Every day I become more convinced: the greatest crisis in the Episcopal Church has nothing to do with human sexuality. It has nothing to do with prayer book revision. It has nothing to do with “restructuring” the church or the bureaucracy at 815. If anything is going to sink our ship, it’s this: children. Yes, children. Or lack thereof, to be precise.

In most churches I’ve visited, I’ve gotten the sense that no one knows quite what to do with these little creatures who tend to accompany their parents on Sunday mornings. There are generally two strategies for dealing with children who, for whatever reason, find themselves in a place of worship.

The first is to remove them as far as possible from the “main event” where the adults are gathered. The motivation behind this strategy is likely some combination of the following sentiments: children don’t want to be there; they can’t understand what’s taking place; worship is an activity for grownups.

The second strategy is to “accommodate” children by throwing in bits of kid stuff into the liturgy. Perhaps a children’s homily is offered now and then, or maybe a time of special music when the kids can go up to the front and sing for their parents. (I would be remiss if I failed to pause here and point to Ben Myers’s excellent reflections on this topic. In fact, if you have time to read only one thing today, stop reading this post and go read his.)

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The second strategy is undoubtedly nobler than the first. It at least attempts to integrate these little ones into the principal service, however imperfectly. Yet, so often, what we offer them is little more than the ecclesial equivalent of Kidz Bop. For those blissfully unaware, Kidz Bop consists of children singing Billboard Hot 100 pop songs, including “All About That Bass” and “Wrecking Ball.” My friend Lance Higdon, a musician and a father, was recently interviewed by the Houston Press, and he had this to say about Kidz Bop:

Traditional children’s songs teach kids to love nature and embrace being silly, which in turn teaches them how to be both confident and vulnerable. Kidz Bop obliterates that precious, limited time in order to make children (and their parents) yet another marketing demographic, consuming innocuous fluff at best and deeply damaging subtexts at worst. I’m not opposed to pop music on principle, but that calculated destruction of a time in your life that is so formative and totally irreplaceable. That’s more satanic to me than any Slayer CD.

Of course, there’s nothing overtly sinister about trying to entertain our kids in church. But Lance’s observations raise an important concern, namely, just how easy it is to succumb to the marketing forces that surround us every day. And this is precisely where many American churches are so oblivious. We fail to recognize that our children live on a battlefield of competition for their imaginations. This is not an alarmist statement; I’m not necessarily referring to the “evil” influences that are out there in the world. I mean simply that the market forces in Western culture are powerful enough such that young adults will eventually ask (and are already asking) themselves whether it is really worthwhile to go to church at all. Will they have a compelling reason to say “yes”? Perhaps in 1950 parents could safely assume that their children were likely to be churchgoers when they grew up. Such is no longer the case.

What’s startling to me is how infrequently I hear anyone express concern about this. Granted, most people involved in church leadership are well aware that church attendance (especially in mainline churches) in Europe and the U.S. is in rapid decline, whether in their local setting or on a widespread scale. Occasionally, I’ll hear anxiety expressed about keeping “young people” (which usually refers to the high school or college aged) in church. But by this point, many of those same young people are craving independence for the very reason that they can avoid being dragged to church by their parents on Sunday mornings. What seems to be flying under the radar is the fact that the Church is failing to capture the imaginations of her younger children. Some months ago, our own Victoria Heard showed us the data behind this observation, before concluding, “Churches without noisy, learning children are preparing for the grave.”

I acknowledge that now I’m conflating two distinct concerns. On the one hand, we ought to heed what the numbers are showing us. We want the Church to survive as an institution, and it won’t if our own children walk away from it when they become adults. On the other hand, we ought to recognize that we as the Church have an inherent duty to present the Christian faith to our children in a compelling way and to give them something other than what the world has to offer. But the fact is that the remedy to both of these problems is one and the same.

It would be presumptuous of me to offer some sort of master plan for recapturing our children’s imaginations. Even if I were capable of offering such a strategy to the Church, it would still not do justice to the myriad ways in which children’s imaginations are molded in our contemporary context. One would need to address general approaches to education and parenting, among other things.

Instead, I offer the following as a staring point: our children are human beings, made in the image of God. Failure to recognize this is to neglect Christ’s words that we were proclaimed last Sunday: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:37 NRSV). We should also consider something that marketing teams have known for a long time: children are capable of much more than we give them credit for. They are capable of intuiting and understanding complex ideas, and they often surprise us by making connections that their elders fail to make.

I would further suggest that removing children from the principle act of worship – even for “good” reasons, such as catechesis – does more harm than good. Children are not computers that can simply be programmed by inputting the correct data. They need to live the Christian drama week in and week out, just as we all do. As philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe once observed while describing the pedagogical effects of the liturgy:

[A child] learns in the best possible way: as part of an action; as concerning something going on before it; as actually unifying and connecting beliefs, which is clearer and more vivifying than being taught only later, in a classroom perhaps, that we have all these beliefs.

If we want our children to believe the Christian faith, then perhaps we also ought to let them live the Christian faith – in all their noisy, non-linear, God-given ways.

Stewart Clem’s other posts may be found here. The featured image was supplied by the author. 

Jody Howard wrote a similar post this time last year: “Do not hinder them.” Emily Hylden also wrote on “The Future of the Church.” 

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Stewart Clem is assistant professor of moral theology and director of the Ashley-O’Rourke Center for Health Ministry Leadership at Aquinas Institute of Theology in St. Louis, Missouri.

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