“What are the fourth and fifth graders doing up there in the front of the sanctuary?” As I’ve heard this question many times recently, it occurs to me that unless you’re a parent of a fourth or fifth grader, very few of you know why those children are suddenly doing something so different during the Children’s Church hour. I’m excited to fill you in.
The “what” of what they’re doing is easy to answer: they’re learning to participate more fully in the worship service in general, and more specifically, they’re learning how to engage with the sermon. But the “why” of what they’re doing is perhaps the more interesting answer.
For as long as I can remember, All Saints has offered Children’s Church programming for children up through fifth grade. The goal has been simple: to disciple and feed and nourish our church’s youngest members in a way that is more accessible to them than certain parts of the service, specifically the readings, sermon, and prayers. It has always been a high value in this system for the children to worship with their families, so Children’s Church takes place only during those times in the service, allowing children to begin the worship service with their families and to be present for communion as well.
As for how that time has been used, the content has varied over the years. Naturally, as the church has grown, so has our population of children, so classes have formed and re-formed and curriculum has changed along with those shifts. We currently have a class of preschoolers and kindergarteners working on The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a class of first through third graders working on the David C. Cook Bible-In-Life Anglican Edition curriculum, and a class of fourth and fifth graders working on an experimental curriculum that I have designed.
The goal of all three classes—and indeed of the entire program—is decidedly not babysitting, not keeping the children busy so parents can hear the sermon, not providing flashy multimedia-style entertainment so the children can have fun. Of course, those things are going to be a part of whatever we’re doing: we’re glad to give parents some space to be fed themselves, and any program involving children had better involve some fun if the children are going to engage with the material! But the ultimate goal of our children’s ministry at All Saints is for our children to build and grow in their own faith, ultimately leading to confirmation and full participation as adults in the congregation. The work that the children are doing in each of our three classes forms a piece of that process; together, I hope all these pieces prepare them to enter the youth ministry and confirmation class as seamlessly and naturally as possible.
In The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, preschoolers and kindergarteners are experiencing a Montessori-style liturgically-based curriculum focusing on spiritual formation in which they interact in a very hands-on, child-accessible way with the Scriptures and liturgical traditions of the church. As they listen to the parable of the mustard seed, for example, each child is given a mustard seed to hold and examine—Look how small it is! Imagine a great big tree coming from such a small seed! As they fold and unfold child-sized linens for the altar table, they learn why some are green while others are purple or white. Conversation after conversation with parents reveals that what the children are learning in this class transfers directly and immediately to what they experience when they return to church. They’re coming to understand—in a way that is translated to fit their developmental “size”—what they experience every Sunday. It is a powerful foundation for their newly-beginning lives in the church.
In the David C. Cook Bible-In-Life Anglican Edition, first through third graders are engaging in a more traditional Bible study style curriculum, again sized just right for them. The Bible stories they share weekly follow the seasons of the liturgical church, which means that while their parents are in church experiencing and learning about Lent, for example, the children are doing the same. When Maundy Thursday rolls around this year, you can count on the lower elementary student sitting nearest to you to be able to explain the significance of foot washing and its spiritual significance in the lives of Jesus and his disciples. As they read and engage with these stories, the children are participating in activities and conversations that encourage them to apply the spiritual principles in their own daily lives—what does it mean, for example, to “wash the feet” of their families and friends at school, where literal foot washing is likely not an option?
Finally, with these experiences as a backdrop, the fourth and fifth graders have begun using a curriculum I designed to help them make the transition from Children’s Church to full participation in the service. As you may know, in sixth grade children remain in the service throughout and are also invited to begin the process of preparing for confirmation. As fourth and fifth graders, then, it is important for children to begin to experience the parts of the service that have as yet been inaccessible to them. Rather than an abrupt change—one Sunday a fifth grader in Children’s Church, the next a sixth grader in the service—my goal with the new materials has been to help our older elementary students ease into this transition. Thus, the activities in the binders I have provided for the children are not meant to serve as a distraction—coloring and word searches and such—but rather as an aid to entering into what they’re hearing. Different note-taking activities and spaces for drawing and writing about what they’re hearing along with plenty of blank paper and writing utensils are provided; Bibles and bulletins are also available for those who choose sit in the front with me and their classmates, while others remain with their parents and use their own Bibles and bulletins to follow along. In tandem with these guided activities, these upper elementary students meet every six weeks as a Children’s Church class to talk about what they’ve been learning and what has been challenging; in addition, they meet along with their parents and various members of the clergy for monthly lunches to further broaden these conversations. As I mentioned earlier, this program is experimental; thus far, I have been pleased at how the children have engaged with the service and have stepped up to the very real challenge of participating in a new way.
Please keep our church’s youngest members and the many, many volunteers who serve and care for them so faithfully in your prayers. And the next time someone else’s preschooler accidentally wraps himself around your leg, mistaking you for his parent, take a minute to bend down and ask him what he learned in Children’s Church that day. You might be surprised at what you learn from his answer.