Yesterday was Palm Sunday.
Our kids have been sitting with us for church online for the past few weeks now and ‘dutifully’ would be a fair word to describe their posture.
A celebration service via a screen is unusual for most of us, especially as the goal posts keep changing.
No-one can help that, and given the landscape we’re in, I know plenty of congregations are grateful for the technology to be able to continue to meet outside the walls of our usual buildings. Church staff all over the world have been thrown into a new world trying to engage and connect with their congregations via screens. They have to do that thoughtfully and quickly, and the rules for getting services into lounge-rooms are a moving target. So all props to them for their efforts and for keeping up, and for providing some continuity and engagement and security for their people in this new unknown world. Our church and many others have extended their online capacity to include activities and teaching engagement moments for kids – it’s fantastic how creative people are becoming in trying to find modes for their congregants to connect and feel seen and thought of, in this highly unusual time.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been asked by a few parents now about engagement for kids during online church – some are struggling to keep kids engaged, others are looking for services tailored to kids.
When I grew up, my Sunday school was before our church service. I was used to sitting through church and learned to listen, engage, and learn for myself from something aimed mostly at adults. Most kids today don’t have that skill. Kids church has been about them, and usually runs simultaneous with the service for adults, so they haven’t been exposed to traditional sermon time or focused listening.
But here’s the thing: I attribute the best learning I had regarding faith and Scripture as a kid, being from conversations about the sermon or the weekly theme, and learning via conversing and questioning in real-time.
That’s something online can’t do. It can open conversations, but it can’t chase the proverbial rabbit down the hole that kids do in their weird little minds, asking all manner of unusual questions from thoughts that popped into their brains with no warning. The only thing that can engage kids like that is real-time conversation.
Hear me well – online has much great content at the moment, but as far as faith and kids goes, nothing can replace what you now have more opportunity for: family faith conversations, devotions, and frankly, church services that involve the people in your lounge-room.
Kids are on screens so much already, and so much of their faith learning has already been placed in the hands of church programs. Now perhaps we can see the opportunity we have right in front of us and engage their faith learning differently, and more holistically.
Yesterday we had family church. We opened Scripture to Luke 19:28-40, which is the appropriate chapter for Palm Sunday. Miss 10 read the story first: Jesus descended the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem, with disciples and crowds praising God and shouting, “Peace in Heaven and glory in the highest”. Then I read a modern paraphrase of the same passage. Daddy asked what stood out, and Mr 12 remarked it was amazing that Jesus said the stones would cry out if the people didn’t worship. So that became our launching pad for a discussion about why Jesus was worshiped like that, in that moment, by those people.
Here’s some of the the results of our interaction and discussion:
It was a significant moment in Jesus’ life – a few days before his ultimate sacrifice.
The words of the worship bore a striking resemblance to the words of the angels after his birth – the angels sang ‘peace on earth and glory to God’, and the disciples sang ‘peace in heaven and glory to God’. It’s as if both situations were significant and commanded worship in that moment.
When Jesus said the stones would cry out – one child said he meant that literally, the other thought he meant it figuratively.
The adults wondered if when he spoke of the stones, was he referring to the dead in the graves in the Kidron Valley?
The main point was that in this moment, Jesus had to be worshiped.
Jesus knew what was ahead for him in Jerusalem, but no one else did.
Take away: we also get to worship him and thank him for choosing to head to Jerusalem that day.
Worship is an essential thing – whether we engage or not, but we get to.
We chased some rabbits down holes regarding crucifixion, why it was so barbaric… why the man who owned the donkey’s colt didn’t complain that the disciples took it from him… and a few other things. But the overall conversation led us all to a time of worship and grateful prayer.
The interaction we had as a family over Scripture, encouraging the kids to engage, allowing them to ask all sorts of crazy questions, and having a family prayer time afterward, was profound and we all learnt something. The Spirit was teaching us through the Scripture – and the engagement helped us all understand a little more.
Here’s the point: you are the primary imparter of faith to your kids. You always have been, whether you knew it or not, but right now it’s even more imperative that you pick up that mantle. Online church is connection for us, but they need real-time conversation. They need interaction and learning and Scripture and worship and question time that helps them know and understand faith. They need us to impart within them a faith that works. A faith that encourages questions and wrestling and can handle doubts and fears and uncertainty.
That means their little minds are going to go into places that we may not have the answers to, but at least they know who to ask, and how to pray, and how to engage with their questions.
That’s church for them. Frankly it doesn’t matter whether it’s Sunday morning or not, if the family devotional time is happening, that’s your ‘meeting together’ as church within your family unit. I would encourage worship, prayer, giving, communion to be a part of that too – but guess what? Communion can happen at dinner (the first communion was exactly that!), just being more intentional about remembering Christ and adding confession to the mix at a meal time.
Here’s a few pointers on how to do church intentionally with your kids:
Ask the Spirit to lead you
God himself is the one who directs our learning through Scripture. He might lead you to a passage, or he might show you or the kids what stands out today, so the conversation can head in the direction he wants it to go. I’m amazed at how often things I’ve never seen in Scripture before pop up because we prayed for the Spirit’s leading before we began.
Get the kids to be actively involved
That might mean reading the passage, or even choosing it – something that gives them ownership in the process. If they’re not great readers, get them to read one version and you read another so everyone gets to hear a ‘flowing’ rendition so they can comprehend what it’s saying. If pictures help them, let them follow through with their kids Bible version as you read it.
Ask them what stands out
Resist the urge to begin with ‘teaching’. By nature and experience you’re going to know more than they do, but if you ask them to talk about what they see first, it’ll give them ownership of the discussion. I promise you, when questions start to spew out from them, there’ll be plenty of time to teach. But I would suggest holding your knowledge back and encouraging them to find the answers with just some gentle guidance.
Decide on a ‘take-away’ together
Devotions should be more than just learning what happened – they should also point to spiritual formation. For example: now that we just learned that, what does it mean for us today, and what are we going to do about it?
Don’t make it any more complex than that
You might want to add worship, prayer, activities, craft, a movie that covers the same topic – or many other possibilities to your devotional time. But don’t obligate yourself to do something like that every time, or it’ll just hamper you starting. If you make the expectation just as simple as ‘let’s sit down together and read some Scripture and discuss it’, it’s really not too hard to get going.
Doing life together can (and should) be the context of ‘church’ for our kids. Family is where we learn and discover him intentionally together. Now is the perfect time to take hold of the mantle of ‘primary pastor’ for your kids, and enjoy being church together.