We’re Glad You’re Here

Ah, the Internet.  There is so much good stuff out there, on Forma (the Facebook group for church folks engaged in Christian formation of children and youth—if you’re not a member you should be), and sites like Building Faith from Virginia Theological Seminary, Grow Christians, Sharon Pearson’s Rows of Sharon, and many another blog or site. This post is a grab bag of thoughts from here and there, on the perennial topic of helping families and children feel welcome in church.

Getting in the door

Those of us for whom church is normal, routine, and familiar, may never have considered how difficult it can be, for those who have never been part of a church, or who are returning to church as young parents after having drifted away in their teens, simply to take the step of beginning to go to church.

My daughter, Margaret Pritchard Houston, the staff member for children and family ministries for the Diocese of St. Albans in the Church of England, recently wrote a lively and witty newsletter article full of striking insights into this pivotal moment for newcomers to the church.

Recently, I joined a gym. Those who know me will know this is out of character for me. But I’ve done it, I’m going to regular classes, and I’m not dead yet, so things are looking good.

However, one unexpected benefit of this is that I now have recent, hands-on experience of what it feels like to be really new to a place, and completely unfamiliar with its customs and culture. This is something many children and parents experience when they come to church – and church leaders, who are used to their church’s ways of doing things, can often forget how intimidating it is to be new, and how unfamiliar most children, and parents, are with what happens at church.

Margaret goes on to analyze the process by which she first resolved to join a gym and then actually did it—and examines the counterpart to each of these steps in the process of approaching church.

Coming to the gym wasn’t my first step. My first step was a friend inviting me to her boxing class. She knew I was looking to get in shape, and she told me this class was small, informal, friendly, and that she and I would go for a coffee afterwards. I went twice and LOVED it. …

Applicable to churches: A culture of invitation among existing members. My friend knew I was looking for something, and invited me to her group. Knowing somebody who would be there meant it was less intimidating for me to show up, and she helped show me what to do with the equipment …

… and so on, step by step: 

Then I found myself looking for a home. I posted a plea to Facebook … and I researched websites. …

Then I joined, and booked myself in for a class. The gym I joined has no contract, so I didn’t feel I was making a MASSIVE commitment just by taking that first tentative step. …

Then I actually showed up. So much groundwork had been done before I even walked in the front door! … Looking around, I was relieved to see people of all ages and sizes … I went into the room where the class was being held. There was no instructor until about 30 seconds before the class started, so I had to figure out what to do on my own. …

Then … I did it! I worked out! Again, I was pleased to see I wasn’t the only one who had to pause sometimes while other members of the class kept going. … And as I walked out, I felt … more at home. More like I belonged there. More in control and more confident.

And then, over the next few days, the strangest thing happened. I started to feel like I was “in the club.” I tried on this new identity as “someone who goes to the gym” to see how it fit. …

After narrating each step, Margaret points out the analogous lesson for churches:  “Most parents of young children are under 45. They will search your website and any social media you have before they even think of showing up at your door. … Make it okay for people to not know how to worship. Make it clear that it’s okay to walk around with your child if needed …  Make it easy for them to ‘join the club.’”

Children in the liturgy

There is an intrinsic tension between the desire of many adults for “peace and quiet” in church, including the opportunity to hear and follow a sermon without distraction, and the principle that the Sunday liturgy is a family celebration and should be diverse and inclusive in a way that embraces the noise and movement of children.  No perfect solution is forthcoming, but most congregations are eager for the signs of life and vitality that children bring, and with good will, tact, and mutual forbearance, they will achieve a workable balance.  Nonetheless, articles still appear with predictable regularity promoting the idea that children don’t belong in the “real liturgy” at all.

This notion was mainstream in Protestant churches for much of the twentieth century, until, with liturgical renewal in the historic “mainline” Protestant churches, Sunday worship became less dry and cerebral, and children began to be welcomed back.  As so often happens, this same time period has seen something of an opposite movement in Catholic churches, with the increased promotion of children’s Masses or other separate programs running concurrently with all or part of the main liturgy.  A recent article by blogger priest Fr. Michael White, “Why We Don’t Encourage (little) Kids In Church,” set out this idea in exceptionally absolutist terms:

There is something in Catholic Church culture that insists kids belong in the sanctuary for Mass. I must say I don’t totally understand it, but it is definitely a Catholic thing. Part of the thinking is that sheer exposure to the service imbues them with grace and other good things in some kind of effortless and mindless sort of way.

