I had a consulting contract with a local Big Church and set a Sunday to attend their morning worship services so I could get an overview on things. A good friend, not estranged from GOD though vocally distant from “organized religion,” decided to attend with me—probably in the hopes of a free lunch afterwards. Of course, I didn’t expect him to participate and I was prepared for the cynical facial expressions he could compose like so much well-placed furniture. What I wasn’t prepared for was his increasingly nervous scanning of the room over the course of the first ten minutes of songs. As the energy (and the volume) in the room continued to escalate, he turned to me and grabbed my arm, seeming a little freaked out. “Where have all the children gone?”
I almost laughed out loud. Of course the childless sanctuary seemed bizzare to my never-been-to-Big-Church friend. When we entered the large building, there were children appearing magically around corners and from practically underneath the doughnut table. There were gaggles of pre-adolescents entrenched beneath alcoves and under the decorative silk trees. Baby cries and baby-babble bounced around the high ceilings. Then we entered the dark, high-tech space of the auditorium and voila. Vanished. Not a little person in sight.
Somewhere along the way, we decided that Big Community worship had no place in Big Church. We have programs for kids, for tweens, for pre-teens, for adolescents, for college “kids.” And once the family shows up at church, they wave goodbye to each other and the under-18s disappear into brightly colored and “age-friendly” rooms while the parents are absorbed into the throng of adults in the sanctuary until the service is done when everyone is reunited, rejuvenated, and needs-met-happy. What does this teach our children about the community of faith? Ah, log in my own eye—what does it reinforce in my own experience and expectations of the Body of Christ?
My friend, with his refreshing lack of cultural associations, put his finger on something poignant. There is something bizzare, alien, and almost life-draining about a “community gathering” that is devoid of its children and young people. All his “BBCA sci-fi” jokes aside, I think that he saw into a schism that we might have inadvertently, and with the best of intentions, reinforced.
Our attempts to “train our children up in the way they should go” means we have linked arms with a Western culture that tailors everything to our needs–whether they be perceived or actual. One of those needs was to make Christianity fun and relevant to kids; and one (maybe unintentional though it’s a complaint the nursery-free church hears a bit) was to remove the distractions a.k.a. children from worship. So it got me wondering: What are the actual needs of children and even the whole community when it comes to the worship gathering?
Programming cannot replace relationship and experience in the formation that takes place in a child (and in the community represented in the metaphor). Somewhere along the line, we decided that children can’t worship in the same way or through the same means as adults. And yet these kids become young people in the church who don’t understand why the faith community matters, why Eucharist nurtures, or even how to pray. When Church fails to meet their perceived needs, it ceases to become relevant. And so the cycle continues on and on.
When the children disappear from community worship–scuttled off like so many miniature Quasimodos–it implies something about our understanding of community. Of worship. Of GOD.
The plates are shifting underground. Conversations need to be had. The next generation of the Church may depend on it. But no pressure…
Image: Communion at Ecclesia, Denver, © Stephen Proctor