A blog post by Diane Shallue
Often in children’s ministry there is a focus on teaching children various Bible stories. What if we reframed children’s ministry as learning how to be part of a faith community, as learning about and then doing various faith practices? Would this change the focus of a Sunday School or week day program?
When children are baptized, they begin a lifelong journey in which they create relationships with God, other people, and a faith community. How does one help children and their parents lean into these relationships? Christians for two thousand years have used various faith practices to build a relationship with God and other people.
In ministry in my congregation, I have been emphasizing the faith practices of prayer and worship. First, let me focus on prayer. I began doing home visits with moms who have had a baby. I bring a meal prepared by someone else, a toddler book of prayers with heavy cardboard pages, and a small book of prayer on the go for busy families, which can be put into a purse, a diaper bag, or left in the car. I engage the moms in discussion about their hopes and dreams for the faith development of their child. I ask about their own experiences with Sunday School. Through these home visits I am building a relationship with these parents and encouraging reflection on their relationship with God through prayer.
In order to encourage preschoolers to prayer, the congregation sponsored a parent/ child event where the children received a “prayer pillow.” It is a small pillow created from soft flannel with a large pocket for an index card with the name of a person for whom the child wishes to pray. We asked parents to help their children memorize the Lord’s Prayer.
Karen Marie Yust in her book, Real Kids, Real Faith: Practices for Nurturing Children's Spiritual Lives, provides ideas on how to help children remain silent so that they can pray and listen to God. She suggests:
Light a candle,
Play piece of soft music,
Provide small balls of clay for children to play with quietly,
Find a picture to look at,
Choose a work or phrase for the child to to repeat silently and slowly for a period of time.
Yust helps us to see that admonishing children to be quiet is different than the purposeful use of silence as a way to listen to God.
With older kids, I have been working with them once a month, teaching them about a part of the worship service. But rather than just learning about it, they participate in the worship service in some way, such as playing percussion instruments with a hymn or leading the congregation in reciting the Lord’s Prayer. The elementary students are also learning sign language for the Lord’s Prayer. I am hoping that another layer of meaning will be added to their experiences in worship.
Worship is a primary way of building a relationship with a faith community. I believe that children need to be in worship more than they need to be in Sunday School. I tell parents in my congregation that if they cannot give two hours to a Sunday morning, then they should take their children to worship and skip Sunday School. Children are socialized into a faith community by participation in the faith practices of that community, and worship is a key faith practice in Christian communities.
Diane Shallue, Associate in Ministry, is the Director of Christian Education and Small Group Ministries at University Lutheran Church of Hope in Minneapolis, MN. She serves on the national board for the Lutheran Association of Christian Educators and teaches as adjunct faculty at Luther Seminary.