Ministry to Children in a Worship Centered Church

Thanks to everyone who has contributed in some way to this discussion about worship in liberal religion.

If we think of our common religious lives as being grounded, first and foremost, in the experience of worshipping together, how does that change how we think about ministry to children and youth? You can tell that I have a definite opinion by the fact that I even pose the question as "ministry to children and youth" and not as "religious education."

I don't like imaging the process of religious growth as "education". I don't like it as a way to think about it for children, and expanding it to Lifespan Religious Education only makes me more uncomfortable, and not less. O God, a school from which I can never, ever, graduate !

While I think that passing along some information is a necessary part of working with children and youth, it is hardly the most important part.

We need to give our children opportunities to worship.

I don't mean making them stay longer in the adult worship service of the church -- or only having intergenerational worship.

What would a great worship service for children look like, sound like, feel like? What would a service be like if its goals were to provide a moment of reflection for kids, an experience of beauty, an inspiring message about real issues in their lives, a chance to experience the feeling of community solidarity, a challenge to make a decision to be a better person in the week to come?

In other words, what if we had the same goals for children that we have for adults, but made a real commitment to work at their developmental level?

In short, I think that the educational model: classes, teachers, curriculums, lesson plans is way overdone in our ministry to children. In fact, I am not sure that most UU kids need more information, at all.

I see in the church I serve that at a certain size the problems of classroom control and keeping order eat up a sizable portion of the volunteer energy that goes into the RE program.

Because the classroom experience is so small, and the adult volunteers are spread so thin across the group, kids are exposed to talking, thinking, reading, and crafts activities. Music and dance and dramatics are much more rare experiences.

Childrens worship is often a simplified version of the adult worship, as opposed to livelier and more exciting experience of worship.

Children's social needs don't seem to be met well. Among the most commonly cited reason for why kids don't want to participate in our Sunday School is that they have not made friends. (Just like the adults.)

There is not enough choice. Adults in the church get to choose what activity they will participate in: sing in the choir, work on a committee, do a project, teach Sunday School, or just sit in worship. If you are in fifth grade, you know what you will be doing at church, and who you will be doing it with. Or you go to the adult service. Or you stay home.

What I would like to see: that kids have an opportunity to experience a well-done, professionally led, carefully considered worship service, crafted specifically for them, at least once a month. Exciting music, a chance to sing loudly and move their bodies to a song that makes sense to them. A well-chosen story told well, and an straight forward message that explores the meaning of the story and helps them apply it to their lives. Separate from the regular service and in their own worship space.

I would like to see a church that uses the small group ministry models with children to build their social connections and networks and helps them have friends at church, that takes their social needs seriously.

I would like to see a church that offers lots of religious education curricula to people of all ages who want to do it, for six weeks, or 9 weeks or a for a whole year. Wouldn't you love to see a group of UU adults and kids talking about Jesus together in a serious way?

What do you think is most important for our ministry children and youth?


  1. Actually, I wouldn't mind having a "livelier and more exciting" adult worship service.

  2. I agree 100%. I believe that I am a UU today becuase I grew up at the River Road Unitarian church, which had a socially active, but spiritually materialistic adult bent, as so many of our churches did in the early 60's. But the children's program, led by Murial Davis (widow of A.Powell) featured children's worship every single week. Flowers, candles (this was before chalices) jr. choir complete with little robes, hymns with a pianist and "sermons", which were commentaries on the story we'd just heard. THey took place in the library of the school we met in; it's most beautiful and "sacred" sapce. The adults met in the cafeteria. I don't remember much of the classes I attended, but I have vivid memories of real worship. It was those memories that brought me back as a young adult.

  3. I'm right with you on all of this. After 15 years of ministry, I get weary when parents complain that their children don't want to come to RE any more. This usually hits around age 8 give or take.

    I attended my Missouri Synod Lutheran church every Sunday in my childhood (my father was Sunday School superintendent most of thse years). I don't remember a whole lot about most of the Sunday School classes (except the musical ones from my pre-k days), but I do remember church. The worship was not geared to kids and I've never really liked the same liturgy week after week, but something sacred was transmitted in all those years of sitting through those services.

    I was just going through some of my old childhood stuff that my mother recently gave me -- there was a whole stack of cards from many church members on the occasion of my confirmation. I will blog about this soon, but that worship community was really there for me.


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