What do the children have to say about their away-from-the-church-building experiences of Zoom Sunday school, online worship, and mid-week programming over the course of this past year and a half?
What has been concerning them the most throughout the pandemic?
And, what are they looking forward to when we return to our church buildings?
We only have to ask!
And guess what? Some wonderful and caring people have already started the conversation for us. And, they have some very interesting things to share.
I recently attended the jointly held InterGenerate Conference and Children’s Spirituality Summit at Lipscomb University in Nashville, TN (I attended virtually). At the conference Dr. Dana Kennamer, Associate Dean of the College of Education and Human Services and the chair of the Department of Teacher Education at Abilene Christian University, Texas presented a summary of her qualitative research paper ‘A Year of Loss and Disorientation: Missing Church – Children’s Perceptions of Church Before, In and Beyond Covid’. Hers was one of the papers I was most looking forward to as our churches begin to ask questions about reopening and children’s ministry programming for the fall. This presentation didn’t disappoint.
Beginning with a quote from Little Theologians: Children, Culture and the Making of Theological Meaning by David Csinos, Kennamer stated that “children make theological meaning in their context through knowledge, experience and relationships.” With this understanding that children are quite capable of theological reflection, Kennamer reminded us that we need to listen to all of the voices in our community, including the voices of our children, if we want to learn well and hear what God is teaching us as we consider church building re-openings. Children must be at the table as we reorient and reimagine our understanding of church if this is to truly be a community endeavour. With this in mind – Dana interviewed children directly to ask them about their thoughts, concerns and recommendations for their church as it moves toward in-person worship and programming.
Her qualitative research project involved talking with 13 children whose families were actively involved in their church pre-Covid and who continued to be active throughout the pandemic. Kennamer asked them to reflect on their Covid church education and worship experiences and to share with her what they were most looking forward to upon their return to their church building. The children in this purposeful sampling came from her home congregation where she teaches a kindergarten/grade one Sunday school class and provides leadership with a mid-week, multi-age children’s programme. The children in her study knew her well and were quite comfortable with her asking them these questions as well as providing her with their honest answers. The children ranged from six to twelve years of age, came from seven families, and represented both gender and racial diversity.
So, what did the kids have to say?
What is Church?
When asked what church is the children described it as being a place where a lot of people are together; a place with people and God. Church was described as a holy place that feels like a family. It could also be anyplace beyond the church building when you worship God wherever you are.
When describing church the children spoke a lot about music. They missed singing together because the ‘music sounds so good’. Singing at home was okay, but it didn’t feel right and so they looked forward to returning to church and singing, praying and praising together once again.
Kennamer understood that music seems to be more formative for the children of her church than the preaching is (children remain in worship at her church and attend Sunday school at a later hour). She appreciated that the children offered up the names of their favourite pieces of children’s music for inclusion in worship and saw this as a willingness to be a part of worship planning.
The children hoped their church elders might consider their request.
The Meaning of Church
The children said that church means being God’s own and being one of Jesus’.
Being a part of the church was significant for these children. It means that they are a part of something; they are ‘in it and are doing it together’. Church included their baptism and a was seen as place where you can find a path to go on.
Church is, more than anything, a participatory thing for these children; church is all about the people.
For this reason children missed the people more than any other thing when their church building was closed. They couldn’t see their friends; they couldn’t sit beside them and be happy together. It was not fun. The children believed that many of the people in their church were very sad because they couldn’t see other family members or church friends during the pandemic. They said this was very hard.
They said that they liked being able to sleep in on Sundays and worship in their pjs, but mostly they didn’t like online church. They thought that leading worship for a camera must have been very hard for the worship leaders.
They missed the rituals and traditions of their church. They missed waving palm branches and the nativity play. They missed celebrating communion together as a community. They also said they did not like the communion wafers that came with the pre-packaged communion elements (they tasted like styrofoam) and didn’t want these to be carried forward to in-person worship down the road.
