Some Thoughts on the Inclusion of Children and Youth in Online Worship

As our churches have made the transition to new ways of doing worship through online platforms, I wondered how our families with children were doing. Knowing that all of our churches are working hard to keep everyone engaged in worship and the life of the congregation, I thought I would ask some parents how it was going and what they would say are the best practices they have experienced that assist their children and teens in feeling connected in worship, and what they might recommend to their worship leaders to consider as they plan for worship services that are more inclusive of all ages.

So, I spent a few days chatting with a number of parents and young people asking them what was working well and keeping them engaged in online worship during this time of physical distancing, and what might help them worship better as a family. For this article I interviewed families with children and teens from ages four to 18 years of age. Here is what I discovered:

Worshipping Online

Parents with children ask that you keep it short. They encourage worship leaders not to try and fill an hour simply because that’s what happens when we worship in the church building. Thirty minutes was often mentioned as a good time frame for their family to stay engaged in an online worship service. With the deep desire that their children stay in the room and participate meaningfully in worship, they asked that each of the parts of worship, as well as the whole of the service, be kept simple. They stated that it is particularly hard for everyone to keep tuned in to the service when it is by audio only, and that even with the benefit of a screen, staying engaged was a challenge for everyone in their family.

Parents stated that a variety of worship leaders, including children, was very important to their worship experience. They believe that the variety of voices keeps their family attentive, but even more they said that it delights everyone to hear and see the church family together in spite of physical distancing. Recognizing that it takes a lot of work to prepare worship with many leaders, parents wanted you to know that it is worth all of the time and effort it takes to make this happen, and that your hard work is very appreciated.

Reflections on the Sermon

While the sermon is greatly appreciated by all, parents want to encourage worship leaders to lean towards a shorter sermon than they would traditionally experience sitting in the sanctuary. While parents said this would be easier on their children, they also noted their own inability to stay attentive during these stress-filled days; they said they now find themselves losing track and/or zoning out far more than what is usual for them, and they are only able to stay focused with shorter sound-bites.

Parents asked that worship leaders prioritize stories and illustrations in their sermon, and ensure that these are representative of the contexts and concerns of every age. When children’s experiences about their loss of school activities, their wanting to see their friends, and private worries about the health and safety of their parents and grandparents were acknowledged within the sermon, children saw themselves as included, understood, and their feelings being honoured.

When preaching includes lots of open-ended questions combined with pauses for listeners to reflect and respond through facebook live or at home with one another, families felt more like worship participants than observers. Some parents noted that including ‘wondering’ questions in advance of the sermon prepped them to listen more attentively for commentary on these questions during the sermon.

Parents appreciate it when younger children are invited to do an accompanying activity during the sermon, such as colour a picture or make a Play Doh or Lego model of the bible story and/or their ideas of how they might respond to the story’s implications. In one case what children created during the sermon was then shared with the church community during the regular ‘offering’ time of worship. Using a Zoom platform, children were invited to show and express their responses to the biblical story along with the other members of their community of faith. It was noted that these multi-sensory, sermon time activities should not become a means of distracting children from listening, but need to be done with the goal of assisting children to better connect with the story as they hear it read and reflected on while the sermon is happening.

One family noted that with the young age of their children they participated in most of the online worship service, but skipped the sermon while the kids were present. They went back to listen to it after their children had gone to bed. They felt that this was a compromise they needed to make for their young children to stay happily present through most of the service; doing so prevented the kids from wandering off to the play room under the belief that sermons, and therefore worship, are an adult activity. Giving permission to families with young children to worship selectively might be needed to allay any feelings of parental guilt and/or prevent families from bailing completely on worship during the pandemic.

Multi-Sensory Children’s Stories

Further to the need for active participation, another request was to seek out imaginative and multi-sensory ways of participating in the bible story. Families who brought branches to their Palm Sunday online services and waved them at home during the children’s story felt more involved and connected to the whole family of God. In particular the children’s story was mentioned as a time to be as interactive as possible; it was seen as an occasion each week to show coloured pictures, ask thoughtful questions, and invite everyone to move, dance, and/or taste that the Lord is good. Be encouraged to always ask yourself as the leader of the children’s time, “How many senses can I get everyone to engage during this story time.”

Times when kids were asked to go get something before worship that they would need for the children’s story excited everyone in the family. Kids began to anticipate something wonderful yet to come. Discovering that your toy boat is just like the boat Jesus stood in to tell the crowds about God’s love changes your toy boat forever.

In some cases it was noted that the children’s time had been dropped from the online service. Families who worship in churches with very few children understood the decision to eliminate the children’s story, but found it regrettable. In these cases parents said that they had eventually stopped worshipping as a family all together, or were worshipping elsewhere because their children weren’t included in the worship services of their home church.

