Shortly before I was to appear on Ancient Faith Today with Fr. John Whiteford, I accepted his invitation to have a brief phone conversation. Telling me about his background, he made an offhanded remark that some decades ago kids began going to “Children’s Church,” and they never left. The more I think about that remark, the more disturbed I become (and not just because I actually agree with Fr. John about something). I think the well-intentioned efforts to meet the worship needs of children has contributed to an increasing trend toward a narcissistic faith.
For those who are not familiar with the idea of Children’s Church, in a lot of Protestant churches, the children have their own worship service separate from the adults. They sing “This Little Light of Mine” and make paper mache Abels. That sort of thing.
This has been on my mind for a number of different reasons. One is that I still get comments on a post I wrote criticizing a Christian song that amounts to catchy heresy. (Theological content is barely considered in most contemporary Christian music.) The other reason is that I just finished listening to Things Not Seen Radio interview Thomas Bergler on his book The Juvenilization of American Christianity. I have not read the book, but in the interview Bergler says that the rise of youth-focused programs in the 1930s and 40s eventually contributed to a kind of Christianity lite, today.
I have seen this for myself. In my Protestant days, it always bothered me that people seemed to talk about what Jesus did for them. They would talk about how much they got out of mission trips. They would talk about worship that spoke to their souls. Call me crazy, but that seems kind of backwards to me. Isn’t the point about Jesus, Jesus? Since when do we go on mission trips to get something for ourselves? In many churches today, the point is more about having my needs met rather than cultivating a life of service to God and others for God’s sake.
Of course, I think it is too simple just to blame Children’s Church. Juvenile, Christian narcissism is just as much a product of American consumerism as it is “The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky.” (Actually, I like that song because it actually teaches kids a Bible story.) I also think it is right and reasonable to recognize that kids do have unique learning needs that the church needs to meet. A sermon might not be the best way for kids to learn, but that does not require having two different church services. I just have a hard time recognizing a difference between worship for kids and adults.
On Holy Friday at my church, the girls bring baskets of flower petals. When the congregation sings about the myrrh-bearing women, the girls go around the church scattering their petals everywhere. Of course, they also throw a lot of them directly at our priest.
Kids in church can be chaotic, and I will honestly say that sometimes I am glad when I am at church and my kids are somewhere else. It is a welcome change because I can actually pay attention (which I think is another motivating factor for Children’s Church), but I think that chaos can become a kind of holy play, which is how kids learn and worship best.