Childlike Is Not Childish: An Approach to Worship
Lolimarta Ros Reiter
Loli Reiter is the pastor at the Presbyterian Church of Seffner in Florida, where she partners in ministry with her kinfolk in Christ and shares a happy life with husband, John, and their two daughters.
What better way to understand ourselves as Christians and children of God, than to acknowledge our need for each other and the importance of our connection to one another?
Faith needs imagination to be able to perceive what it means to be forgiven unequivocally, so we can forgive others in turn. Faith needs imagination to be able to perceive what it means to be loved unconditionally, so we can love others as Christ calls us. Faith needs imagination to be able to perceive what it means to bear witness to the reign of God, so we can live lives seeking the justice of God’s kingdom of peace.
I wonder, are we progressing in building the reign of God here on earth as in heaven? Are we moving forward in our quest to make the world better? Are we working for justice and for the well-being of all? Or are we on a carousel, repeating the same historical mistakes over and over again?
We were on a weekend church retreat, and that night at worship I found out my dad was going to be sent to Colombia as a missionary. When my parents went up to the front for prayer, I felt very alone in the pew. No one had asked for my opinion about this! Nobody told me anything about this! And while everyone around me was celebrating and praising God for this great new ministry, all I could think about was my dad being sent to a dangerous country far, far away.
So, while everyone had their eyes closed in prayer and praise, I went outside. It was peaceful and quiet, and the night air was cool. I looked up at the stars, working up my courage. Then I put my hands on my hips and prayed out loud for the first time in my life. No one could hear me from inside anyway since the music had begun and people were all worked up in the Spirit. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but I know I demanded that God take care of my dad. I remember reciting a verse from Psalm 91, “On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” It was one we memorized in Sunday school. I added emphasis by saying, “Not one toe, God! Not one toe!” I closed my prayer with “. . . please . . . in Jesus’ name, Amen.” I was five years old.
As I reflect on that memory, I am grateful for a number of things. My family, both at church and at home, had taught me that as a child I could approach God on my own, that I could intercede on behalf of others, that I could depend on God’s promises to us and expect God to keep them, and that God’s word was in my head and in my heart. I am grateful, but I also feel a little guilty, because now I am the mother and pastor. Have I provided my kids with these same tools and convictions? Have we as a church provided our children with sufficient opportunities to learn, talk about, use, and keep God’s word in their heads and their hearts? I do not believe that the nondenominational church that nurtured me in those early years had read many books on the theology of the child or Christian education, but they did something right by empowering me to claim the promises of the faith as my very own so early on and by helping me to recognize that I had access to God just like anyone else.
Children have what Dr. Lisa Miller calls an “inborn natural spirituality.” In her book The Spiritual Child, she observes that from birth we are hardwired to be in a “transcendent relationship,” a dynamic dialogue with a higher power, and she reports a number of studies to back this up.1 I hope this is not news to the Christian community. In the Reformed tradition, we affirm that God’s covenant with God’s people extends to all people, including our children, the moment they are born. It is helpful, though, to have information from other fields of study to support this claim. Miller’s studies reveal that giving attention to our spirituality during the developments of the first two decades of our lives becomes an integral part of our mental health and overall wellness. This is particularly true during puberty and adolescence, when we see a surge in spiritual awareness and a deep capacity to understand the inner spiritual life.2
In recent years, particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more focus has been placed on the mental health of our young people. As a society, we may be more aware of the surge in cases of anxiety and depression in youth, but we still seem to feel unequipped to handle it. As a church, how can we help them remember and claim the love for each of them revealed in Christ’s incarnation? How can we help them to feel the hope of the resurrection knowing that abundant life, not death, has the final say?
