Families, Worship and Children’s Spirituality (May-Aug 2004)

By Matt Dabbs

by Holly Catterton Allen
May – August, 2004

The following paragraphs are excerpts from interviews with children* focusing on knowing God. The names of the children are pseudonyms.

Interviewer: All right, let’s start with your mom. You said that both your Mom and Dad have godly behavior and deal well with certain situations. What else about your mom makes you think your mom knows God?

Tabitha (age 10): When I see her worshiping she is not worried about everybody else around her. She really connects with God and she closes her eyes . . .

Interviewer: What is it about your Dad that makes you think he knows God?

Lydia (age 11): For Dad, the way he loves to worship. Also the way he talks about God.

Interviewer: What about your mom?

Philip (age 11): Well my mom, she sometimes comes in and helps with the Sunday class and in the big church, when I’ve been in there, she’s always praising God, lifting her hands in the air and everything.

The children interviewed above have worshiped with their parents. This concept may not be surprising to some, but to an increasing number of Christians in America, parents and children worshiping together is becoming a rare experience.

In general over the past hundred years our society has begun to separate families and segregate age groups more and more. Age-graded public education, the movement from extended to nuclear family, and the prevalence of retirement and nursing homes for older persons and preschools for the young have contributed to a general segregation of young and old.

Churches have been among the few places where families, singles, couples, children, teens, grandparents—all generations—come together on a regular interactive basis. Yet, the societal trend toward age segregation has moved into churches also. Age-based classes for children as well as adults, teen programs, and separate worship services for adults and children tend to separate families and age groups from each other, so that children could experience religion as age-segregated throughout their lives.

What is driving the trend to segregate worship by age?
I would suggest three reasons (though there may be others):

1) developmental concerns

2) facility limitations

3) church growth incentives

Initially, the idea arose in response to developmental concerns about children and education. Piaget’s work in cognitive [the way we think] development revolutionized preschool and elementary education in the 1960s and 1970s and later did the same for Sunday schools in the 1980s and 1990s. Educators basically implemented teaching-learning ideas that were more age-appropriate for children—use of the five senses, more body movement, more visual aids, more active involvement—all excellent ideas. Eventually developmentalist concerns were applied to the worship hour. It was deemed age-inappropriate for children to sit through “boring” hymns and prayers when they could be more actively involved in children’s songs and activities that allowed for shorter attention spans and more body movement. Thus, initially, the rationale for separating children from the adults during the worship service was for the benefit of the children.

Second, large suburban churches that experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade reached the limit of their facilities and simply did not have room for all who came. One fairly simple solution was to provide a full hour of children’s church rather than sending the children out only for the sermon time. For some churches this freed up a thousand seats—and what had originally been a temporary solution became a permanent program.

Third, church growth is tied very directly to attracting families with children. Offering an exciting, entertaining hour of children’s church can be a big draw for those who are church-shopping. As one children’s minister says, “We want this hour [children’s church] to be the funnest hour in every child’s week.” And if the children enjoy children’s church (and if the parents do not need to tend to their children), more families will place membership. It is simply good church-growth strategy.

Is there a problem?
If children really do benefit from “age-appropriate” worship, what is the problem?

The fundamental difficulty is that spiritual development is not essentially cognitive development. That is, the way children (and adults) grow in their understanding of math or science is not fundamentally the way they (and we) grow spiritually. Other factors are at work in spiritual development, not all primarily age-specific. Children sometimes comprehend spiritual realities far beyond their cognitive development. Those who teach children know this to be so. Therefore applying cognitive developmental principles to a primarily spiritual enterprise could be problematic, even detrimental.

Are there benefits in adults and children worshiping together?
The results of my dissertation research revealed several differences between the two groups of children—between those who participated in intergenerational worship and those who did not. The most significant difference was in the area of prayer. Children in the intergenerational (IG) group referred to prayer significantly more times in their interviews than did the children from non-IG settings. And in defining the concept of knowing God, more IG children in this sample gave relational descriptions of that concept than did non-IG children. In general, though both groups of children gave profound and eloquent testimony to their relationships with God, the IG children in this sample were more aware of their relationship with God, that is, more of them spoke more often and more reciprocally of that relationship.

Is there Biblical and theological support for intergenerational learning?
In scripture, coming to know God is typically presented as a family- and community-based process. God’s directives for his people in the Old Testament clearly identify the Israelites as a relational community where the children were to grow up participating in the culture they were becoming. In the religion of Israel, children were not just included, they were drawn in, assimilated, absorbed into the whole community with a deep sense of belonging. The directives for feasts and celebrations illustrate this point best. These commanded festivals were celebrated annually and included elaborate meals, dancing, music, singing, and sacrifices. All of Israel participated, from the youngest to the oldest.

These festivals included Passover (Ex. 12; 23:15; 34:18, 25; Lev. 23:5-8; Num. 9:1-14; 28:16-25; Deut. 16:1-8; Ezek. 45:21-24), the Feast of Weeks (Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:15-21; Num. 28:26-31; Deut. 16:9-10), the Feast of Booths (Ex. 23:16; 34:22; Lev. 23:33-36; Num. 28: 12-39; Deut. 16:13-18), and the Feast of Trumpets (Lev. 23:23-25; Num. 29: 1-6).

The purpose of these festivals was to remind the Israelites of who they were, who God was, and what God had done for these, his people, in ages past. As children and teens danced, sang, ate, listened to the stories, and asked questions, they came to know who they were and who they were to be.

Emerging from its Jewish heritage, the early church was a multigenerational entity. All generations met together, worshiping, breaking bread, praying together, ministering to one another in the context of the home (Acts 2:46-47; 4:32-35; 16:31-34).

