Friday, October 05, 2007


Excerpted from the Beulah Land curriculum, available from Beulah Enterprises.

Gathering and greeting

If your children arrive over an extended period of time, it helps to have a simple gathering activity waiting for them, such as coloring or joining in informal singing.

Early arrivers often want to help set up, and it’s nice if you can accommodate that wish—but be sure that the space is already orderly and peaceful, and the leader calm and ready, by the time you expect a significant number of children to be there.

If the children all enter the worship space together (for instance if they are in church for the opening hymn and then come to a children’s chapel), a formal procession with a crucifer will help to establish a reverent and prayerful atmosphere.

If you use candles in worship, you can appoint an “acolyte” to light the candles (under close supervision), using a proper acolyte’s candle-lighting wand. Children adore doing this. There may be other ceremonial roles you can distribute among the children, such as ringing a bell to mark the start of worship.

Learning to make silence

Communal, reflective ritual has few models in our culture. Today’s children are used to being entertained.

  • Most of what children think of as “fun” involves either passive entertainment or frenetic activity.
  • Many of the things children do together (with other children or with adults) are highly stimulating, with bright, fast-moving visual images, constant background noise, hurry, and multi-tasking.

Children are also used to being told to “be quiet.”

  • “Being quiet” is typically negative: it means not bothering the adults: it translates into “being bored.”
  • Or it means paying attention to academic instruc-tion or doing academic tasks.
  • At best, it means quiet solitude with a book or an absorbing activity.
But the words, singing, story and silence of liturgical worship are neither entertainment, nor passive inertness, nor academic instruction, nor even solitary absorption in thought.

  • We want to open to children a world of joy that is not the same thing as “fun.”
  • And we urgently want to avoid giving them the idea that God wants them to “be quiet” in the way adults are always telling them to “be quiet.”

Children may have difficulty realizing that quiet can be truly communal, and may be desired for its own sake, as attentive, reflective stillness. It helps to give this kind of being quiet a distinct name, such as “making silence,” or “finding your center” or “finding your peaceful place.”

An atmosphere of peace and attentiveness grows out of the leader’s calm, friendly sense of his or her own confidence and authority. Establish a few simple rules, positively stated:

  • Raise your hand and wait your turn
  • Stay in your seat
  • Respect your neighbor
  • Keep your hands to yourself

Write out the rules at the beginning of the order of worship, make sure the children know them, and apply them consistently. Be sure to restate your rules frequently, so that infrequent attenders are not embarrassed by being reprimanded for behaviors that they did not realize were out of bounds. It may be helpful to repeat the rules out loud, together, before the opening of every week’s worship.

NOTE: Make sure your worship order is short enough so that, except for children with special needs, bathroom trips during worship should be unnecessary.

Worship, singing and story

Because liturgy is not academic instruction, there is no need to insist that all the children “pay attention” at all times, in the sense of sitting up straight, eyes forward, repeating the responses at the correct times. As long as a child is quiet and not distracting others, withdrawal into the self during singing and scripted responses may open the way for meditation and even prayer.

During the story, however, the leader should expect, and encourage, a higher level of focused attentiveness. Usually, this is not difficult: the children want to listen and participate. But children are distractible, and distraction is contagious, so if one or a few children begin to whisper, invade each other’s space, or compete for the leader’s attention, it’s important to intervene quickly—not with a scolding, but with a reminder to pay attention and listen “so you don’t miss the story.”

NOTE: Be sure to allow the children space to experience their own reactions to the story. When they make comments or ask questions, try to refrain from labeling any of their res-ponses as “wrong” or “right” (unless it is a simple matter of facts, such the identity of a character or an element of the plot). And never instruct or exhort a child or a group of children to feel a certain way about the story.

