Serving Christ Learning Mentor, Anna Naish, writes about welcoming children back to church.
Children, especially young children cannot socially distance. Anyone who has met a child knows that to be true. And while childcare has restarted and schools are set to be fully open in September, they are finding it harder to rejoin places where they need to socially distance.
As churches gradually reopen and settle into socially distanced worship, people are reconnecting with their church family. They are seeing one another’s faces, smiling through masks, physically worshipping together and enjoying socially distanced chats outside. There is a real sense of family coming back together after months apart.
There are many families though who would love to be coming back to church and rejoining their church family physically but do not feel they can when their children can’t socially distance easily. There is no blame, it is no one’s fault but it can feel that circumstances are preventing them from being part of their physical family reunion.
We need to find practical and sometimes creative ways to speak to our families and do things differently so that those who are eager to return feel that they can. Not just for fellowship and for family but because children are spiritual and can learn and teach us so much about God.
We need to talk to our families. Every family will have different needs but we don’t know what without asking them. Perhaps one just needs to know they are welcome, another would feel equipped after a chat about snacks and toys being welcome and another if they knew they were near an exit or toilet. We cannot make provisions based on what we think families need, but by talking to them we may find there are some easy solutions. And when everyone involved is talking, everyone begins to work together to see what will work and are more willing to give it a go.
We need to be clear and sensitive. Ushering anyone that can’t socially distance through a socially distanced service is going to be complex. Just as we need to talk to families about what they need, we need to communicate what is needed. If people must stay in their pews; tell everyone, if there is a one way system; mention it, if there is a space for moving; explain where and how much, if you can add positives do! E.g. We are sad not to be able to provide toys or colouring for children but do bring your own! This enables parents to feel comfortable that they know what to do and it encourages them to come in the same sentence. If you aren’t sure if it is clear and sensitive; ask a parent to help by reading it over with a critical eye.
We need to keep in touch (or make contact). Every member of a church family is important. And yet, it will be easy for those who can’t attend to feel ‘left out’, even if they know it is circumstances. Keeping lines of communication open is really important so there isn’t a sense of everyone moving forward without them. Something as simple as ‘we really miss seeing you all’ can go a huge way into helping people to feel seen, loved and valued when they are unable to attend.
We can wave on our livestream. Give them a wave at the beginning of the service. Have a short children’s slot, an action song or something else. It doesn’t have to be much but just moments of clear connection through the service with those that are joining digitally. Our church encouraged the adults in the church to join in with the actions for the children at home and I’ve never seen such energy and participation! It showed that those present genuinely wanted those at home to feel included and seen and people at home really felt it (perhaps there is also a secret love for action songs).
Worship at home. If your church has been running an online Sunday programme or has been sending out worship resources to do at home. Then keep it up! It shows they are not being left behind and most importantly helps them to connect with God. If it has brought children who didn't come to church before, physically returning may look different. There is also still plenty of scope to start something now. If you are thinking about it, why not have a look at Adventuring for God. It has resources and ideas to run five sessions with different levels of effort and online needs.
We can worship outdoors. Worship outside can bring a real sense of God’s presence, calmness and freedom…a fabulous combination for anyone. Children often thrive on being outside and therefore it is a brilliant way (particularly now) for families to worship in the air with plenty of space. Family spaces can be created outside to bring households together and find new ways to worship as a family.
I had the joy of experiencing church under a tarp tent with my family this week. There were shared spoken words between an interactive story, prayer and creative time for the families to lead themselves. There was a sense of worshipping as community but also a real value of worshipping as a family within it. Interestingly, not even the youngest children wandered from their family space. But it did start with conversations of what was most needed and then what might work…it was a blessing to see the fruit of church leadership and families working together.
So what will make the biggest difference to welcoming our children and families back to church? Praying for them, talking to them and involving them.
Different families will have different needs, different churches will be able to offer different things. Not everyone can do everything for everyone. But if our children and families feel loved, valued and listened to, then the things we do and try will be valued and supported.
Side note: Do not consider this time ‘temporary’ but be creative! Explore with families what whole family worship can look like. And by whole family, that may not just be families with children but some or all of your church family exploring together how we can worship and connect in new and different ways. In ways that our church family can take away and continue that worship through the week to sustain them until you meet physically again.