- “We used to have over a hundred children enrolled in our Sunday School program. Where have they all gone?”
- “I blame the parents. They should be bringing their children to church every Sunday.”
- “We have wonderful Sunday School and youth programs and a gifted church educator, but we just can’t seem to get enough children and youth to come on Sundays.”
- “I just don’t understand why our young adults aren’t coming back to church after they graduate from college like we did.”
Programs such as Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, Confirmation, and youth groups by their very nature isolate our children and youth from experiencing, observing, and engaging in Christian practices with the entire faith community. And conversely, they separate the rest of the faith community from connecting with the gifts of the children and youth on a regular basis.
Research is showing that young children who attend worship regularly with their parents or care givers, as well as other intergenerational events within their congregation, grow up making a faith connection at church a regular part of their lives, throughout their lives. This is because their young brains are learning how to assimilate these practices into their understanding of the culture they have been born into. And these connections, particularly between the ages of two and seven, are literally stuck in their subconscious for the rest of their lives, drawn upon when they make subconscious choices for how to live day to day.
The next question I then hear is, “But how do we integrate our children into worship (the most formative of Christian practices) without disrupting the experience for everyone else?” There are probably as many ways to do this as there are individual congregations, but the most effective one I’ve seen is the Pray-Ground.
What's a Pray-Ground?
If you have been a regular attender of our Super Saturday events over the past year and a half, you will have seen it at worship. A Pray-Ground is a designated place (on a rug or at a small table or in a front pew, etc.) in the front of the sanctuary (yes, the front — more on that in a minute) where young children can experience worship through age-appropriate worship materials and tools that will help keep them engaged in what is happening — materials such as children’s Bibles and storybooks, coloring/drawing materials, soft toys, Play-Doh and pipe cleaners and other manipulables, items related to the scripture theme such as smooth stones, feathers, shells, etc.
Why a Pray-Ground?
Think of them as an accommodation for a specific need, much like we offer large print bulletins, space for wheelchairs, and hearing assistance for others with specific needs in our congregations. Having the Pray-Ground located in the front allows the children to be able to see what is happening and truly feel a part of worship. I have heard consistent reports from those who put them in the back of the sanctuary that children are more apt to create their own, more noisy version of “worship” back there because they don’t feel a part of what is going on.
You may read more about Pray-Grounds and access some resources here and learn how they are working in other congregations, with benefits for both the children and the adults. I hope you will try this model of inclusiveness in your service of worship. Let your congregation, community, and children know that you value your children’s faith-forming experience at church.
Debbie Gline Allen is the part-time Christian Education & Youth Ministry Consultant for the Massachusetts Conference United Church of Christ.
Debbie Gline Allen is the Minister of Faith Formation, Youth and Families for the Southern New England Conference.