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Worshipping with Young Children

Worshipping with young children. Delight or nightmare? My recollection of years ago was that it was a nightmare. There was no creche, no children's area and I knew I should take a bag of carefully selected things to keep our younger daughter 'occupied', but we were always in a rush and... and... and each week I vowed I'd be more organised next week.

Much has changed and many churches now do have provision for young children and their carers in or alongside their worship, but, appreciative of it all as carers are, I am not sure whether our expectations have really changed. I wonder what the children themselves are 'experiencing' about the purpose of coming to church and of worship. I wonder what they are really experiencing about the significance of worship: if they are given things to 'occupy' them while the adults worship; if they are given toys and books just like those that they would use in other times and in other places; if they are excluded from significant parts of the worship.

Young children can worship
Part of the problem lies in our expectations. It is as if we feel we have to try and keep young children amused and occupied in worship until they are old enough to really understand and participate in it themselves. But young children do have some of the basic ingredients necessary for worship:

Rather than feeling that we have merely to amuse and occupy young children in worship, we need to think of ways that will help them to draw on these ingredients for worship, and help them to participate in worship in ways that are appropriate for them. Young children need to know that they are coming to a place, a time, an occasion that is special and sacred for them.

So, where to start?
Well, first, let's get real. However secure and loved they might feel by the rest of the congregation, left to themselves, most young children will not just intuitively exercise their 'basic ingredients' of worship all through a Communion service, or a service of Morning Praise. But the question should not be 'How can we keep these young children occupied?' but 'How can we help them to engage with God, within the community of the people of God, as they are able?' Whatever provision is developed for young children, the key question should be 'How will this help them to participate in worship?'

Young children are active learners. From birth, they are continually encountering new experiences, which they intuitively try to interpret and make sense of. Worship in church becomes one of those experiences in which they will intuitively try to interpret and makes sense of, as they are able. We can't expect them to be able to engage in it as adults do, or make sense of it as adults do, but we can provide opportunities and materials that will help them to participate in the worshipping situation in ways that are appropriate for them.

The nature of the provision that you develop for this will depend on your own church's situation: the space you have available, the number of young children who come, the availability of leaders - these are some of the factors that will influence the decisions you make. You may be starting from scratch or you may be trying to develop something that is already in operation; whichever it is, here are some ideas and issues to think about

Some possibilities
In some churches, young children might stay with their carers within the body of the worship, and the churches have provided pew bags or liturgy boxes as resources to help carers help their children to participate in the worship.

Some churches have developed children’s areas in a part of the church where carers can sit with their children. Carers and children are still part of the service but the children have more freedom to move around. Some churches have sited their children's area at the back of church, in some they are in an adjacent chapel area, while in others they are sited at the front so that carers can point out what is happening and children can see better. I know of one church that turned around the front pew on one side of the church, and removed the next few rows, to form a defined space for carers and young children.

Some churches have set up a creche area in a room apart from the service. Some creches are staffed by volunteer helpers, while in others carers accompany their children. In some creches, the children might stay in the creche for the whole or part of the service, while others might offer a kind of 'drop in' time, a chance to calm a fraught moment, but with the flexibility to return to the service when carer and child both feel ready. Some creches develop a pattern of worship suitable for young children and their carers that occurs alongside part or all of the 'adults' service’, while in a 'drop-in' arrangement the worship might be relayed through to the creche area so that the carers and children are still 'connected'.

Things to think about
But whatever kind of provision is going to work best for your situation, a number of issues need to be thought through: