Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Let the Children Come – Revisited

Posted by John Montgomery on July 15, 2010

Bishop Willimon’s post about “children’s sermons” a couple of weeks ago  was certainly provocative and challenging and it brought to the surface concerns that I have chewed over for many years.

See Let the Children Come.

I would have no trouble adding my vote to Allan’s decision to honor the post with, Best of the Methoblogosphere! for that week.

If you happened to miss the post, Willimon raised two concerns with what he suggests is a well intentioned but less than effective set of liturgical tactics aimed at communicating to our children that we welcome them as part of our worshiping community and moreover, we value their participation.

Willimon rightly observes that more often than not, children’s sermons are not really sermons at all and frankly they often end up not really speaking to the children, but to the adults.

Before I go too much further, I think it is helpful to note where I come from as I offer my 2 cents to this conversation.

My membership in the United Methodist connection is located with the Glenn Memorial congregation worshiping on the Emory campus here in Atlanta.

I am a lay person who works as a professional fundraiser for hunger causes.

At the same time, I have done extensive post-graduate study at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago and earned a second degree with the confederated faculty associated with Chicago Theological Seminary.

At Glenn, I serve with other members as part of the worship committee. I am humbled by the larger congregation’s trust.

So for a moment, I would like to reflect on these questions as they are addressed in our local congregation, Glenn Memorial. In all honesty, we may not have planned it that way, but I think we get a lot right.  Having said that, I am not suggesting that other churches copy what we do, instead I hope they can learn from our experience.

In context, I think there are two elements working in our liturgical setting that help us get it right. The first is space.

Two summers ago, in cooperation with Emory (in fact, our sanctuary is the Emory auditorium) we rebuilt the chancel to install ramps and rails making it more accessible. Installing ramps and rails did make our chancel more accessible, but it also made it much bigger.

Actually, the front space is huge. That is great as currently, we have a pretty good sized group of kids that gather there for our “time for children.”  Willimon suggested that children could be invited down front to watch baptisms – in fact, baptisms at Glenn follow right after the “time for children” and frankly, much of what is talked about those days is what is going on in the baptism – how this child is becoming a part of our community and how the child will soon become our friends. They also talk about their responsibility to set strong examples.

One of the reasons it works though is that we have a big enough space for the children, the parents, the extended family and even a photographer. We are still working on guidlines for that phenomonen!

Glenn church, now some 100 years young, is experiencing significant transition. Our older members are very active but we have a growing crowd of families with younger kids joining as well. It doesn’t hurt for visiting families to see a large gaggle of kids each Sunday morning. I’m not suggesting that we use our kid’s time as a marketing gimmick, but on the other hand numbers do catalyse numbers.

Sadly, it may be true that if there are just a few kids in smaller congregations, maybe we might not want to highlight that fact on each Sunday morning.

The second factor that makes this time for children work seems to me to be the orchestration. Our liturgy flows well. Our service begins with a greeting from the lead pastor for the day, a call to worship and a hymn. The kids come down to the chancel during the last couple of verses of that opening hymn. Following the time with children, the older ones return to sit with their families, in effect helping to lead the act of the exchange of greetings or the passing of the peace. Currently, after a hearty “the peace of God is with you,” the congregation then sits for the morning prayer. This flows very well.

On days with baptisms, the kids stay where they are to watch the baptism and then lead a bit of a parade down the left aisle and back up the right as the congregation’s latest member is introduced to the folks in the pews.

Again, this flows very well.

Having said that, my point about orchestration also has to do with the fact that in the larger scheme of things, the time for children is part of our gathering together – our larger prep for worship as a community. Therefore, maybe the time is really not for a sermon anyway. I’ll come back to that point in a minute. Part of this question has to do with what constitutes a sermon in the first place.

We have a new feature now where our youngest kids, those in the nursery, begin worship with the larger congregation. At the beginning of the service and during the prelude, they sit with their caregivers in the front rows and join the larger group of children for the time for children. Their initial presence with the congregation before they eventually leave for the nursery is a very important gesture of support and solidarity for me.

Glenn church has a strong tradition that holy communion is something that when possible families do together, and so for practical reasons those special Sundays have no children’s time.

Now back to sermons…and most particularly as to whether they are a way for the pastor to preach the sermon twice. If one includes the pastoral prayer to repeat the key points made in the homily, then a pastor can get three chances to get his/her point across. Of course for me, the sermon is never the last word, but the first – or maybe the second. When I was growing up, Sunday lunch was a time to have “roast preacher.” I think that is great. But that is a another post.

I confess that I was uniquely shaped for many years by the tradition at Wheadon UMC in Evanston where I did my contextual education. I don’t know who stated the tradition – perhaps Greg Dell, or BJ. It doesn’t matter. What happened was when the time for the children’s word came around, the pastor would take the kids up into the old choir loft. The sanctuary had since been turned into the round. Most important was the fact that there was no microphone. The adults could not hear what was said to the children. Instead, for the adults, it was a time to pass registration pads and announcement sheets and sign-ups. The children’s time was for the children.

I’ll admit, that for many years, this was my idea of a “time for children.” Over time, I have mellowed, but only slightly.

In the Glenn church children’s time, different things happen. Yes, the mike is on, but I’m okay with that because often times, what is happening is directed to the adults – i.e. the kids speak to the adults.

One of the best times that I can remember was when the children, who had been learning the books of the Bible, challenged the adults to see who could do better.

I’ve also come to think of our children’s time as  kind of tutorial (sometimes just as helpful for the adults) – not the sermon – but maybe prep for the sermon. David’s going to speak about friendship – or grace – or whatever…what is your experience with friendship, or grace, or whatever.

Last week when the kids reported that at VBC, they had helped raise over $4,000 to dig wells in Kenya – my worship experience was suddenly deeper for their leadership.

There is a kind of irony – as I get older, I look forward to recapturing my second childhood. With age comes one more chance to learn the lessons of youth. In his new book, Dr. William Holmes, pastor emeritus of the Metropolitan Memorial Methodist church in DC writing about what he describes as “mature Christianity,”  spoke about the famous NT pasages where Jesus said that we all should become childlike – Willimon obviously draws on the same texts.

Holmes carefully makes the distinction between being childish and childlike. Being childlike has to do with humility – a certain openness. I suppose, this might be what Paul Ricoeur was talking about when he discussed a second naivete. In the context of worship, highlighting our children’s presence in our congregation also highlights Jesus’ call to readiness for the kin(g)dom.

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