Children’s Church Part 4 – Teach Them as You Walk

 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

In the last installment of this series, we talked about what the liturgy is and its theological importance in the Divine Service. But here I want to talk more about its practical beauty, including how we interact with the service space. As mentioned before, the liturgy is full of Scripture, music, and history unlike almost anything else we experience. Best of all, we repeat it week after week, year after year, for centuries on end. We get to have the Word of God on our lips and in our ears, hearts, and minds. What a wonderful gift we have been given! And best of all, this repetition is one of the best ways for children to learn. Honestly, it is how we all learn, but for those among us who cannot read or are just learning about the faith (which includes more than children), having this familiarity is a comfort. Even for me, knowing that I won’t have to guess what happens next removes a lot of anxiety from me, especially with my arms full of kids. So not only does this order help us to learn God’s Word and allow us to rightly receive His gifts, but it also creates a space for all people to participate. Thus, all God’s people, starting with the tiniest members, should be present.

At the risk of being repetitive, I say once again that the stability of the liturgy is important for everyone. Singing hymns, confessing the creeds, reading the Word, praying our prayers, week after week, year after year, is good, right, and salutary. It is good that these things are brought to us over and over again. As Paul told the Philippians, it is a safeguard to us (Phil. 3:1). The repetition also helps us to memorize Scripture. As I have said over and over again, the liturgy is derived from Scripture. So as we pray, praise, and give thanks, often singing and chanting, we are memorizing Scripture. Also, there is always something new to learn in the same passages, and we consistently need to bury the old Adam and be brought to the table of forgiveness. We need to confess and be absolved. We need to be with the community of believers.

But it is more than that and for more than us adults. Our children need to be present for this as well. People learn by example, starting from when they are children. If a child thinks Sunday morning means going off to another space to do something other than the Divine Service, they will struggle to learn to be a part of it when they are “ready” to join. Such a mentality is odd to me. We wouldn’t have a youth church, a senior church, or a middle-aged-singles church. We wouldn’t expect those who have never practiced something to suddenly know how to do it because they are “old enough” to do so. Like never practicing for a sport, never being in the Service will form a habit. So why then would we exclude children from these things?

Children learn when they observe and copy what others are doing, especially when those examples come from their parents. They learn best when there is repetition, regularity, a schedule, or, one might say, tradition. Also, the sanctuary is a place they can use all of their senses. The sanctuary is a fantastic place for all people of all ages to learn, but especially for children and their ability to be little sponges. The liturgy of the Divine Service in the sanctuary involves the entire body and mind. Consider the structure of the building and the art on the walls. Very often, churches are built in a cruciform shape. The focus of the space is brought forward and up towards the altar, where God’s Word and the Eucharist are present. Depicted on walls and windows are the lives of the saints and the life of Christ, opening an opportunity for parents to tell their stories to those who can’t read, teaching even if the eyes wander. And with adornments and crucifixes, we are reminded of Christ’s sacrifice and His exultation. The colors change with the season, adding life and learning to the sanctuary, offering opportunities to discuss the meaning of the season. Consider also the smell of the intense, reminding us that the prayers of the saints are like incense before the Lord, as well as His Word as it reaches us. Then our bodies are involved in standing, sitting, and kneeling, in walking up to the altar and folding our hands. What a wonderful opportunity for busy little bodies! And with our yearly traditions, we celebrate moments of our lives and our life as the church together. And finally, we are hearing the Word in the speaking, chanting, and singing, instructing our minds and souls. In these ways, and more, the Divine service involves our entire being, both body and soul.

I have witnessed the beauty of this practical and spiritual instruction often. I noticed very quickly how the regularity of worship was good for children. I saw once a young woman who was largely unable to communicate shout “Amen” at the proper times and say other parts of the creed and prayers as she recognized them. As soon as my daughter could move on her own, even before she could speak well, she also participated in the service. She prayed, sang, and pointed out the colors and lights and people. When she was very young, she especially loved to point out the lights.

So how does she know any of these things? She knows because we have involved her in worship. She picked it up over time of watching and haphazardly participating. She learned by example. And she is still learning. Multiple times now she has exclaimed “You can’t just eat it!” while kneeling at the altar, much to the amusement of our Pastor and lay assistants. But this has also offered us an opportunity to teach her what it is we are doing. After watching others light prayer candles at our current church, she has insisted that she get to light two and pray for her baby cousin and her unborn brother by name. Now that we are in a very liturgical church, she loves to kneel with us, is learning the chants, and is trying to show her little brother what to do (sometimes, when they aren’t being kids and fighting over a hymnal or quiet toy). But the key is the repetition and involvement, starting from when they are infants. After all, they were made part of the Church in their baptism.

Children need to be taught to worship, to participate in the Divine Service. Kids don’t know what worship is. And they won’t really know for a while. Those devotions you do at night, the prayers before meals, the parts of the Divine Service. All of it will be as foreign as using a fork or learning to read or wearing the proper clothes. But as we take special care to teach our children these necessary daily tasks, so too much we take special care to pass on the faith. They need to be taught, to practice as they would any sport or skill, in order to form the habit and understanding. A great resource for this is the book Kids in the Divine Service.

We must minister to our children. This starts in the home and is reinforced in church. Let them be a part of the gifts and history that have been passed onto us. We believe that even babies have faith, and faith in God comes from hearing the Word. So what voice are they hearing? The voice they hear is the one they have faith in. When a child is born, they recognize the voices of the people they heard in the womb, and they trust (or have faith) in those voices. Thus, we must be sure that the strongest Voice they hear is God’s, especially by being part of the Service.

I have heard many people claim that the liturgy is too boring for children, that the repetition will get old after a while, or that the stuffiness of it all will only increase their ill behavior. First, children live up and down to our expectations of them. Second, I have never met a child (or a person) who couldn’t watch or listen to the same movie or show or song over and over again. Baby Shark and Bluey aside, adults have their favorite go-to songs and shows as well. I often tend to think this complaint is simply the adults putting their own misgivings about the liturgy onto children, to their detriment. Let us end that now. They won’t get bored, not if they are fully involved. If they don’t understand, explain. If they zone out (and which of us haven’t?) have faith that they’ll come back. Encourage them to stand and sit and kneel with you. Sing the songs, recite the creeds, and pray the prayers so that they learn them. Bring them to the altar. Continue the instruction at home. Bad days don’t mean we should throw out all the good.

We have children in church because it is good for everyone and because it is for them too. We don’t segregate worship by any means, including age. Let the older and stronger serve the younger and weaker. Let the traditions of our parents continue with us for our instruction and reproof. Let the Word of God dwell richly in us and in our liturgy. And let it dwell in our children. We are all called children of God, how much more so the small ones! Don’t separate them into a “special” church just for them. That is communicating that the Divine Service isn’t for them and they should be left out until they are “ready.” That is wrong. Plant seeds where you want plants to grow. If you plant your children in bad soil and then don’t encourage growth, they will be easily uprooted. They need to see you and everyone else participating in a faith that goes back millennia, learning with and from you, knowing that they belong. Root them in the Word and water them with the Spirit both at home and on Sunday morning.

How can a young man keep his way pure?
    By guarding it according to your word.
With my whole heart I seek you;
    let me not wander from your commandments!
I have stored up your word in my heart,
    that I might not sin against you.

Psalm 119:9-11

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