… I liken it to bringing a toddler to a lecture or presentation intended for adults, because there is information you want your kids to have. Nobody would ever do that, because it obviously wouldn’t work. They must be introduced to the information in age appropriate ways if they are to learn. Everybody knows this, and yet we ignore it in church.

This blog post prompted quite an outcry on social media, including a very thoughtful post from Timothy P. O’Malley in Notre Dame’s Church Life Journal.  O’Malley takes issue with the unexamined premise behind Fr. White’s strongly expressed opinions, namely that liturgy is essentially a cognitive pursuit, properly focused on “learning” and “information.”

When one reduces the liturgical act to “understanding,” then there is an erasure of the contemplative, aesthetic, and thus embodied formation that is integral to a worshipful existence. … This assumption presumes that liturgy communicates theology or the experience of faith through complex liturgical signs, and the only thing required for liturgical participation is recognition of the “meaning” of these signs. Whether the liturgy is beautiful or not does not really matter.

O’Malley continues with a passionate apologia for beauty and mystery in the liturgy, in the process acknowledging that Sunday worship that is dreary, shallow or overly cognitive will, in fact, fail to capture the attention of children and cause their behavior to become distracting to adults whose attention has also been restricted to the single activity of hearing language and processing it cognitively:

In this sense, Fr. White’s blog post is but endemic of Catholic worship in the United States at this stage. Liturgies are cacophonies of verbal proclamations, of sermons, of explaining rites and the meaning of feasts. There is so little to behold in churches that have been built as suburban shopping malls. Music is chosen not because it provides something to perceive, the beauty of ordered sound used to worship God, but instead to get across a “message” in hymn texts that are often more ideological than aesthetic or theological. …

[P]erhaps some of the children are bored at Mass, not because they are incapable of understanding what is going on, but because there is too much speech and not enough silence, not enough embodied action, not enough to behold.

Learning to understand

In connection with Timothy O’Malley’s article, I venture to put here a comment of my own, to the Forma Facebook group.  A member had asked for “expressions of the Creeds that are on a child’s level for a children’s liturgy,” and several people responded with links to rhymed paraphrases, some very short and simple, others in the form of traditional hymns with three eight-line stanzas, very singable but arguably no more accessible to small children than the original prose words of the creeds.  My contribution to the conversation:

I always just lifted the topic sentences, for example (this particular one is a mashup of Apostles’ and Nicene creeds):

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord.

And we believe in the Holy Spirit: the Lord, the Giver of Life.

I’ve always preferred introducing children to the actual words of the liturgy, rather than paraphrasing into different more everyday words. I think concern for kids’ ability to grasp the literal meaning of liturgical language is often misplaced.

I want them to recognize the standard liturgical language when they encounter it in church, and to find it already familiar, even if they’re still not sure what the words mean. Those big rich strong old words will still be there, patiently waiting for them to grow into them and fill them with more meaning and memory year by year.

I am concerned that substituting everyday language in children’s worship creates an unnecessary gulf between children’s worship and the main liturgy. I also suspect it may narrow or limit their spirituality by tying their imaginations to inappropriately literal concepts—that we as adults may be off the mark in trying to guess what would be easier or harder for them to “understand,” and may just in general place too much weight on an adult idea of “understanding.”

In many other areas of life we simply hand them our canonical heritage and expect them to grow into it. We teach them “America the Beautiful” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” without worrying that we ought to rephrase them so they will understand. And they make weird and funny mistakes about “the fruited plain [plane?]” and so on, and it doesn’t upset us, and bit by bit they figure it out, and they do it by themselves and for themselves.

© 2019 by Gretchen Wolff Pritchard.  All rights reserved.

One thought on “We’re Glad You’re Here

  1. Love the analogy with the star spangled banner and Jose can you see! And don’t forget the pledge of allegiance’s for Richard Stands. Repetition makes words familiar enough to later acquire meaning (how many elementary school students can use allegiance in a sentence?).

    Liked by 1 person

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