Children are energetic, sometimes more than others, and last Sunday in church was no exception. They have a way of worshiping that reminds us of what it means to be joyful, indeed to make a joyful noise. After communion, one preschooler escaped his parent’s grip, left the rail, took off and dashed around the perimeter of the seats. My pew-mate, a talented professional musician and an amateur comedian, leaned close to me and whispered, “Laps for Jesus.”
There are also “Dances for Jesus.” Another Sunday, while we sang “Lead On O King Eternal,” two little girls joined hands and danced around each other in the aisle of the balcony. They were smiling and skipping and moving beautifully to the music, having a great time. How about “Art for Jesus”? A little boy who came in from children’s chapel had made a cross, filled it with pictures of things for which he was thankful – a baseball glove, a puppy, a smiling stick figure, and what looked like a bowl of spaghetti. He clutched it in his fist with a death grip, showed it to his mother, and then to me, but there was not way he was letting go of that cross.
“Questions for Jesus” could be another category. As I watched the children moving and worshiping in their kinetic ways, I recalled a four-year-old at the communion rail with me, probably fifteen years earlier. “What’s in the glass? Is it beer?” he should loudly as his father, the priest, brought the chalice to my lips. My own daughter, as a middle-school student, asked, “Mama, what’s the difference between magic and mystery?” And a visiting child from a nearby community asked me, “Why are all the men dressed up like women?”
Another favorite of mine is “Food for Jesus.” I remember sitting in church next to a family with preschool-age twin girls. After communion, the mother took out a Tupperware container filled with Cheerios. The two eagerly dug into their snack and offered me a few of those oat circles, stuck to their saliva-coated fingers. “The Body of Christ,” the little girl mumbled to me as she held the tiny circle up to my mouth. How could I resist? Watching a new mom nurse her baby as we sang “Let Us Break Bread Together” brought me to tears one Sunday, many years ago.
During his sermon one Sunday, a priest friend of mine shared his memory of lying on his back in the pews at his Catholic church on Long Island, looking at the art painted on the ceiling of the sanctuary. Angels and puffy clouds, cherubim and seraphim floating in the sky. This depiction touched him, he said, and he thought about heaven in that way for a long time.
We may not be able to describe scientifically what happens to children who attend church Sunday after Sunday, but I believe something deeply and profoundly formational happens. When children hear songs week after week, listen to the prayers and chants, kneel at the rail, look at the art, taste the bread and the wine, rock in their parent’s or grandparent’s arms, they are being formed, nourished, and loved in ways we cannot even imagine. They are learning the sights, sounds, and smells of culture and community.
For all the problems with the institutional church, for all the disagreements I can have with the theology and praxis of the church, our secular culture still has no substitute for this. If we want our children to carry with them the beauty and joy of worship, the nurture and support of community, the mystery of God in Christ, then we must take them, week after week, to the place where that can happen. We must bring them to worship with us. Even when we wonder if it’s worth the effort to get out of the house and go. Even when we spend most of the service keeping them occupied with coloring books and snacks. Even when we get embarrassed by their playful antics and loud comments.
As difficult as it can be sometimes, we must take them with us and keep ourselves open to what they have to teach us. Pay close attention to what they do and say. It just might change your life.