The local assembly that I've had the privilege of serving alongside for the last nearly six years tries to cut against the grain by not catering to any one demographic but intentionally seeking to be intergenerational in our approach to community, discipleship, and worship. With regards to kids, this means that we don’t view worship as an “adult activity” and then shove off our kids to do crafts in the basement.
In the last twenty years or so, developmental theory has greatly influenced the church in how her children are nurtured in the faith. New approaches to corporate children’s education are manifesting themselves in new kinds of curricula and kids’ programming that take into account the developmental stages of children.
You can imagine that, at a church like ours, we have lots of healthy, passionate conversations on staff and leadership levels about how our kids are engaging or not engaging our worship services. When we wrestle through feelings that our kids are not engaging, the first card that usually gets flipped is the child development card. “Kids are just not at a point in their development to be able to grasp and imbibe certain aspects of our worship (preaching is often mentioned here),” we say. Responding to this, churches often adopt one of three postures: (1) too bad, the kids stay in and hopefully learn to “grow into” it; (2) have the kids depart the service for some or all of the time for a more age-appropriate activity; or (3) change an aspect (or, in rare cases, all) of the service to be more kid-friendly.
All of this, however, hinges on a certain understanding of learning which is challenged by James K. A. Smith in his book, Desiring the Kingdom. Firstly, what if we owned up to the fact that some, or even much, of Christian worship is not something that kids can fully grasp at their stage of development, and that worship for them is just “going through the motions?” But, secondly, what if we had a learning theory broad enough to include “going through the motions” as a strong and valuable part of the formational process of learning?
In other words, what if our kids are shaped by the acts, structure, and flow of worship (including the sermon) even if they don’t understand it all? What if the rote prayers, the stand-up-sit-down, the confession, the Doxology, the singing, the Call to Worship, the reading and preaching of the Scriptures, and Communion have a formative quality to them not only as they are understood cognitively (which is important for the most full-orbed experience, by the way) but also as they are enacted by the people of God?
It is important also to keep in mind that worship is best understood on the order of action, not reflection; worship is something that we do. And even if we don’t think about it in this reflective way—and even if some of us (children, the mentally handicapped) can’t think about it in this way—the core claim of this book is that the practices of Christian worship do this work nonetheless because of the kind of creatures we are. The practices carry their own understanding that is implicit with them, and that understanding can be absorbed and imbibed in our imaginations without having to kick into a mode of cerebral reflection. Reflection certainly deepens the doing; but the point is that there is always more happening: our imagination is being formed in ways that we are not (and perhaps cannot be) aware of.1
Smith goes on in a footnote to admit what is implicit here, namely, that “the motions” are valuable in and of themselves:
I recognize that some might be uncomfortable with this claim, since it seems to suggest that there can be some sort of virtue in “going through the motions.” On this point I’m afraid I have to confess that I do indeed think this is true. While it is not ideal, I do think that there can be a sort of implanting of the gospel that happens simply by virtue of participating in liturgical practices.”2
It is not that developmental theory and important educational concepts like learning styles are unimportant. It is that they are incomplete when it comes to asking the question about how worship forms us and our kids. We need to be able to reframe the questions we ask when we’re evaluating the kid-friendly nature of our worship services. Sure, our kids will say they’re bored, and many, if not most, couldn’t regurgitate the propositional content of the form and elements of the worship service. Sure, this is something that goes on in the life of a child for a long, long time. Nevertheless, we have now seen that it is probably making a big, unqualified leap to say that, because of this, our kids aren’t “getting” anything out of worship and should therefore be somewhere else.
The only thing left to ask is, How do we apply this in a cultural age where parents expect to have a certain kind of worship experience without their kids? How does this work when, in our consumer-oriented climate, parents who are visiting a church will decide yea or nay on staying there based on how much they had to “fuss with” their kids in worship versus how much they were able to shove them off so that they could have their ideal experience? Whew…important questions…for another post.