The storyteller will need to find his or her own level of interactivity together with the children:

  • You may wish to establish at the outset that the children are to allow the storyteller to complete the story without interruptions, and that “the time for questions is after we have all heard the story.”
  • Or you may let the children’s own response guide you from week to week. Sometimes they will have a lot of questions, or simply be more restless than usual; the story then may be allowed to become a dialogue, with the storyteller asking a lot of leading questions to keep the kids engaged, or allowing them time to ask their questions and contribute their ideas (but “raise your hand and wait your turn!”), even if this forces the storyteller to abridge the story in order not to have the worship run overtime.
  • At other times, the children will be happy to allow the storyteller to deliver the story almost like a performance.

Wondering about the story

After the story, the children may be raising their hands with more questions, or you may wish to introduce some transitional time for conversation before the remainder of the liturgy. This can vary greatly from week to week depending on the children’s mood and behavior, the length of the story, and so on. At the beginning of the year, all such transitional time should be kept very short and simple.

You may choose to introduce the conversation time with specific “wondering questions.” Suggested wondering questions are provided for all the stories in the curriculum.[1] Often, however, wondering questions supplied by the adult leader are of no interest to the children, who have their own questions about the story.

There is no need to press specific questions on the children. Wondering questions should not be used as leading questions to elicit certain responses from the children, or to quiz them to see if they have been listening or have understood the story.

Let the children’s questions lead the way. A child with a simple factual question (such as “What is that thing in the tent?”) can, of course, be answered simply and straightforwardly (“Remember? That’s the ark of the covenant, the golden box with the commandments inside.”)

Open-ended questions are best returned to the children as wondering questions:

Child Why didn’t the king let the people go?
Leader Nicole is wondering why Pharaoh, the King of Egypt,
didn’t want to let the people go. I wonder, why didn’t
Pharaoh want to let them go?

This response to one child’s question invites other children to offer their thoughts to the question itself, not to the teacher. Each response can simply be restated by the leader: “Zach is thinking that Pharaoh liked having them there to boss around.”

The leader’s own thoughts on the subject can be included among the responses, without invalidating any of the children’s responses, which may make more sense to them:

Leader I wonder if he might have been worried that the other
people in Egypt would laugh at him if he let them go.

Again, you should resist the temptation to answer questions that the children have not asked, or to quiz them on the story.

Praying together

If time allows and your group is not too large, you may wish to ask the children if they have prayer requests. Once invited and given, such requests must be acknowledged in some way during the prayer time that follows.

This does not mean that you need to remember exactly all of the children’s concerns—the names of family members or pets, for example—but simply that in any extemporaneous prayer that comes after the requests, the leader must be sure to incorporate at least the general kinds of concerns brought up by the children, such as “all the people we love and are worried about” or “our grandparents who are sick” or “our schools where there has been bullying” or “our pets who have died.”

Don’t forget to invite children into thanksgiving as well as petition and intercession.

If your prayer time is simply silence, you can acknowledge prayer requests as you invite the children into the silence, using words such as these: “Now let’s remember the people [and animals] who need our prayers, especially the ones that have just been mentioned here; and all of us can pray in our hearts for anything or anybody that we want to hold up before God, and we can thank God for all the good things in our lives.”

Try to achieve at least a moment of real silence before concluding the prayer time. Generally, the formal closing prayer should be said by the worship leader alone, at least for the first half of the year. As the children become more familiar with the worship order, the leader can invite “anybody who is old enough to read, or has learned the words” to join in the prayer.

Offertory, announcements, and dismissal

If the children will not be in church for the offertory, it is entirely appropriate to pass an offertory basket. This offering may be designated for some purpose such as an outreach ministry. If the children are in church for the offertory, this part of the liturgy may be omitted.

The announcement time is an opportunity to remind the children of what is expected of them at the close of worship—how they are to line up, where they are to go, and what they will be doing in their activity time. If there are any new children, make sure they are familiarized not only with the procedures but also with their group leader’s name and face. The worship leader, or whoever is responsible for organizing the art projects, can also point out any ground rules for using the art materials—for the benefit of the groups leaders as much as the children, especially if the group leaders have not had a large part in preparing the project.

[1] For more on “wondering questions” see Young Children and Worship by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman (Westminster John Knox, 1989), p. 31.

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