It was cold and snowy as I drove downtown to the church early that Sunday morning. I shivered as I walked into the cathedral-like Presbyterian church where I worked as the Christian education director. I wondered if there would be any children in Sunday school. As I walked into the classroom, my heart fluttered with joy and anticipation. I love to tell the story of God’s love for creation and about Jesus’ birth, life, death and resurrection. I love to tell the story of the church and its mission now and into the future. During the week, I prayed for the children and their families. I was particularly concerned about one family and their youngest son, four-year-old Zach (not his real name). A few weeks earlier, when Zach’s family arrived home from Sunday morning at church, they saw black smoke, fire trucks, and fire fighters. While they were at church, a gas leak caused a devastating fire and they lost everything. For months following, Zach was very quiet and sad.
During that year, Zach and 20 other children between the ages of four and six were faithful participants in the Sunday school class, using a method called Young Children and Worship by Jerome Berryman and Sonja Stewart.1 It was chosen as a means to nurture and encourage the children of the church. The Christian Education Ministry Team respected the ability of children to worship and experience the awe and wonder of God. We discovered that children, youth and adults have a longing for a time and place to slow down and listen to the story of God’s love and grace. Learning about Young Children and Worship opened our eyes to an interactive way of worshiping God and engaging the Scriptures. The team cleaned out a room and created a sacred space for children to hear God’s story. It became a place for the children and leaders to engage in scriptures and experience the foundational message of God and Jesus’ loving relationship with humankind.
Children and Worship provides a transformational way to tell the story. When given the opportunity to be still and quiet, children enjoy watching and listening to stories of God’s love. Story materials, such as three-dimensional wooden figures, a desert box with sand, felt under-lays and models of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, are placed in baskets on shelves low enough for children to see and reach. Books and puzzles are available to enhance the stories. During the week, the storyteller prepares to tell an Old or New Testament story by praying, reading the account in the Bible and working with the materials.
The Holy Spirit empowers the leader to tell the story as God’s gift to us. The children experience the presence of God through the essential words and movements. As the story unfolds, the children watch and listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to them. It may be the story about creation, Noah and the flood, or Jesus’ birth.
Afterwards, the storyteller invites the children to reflect on the story through wondering questions. Because many young children first learn through their senses and emotions, they wonder about what it would be like to be Noah’s family or what it was like for Bartimaeus to see. By dialoguing about how God interacts with the biblical characters, the children begin to experience the awe and wonder of God’s presence. There is often silence during the wondering time as the children begin to make connections about how to live as God’s people. Then the children respond to their experience of God’s presence through singing, dancing, praying, drawing a picture or re-telling the story. As Ivy Beckwith writes, “we need to trust our children to take from the story what they need that day from God. We need to respect their reflections and insights into the story and trust that God’s spirit will show them where God’s story interacts with their own story.”2
Zach and other children did attend Sunday school on that cold, snowy morning. During the response time, he took a black crayon and scribbled a picture on white paper. He wrote his name on it and handed it to me. We prayed together. Over time Zach continued to draw the same picture. It was evident that he was troubled by the house fire.
At beginning of the new school year, Zach walked into the room and asked to work with felt. For the next two months, Zach created an ark with smiling people and animals safely inside. I asked Zach about his banner and he said, “No matter what happens God is protecting me and my family.” It seemed that over time he was able to work things out. He was able to express his experience of God’s presence through the biblical story.
The power of God’s story is about God’s presence, love and grace through Jesus Christ. As we interact with the biblical story, we listen to the Holy Spirit who dwells within us and guides us as individuals and as the community of faith. The Holy Spirit empowers us to tell the transformational story of God’s sovereign love and guidance to the next generation.
Listen, dear friends, to God’s truth, bend your ears to what I tell you…Stories we heard from our fathers, counsel we learned at our mother’s knee. We are not keeping this to ourselves, we’re passing it along to the next generation…the marvelous things he has done (Psalm 78:1-4, The Message).
1 Jerome Berryman and Sonja Stewart, Young Children and Worship (Westminster Press, 1989). Also see Godly Play materials by Jerome Berryman.
2 Ivy Beckwith, Formational Children’s Ministry (Baker Books, 2010), p 38.
Sharon Stewart serves on the staff of Pittsburgh Presbytery as the director of disciplemaking and spiritual growth. She is a graduate of Westminster College and in her senior year at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. Sharon and her husband John have two young adult daughters. She has worked with Young Children and Worship and Godly Play in her church, summer camps, afterschool programs, vacation Bible school, and on mission trips to Africa and Costa Rica.