Can Kids be Formed by Worship Even if They Can’t Understand It?

Zac HicksChurch & Ecclesiology, Worship Theology & Thought11 Comments

The local assembly that I’ve had the privilege of serving alongside for the last nearly six years tries to cut against the grain by not catering to any one demographic but intentionally seeking to be intergenerational in our approach to community, discipleship, and worship.  With regards to kids, this means that we don’t view worship as an “adult activity” and then shove off our kids to do crafts in the basement.

In the last twenty years or so, developmental theory has greatly influenced the church in how her children are nurtured in the faith.  New approaches to corporate children’s education are manifesting themselves in new kinds of curricula and kids’ programming that take into account the developmental stages of children. 

You can imagine that, at a church like ours, we have lots of healthy, passionate conversations on staff and leadership levels about how our kids are engaging or not engaging our worship services.  When we wrestle through feelings that our kids are not engaging, the first card that usually gets flipped is the child development card.  “Kids are just not at a point in their development to be able to grasp and imbibe certain aspects of our worship (preaching is often mentioned here),” we say.  Responding to this, churches often adopt one of three postures: (1) too bad, the kids stay in and hopefully learn to “grow into” it; (2) have the kids depart the service for some or all of the time for a more age-appropriate activity; or (3) change an aspect (or, in rare cases, all) of the service to be more kid-friendly.

All of this, however, hinges on a certain understanding of learning which is challenged by James K. A. Smith in his book, Desiring the Kingdom.  Firstly, what if we owned up to the fact that some, or even much, of Christian worship is not something that kids can fully grasp at their stage of development, and that worship for them is just “going through the motions?”  But, secondly, what if we had a learning theory broad enough to include “going through the motions” as a strong and valuable part of the formational process of learning?

In other words, what if our kids are shaped by the acts, structure, and flow of worship (including the sermon) even if they don’t understand it all?  What if the rote prayers, the stand-up-sit-down, the confession, the Doxology, the singing, the Call to Worship, the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, and Communion have a formative quality to them not only as they are understood cognitively (which is important for the most full-orbed experience, by the way) but also as they are enacted by the people of God?

Smith says:

It is important also to keep in mind that worship is best understood on the order of action, not reflection; worship is something that we do. And even if we don’t think about it in this reflective way—and even if some of us (children, the mentally handicapped) can’t think about it in this way—the core claim of this book is that the practices of Christian worship do this work nonetheless because of the kind of creatures we are. The practices carry their own understanding that is implicit with them, and that understanding can be absorbed and imbibed in our imaginations without having to kick into a mode of cerebral reflection. Reflection certainly deepens the doing; but the point is that there is always more happening: our imagination is being formed in ways that we are not (and perhaps cannot be) aware of.1

Smith goes on in a footnote to admit what is implicit here, namely, that “the motions” are valuable in and of themselves:

I recognize that some might be uncomfortable with this claim, since it seems to suggest that there can be some sort of virtue in “going through the motions.” On this point I’m afraid I have to confess that I do indeed think this is true.  While it is not ideal, I do think that there can be a sort of implanting of the gospel that happens simply by virtue of participating in liturgical practices.”2

It is not that developmental theory and important educational concepts like learning styles are unimportant.  It is that they are incomplete when it comes to asking the question about how worship forms us and our kids.  We need to be able to reframe the questions we ask when we’re evaluating the kid-friendly nature of our worship services.  Sure, our kids will say they’re bored, and many, if not most, couldn’t regurgitate the propositional content of the form and elements of the worship service.  Sure, this is something that goes on in the life of a child for a long, long time.  Nevertheless, we have now seen that it is probably making a big, unqualified leap to say that, because of this, our kids aren’t “getting” anything out of worship and should therefore be somewhere else.

The only thing left to ask is, How do we apply this in a cultural age where parents expect to have a certain kind of worship experience without their kids?  How does this work when, in our consumer-oriented climate, parents who are visiting a church will decide yea or nay on staying there based on how much they had to “fuss with” their kids in worship versus how much they were able to shove them off so that they could have their ideal experience?  Whew…important questions…for another post.

