What to Expect of Families and Children in Worship?

What to Expect of Families and Children in Worship?

This column is written in response to a question asked on the UUCC Family Support Group Facebook page: What should be expected of our families and our children during worship? We would like to invite you to participate in a discussion, please see the bottom of the post for more information.

I came to Columbia with a vision of family ministry. This vision has in large part been inspired by a book that changed my thinking. Full Circle: Fifteen Ways to Grow Lifelong UUs by Kate Tweedie Erslev, was the motivation for my search for a better way. Through stories about and interviews with eighty-two lifelong Unitarian Universalists who stayed UU, who often made the decision to devote their lives to Unitarian Universalism as religious professionals, Erslev brought to life ideas that could profoundly impact the way we do religious education and faith development for families. The most important of the ideas she discussed, in my mind, are the experiences of community, the transcendent experiences, and the relationships, encapsulated within meaning-making.

The vision of family ministry that I bring to UUCC is one of nurturance and relationship. To raise faithful UUs, we must create a beloved community for our children and youth. I envision a congregation where our parents are supported, our children are loved, and our families of all kinds are welcomed. I imagine a place where families are affirmed in their role as primary religious educators for their children. After all, we only have children in our building about fifty-two hours a year, if the family attends each Sunday. I imagine a place where adults and children alike join together to learn, to wonder, to serve, to change the world. We are a religion of continuously unfolding revelation, believing in the good in the universe, learning best while in community. How we model that to our children is of the utmost importance, because they are learning from us every second they are with us. How we interact with them informs their understanding of Unitarian Universalism.

Religious educator Maria Harris suggests, in Fashion Me a People, that the entire course of a church’s life is its curriculum – that everything a church says, does, and does not do “teaches” what that religious community is all about. Every person, every activity, every interaction contributes to a child’s faith development and the growth and vitality of a congregation. It behooves us, then, to pay attention to that curriculum, spoken and unspoken, and what we are teaching our children every minute they spend with us. When children are present in worship, whether during a multigenerational service or for the first 15 minutes of a regular service or because they want to stay with the adults, they are learning about our religion. They are learning from the story and wondering. They are learning from singing together. They are learning from ritual. And they are learning from the ways they are treated and welcomed (or not) by others around them.

Transcendent experiences, the kind youth find in intentional community, the kind that children so naturally experience in nature or in worship, call our children into a deeper understanding of faith and religion. I still remember a particularly meaningful experience that I had a young child, marching around the sanctuary with my family, holding a banner, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” at the top of my lungs. It was a powerful experience. To this day, I can recall the smells, the sounds, the emotions of that experience 50 years ago. Part of the importance was being in community with the entire congregation, marching, singing, waving our banners. I was a part of something bigger than myself or my family.

You might wonder, Robin, if you want children to feel transcendent wonder and awe, don’t they need to sit quietly and concentrate on what’s happening in worship? I would answer, no, not necessarily. Children have fidgets and wiggles. That’s why we are providing Soul Work this year. Neuroscience tells us that keeping hands busy with repetitive work clears the mind into a meditative state and helps us (adults and children alike) to find “calm, focused, balanced energy”. I’ve watched children coloring mandalas during worship. They color and color, hear something and pop their heads up to focus, then return to coloring. They are absorbing more than we might realize from looking at them.

Jeanne Nieuwejaar, in her book The Gift of Faith, describes the “it takes a village” philosophy of religious nurturance of children. She offers: “…to be a spiritual being means to be in relationship with others. The central religious qualities of love and care become real only as they are lived, tested, and deepened in community.”

As a newcomer to UUCC, I have been observing and pondering what makes this congregation special. Special enough to call me to move from New Jersey, special enough to convince me to uproot my family and begin a new life in Maryland, special enough to grow so much that you needed to build a larger sanctuary. You have so very much to offer the world. Growing UU children into UU adults who are committed to changing the world for the better is a wonderful gift indeed. And yet, based on what I’ve observed and the discussions I’ve read on Facebook, there are challenges.

Children are noisy wiggly creatures. They are distracting. They don’t always know the rules of worship. They don’t behave like miniature adults. Visiting families may not understand the culture at UUCC. Parents may feel exhausted by the thought of trying to keep wiggly children quiet during an hour long multigen service. Some of them give up before they even try and keep their families home that Sunday. Older adults have trouble hearing and background noise makes it worse. We have many different needs, sometimes conflicting. So what are we to do, as a people of faith committed to changing the world for the better, committed to the village effort to raise our children? How can we make this work for everyone, children and adults alike? How can we provide the transcendent experiences of community in worship that our children and youth need as part of their faith development? Because I want our children to grow up Unitarian Universalist. I want them to stay in our faith. I’m not content for them to simply be tolerant of others. I want this saving faith to grow and grow, because our world sure needs what we have to offer!

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