The children missed their Sunday school classes and their mid-week programmes. One child said she missed being in grade three Sunday school and missed being able to bring her new grade three presentation bible to class. But mostly, they missed their friends.
As much as they understood that the church is not a building, they missed being in the building because it just feels different; like ‘there is more God in there’. They missed the space itself. They see their church as a welcoming place to explore with places that hold treasured memories for them.
Returning to Church
The children Kennamer interviewed were very sensitive to the experiences of others while they were away from the building. They believed coming back to the church might be difficult for a number of people. They noted that a lot of people had lost people over the 18 months. They felt these people might feel embarrassed coming back if they are sad.
One child suggested that a place might be set aside in the sanctuary for sad people to be able to sit, so they could feel free to cry. Another was concerned for those who might need space to laugh out loud or have a conversation with another person without disturbing others. They spoke about needing safe spaces at their church for the multiple experiences and feelings of the individuals of their community. While providing separate spaces for some, they also noted that the church needs to be very welcoming of each other when they return; the church is after all a family.
They talked about the need to ease back in to church. They thought the first few weeks back might be quite hard. They believe the church leaders need to be flexible.
The children hoped that worship services would begin to include some of the kid’s songs (from their church’s children’s programmes) in worship along with the grown up songs. They thought this might prompt the children to sing in worship a little more as some of the kids don’t know the grownup songs so well. They also made sure that Kennamer understood they were talking about the communal hymn singing in worship and not the times when the children are invited up on stage to sing for the congregation.
The children also hoped that they might be included in the leadership of worship more than they had before. They said they needed more opportunities to move about and have things to do in worship so they didn’t disturb others. They wanted to help serve communion, read scripture, and lead prayers.
In conclusion the children wanted Kennamer to know they love their church and missed it very much. They saw themselves as very lucky to have a church to go to and looked forward to being a family of faith once again.
The children of Kennamer’s church shared quite a bit of themselves in these conversations. Together they revealed a deep love for their congregation and the people of all ages with whom they interact. They showed their explicit understanding of their church being a place of worship of God and a place to care and support one another as a family of God. But not only did they describe the church as such, they also displayed their deep sensitivity for the experiences of others in their church over this last year and a half while they were apart and gave some helpful suggestions for a caring return.
The children made sure that Kennamer was aware that they wanted to be given greater opportunities to be active participants and leaders in worship. They noted where they felt left out, and offered suggestions for greater inclusion. How wonderful that they asked for and described new ways for their increased activity in the life and ministry of their church. I truly hope her church takes note and finds ways to include their favourite hymns in worship and finds new places for children’s worship leadership in the months ahead.
Perhaps most of all the children noted how much they missed the people. All us form our faith best when we’re in relationship with other people of faith. The children know this and have experienced it at their church. How will our churches live into this knowledge? How will our children be given maximum opportunities to form caring relationships with others at church.
Dana Kennamer’s study was a snapshot of the experiences and desires of the children of her church as they come toward the end of their pandemic closure. It is unique for them, just as your children’s experiences are unique for your church. Perhaps the greatest learning from Kennamer’s research project is to do likewise.
As you contemplate your return to your church building and the relaunching of your children’s ministry programmes and participation in worship what do your children have to share with you?
You only have to ask.
In one of the event breakout rooms I spoke with a wonderful church educator who had been doing just that. Over the past few months she had been setting up ‘playdates’ with the children and parents of her church. She met with one family at a time at a local park and touched base with them all, asking how it had been going, what they had missed, and what they were most looking forward to when they could return to the church building. While playing on the swings she had discovered far more than she imagined and was beginning to lay out plans for their church’s reopening that were shaped by the families of her church with unexpected priorities, and counter to her instincts. Perhaps we should do similarly.
Finally, this is the first of three articles looking at research that will help us plan for our church’s re-opening with children and their families. Stay tuned for our next article featuring an extensive a research project undertaken by Dr. Sarah E. Holmes, from The School of Education at Liverpool Hope University. With her research we’ll hear from numerous children, parents and volunteers with the Church of England.