What does it mean to have a "child-friendly" small church? Beyond keeping children safe and sound - the most basic and important requirement - what can we do as small church pastors to make church a place where kids want to come and where parents want to bring their children?
Yesterday I had the privilege of interacting over email with Ian Forest-Jones, who was born in Canada and now serves as a pastor in Australia. Ian contacted me about the blog post I wrote in June called, "4 Guidelines to Great Children's Sermons." Ian wanted to know more about what I thought child-friendly churches meant. Here were his questions:
I noticed in the article that you stated that your evening service is "child friendly", so I want to ask you a couple of questions about this, as this topic is very dear to my heart. Besides a children's sermon, what else do you do in/to the service to make it child-friendly? I have long struggled to imagine what a real multi-generational church service would look like. Personally, I am disgusted by the "children's segments" I see in too many churches, as they are often little more than parading the kids up front to set them up to say stupid things to make the adults laugh. I want to provide a service that the whole family can enjoy and worship in together.
I considered my response to his thoughtful questions. I ended up writing a long email back. I thought my Church Requel readers might also be interested in my answer:
Thanks for your encouraging and thoughtful email. It's not every day that I hear from a pastor born in Canada and living for Christ in Australia!
The most important thing we do - I think - is simply to recognize each child for the individual he or she is. Each one is loved by God just as is the case for any adult. Each child has their own issues, their own questions, their own doubts. I attempt to be a pastor to each one as much as I would be to the adults. When I see them in the hallways I get down on my knees to their level so I can look them in the eyes and talk to them. I try to remember their names and what they like to do outside of church.
During worship I often will invite them - with their parents' permission - to move up front. They especially like to sing together. We have a very long greeting time (2-3 minutes) in the middle of the service and the kids especially love greeting other kids AND other adults. I think the adults love this as much as the kids do. We invite the children to provide prayer requests on prayer cards - just like the adults - and many of them do so. Adults are often surprised to hear prayers for their family members given by the kids.
We do also think in terms of the children programatically. We do provide children with specific bulletins designed for them, which they love. Most of them will grab those bulletins as soon as they walk in our doors. We pay a very reasonable fee to http://www.childrensbulletins.com and they email us a PDF file every week. We just do the printing.
Every other week - the weeks I don't provide a children's sermon - we dismiss the children to a classroom where they will hear an age appropriate lesson designed for them. On those weeks they worship with the entire church, then go to their own class for the last 45 minutes of the evening.
On the weeks when they remain in the worship service the entire time, I encourage them to listen. I try to keep the talk at a level they can understand. I attempt to use examples and illustrations and stories that would include them. If I am talking about doing our best as employees, for example, I'll also talk about doing our best as students.
One more thing that happens - that might help you understand the integrated nature of our services - many of our kids will sit with other adults they have grown fond of. My own grandson, 8-year-old Grayden, really loves another older gentleman by the name of Dick. One Sunday night Dick was scheduled to have triple bypass surgery the next morning. We as a congregation all gathered around Dick during our prayer time so that we might pray for his surgery the next day. Grayden made sure he squeezed in and sat right next to Dick during that special prayer time. I have a precious photograph of Dick and Grayden sitting together during a men's outing to the Cleveland Indians game one year ago.
As far as parading the kids up front during "children's segments" designed only to get the kids to say stupid things that will make the adults laugh... well... that does happen sometimes. This is not the design or the intention of our children's sermons. I find that the children's comments are just brutally honest. There are probably as many "aha" moments when a child says something profound as there are giggles from when a child says something funny.
Several weeks ago we held a "Readers Theater" where we had seven of our kids read the story of David and Goliath. Afterward I had all the kids (probably close to 20 that evening) gather around me up front so I could ask them about the story. Most told me that the significance was that no matter how small you were you could do big things. But one little 5-year-old, Cohen, said: "Well I think the story means that God is bigger than anybody!"
The one thing that I've learned the most about this idea of family worshipping together is that it's a little messy. Kids don't always behave. They are still figuring out how to sit still. But then so are the adults!!! There's more movement going on as children leave the auditorium right in the middle of the sermon - especially noticeable when they are sitting right up front. Sometimes it's tough on moms and dads, who now have to worry about child control in addition to listening to the evening's talk. It's not always an ideal learning environment...
... if we were focused mostly on cognitive, classroom style kind of learning. However, if the intent is to teach that there is a place where the whole family can come, can worship, can make friends with multiple generations, where we can experience God's presence... then Church Requel seems to work just fine. Maybe messy is what Jesus had in mind when he said not to keep the children from coming to him?
I'm sure the dialog will continue between Ian and me for awhile. But I'd love to include your thoughts as well! What are the things you are doing in your church to make it "child-friendly?" Please share your ideas in the comments below. - Mark