Everyone seems to say they want children and youth as part of their church community, but we have to ask ourselves why. Is it for adornment, because children are cute, and they make it look like our church still has some life in her? Are we afraid that liveliness is scarce? Is it because children remind us of the way things used to be? Or do we want more children and youth for our own enjoyment, because they do say the darndest things, and they look so angelic when they sing Christmas carols? None of these are good reasons. None of these reasons indicate that we believe children are full members of God’s covenant community, nor do they recognize children as God’s people and recipients of Christ’s salvation. God has given children gifts and abilities to serve the church and build God’s kingdom, too. Theologian Marcia Bunge observes that children are thinking beings and can do for themselves; they have growing moral capacities, spiritual questions, and experiences of their own to share.3
In her edited volume Child Theology: Diverse Methods and Global Perspectives, Bunge gathers theologians from all over the world and from different Christian traditions whose work focuses on what has come to be called child theology, a discourse that considers theology from a childlike perspective. She recognizes that these theologians share similarities with feminist, womanist, Black, Dalit, and liberation theologians who recognize “the dignity and full humanity of a group of people who are often voiceless, marginalized or exploited.”4 The popular saying “Children are better seen, not heard” has greatly influenced the way children are treated and understood in our society, even if it is not often used today in those exact words. Children are not often given a trusted seat at the table or received as full persons in a room. Statistically, children also make up the largest percentage of victims of abuse and poverty. Children fit the description of a marginalized and exploited demographic whose voices are not always heard.
What would it look like if the perspectives and ideas of children were not just heard in our nurseries and Sunday schools, but also at session meetings, in finance and stewardship committee meetings, and in our worship planning? What if their voices were present all year round all across the church, not just on youth Sunday? Are we making space and creating opportunities for children to fully live out their baptismal identity and call? Do we provide spaces where the imago Dei in each child’s perspective can better inform our understanding of God and God’s will for us? My hope is to explore a couple of examples that show how child theology can enrich our worship practices so we may better be the church in the world today.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom
of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matt. 18:1–5).
Dr. Perry Hamalis is a professor of religious studies at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, and an ordained elder in the Eastern Orthodox Church. In his essay “Reclaiming the Virtue of Humility through a Child-Inclusive Lens,” he seeks to rethink and reevaluate the way we approach the Christian virtue of humility using a child-inclusive perspective.5 Though Dr. Hamalis does not mention interviewing children to gain his perspective in this particular essay, he does raise a valid point that children are vulnerable and dependent. Of course, the danger of asking those who are most vulnerable to practice humility is that it may promote passive acceptance of the inequalities they experience. Indeed, the church has been criticized for its misuse of the virtue, but here Hamalis references Matthew 18 to help us think of humility in a different way.
The presence of this child among the disciples in this narrative not only teaches them who enters the kingdom of heaven but also shows them who is the greatest. This child does not seem to be concerned with status or with holding a place of honor. The child is simply concerned with being a child, dependent on others for survival. Could Jesus be calling our attention to our fundamental need for each other? For Hamalis, Jesus’ claim in Matthew 18 means that our connection to each other is not just nice, it is necessary. “In other words, Jesus’ statement, ‘unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 18:3), can be rephrased as, ‘unless you change your mindset of self-sufficiency and acknowledge your need for God and neighbor, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’”6
In Christ’s incarnation, he needed Mary and Joseph and his community to survive as an infant and as a child. What better way to understand ourselves as Christians and children of God, than to acknowledge our need for each other and the importance of our connection to one another? If we take this understanding of humility and examine our liturgical practices in light of it, we’ll find fertile ground for growth opportunities. While liturgy is, at its best, the work of the people, I often worry that once the people find their pew on Sunday morning, worship does not, in fact, involve much connection with others. We sing and share prayers together, but for the most part we are looking at our bulletins with our gazes locked in the forward position. What if we took some time to reimagine the elements of worship to be more interactive?
What if our practices in worship made space to bring our hopes, fears, struggles, gifts, and strengths to God, not just privately but in the community of faith, enabling us to support, celebrate, and partner with one another? Yes, I can already see some of my church members squirming, but I find that when children are involved in fresh ways to enact worship, people become a lot more receptive to new ideas, surprised by the wisdom children bring. Of course, this is not the reason to include children. We include children because they are full, participating members of the covenant and recipients of Christ’s salvation. Increasing receptivity to inclusion in the congregation is the icing on the cake.