1 James K. A. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 166-167.
2 Ibid., 167, n. 29.

11 Comments on “Can Kids be Formed by Worship Even if They Can’t Understand It?”

  1. Thanks for this post, Zach. This is a conversation I've begun with our youth and kids ministries. I'll definitely be sharing this link as a spring-board into further conversation.

  2. Musical worship and motions (especially) are both key in our home and in corporate worship at church. Even my 2-year old twins can sing O Come, O Come, Emmanuel – they almost seem to sit up straighter and still themselves because they realize something is happening. Do they fully understand? No, but the sense something bigger, greater, grander than themselves.

    The other day in corporate worship at our church, I stood and raised my hands, closed my eyes – I did not sing with the music, but I was moved to a different posture of worship. I could hear one of my twin girls saying, "Daddy fall asleep?" Precious! My older daughter explained, "No, daddy's worshipping God." If my 9 year-old can explain to the 2 year-old something that she has observed in her father or mother, whether she understands it or not or experiences it for herself or not – what a tremendous value in understanding that our children are watching us and keenly observing how we ought to live and move.

    Zac, may God continue to use and remind you to bring intergenerational thinking to the corporate worship of the Body of Christ, wherever you serve.

  3. I'm glad to see this being articulated by Smith and by you, Zac. The formative element of worship practice is all-too-often ignored, especially in circles where conscious participation is elevated.

    As a seminary student, I'm all for conscious participation. In addition, however, one must be able to recognize that "the practices of Christian worship do this work nonetheless because of the kind of creatures we are," just as Smith says.

    We are creatures with whom God uses means…and I think in the zeal of many post-Reformation folks, we are too often dismissing the physical as a "mere shadow" of the real. Maybe the actions of worship are REALLY just as much worship as the spiritual realities to which they are joined and point.

  4. I don't come from the same perspective in that I think the learning development argument is strong and kids should be communicated with in a way they understand. If you were teaching kids math, would you have the same approach of just exposing children to calculus? If you were a missionary, would you ignore the native language and just encourage attendance at the English liturgy? But I appreciate your esteem for the Christian tradition and the correct parenting approach that kids need to be formed into some things that they may not appreciate at the time. You sketch well your awareness of the issues and articulate well a rationale for accepting the "going through the motions" (which can be called "formational") approach. I would simply add that if this is your view, then it is all the more important that your "motions" are the precise things you want to teach your kids about the Christian faith. Is their getting used to a 45 minute sermon, recitation of the creed, and singing of the doxology, the essence of what it means to form people into Jesus Christ? Or would a dynamic discussion among adults about a Scripture text, a joyous dance, and a community service effort better approximate what our kids should pick up on about the Christian faith? I worry that formation into what someone may have persuaded you is the "the traditional liturgy of the church" will only breed teenagers who are convinced that what it means to be Christian is to be a quiet, muzzled, confused spectator. A Roman Catholic such as Vincent J. Miller, even in his critique of evangelical excesses in Consuming Religion, wishes his own tradition had far more engagement with Scripture in the pews and lay involvement. I'm skeptical that mimicing Roman Catholic inculcating traditional liturgy into their congregants is the way to go. As sociologist Brad Wright says, "there isn't much switching into Catholicism, but there sure is a lot out." Also: "Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change." But of course this could be for other reasons (Pope, birth control, abuse scandal, women) besides their formational practices. More positively, the data seems to say that if you were raised in a home that was strong in instilling in you your religion, you are likely to retain that. It seems that your congregation is reflecting on creative ways to do so which bodes well for your kids. What I resist is settled notions of "this is what liturgy and worship is" (Is it?) "and therefore our kids need to become accustomed to it." If the former is done correctly, then I agree with the latter "tough medicine." Your asking the question of "how are our kids doing?" happily resists such settled thinking.

