Thursday, May 9, 2013

Children in Worship

There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children.
     ~ Nelson Mandela

I don't know whether it actually happened or not, but I heard one time about an old and curmudgeonly pastor who was asked about the noise that some children were making during worship, especially during the sermon. Picture the classic and stereotypical German Lutheran pastor who was of the age to have retired in the early 1970's. You know, a little bit gruff and a little bit opinionated and a little bit stubborn.

What I heard is that, when he was asked about the noise children were making, he replied that he enjoyed it … he said that the screaming of little children during the worship service is simply evidence that parents are bringing their children up in the church.

The way I imagine the conversation going, I don't think that the questioners getting the answer from the pastor that they wanted.

That congregation (the one with the old German pastor, a congregation and pastor which may well only exist in my mind) is not the only one where children (and the parents of children) who make noise or move around during worship get sideways looks from other members of the congregation; it's not the only congregation where people come to the pastor with a complaint about those children, or a request that the leadership come up with a solution to the distraction that children cause during the liturgy.

From what I can tell, the problems that people have with children in worship have to do with their own personal comfort level, with their own ability to pay attention to the liturgy, and with their own ability to worship.

To be fair, when there's a child who's screaming during the sermon, it's hard to hear what the preacher is saying. When there's a child who scampers away from their parents during the choir's anthem, some of the harmonies might be a little off. When the child behind you is rustling papers or crinkly toys, you might not catch every word of the Eucharistic prayer.

That's all true. Those things might be distractions to one or more individuals in their worship. If that's true, then arguably I need to be distracted from worship, because it would seem my worship is more about me than it is about G-d. 

Plus, the approach to worship (that I need to get something out of worship or it's not worthwhile) carries with it the assumption that those who lead worship are the providers of a service, and those who are in the congregation are simply consumers.

The truth is, though, that when children are moving around and making some noise, I can both watch them and pay attention to the preaching.  I can hear the child behind me and hear the choir's anthem.  I can turn my head toward the child who's escaped from their family's pew while I continue to sing and pray.

Some congregations have the (explicit or implicit) expectation that when children are even the slightest bit "disruptive", the parents should remove them from the sanctuary.  Unfortunately, requiring parents to remove children from the sanctuary feels a lot like removing families from the community.  

When we invite (or ask, or require) parents to stifle their children, we communicate a belief that children's whole selves are not welcome in the Body of Christ. Of course we would never say this out loud. But if part of the nature of children is that they move around and make a little noise, to require them to be still and quiet is to say that the nature of children is not welcome in worship.

Obviously it's not appropriate for the sanctuary to resemble a day care center (where children are encouraged to move around as much as they want). At the same time, the sanctuary should not be as a library either.  The atmosphere should probably not be chaotic, and the atmosphere should probably not be overly restrained.  

We need to feel free to bring our whole selves into the worshiping community. 

We should echo the proclamation of Gospel with loud and bold Amens. We should sing with deep breath and full voices. We should eat heartily and drink deeply of the bread and cup when we come to the Eucharistic table. 

In our worship, we are called to embrace and embody and celebrate the fullness of life. Children should not be stifled – neither should adults, for that matter – for we are all the Body of Christ. When any one is missing (or kept away), the Body is lesser. 

And I think none of us (in the Church) want to lessen the Body of Christ.