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.