  5. Miss your teaching Zac! Thanks for this. =) It made me smile and remember how lucky we were that our parents kept us in church even as little ones.

  6. Thanks for this post! I just found your blog a few weeks ago and have really appreciated your teaching.

    I appreciate your church's goal of intergenerational worship. When I moved to Kansas City six months ago, I joined a church that only provides children's ministry "programming" (for lack of a better term) through age 5; everyone else is encouraged to attend the corporate worship service and sit with their families. I have loved leading worship in an intergenerational setting, and like your church, we have wrestled with how to make sure kids are being engaged.

    However, I'm having trouble accepting James Smith's assertions that you quote in the post, particularly his claim that the "practices of Christian worship do this work nonetheless because of the kind of creatures we are." Can that claim be Scripturally confirmed? I can't think of a passage that would assert that. To be honest, it reminds me more of the empty worship that the Israelites struggled with and Jesus exposed in Luke 7:6-8.

    Therefore, I can't in good conscience apply that principle to the context of kids and teenagers in our services and be content with their attendance and passive participation. I'd rather make some effort to reach out to them at their level, whether it's a specific sermon illustration, method of taking communion, handout that has basic questions for them to answer (etc) then have them go through the service as (like commenter Andy refers to it above) "confused spectators." I think it's unavoidable to have liturgy elements that kids and teens can't completely understand, but I also want to make sure they are able to actively participate in worship at some point and maybe even grow from their interaction with God in some way.

    I would love to hear more about why you agree with Smith, because I'm sure there is something I've missed. Thanks again for sharing this post!

  7. Indeed. You have outlined one of the pitfalls of bringing "research" into the realm of church ministry. This act doesn't just happen with child development, it happens with leadership curriculum, demographic research (particularly with young adults), and other topics ad nauseum.

    The weakness of bringing that research to bear on the corporate aspects of church is that one tends to neglect the underlying philosophy of such research, and to note the reductionistic views about a particular view of humanity that those philosophies betray.

    In other words, if there is a sacramental view of what is happening in corporate worship- Jesus is at work in Word and Sacrament, even if it's boring, even if I don't "feel" it- then that brings to bear more aspects of our humanity than a merely cognitive view of child development. Or a merely sociological view of leadership in the church.

    A sacramental view recognizes that we are shaped by all things, even the "motions."

  8. A couple quick thoughts:

    I agree that it's important for children to be taught at their own level of development. However, I wonder if the responses many are having would change if we reconsider some of the underlying assumptions I suspect exist: that 'dealing with' kids shouldn't have to be part of the worship service, that Sunday worship must be fully intellectually understood to be meaningful (related to Jamie Smith's point), and that teaching for children doesn't happen outside of the Sunday morning corporate worship context (i.e. family talks together after the service, teaching at home, Sunday school lessons, weeknight gatherings, etc.).

    Andy makes a good point above that, with the sacramental view in mind, it's important that the service be shaped in such a way that the elements are purposeful and that those purposes are communicated in a readily-understood manner.

    (For the record, our church has a nursery available for the whole Sunday service for kids 0-4 and a children's teaching time across from just the sermon for kids up to 2nd grade.)

  9. As always, Zac, you make us consider and the re-consider our assumptions. Perhaps the healthiest thing our churches can do is to engage in these questions. What I mean is, maybe the questions are ultimately more important than the answers. I venture a guess that anyone who has read this post will be a little less callous and cavilier about how we handle our children in worship. Our church falls into category two; we have a separate program for our toddlers. But I personally love the brief children's segment that many churches do in worship. I find that they are often as "formative" for adults as the regular sermon is for the kids.
    Thanks for investing time in thinking, writing and encouraging.

  10. I'm late to the ball game – sorry!

    Just a quick questions: Where does this leave us with young children at communion? Have you given this any thought, Zack?

  11. If someone is looking for Scriptural support for children in worship, consider Ephesians 6:1. Paul is writing to the entire church. He gives the children a command. He fully expected children to be present and engaged in the body of Christ.

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