*A Guest Post: Evelyn Sweerts is a mother of four and part-time Theology for Ministry student living semi-rurally in Luxembourg.
We’re out for a family meal in our local Italian restaurant. A mixed-age group comes in. The adults sit down at one end of the table to talk; the kids whip out their PSPs and play in silence at the other end. Nothing extraordinary, completely logical and … depressing. But then, I’m a firm believer in the importance of family meals where everyone participates.
I sometimes wonder whether by having nursery and Sunday school we aren’t actually setting up an identical situation at church. The grown-ups share a conversation and a meal (the Word and the Eucharist) while the under 18s need to be ‘entertained’. This risks sending some or all of the following damaging messages to the young ones: you’re not capable of handling this situation; you’re not welcome; you should be doing something more fun than church (subtext: church is boring).
Some questions for you to ponder / answer: Should we expect kids to behave in church or should we be ‘entertaining’ them? If the latter, in church with books and cookies or with Children’s Church elsewhere? Is it reasonable to ask adults in church to be tolerant of noise and other disruptive child-like behavior? How tolerant? If you have kids, what do you do, or do you wish you could do? If you don’t, what’s your perspective?
My husband is a cradle Catholic and I am a denominational mongrel, and we’d like our children to grow up familiar with all the traditions in their heritage. To that end we usually attend a non-denominational Protestant church, but we do go to Mass occasionally. The Protestant church has a lovely Sunday school program, which the children enjoy. At Mass they squirm, and ask “How long still?” and whine about being bored. For sure it is easier for everyone with Sunday school. Yet I can’t help but feel that one of the strengths of Catholic Mass is that from about the age that children could reasonably be expected to stay at the table and participate fully in the family meal they are allowed to share in the Eucharist, as our two oldest do since doing their First Communion.
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
Based on our experiences in these and other churches, I think there is room to re-think our paradigms about children in church. I believe every service can and should be a whole family service. Let’s not risk Jesus’ indignation, and welcome the little ones at our family meal with open arms. This option does not have to preclude offering something age-appropriate too.
So here’s what I’d like to see: a small segment of all-age worship that genuinely includes all ages; Bible readings from the Old and New Testaments, maybe a responsorial Psalm (in our love of the pericope as a basis for a sermon we’ve stripped far too much of the big story of scripture away, but that’s a discussion for another time); children get a chance to learn the response so that they can participate even if they can’t read (maybe by having the same response every week? “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his faithful love endures forever” could work); children leave the service for some age-appropriate teaching while adults worship a bit more, and listen to a sermon; children come back in and the whole church family shares communion after passing the peace. Having broken bread together, the congregation leaves to love and serve the Lord.