A View from the Pew: What Did You Learn at Children’s Church?

Last month I explored the children’s sermon portion of the worship service. This month, let’s look at children’s church.

By “children’s church” I mean a worship experience apart from adults that is designed and led with children in mind.

What a church does with children says a lot about its focus and its future. I’ve seen a variety of approaches to the faith formation of children: sequestering them in their own space for the duration of worship, requiring them to sit with their parents, and integrating them fully in all aspects of worship including music, prayer, scripture reading, and even proclamation.

All methods have their strong and weak points, defenders and detractors.

I’ve been a part of churches which have taken a variety of stances, and if you’ve been reading these posts for long, it won’t surprise you that I favor fully integrating children in worship. When they have a part in the service, they learn, understand, and adopt faith practices in a way they never will if they are simply required to sit still or are taken out of the sanctuary altogether.

That said, I like how children’s volunteers and longtime children’s minister and teacher Bob and Paula Parris set up children’s worship at our church. Their approach was to restrict participation in children’s worship to students in kindergarten and first grade and structure the curriculum so that children were exposed to the most important stories of the Bible over the course of a year. In addition, children are taught about the different elements of worship, the building and the physical worship space, and how to behave in church.

I have been blessed to have been a volunteer leader in their children’s worship throughout my own children’s matriculation through the program and even long after they graduated to “big church.” Children have blessed me abundantly, and I look forward to a resumption of children’s worship post-pandemic.

Bob and Paula developed a simple structure for children’s worship. First, children go into the sanctuary with their parents. They experience the prelude, call-to-worship, invocation, opening hymn, and sometimes the choir’s anthem. They come to the front of the sanctuary for the children’s sermon, and after the children’s minister finishes, the kindergarteners and first graders leave the sanctuary to go with their leaders to a classroom.

The remaining half hour or so also follows a predictable pattern: gathering activity, singing, teaching a lesson with illustrations, more singing, prayer, and a game or worksheets to reinforce the ideas and details of the Bible story.

My favorite opening activity is the “Happy Face/Sad Face” game. The leader lays out two cards, one with a smiley face and one with a frowny face. They then read through a stack of cards describing church behaviors, and the children decide whether the happy or sad face applies. For example, “Talk to your friends during the service” is clearly a frowny face. “Stand up and sing the congregational hymns” is an easy smiley face. The kids love the game, and will even think more deeply about some of the gray areas such as “pass the offering plate” or “let your parents pass the offering plate.”

My favorite song of Bob and Paula’s repertoire, which offers an array of traditional choruses and sticky earworms that I inevitably sing to myself all day long when I have volunteered in children’s worship, is called, “I Go to Big Church Now.” The week before my first turn as a children’s worship leader, Bob called me to make sure I understood what was involved and all the components. To introduce me to “I Go to Big Church Now,” Bob sang it to me over the phone. I will always treasure that memory of Bob, and reflecting on it never fails to inspire me to be my best as an example of love and patience for children.

No matter what children’s church includes, I believe the single most important component doesn’t happen during the time the children are with the leaders. It’s those few minutes when you’re in the car leaving the church parking lot, and you ask your child, “So what did you learn at children’s church today?”

You don’t always get a pithy answer, but sometimes you do. That’s when you know your children are listening, and all that you are doing to pass on your faith is sticking with them.

Lance Wallace is a Baptist layperson and member of Parkway Baptist Church in Johns Creek, GA. He earns a living in higher education communications and writes a blog at newsouthessays.com.

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  1. Paula Parris says

    Thanks so much for your very kind comments, Lance. I didn’t know about Bob’s singing lesson for you! I’ll file that away in my treasured memories. I enjoyed spending time with you and Parkway’s children as we worshiped together.