We can make our proclamations of the word, our sermons, more interactive by finding those places in Scripture that lend themselves to the spiritual practice of wondering. Take the narrative in Matthew 18, for example, in which Jesus welcomes a child in response to the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt. 18:1). Part of the sermon could include an invitation to the children or youth present to wonder: “I wonder how that child felt? Do you think that child was happy to have that attention or scared to have that attention? What do you think this child did to be used as a good example by Jesus? When have you or one of your friends done something that made Jesus happy—something he may even use as a “good example”? I wonder if Jesus was lifting this child up as a good example because of something they did or simply because they were a child very much loved by God?”
The narrative nature of Scripture provides us with plenty of opportunities to wonder and imagine, “What if that was me? What would I do in that situation? What would my actions be like? Is that what God calls me to do?” We need to work on asking good questions with answers that are not always “yes,” “no,” or “Jesus.” Invite children and their families to discuss questions at home and then share in worship what they discovered. Email a family or two asking if they would be willing to discuss a question at home and share in worship what they discovered. On Baptism of the Lord Sunday, for example, invite children and their families to share pictures and stories with the congregation of what has been told to them about their baptism. During Advent, ask families to pick a Nativity set or a special ornament that has to do with the theme for that Sunday and to share its meaning. During special holy celebrations and on all the ordinary days in between, how can we make opportunities in which children are invited to surprise us, to deepen our awareness of what connects us, all that we share in common, and how much we truly do need one another?
Child theologies can also help the church better appreciate the gift children have for using their imagination. This gift is particularly important to the church as it seeks to enact the reign of God in the world. In his essay in “Reimagining Hope with and Like Children,” Dirk J. Smit highlights the power of children’s imaginations to visualize what is not or is not yet. He references theologians in South Africa and other African contexts who look to children’s powerful use of imagination as a model for Christian eschatological hope.7 Children pretend and create “alternative” realities, and they put these realities into practice. This becomes a way to think about Christian practices of visualizing and actualizing the promises of deliverance through years of suffering and struggle. As Smit writes, “[These theologians] honored, engaged, and listened to children as well as incorporated childlike knowing and hoping into their works and actions as they imagined and worked toward a better tomorrow.”8
Reflecting on the meditation “This Is Our Comfort” by W. D. Jonker, Smit writes about another way that childlike knowing can influence our theology. He references the painful experiences of family and friends with a loved one who has dementia or other illness that affects cognitive abilities. He assures us that “belonging to God does not depend on our knowledge of God.”9 Though it references an experience toward the end of life, this idea echoes Reformed understandings of infant baptism: God has claimed us before we know God. God claims us in all the seasons of our lives, whether or not we are conscious of ourselves, of others, or even of God. “The hand of God over us when we were born is also over us when our consciousness ebbs. This is our comfort.”10 We didn’t know God when we were babies, but God knew us. Our loved ones may not recognize us or themselves anymore, but God knows them. God watches their coming and going into whatever states of consciousness they experience. They are not alone. God is present.
It is not a comfort unless we believe it. The assurance that God’s hand is over us, regardless of our ability to recognize it, comes from faith, and faith requires imagination. Faith needs imagination to be able to perceive what it means to be forgiven unequivocally, so we can forgive others in turn. Faith needs imagination to be able to perceive what it means to be loved unconditionally, so we can love others as Christ calls us. Faith needs imagination to be able to perceive what it means to bear witness to the reign of God, so we can live lives seeking the justice of God’s kingdom of peace. Imagination makes it possible for us to live into God’s promises now. These promises may not be fulfilled, but we trust they are as good as done because God made them—this is already and not yet. Knowing like children and hoping like children empowers the church to live out what it means to be assured of things hoped for and enables us to be convinced of things we have yet to see. We enact the reign of God not by future-casting and fortune-telling but by remembering God’s promises in the words of prophets, fulfilled in Christ, and manifested in the endurance and growth of the church in all corners of the world.
