This article was written by the Rev. Jon Vieker and originally published by the LCMS Commission on Worship, “Children in Worship—Moving Beyond Cheerios and Crayons,” Reporter insert, January 2001.

Children in Worship

The scene is so familiar. Parents, children, the Divine Service, and all the “accessories” that come along for the ride—the children’s bulletins, the scraps of “scribble paper,” the Cheerios, and the crayons. Each week, we parents go to great lengths to keep our children occupied during the worship hour. We know how our children, especially the younger ones, can become when they are bored or ignored, and we really don’t want to see that in public.

But is there something beyond merely keeping our children occupied for the time being? Is there some way to move in the Divine Service “beyond Cheerios and crayons”? Consider these three factors.

Environmental context

Take a look at the physical setting in which worship happens. For example, many congregations reserve pews in the back of the sanctuary for families with small children. But is that really the best place for children to sit? Think about it. Is it no wonder that our children often tune out what’s going on in church? Try slumping down in your pew to their eye level and see what it’s like to try and pay attention!

How can you as an adult make what’s going on in front more visible for your children? Moving them (and yourself) up to the front might be one way. Try sitting up front next Sunday and see whether it makes a difference!

Ritual and Predictability

Think of your child’s birthday party. Perhaps, your little nine-year-old has chosen to invite some friends over for a party and sleep-over. For the party, Mom and Dad put on the whole schmear—a piñata full of candy, a cake with candles and singing “Happy Birthday,” the opening of presents, the thank-yous and hugs, and so forth. Everyone has a marvelous time!

But here’s a ridiculous question: how would it go over if, when your child came to you with the idea of a party, you would say instead: “No, honey, we don’t think so. We’d rather just write you a check for the cost of the party and the presents and then congratulate you instead with a simple handshake.” How would that go over? Horribly, of course! It would have told your little girl that Mom and Dad didn’t care very much about her turning nine and, consequently, that she wasn’t very important to them.

What’s the point? One big reason we follow rituals—like the ritual of a birthday party with its cake and candles and song—is because rituals tell us that something very important is going on. Rituals communicate that what’s being done is out of the ordinary and is, therefore, worthy of a special ceremony.

But rituals also create an environment of predictability. Is there anyone who doesn’t know what to do next when they see someone walking into the room with a cake full of candles? The simple fact of the matter is that we all learn by repetition and predictability. And it’s even biblical. When the Lord gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel, he declared: “These words I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children” (Deuteronomy 6:6-7). The literal meaning of the Hebrew word here involves “repetition.” “Repeat these words upon your children...” if you will. And isn’t that exactly how it works for our children in the Divine Service? In Children in Worship (p. 53), Shirley Morgenthaler concludes:

For children, the opportunity to participate in prayers by folding hands and kneeling is a powerful point of entry into liturgy. So, too, the exchange of peace and making the sign of the cross. These acts become children’s early entry into the liturgy of the Church. For many children, the presence of familiar versicles and responses sung by the congregation is an opportunity for participation. For the non-reading child, the opportunity to participate in liturgy is solely dependent on the presence of those predictable elements.

Intentional Enculturation

Carl Schalk wrote:

At their best, Christians have always encouraged and fostered inter-generational worship. We called it going to church together. Father and mother, children—and if grandparents lived nearby, they joined the family—sitting together in the pews. Children learned from watching their parents participate in worship, they learned what to do, how to conduct themselves, what worship was about. ... We called it family devotions. Before or after the evening meal, each father and mother—grandfather and grandmother if they were present—led in the singing of a hymn, a reading from scripture and a brief devotion, concluding with a short prayer. Children learned to worship as their parents, grandparents, and older siblings provided examples and models (First Person Singular: Reflections on Worship, Liturgy, and Children, pp. 25—26).

Here Schalk is primarily speaking to parents: bring your children to church from a very young age, he is saying, and show them by example how to worship. Teach them at home—with simple family devotions—that your worship goes on throughout the week and not just on Sunday mornings. The nitty-gritty “how-tos” of children in worship do not have universal answers and simple solutions. It is definitely not easy work. But then, the really worthwhile things in life rarely are!

Beyond Cheerios and Crayons

So is there a place for Cheerios and crayons? Most certainly there is—and even for “scribble paper” and children’s bulletins. But there is so much more that can be done to lead our children into the riches of the Divine Service. This calls for parents, pastors, and congregational leaders to take a proactive role in seeing that this happens in their own parishes and homes.