Children are family at a church, not guests

by
13 March 2020

Margaret Pritchard Houston explores attitudes to children at church

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WHY do you go to church? Why do children go to church? If you think the answers differ, you’re not alone.

You may have answered the first with: silence, reflection, thoughtful and challenging preaching, or rigorous Bible study. That may not mesh well with why you may think children come: for fun activities, to see their friends, or perhaps simply because they are brought by parents to be educated in the basics of the faith.

Whatever the answers, it is easy to see adults and children as opposing sides in a battle over whose needs get prioritised at church. Such a view can mean that some adults are wary, even hostile, about children in Sunday services. “If you’re trying to worship silently,” a clergy partner I spoke with said, “and a small person is singing, or shouting, or thrashing, it’s . . . noticeable and annoying.”

One vicar commented that the conflict could be real. “Complaints about children being ‘noisy’ might actually be because of hearing loss and not being able to hear the service properly,” she said. “Or those who complain about children being distracting might have genuine difficulties with focusing. . . So how do we do church when we need different things?”

 

WHILE genuine conflicts do exist, and need working through with sensitivity, there is often a lack of welcome related to the presence of children: a child making minimal sounds — often related to what they see or hear in the service — is shushed; someone tuts at a child wriggling out of his or her seat to get a better look at the flowers and the altar where bread is being broken; initiatives to make worship more accessible to children are dismissed in PCC meetings without even being considered. Why is that?

Everyone brings unexamined assumptions with them to church: about what church is for, why children come, and whom church is for. Some assumptions may be based on adults’ childhood experiences. “There [can be] a sense of ‘I never had that freedom in church, so why should they?’” the Vicar of Lindley, in Huddersfield, Canon Rachel Firth, says.

“Extreme reactions either side, very pro or very against, usually have an emotional root,” one London-based church musician told me. Having originally been “very opposed” to introducing all-age worship in her church, she changed her mind — in part, having come to appreciate that the needs of all must be included in worship. “I can’t regard worship now as just something that I dip into and refresh from that has to suit me,” she said.

While acknowledging that not every part of every service would resonate with everyone, she said: “I have grown into loving these services. Perhaps a breakthrough was when it came over fully — or I understood better — that ‘all-age’ includes the grown and the old” as well as children.

The journey that she has gone on follows the unravelling of one of her own assumptions: that church is for adults, and that children are there as guests or observers.

Such an assumption affects expectations of behaviour and engagement, and worship-planning. If you are a guest or observer at an event, you go with the prevailing norms, and you don’t bother the people whom the event is really for.

If, however, you are a family member, your needs matter just as much as anyone else’s. Unfortunately, parents have often internalised the first idea, which means that they expend their efforts in church on getting their child to behave — distracting them with toy cars and snacks, shushing them, etc. — rather than on helping them to engage with what’s going on and to participate in it.

 

THE opening question, about why children come to church, involves expectations, too. Adults often assume that children are present not to worship but to be taught or entertained. That means that they assume that “children should be learning about God rather than experiencing God,” says the Revd Tim Vickers, Associate Rector of Bushey, in St Albans diocese.

In fact, the answers to the two questions should be the same: all come to church to make friends, for support in the journey as pilgrims (fellowship), for worship, for teaching, for the breaking of bread, and for collective prayer. That means that children — unlike earlier generations, when instruction or fun was the goal — need to be given the space and freedom in church to worship, and to take part in as much of the service as they can.

The theologian and educator John Westerhoff wrote: “For faith it is especially important to acknowledge that the most significant and fundamental form of learning is experience.” Helping a congregation to understand this, and reminding people that everyone has an important part to play in helping to model to children what worship is, is vital.

Acknowledging that the ways in which children worship can be as rich and varied as those of adults helps to address people’s fear, and can lead to the creation of worship that works for all. Children may need to move around — but so do some adults. Conversely, some children may be overscheduled and overstimulated, and value silence and stillness in worship.

A friend who grew up going to Quaker meetings told me: “Children are actually good at understanding what Meeting means. Even the smallest children are capable of sitting quietly for the ten to 15 minutes they’re in the main Meeting before they go out to Sunday school. I’ve seen three-year-olds sit without moving or speaking the entire time.

“I think there is a culture which expects it, without pressure, because they respect the children’s spirituality enough to know that the kids can and will do it.”

The underlying belief that children are guests at an adult event continues to affect many services. Canon Firth has had multiple conversations about this; each time there was an expectation that: “‘Seen and not heard’ is as it should be,” as it was for children in the past.

“It seems it is easier to say the younger generation are getting it wrong than to accept there may have been something wrong with the way we were taught, and with the practice we followed with our own children.”

As she points out, “None of those children are still in church as adults, as far as I can see.”

 

AS A caveat, it is possible to be too keen to include young people. I remember an occasion, admittedly in my early twenties, when I visited a church and found myself the youngest by decades. The vicar actually sprinted down the aisle at the end to grab me, do a sales pitch for the church, and ask whether I was planning to come back the next week. There was a sense of desperation — that I was seen as “the young person who will save us”.

It was off-putting. Nobody wants to join the coffee rota five minutes after walking in the door. As a rule of thumb, the evangelism and discipleship team at Church House, Westminster, suggest: “See. Smile. Say hello.”

The key thing is to notice that new people are there, and be friendly, without being high-pressure. For children, feel free to get down to their level (if your knees allow you to).

To build a church in which all are welcome and valued involves addressing any emotions that get stirred up, or common assumptions that are held. The Vicar of Mixenden and Illingworth, in Leeds diocese, the Revd Rob Sutherland, says that a church that is open to the contribution of children is a church that is open to the ongoing revelation of God. “Children disrupt people’s experience, like John the Baptist disrupted people’s experience.”

 

Margaret Pritchard Houston is Children’s Mission Enabler in the diocese of St Albans.

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