More than a year ago, I wrote a blog post about Libby Lane’s consecration as the first woman bishop in England. I realized how important this was to me, because a parishioner had sent me a video of her daughter playing “Pastor Kit” and baptizing a baby doll. Without Bishop Lane or my presence, she would never have envisioned herself as a priest to her doll.
That video was also important to me because it reminded me again that we don’t KNOW what kids are getting out of worship. There is no standardized test for toddlers to assess whether their experience of liturgy is any deeper or more spiritual than any of the adults in the congregation.
Since a toddler’s prayer posture is not usually one of silent, kneeling meditation, and because when they are distracted and bored, they don’t stare into space or read the bulletin, but run madly around the church … many adults say to me “they aren’t getting anything out of it.”
Actually, yes they are getting things out of it. Here’s how I know.
During a warm spell every child in the church had spring fever. In the nursery, in the Sunday School classrooms, and in the toddler-friendly Soft Space, which is right in the front of the church, the kids were downright squirrely. The one and two year olds were especially bouncy and their parents kept pulling them off the altar rail, chasing them down into the aisle and bringing them back, and following them down the side hallway to catch them. To be honest, even I was distracted, and I can preach through screaming babies, smoke alarms going off, snow blowers outside the window and hail storms on the ceiling — sometimes all at once!
Afterward, there were the usual comments. They aren’t getting anything out of it. How could they possibly be getting anything out of it, when they were mostly just trying to taunt their parents by playing keepaway?
When we had our annual Ash Wednesday service for children. This is another scene of barely controlled mayhem, featuring some of the same scampering toddlers. But at least everyone gets to touch the holy water in the font, smell the baptismal oil, see the candles lit, bury the Alleluia banner and get their ashes and receive Holy Communion. At the end of it, one of the mothers of one of the toddlers was telling me that on that fateful Sunday a few weeks before, when they got home and her child was playing, she noticed the little girl doing something curious …
The child had two cars, one in each hand. She pressed them together over her head and pulled them apart with great drama. She was saying something … her mother got closer and listened. As she pulled the cars apart, the girl was saying, “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.”
Over and over again!
So for anyone who is disturbed by children in church … and I hope your church DOES have children that disturb you, because a church without children is a church in trouble — don’t worry about whether they are getting anything out of it. They are. It comes at their own level, through all the distractions and tedium of worship, but the Holy Spirit has not left these children out of the celebration.
And it just gets better, because last Sunday, the kids at the coloring table in the back of the church were singing along with the fraction anthem, really really loudly, as they colored pictures of Jesus and his friends.
Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. All of us, big and small, smart and silly, old and young, distracted and devoted. Let us … all of us … keep the feast.
The Rev. Dr. Kit Carlson is rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in East Lansing, Michigan. She earned a D.Min. from VTS in 2015, researching ways to communicate faith to the post-Boomer generations. She blogs at Pastor in the Pastures of Life.