Kids in Worship and Hospitality in General

Hi. I’m Rob. I’m a pastor. You guys called me here a little over a year ago. We’ve had some time to get to know one another. I like you all, and I think you like me. At least some of you do. Are we at a point in our relationship that we can talk openly? Let’s give it a shot.

When your call committee was interviewing potential pastors, you put together a profile of your congregation. It’s something every congregation is required to do, just as every pastoral candidate is required to complete a Rostered Leader Profile. It’s part of the speed dating process. The potential pastor looks at the Ministry Site Profile and says, “OK, I think I can work with that,” and the congregation looks at the RLP and says, “Fine. This could turn into something.” The RLP highlights some areas of a minister’s strengths and “growing edges,” and the MSP lists a number of the congregation’s ministry priorities.

I have never, ever, never seen a Ministry Site Profile that doesn’t state, in one way or another, that the congregation hopes to attract young families with children or rebuild a youth and family program that has fallen away in recent years. Never seen it. Children are ALWAYS listed as a priority.

Why? I think the assumption is, that families are looking for a place where they can plant themselves, raise their kids in the faith, and those kids will either stay in the same town where the parents planted roots, or move away from that town but come back some day when they have kids of their own, or at least have a solid faith foundation to carry with them as they move somewhere else as grown-ups. It’s seen as hopeful to have kids in worship. It feels like a sign of security. And it’s completely delusional.  Charming, but delusional.

The reality is that people are more mobile now than ever. Just in my adult lifetime, I’ve lived in 6 states and two countries. Twice. And I’m not in the “young family” demographic anymore, despite having two young’uns at home. The still younger set is even more mobile than my generation.

Before you say it, yes, every congregation has one or two examples of kids who have grown up, gone to college, and then came back. But for every one of those people who came back, how many never did? And those that left, how many have left the denomination for one reason or another? How many have left all things religious for one reason or another?

I don’t say any of this to make people feel bad or feel like failures when it came to raising kids in the faith or protecting the institution they worked so hard to build or maintain. It’s simply the way things are. Did previous generations make mistakes? Oh, you betcha! But that’s not the point at all. The point is just that our old assumptions about church and family are as outdated as kerosene lamps and coal cooking stoves. It might feel nice to wax nostalgic about “the good old days,” but that kind of thinking both fails to recall the struggles that came with the good old days, while also failing to engage with current realities. It’s not helpful.

What does that have to do with kids in the church? Well, everything. People under the old model used to say, without a hint of irony, “the children are the future of the church.” Even if they were right back then, they’re wrong now. The children, if we’re so lucky as to have any, are the PRESENT of the church. They are every bit as important as the 85-year-old member who gives 10% weekly, serves on the Council, works for the Altar Guild, the Finance Committee, and every other thing that congregations typically do. The only difference: they are children.

Because they are children, they act like children. They are silly; they are fidgety; they are moody; they are often socially “inappropriate.” (Well, they’re not, really. If they were adults and acting that way, it WOULD be inappropriate. But as it is, they’re kids and that’s all there is to that.)

One of the great things about kids is that they live in the moment. Yes, they think about the future, but mostly, they’re much more present in the moment than adults. And they’re always learning. I’m not talking about formal learning here. Whether you have a structured Sunday School class or not, kids are learning from the adults. Mostly they’re not learning facts or processes, either. They’re learning from adults how they, the children, are being perceived and received. “Am I welcome here? Am I unwelcome? Can I be a kid, be myself, be silly, fidgety and all the rest, or do I have to be Old? If I don’t behave the way the Olds expect me to behave, am I still accepted, or do I really need to conform until I can get out of here at the first available opportunity and never look back?”

Recently someone said to me, “Yeah, they’re kids. We get that. But isn’t there some middle ground?” I’ve thought about it. At first I thought there must be. But the more I ponder, the more I believe there is NOT a middle ground. Because kids don’t process like adults. They are very self-centered. (Well, maybe they’re not too different from adults, after all!) And they’re trying to fit in. But if they are too structured and too hemmed in, all they’re learning is, “I don’t feel welcome among these people.” That’s reality. I honestly don’t care how it used to be in the old days of “Do what you’re told.” To think that way now is to engage in delusional thinking. It’s not Back When I Was A Kid times anymore.  Back When I Was A Kid, I hated church and I left it as soon as I moved out of my family home at age 17. Now, eventually I did come back, but I’m not most kids.

Look, all I’m saying here is this: We can’t expect kids to act like grown ups. We can’t expect them to treat all of our religious pageantry with the same reverence that was forced into us and that made us superstitious and terrified of an angry God. It’s not healthy, and it’s not the character of God to scowl at children who actually WANT to be involved in worship. They won’t always want that. If we can make it pleasant for them while it’s still something they want to do, it’s going to have a far better, less traumatic effect on them as they grow up and move away than forcing them into a rigid behavioral box that makes US more comfortable. One of the things that all of us churchy people need to learn is that it’s really not about us. It’s not about what makes us comfortable. Think about Jesus and his teaching, and let’s allow HIM to be our guide in this.

If you see a kid in worship doing something you don’t like, first check your trigger. Then, when you’ve calmed down, maybe say to the kid in a kind and encouraging way, “Hey, I’d like to help you understand what you’re doing a little better. Here’s how *I* do this and here’s why.” That’s going to carry a lot more weight than a complaint to the council or to the pastor. Be proactive. Encourage one another. Build one another up.

By the way, just so we’re clear: It is not the pastor’s job to raise your children or grandchildren in the faith. That’s the parents’ or grandparents’ or other caretakers’ job. MY job is to help you do your job. To encourage you as you encourage one another. So please regard this whole “letter” in the encouraging sense that I intend it. If you feel challenged, that’s OK. If you disagree, that’s OK, too. We don’t have to agree on everything, because our unity isn’t in our agreement on every jot and tittle, but rather it’s in Christ, who is our Lord and teacher.

I’d love to have more conversation about this with folks in a one-to-one or small group setting, but I’m going to leave it up to you to set that up. One of the things I’ve become convinced of over the years: People will either care enough to make a conversation happen, or they’ll be content to gripe behind a person’s back. One of those ways is befitting a follower of Jesus. The other … not so much.

Anyway, I hope to chat with folks about this or any other concerns/questions in the very near future. Don’t be a stranger!

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