Responsive Worship Liturgies

In talking with families about worship liturgy parents asked for as many responsive opportunities as possible. Parents want to encourage worship leaders to include short, simple, repetitive responses with the Call to Worship, and the Prayers of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Intercession along with other aspects of the worship service. They said that these responses do not need to be circulated prior to worship through a bulletin or shown on the screen during worship. Just telling the congregation at the beginning of the prayer or responsive reading that when the leader says a certain phrase their response is to be (a simple, practiced phrase) is great; they say the simpler and more frequently responses are used, the better.

Another option for worship leaders would be to align physical postures or movement to go along with the words of a simple prayer. Bowing heads, lifting arms, patting our hearts are all ways in which we can physically live into the words we express in a reading or prayer. You could try using sign language to pass the peace with each other through Zoom. Parents recognized that the back and forth nature of leader/people responses and physical movement keeps their children’s attention and helps them become active participants in the liturgy of worship. While it initially felt a little strange to speak out loud at home or kneel down and then jump up with joy during a prayer, after a worship service or two they said that they have grown to love this form of interactive participation.

Singable Music

Music was also mentioned frequently by parents. Music-laden worship was desired, with a preference for familiar, short, singable selections spread evenly throughout the service. Some requested that music be more contemporary at this time, but overall most felt that well-known, singable hymns were the most able to encourage their families to enthusiastically lift up their voices in praise at home.

An invitation to everyone, including kids, to record themselves singing or playing an instrument for a particular piece of music in advance and then splicing it into the service was a highlight for some who had experienced this in their church’s online worship service.

Meaning-Filled Rituals and Sacraments

Rituals that are familiar to the church community, such as lighting a Christ candle at the beginning of worship, or the spoken responses of ‘He is risen” and “He is risen indeed” that are included into our new forms of worship were cited as ways that brought comfort and familiarity to many. Celebrating communion as a church family was experienced as one of the most faithful and meaningful online worship activities they have participated in. In the beginning it felt a little odd, and there were giggles about communion with orange juice and Cheerios, but as the prayers were given and the lifting of the bread and wine happened, these common household elements became ripe with meaning and filled families with hope and trust in God. Perhaps celebrating communion more frequently during this pandemic might be considered.

Some Additional Thoughts From Teens

Teens expressed that they are not connecting well with the worship services they are presently participating in. They reminded us to choose our words with care, remembering that they don’t ‘get’ theological terms and concepts the way older members of the congregation might. Taking time to explain theological concepts in your sermon, or select more self-evident words would help them enormously. They would love to be asked to read scripture or lead prayers as a way of being involved in worship.

Our young people are also wrestling with their potential impact on the health and wellness of those they love. They are worried that they might pass this virus on to their parents, grandparents and others they love dearly without their knowledge. They fear discovering that it was through them that someone else was made ill, or died. Acknowledging and responding to these fears through preaching and prayer brings answers, comfort and care to our teens, and lifts their concerns before God within the community of faith they love so much.

Teens also expressed a desire to hear reflections on the pandemic that include a faithful perspective on why this is happening and guidance on how they might respond.

Teens are also grieving the loss of anticipated milestones such as graduations, proms, LIT programmes, first jobs and the opportunity to work at Camp Cairn this summer. They are hoping that their churches will pick up on some of these meaningful moments and acknowledge them within their community of faith in some way.

Zoom Coffee-Hour

Families expressed gratitude for opportunities through Zoom to check-in with each other before and/or after worship. In most cases very few people said anything about their preference for particular worship platforms, but people spoke passionately about Zoom coffee hours. For many this was the most important activity of their Sunday.

Because of Zoom the church family is able hear and be supportive to one another; they hear reports about family members who are ill, in the hospital and most importantly are able to grieve with those who have experienced great loss as a result of this pandemic. I heard clearly that these check-ins can’t be dropped and that this shapes everyone’s prayers and concerns for the week to come.

Through Zoom, church members’ milestones are also being celebrated; university and college acceptances are being applauded, books being published are ooh’d and ahh’d over, and happy birthdays are being sung to the young, the old and every age in between. People even spoke about the window Zoom gave them to the homes of their church friends. Suddenly, questions were being asked about favourite toys, paintings hung on the wall, and family activities evident on coffee tables. Show and tell has become a part of these online gatherings and many said they feel even closer to church members because of this invitation to peer in through the window and discover things they never knew before about those they worship with every Sunday.

Thank you!

Let me close by saying a huge thank you to all of our ministers, and worship leaders who are striving to provide worship services every week that are meaningful for all the members of the family of God. I hope one or two of these ideas shared by our parents might help you as you continue to plan worship for the weeks ahead. I’d also love to hear your stories of what is working at your church, how you’re including children in worship, and what you plan to keep doing when you worship once again as a church family in your church’s sanctuary. May God bless you and church family as you lift your hearts in prayer and praise together.

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