Besides meeting with parents and others in house churches, children were clearly present in other spiritual settings. In Acts 16:15, Lydia was baptized “with all her household” and in Acts 16:33, the jailer was baptized “with his whole family.” Also in Acts is the story of the youth, Eutychus, who, while listening to Paul preach until midnight, fell out of a window (Acts 20:7-12). Luke also reports that children accompanied those bidding farewell to Paul as he boarded a ship at Tyre (Acts 21: 5-6).

These explicit intergenerational concepts in scripture clarify that religious community as described in the Bible included the idea that children were actually present. Community as practiced in contemporary churches often does not include children. Separating the children may sometimes be necessary and can be beneficial, but for children to experience authentic Christian community, they must be there.

Reversing the age-segregation trend
As loving church leaders diligently seek to build communities of faith that help children come to know God, some are re-evaluating the current common practice of separating the generations for worship, Bible study, and ministry. In moving toward being more age-inclusive, suggestions for four possible levels or stages follow:

1. Include the children for 15-20 minutes (or more) of praise in the Sunday morning worship of the gathered church. Major religious educationists (e.g., Westerhoff and Fowler) recommend this step as well as IG advocates (e.g., White and Prest). Simply stated, children need to be participating with the significant adults in their life, worshiping God, praying, and listening to the Word.

2. Another, more involved level, could be the “special program” approach. At the simplest level, churches could allow/encourage children to be present at baptisms, at “baby dedication Sunday,” at church-wide congratulatory celebrations for graduating seniors of the church, retiring ministers, etc. Another more advanced level would be to plan one or more events a year that are envisioned, planned, created, and performed by an intergenerational group of people. This could be a Thanksgiving program, a short drama for Easter, a Christmas musical, or some other event that requires time, effort, creativity, brainstorming, and work, for a group of people of all ages.

3. At a more inclusive level—and further down the line—might be a planned intergenerational experience for the whole church. This might be a 4-6 week summer series in which the whole church studies a topic together. Every part of the series would not need to be intergenerational, but substantial portions could be. For example, the whole church could study several names of God. Worship could focus here. Testimonies of people (adults and children) who have experienced God as Yahweh Jireh (provider), or El Roi (the God who sees), could be shared with all together.

Banners that depict each name could be created and made by intergenerational groups. Sermons and children’s church could focus on these names. At the end of the series, cross-generational groups could share the banners or a drama illustrating the names.

4. An even more comprehensive approach would be to form intergenerational small groups that meet in homes on a regular basis with adults and children worshiping and praying together, ministering to each other. Though there is an abundance of practical material available on small group approaches, few offer suggestions for ways to include children. TOUCH Outreach Ministries of Houston, Texas, offers detailed information and support materials for intergenerational small groups.

Moving to a more age-inclusive approach is a large undertaking. It will entail more than “simply being in one place and doing the same thing together;” it is “a mindset . . . in which all belong and interact in faith and worship—a communion of believers” (Prest, 22).

Let the children come
Philip (age 11) attends a church where he has worshiped primarily in children’s church since preschool. In my interview with him, however, when he described his mother worshiping, the following conversation ensued:

Interviewer: So you go in big church with them sometimes?

Philip: Yeah ‘cause I don’t really like the kids’ church. It’s okay but it’s not the best.

Interviewer: So what is it you like about being in big church?

Philip: Well in big church you get to sing more adult songs . . .

Interviewer: What else?

Philip: You get to be with your family.

We as families need to be worshiping together. Children in Old Testament times worshiped with their families on feast days, special celebrations, and on Sabbath. Children in the early church worshiped in house churches with their families.

As children are “assimilated . . . with a deep sense of belonging into the body” of Christ (Prest, 25), they will make sense of their experiences with God. They will see their parents and others worship, pray with and for each other, minister to others, be ministered to. They will come to see that all things in their lives are under God. They will be privy to the normal Christian life as lived by the significant adults in their lives. And they will come to know God better.

*Note: Interviews were part of field research for Allen’s dissertation (Allen, 2002). She interviewed forty nine-, ten-, and eleven-year-old children from six churches in Tennessee and California in 2001-2002. All of the children attended church regularly with their parents. Allen also interviewed children from a cross-section of evangelical churches—two Vineyard churches (one large, one small), one large Baptist church, a large Bible church, a medium-size renewal Presbyterian, and a large progressive Church of Christ. In three churches, the children worshiped with their parents, attended Sunday school, and participated in an intergenerational small group. In the other three churches, the children attended Sunday school and participated in children’s church on Sundays while their parents worshiped. The purpose of the dissertation was to explore the connection between intergenerational Christian experiences and spiritual development in children.

References:

Allen, H. (2002). A qualitative study exploring the similarities and differences of the spirituality of children in intergenerational and non-intergenerational Christian contexts. (Doctoral dissertation, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University, La Mirada, CA, 2002).

Fowler, J. W. (1991). Weaving the new
creation: Stages of faith and the public church. New York: HarperCollins.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1969). The psychology of the child (H. Weaver, Trans.) New York: Basic Books.

Prest, E. (1993). From one generation to another. Capetown: Training for Leadership.

Westerhoff, J. H., III. (1976). Will our children have faith? New York: Seabury Press.

White, J. W. (1988). Intergenerational religious education. Birmingham, AL: Religious Education Press.New Wineskins

Holly Catterton Allen is an associate professor at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, AR. She directs the Children and Family Ministry program in the Biblical Studies Division at JBU. She has previously taught at Biola University and Abilene Christian University. Her Ph.D. is from Talbot School of Theology in La Mirada, CA. She is married to Dr. Leonard Allen and they have three adult children and one grandchild.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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