My children’s summer highlight is vacation Bible school when 100 children and 70 adult volunteers come together for a memorable week of exciting activities and experiential Bible lessons. My children sing the VBS songs practically daily clear through Christmas. The only thing is they can never participate in the closing worship the weekend after VBS is over. They are nine miles away in our own little Presbyterian congregation, instead of at the large Lutheran church where they attend mid-week choir and summer VBS.
We are not unusual in this. In my neighborhood, kids might be signed up for several VBSs in a summer, weaving them in between swimming lessons, Little League and multiple week-long day camps. Children are now often as booked, scheduled and programmed as their parents, if not more so. And there is little loyalty to one congregation—or even denomination—as families “shop around” for the best programs for their children.
As parents, we seek to give our children enriching experiences that strengthen skills or expose them to a variety of activities or perspectives. In the past, church could be the majority of a child’s educational or entertainment extracurricular activities, but we live in a culture where the opportunities for children far outstrip what churches can provide. And yet, we continue to try to compete against soccer and Girl Scouts.
My children attend VBS at a large church that can still pull off being a programmatic center of excellence, when most mainline churches are shrinking and families’ obligations are growing. So we wonder, How can we do a good children’s program? How can we get families to come, choosing church over track meets or language camp? How do we “reach out” to families?
But perhaps these questions are the wrong questions.
I am fascinated instead by questions like: How can we be the church together for this time and place? Where is God’s Spirit moving among us? Who has God made us, this specific congregation, to be? What do our children, our people, our communities need that we are already equipped to provide? At a time when families are busy, disconnected and tired, can the church offer rest, relationship and support?
A few years ago our little congregation went through a time of intense reflection and dramatic transition, and we asked ourselves those questions. Among other things, we quickly realized that in an age when many people live far from extended family, our sanctuary is packed with grandparents and great grandparents, and our congregation is something of a stable “nest” for people who come and go. And while people are age-segregated in almost every other area of life, here we had young and old, readers and non-readers, floor-sitters and wall-standers, all together in the body of Christ.
We decided to stop competing with the rest of culture. Our younger families know where to get good programs and enriching experiences for their children and will continue to do so, with our blessing. We can be the people with whom these children have their belonging. With us they are free to ask questions, to voice their thoughts and fears. We will be the people that stand by them, listen to them and give them chances to lead. We can do faith together, seeking God in doubt and joy, all of us.
Now shared meals, shared worship and shared prayers anchor our life together, and shared themes guide us. In children’s and adult classes and worship, we draw from the same well. Instead of lamenting that we can’t pull off age-segregated Sunday school classes, the children learn together in one group. In addition to exploring scripture through fun and varied means, they might prepare a prayer to lead later in worship. We’ve also flipped the “children’s time” of worship on its head, asking children to teach adults what they are learning, so that we can all learn together.
In our sanctuary there is a children’s area with quiet crafts at sitting and standing tables to help children participate in worship, and a rug for playing babies to hang out but also hear hymns. Instead of a staffed nursery, we have “children’s hosts” who assist families in worship, and can also leave for a spell with any kids who need a break from worship for a walk or time in the playroom with toys. For communion we all stand in a circle, serving one another—young and old—looking into the eyes of one much taller or much shorter than ourselves, and saying, “The Body of Christ, broken for you.”
Last summer we held our second annual intergenerational vacation Bible school. All ages gathered together for story, music, and hands-on activities exploring God’s love. It’s a delightful experience for children to be in VBS with their grandparents, and for single people or those with grown children to share in the excitement and energy of learning and exploring with children.
Our congregation practices sabbath two Sundays a month. We set the day aside as a day of rest, meeting the evening before for worship and a meal that inaugurates our sabbath time. My young children have grown up with this three-year-old pattern, and sabbath Sundays are one of the greatest gifts in our family’s life. We play, rest, and connect with each other in a different way than we do the rest of the week, and we say no to whatever might impinge on that time. I am grateful for our congregation, which lives faith in a way that runs counter to the craziness of our culture, and which nurtures people of all ages in seeking to participate in God’s love in the world.
Frederick Buechner said, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” It could be said, then, that innovative children’s ministry begins by noticing where your congregation’s deep gladness and clear gifting meet the deep hunger and real need of the children and families among and around you. Then your joyful task is to adapt practices that live from this heart of God’s ministry that beats between and through you in this time and place.
Kara K Root is pastor of Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minn., a Christian community that shapes its life around worship, hospitality and sabbath rest. She has a M.Div. with a concentration in spirituality/spiritual direction from Fuller Seminary, and is a Minister of Word and Sacrament and Certified Christian Educator in PC (USA). Being mom to two entertaining children and wife and proofreader to a wily theologian spices up her vocational calling and keeps her fully immersed in life. She’s written for Sparkhouse “re:form” curriculum, Homily Service Journal, Working Preacher, Clayfire Curator and Patheos, and blogs about ministry and motherhood at “in the hereandnow.”