. If you do have the time and passion for a particular part of the rotation, join in! Teach the story, interact with the puppets, head up the games, or shepherd a group around. Whatever time you can put in shows that the ministry and the children and volunteers participating in that ministry are important to you and the church. Just showing your face each day and singing a silly song before you go do sermon prep or home visitations will make all the difference.

If you are on session– Show up. Like your pastor(s), it’s great if you can volunteer during the week of VBS. But maybe you work during the day, or have physical limitations or are involved in so many other ministries you really can’t and shouldn’t take on one more. You may not be able to volunteer for craft duty, but you may be able to help set up for the crafts ahead of time. Or decorate the hallways, or make snacks to keep the volunteers going throughout the week. Maybe you can show up at the closing worship at the end of the week to cheer on the participants as they share the songs and stories they learned. If you show up in one of these ways, you will help make VBS happen.

If you are a small church with some kids, but not enough human capital– Join with another church or several other churches. Get together with neighboring PC(USA) or churches of other denominations in your town. Plan and staff VBS together. Maybe make a rotating schedule so different churches get a chance to host each year, with all of the churches coming together to make it happen. VBS is a lot of work, but it is really true that many hands make light work. Also, when we partner with others, it can be fresh and exciting to do that hard work.

If you are a church with plenty of resources, but few children– Invite the neighbors! Advertise your VBS in the local newspaper and local parenting groups and with banners on the streets (what gets the word out best in your context?). Basically, make sure people know you’re throwing an awesome Jesus party and people will come. You might even have a few bored teenagers wander in, so think about how to engage them in leadership or their own program. (Trust us, the Holy Spirit will send people – we’ve seen it time and again.)

If you have done VBS forever and need to shake things up– Try changing the schedule or the structure. If you have dwindling numbers for a week-long, daytime VBS, maybe shorten it, or do it in the evening when you can tap into a different pool of volunteers, or do a summer-long VBS on Sunday afternoons or Wednesday evenings. Any of the suggestions above might bring some new energy to an old VBS, too. Get new partners, invite your neighbors, make sure your leadership is fully engaged.

 

And, it’s ok to simply say you don’t need to do a VBS if the leadership and energy simply isn’t there. The Bible speaks not only of Sabbath days, but of sabbatical seasons. A break or an end of a ministry can bring about creative energy for a future attempt or other mission areas of the church. The Bible does not command us to have Vacation Bible School, and the Holy Spirit will lead us where we are going next as we rest and listen for God’s call.

But if you have a Vacation Bible School scheduled for this summer in any form, we know Jesus will show up in major ways. Blessings on the work and the volunteers and the love that you are pouring into the program and into the children and youth who will be there.

Let us know about your VBS, your bright ideas, innovations, and anything else you’d like to share about VBS. And, show ‘em Jesus!

OUR CHILDREN WANT TO HELP

The Jerry Can curriculum nurtures and encourages our children’s natural desire to help people in need.

Jerry Can represents the one common denominator in all disasters around the world: the need for clean water to survive. The Jerry Can cartoon was created to be a fun, energetic character for children to connect with as they learn how to respond to disasters with prayer and generosity.

This five-lesson resource, separated by grade level, makes an excellent program for a Sunday school series or a week-long Bible School. The curriculum includes:

  • Lessons with Jerry Can, written by Christian educators
  • Map exercises to teach children about our global community
  • Fun-to-do arts, crafts, and games to extend the learning experience
  • Science experiments blended with words from the Psalms
  • Ways children can respond to help others
  • Suggestions for music and snacks (recipes included)