This is part 2 of a 2-part series on Family Worship. Part 1 is What is Family Worship? 

Whole-family worship can be a critical piece for helping our kids engage in faith and in the church for the long haul. My friend, Pastor Margaret Tyler, uses the analogy of the dinner table to illustrate children in worship. She says sending kids to children’s church exclusively is like having kids eat kid food at the kid table every time a family gathers for a meal. Then, abruptly, when the children turn thirteen, they are moved to the adult table, fed adult food, and expected to demonstrate adult table manners and engage in adult conversation. As Margaret says, if we utilized this practice in our homes, we probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear the kids say, “Hey, this isn’t my table or my kind of food or my kind of conversation. I don’t belong here. And, frankly, I’d rather not be here.”

There are statistics to back that up. You can read about it here, here, or here. The transition from children’s ministry to middle school youth group is a hard one for many kids. Life is getting busier. Extracurricular options are more abundant. Some kids fall through the cracks. Others check out. The same thing happens again when kids start high school, when they leave for college, and when they get jobs in the real world. There are about a million other things our kids could be doing that scream of importance and entertainment and excitement. Our goal in the church is not to compete with those things by replicating the smoke and lights and glam of the entertainment industry while hiding something way more important behind the velvet curtain. Rather, our role as pastors and teachers and parents is simply to create a deep, meaningful space where our children can participate in forming and in being formed by the people of God, intentionally, on purpose, without the smoke and lights. We are about developing communities of authenticity that shape our youngest worshipers into the very ones who will lead worship.

Why is family worship important?

The Barna Group has done some helpful research surrounding why people, specifically millennials, stay or leave the church. Their research shows that millennials are far more likely to stay in church if they have a high level of engagement—a seat at the table, if you will. However, that seat at the table—that sense of being known and knowing how to contribute—has to start from a very young age. Whether kids engage in family worship all the time or once in a while, if we want our kids to stay engaged for the long haul, there needs to be a sense of belonging. Our kids need to be saying, “These are my people. This is my place. I belong here. I know what to do here. I have something of value to offer here.”

There is no better way to achieve belonging for our children than to have our children participate in worship in an age-appropriate manner from a very young age. Family worship fosters opportunities for kids to learn our music and our words and our prayer rituals and our sacraments. It creates a sense of sacred familiarity—a sense that I belong at this table, and I always have.

How can we get started?

First, give kids permission to be kids. So often we think, But won’t they be bored and fidgety and noisy? The answers to those questions are maybe, probably, and likely. However, when we begin to think of worship as a collective experience, we understand that those noises and wiggles are a part of our body.

Next, do what any good hermeneutics professor would teach you. Start with the text. Kids need and desire real depth and solid theology. They can see right through gimmicks, and fluff just doesn’t hold up.

Then, ask yourself how you can engage the senses. How can you make the text come alive through touch, taste, smell, sound, or sight? Can you tell a story that captures the imagination? Can you read a picture book? Can you listen to a song that really drives home the point? Can you watch a twenty-second video clip? Is there something to taste? Something to smell? Something to experience? Some texts lend themselves to sensory experiences more readily than others, but all of us receive better when a story is told with richness and creativity.

Can you give us an example?

During this past Advent season, one of our Lectionary texts was Isaiah 11: “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit” (v 1). My husband, who was preaching that week, filled his sermon with the rich theological concepts that he felt God was saying to our people, even the oldest and most seasoned among us. Then he gathered two long branches and a large stump with a small plant just beginning to sprout on it. He placed the stump with the sprouting plant on the platform. He nailed the branches into the shape of a cross and placed them on the platform as well. He used these elements to tell the story in a way that visually connected the dots for our youngest worshipers as well as our oldest. Additionally, while my husband preached, kids sitting next to their parents cut toilet-paper-roll tree stumps into the shape of a crown to represent the new kingdom coming from the stump of Jesse.

We talked through the activities briefly during announcement time, and some guiding questions and instructions were placed on the screen to give families the freedom to work through the craft and the sermon points at their own pace (or do something completely different). The key is simply to think about ways young (and not so young) worshipers can keep their hands busy so their ears and hearts can be listening.

How often should we participate in family worship?

Whatever works best for your church. In our current context, family worship works every week. In our previous context, it was once a month. Both are great. The key is intentionality. Our role is to facilitate purposeful, rich worship experiences for the oldest and the youngest among us every single week in a way that communicates, “You belong here. None of these spaces or worship experiences are off limits to you.” Sometimes that includes kids’ worship experiences that are rich with hands-on learning and worship songs with a little bit different beat.

What is there to family worship besides keeping little hands busy?

Family worship is about more than getting kids used to big church. At its heart, it’s about acknowledging that our kids play important roles in our communities. The Barna Group found that millennials who stayed in church did so because they had reciprocal relationships with people in the community. They had a place of belonging. While they learned from others, others also learned from them. Family worship can help create space for that to happen. It is critical that we find ways for kids to serve, to discover their gifts, and to offer their talents. After all, it’s their table too.

During family worship, kids can:

*serve Communion

*participate on the music worship team

*help pass the tithes and offerings plate or basket

*run the slides (Our church has a brother/sister team who take turns doing this; they even practice with the worship team every Sunday morning. They are way better at this role than I ever could be.)

*create art for seasonal displays

*read Scripture

The possibilities are numerous. The key is to invite kids to join the table, to teach them table manners and conversation etiquette, and then to give them opportunities to help serve the food.