I have on my desk a letter dated May 25, 2006. The letter, written by a priest and addressed to his congregation, discusses the importance of children in the liturgy. In the letter, the priest mentions a lesson he learned in seminary that “no child should ever remember a time when he or she was not welcome in Church.” The letter continues to acknowledge that children and adults are at different developmental levels, and sometimes children make noises at inopportune times. In fact, sometimes they might even act up or cry. Sometimes their noises and behavior can even seem to interrupt the otherwise silence of the Eucharistic celebration. The letter sets forth examples of how parishioners might help parents of young children to feel welcome and comfortable. These suggestions include offering a loving smile to a parent of a noisy child or even offering a helping hand when a parent might feel overwhelmed. The letter concludes by reminding parents that they do need to ensure their children are not participating in dangerous or destructive behaviors, such as climbing on furniture or other horseplay. The final salutation reminds us that our youth, like adults, are beloved children of God and are indeed welcome and encouraged to participate fully in the Church and in the liturgy.
When I obtained this letter, I was overjoyed. Firstly, because I truly agree with the message the letter conveys. And secondly, because the author of the letter is the Rev. Harry Way and the recipients of the letter were parishioners at St. John’s. This letter, written nearly 20 years ago, demonstrates a long history of a parish policy welcoming children into the Church and encouraging them to participate. It makes sense that if a church wants to grow, then children are vital to that growth. What does that mean for us at St. John’s? It means that if we want our parish to grow (and we do!), then we need to continue to ensure that it is a place where all are welcome. In my ordination vows, I committed to care “alike for young and old” (BCP p. 531). As a Church, we remember the words of Jesus to his disciples when they tried to interfere with children meeting him. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs” (Mark 10:14). Like the song says, Jesus loves the little children. We love them, too.
If we wish to live into this mission of showing kids that they are loved, then one of our goals needs to be finding ways to attract new families with children to St. John’s. But what does that look like? The church I attended as a child did some things well and other things not so well. One of the things that my parish did well was to offer children opportunities to participate in ministry roles. We had three Sunday services. At one service, the adult choir sang. At another service, a folk choir sang. And at the final service, the children’s choir sang. At all three services, the altar servers were children from the parish. Usually four or five, but as many as eight, children served at the altar and assisted the priest. Once a month, the children from the school would serve as lectors. The school children also had a service every Friday. One of the things that church did not do well was use guilt and shame tactics to encourage people to attend. “If you miss a Sunday, then you’re in a state of mortal sin,” we were told. Well, who wants to be in a state of mortal sin? Not me!
Some churches in our community are quite successful when it comes to attracting young families. I suspect they are doing some things well and perhaps some things not so well. Personally, I believe the Episcopal Church has the best product in Christianity. Theologically speaking, I believe St. John’s truly is a place where everyone, regardless of their understanding of Christian theology, is welcome and at home. We don’t tell you you’re in a “state of mortal sin” if you miss a Sunday. We encourage deeper study and even questioning of what is taught. Everyone is welcome at the communion table and nothing brings me more joy than offering communion to a bright-eyed youngster with an ear-to-ear grin. At St. John’s we welcome everyone as they are. Hey, if you can make a priest feel welcome to show up in an aloha shirt, shorts, and sandals instead of clericals from time to time, then we can welcome just about anyone!
This Sunday, we will have a town hall meeting to discuss the needs of our youth program here at St. John’s. During this meeting, I will share some of my ideas and I invite you to bring yours. Although I have my own ideas, I also acknowledge that I am not a parent. My perspective as a non-parent might be different from your experience as a parent (or even as a young person!). I do have many memories from my childhood, but there is always the possibility that those are clouded by nostalgia or colored by subsequent experiences. In addition to attracting new families with young children, it is important to respect the needs of those parishioners who already call St. John’s their spiritual home. It is also important to stay flexible. As Robert Ludlum said, “blessed are the flexible, for they shall not allow themselves to become bent out of shape.”
What might this look like? I think we can build on what we are already doing well. St. John’s is a place where it is ok to have fun. What’s more fun than blowing bubbles during a baptism? Is anything more fun than wearing aloha shirts to a celebration of new ministry? I think it’s pretty darn fun to engage in water balloon fights after a service, to host wonderful art exhibits, and to showcase musical talents. It’s fun to take the Gospel seriously, but to refrain from taking ourselves too seriously. In the same passage of scripture quoted earlier, Jesus continues to say, “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:15). My hope is that we can all allow our inner child to make an appearance from time to time. We can ensure St. John’s is a fun, spiritually nurturing place for young and old. We can demonstrate a radical welcome that says you have a place ready for you at the table and we’ve been excitedly awaiting your arrival. We want our church to continue to grow. But more importantly, we want to make sure people of all ages leave here after having a real, tangible encounter with Jesus Christ.