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Churches embracing children on Sunday mornings

Churches embracing children on Sunday mornings

Church Vitality

Editor’s Note: Bridging the gap between generations, from young children to our elderly, is important for vital, growing congregations. This is the second in a two-part series about the challenges of building intergenerational ministries.

Rachael Sumner, an associate lay leader at St. Andrew UMC in Titusville, said her church has started including children in the services instead of shuffling them off to children’s church.

“Our kids are part of the body of Christ and should be included in the ritual, the liturgy of the church,” she said. “Our services should reflect all generations.”

The Rev. Sarah Miller, senior pastor of Tuskawilla United Methodist Church in Casselberry, agrees.

A young child enjoys communion at one of the conference family camps. According to Rachael Sumner, associate lay leader at St. Andrew UMC in Titusville, kids are part of the body of Christ and should be included in the liturgy of the church.

“I’ve adopted Melissa’s phrase,” Miller said, referring to Rev. Melissa Cooper, program coordinator of the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park. “You can gain faith by being in a faithful environment, and I firmly believe there needs to be a way for generations to worship together.”

Miller said she’s been amazed at the way building relationships among the generations has impacted the church’s environment.

“I came to Tuskawilla in 2014, and I was immediately struck when I attended a church function,” she said. “A lot of churches talk about how they’re a family. This church really is a family. You couldn’t tell which children belonged to which parents, and the older adults functioned as grandparents.”

Since then, Miller has reached out to Cooper to find more ways to make Tuskawilla UMC a truly intergenerational church.

“This has become a passion for me,” she said. “We’re so segregated in society today. Youngsters go to elementary school with kids the same age; teens attend high school; parents are in the workplace with contemporaries, and grandparents often live out of town. Church is one of the few places all generations can come together. I believe every person at any stage of their life should be able to come to Tuskawilla and feel they belong.”

Despite the innate intergenerational aspects of her church, Miller admits it caused a bit of a stir when she announced that she would no longer send young kids off to children’s church on communion Sundays.

However, the objection didn’t come from senior members of the church. It came from the parents.

“They didn’t want kids fussing next to them and asking embarrassing questions. They told me this was their time to worship,” she said.

Miller countered their concerns by providing the children with word games, mazes and other materials to guide them through the day’s service.

“Kids make noise. That’s what they do,” Miller said. “But instead of chastising them, we need to embrace their curiosity and find a way to further connect them to their parents and the worshipping body.”

She recalled last year’s Silent Night candle lighting service.

“As I walked toward the Christ Candle and lit it, an 18-month-old girl said ‘Ooh.’ We all laughed. It was a wonderful moment of amazement,” Miller said. “If we continue to cart kids out to children’s church, we’re missing out on that wonder.”

Miller said she cringes when she hears stories about pastors ordering parents to place their noisy children in the nursery.

“We should embrace the sound of a baby cooing or a child asking to hold the Bible,” she said.

She recently took this philosophy a step further when she invited a father and his 6-year-old daughter to help serve communion.

“People were surprised I’d give this responsibility to a child,” Miller said. “But she took it very seriously. She asked me what to say to people when they came up to her and I said, ‘Just tell them Jesus loves you.’ After the service, she ran up and gave me a big hug. This is a memory she’ll have the rest of her life.”

With that in mind, Miller has suspended children’s church during Advent this year.

“It’s so essential that children be in worship and hear the Scriptures that are so fundamental to our faith during the Christmas season,” she said.

Instead of being cautioned to keep quiet, children are handed bingo cards at the beginning of service and play Advent bingo during the sermon, filling in their bingo cards each time the pastor says a corresponding word.

“It’s great. They shout out bingo during the sermon,” Miller said. “The adults think it’s hysterical. Some have even asked for their own bingo cards.”

Those are the stories that Cooper loves to hear.

“There always will be multiple generations in the church,” she said. “You can allow those differences to bring conflict or you can use them to strengthen the church. My mission is to give churches the tools and resources to build relationships among the generations.”

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--D’Ann Lawrence White is a freelance writer based in Valrico.

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