The sacraments offer particular opportunities to practice a child-inclusive approach and live into child theologies. How do we incorporate the creative power of imagination into our celebrations of the sacraments, where much of our talk about God’s coming reign takes place? Churches may already have opportunities outside the worship service for education on the sacraments, but what are some ways we can empower children to be a part of the celebration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper in worship? Passover prayers in Jewish traditions incorporate questions asked by children who are present. While we have to be careful not to appropriate from traditions that are not our own, I wonder if we might take influence from the Seder’s inclusion of children by including children in writing the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving or other liturgies. Children’s voices can also become part of the writing of liturgy. At communion we thank God, we remember Jesus, we ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we proclaim the coming of the kingdom. These movements in the communion liturgy can become teaching tools in Sunday school classes. Teachers might invite children to list things they are grateful for that God has made, share some of the things they remember Jesus doing when he was here on earth, and imagine the kind of world God intends through the Holy Spirit. We can ask, “What are some of the things God will give us and what are some things God will take away to make the world be like heaven?” These reflections could be incorporated into the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving the following week.
Baptism is also a great place to involve children as we are all formed in our understanding of and participation in building the kingdom of God, a world where there is justice and peace. I think it is important to give kids a “front-row seat” to each baptism so that they can more effectively participate in the liturgy and be reminded of their role as “big siblings” in Christ for the newly baptized. What if we gave each child and the parents of the baptized child little wooden blocks with the phrase “builders of the kingdom”? We would share with them that at baptism we are reminded that God claimed and chose each of us to be builders of the kingdom of God here and now, working to make the world a better place. You can also invite youth to come to the front during a baptism and ask them to share what kind of world they would like their new sibling in Christ to live in.
I’ve recently started struggling with some of the challenges of middle age in regard to my body, my mind, and my outlook on life. The recognition that I’m getting old plus the ongoing stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic, the warring madness of the political landscape in this country, and constant news of tragedies all over the world have left me in a funk. I wonder, are we progressing in building the reign of God here on earth as in heaven? Are we moving forward in our quest to make the world better? Are we working for justice and for the well-being of all? Or are we on a carousel, repeating the same historical mistakes over and over again? Recently, I remembered a conversation I had with my then twelve-year-old daughter. She overheard a conversation in which, out of my weariness at structural and systemic racism, I shared with someone that I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to solve the problem of racism. My daughter asked in the car ride home, “Mom, do you really believe that?” (She doesn’t seem to hear me when I tell her to pick up her folded laundry, but she caught that!) I backpaddled and tried to talk my way around it, but she eventually said, “Well, I think we will be able to one day solve that problem. We will live in an equal world.” I got a little choked up and said, “You are right! That’s what the Bible says.”
Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it (John 14:12–14).
I believe one of the gifts that children and youth bring to our world and our church is that they believe this. They believe that things can be different and better, and they will play a part in it. They can imagine a better way that is not tied to convention or limited by “the way we’ve always done things.” How do we make spaces in our worship and our church life for these wise younger prophets to challenge and inspire us with the message God places in their hearts and minds for the church today?
- Lisa Miller, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2015), 53.
- Miller, The Spiritual Child, 67.
- Marcia J. Bunge, ed., Child Theology: Diverse Methods and Global Perspectives (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2021), 20.
- Bunge, Child Theology, 15.
- Perry Hamalis, “Reclaiming the Virtue of Humility through a Child-Inclusive Lens,” in Bunge, Child Theology, 182.
- Hamalis, “Reclaiming the Virtue of Humility,” 187.
- Dirk J. Smit, “Reimagining Hope with and Like Children,” in Bunge, Child Theology, 241.
- Smit, “Reimagining Hope,” 242.
- Smit, “Reimagining Hope,” 250.
- Smit, “Reimaging Hope,” 250.