Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Guest Post: A Baby's First Year in the Church

Today's guest post is from Sarah Douglas at the Spiritual Child Network, one of my go-to websites for ideas and inspiration. Sarah writes this about herself: "I am a children's minister, working as a volunteer in a small Anglican village church. This involves me in co-leading All Age Worship and taking a group of children for Junior Church. I also lead a preschool service and lead Godly Play and a lunchtime club in a local school each week. I am especially interested in All Age Worship, working in schools and finding ways around the particular problems of small churches with few facilities. I am married with three children and work part-time as a teacher." Sarah's post chronicles the first year in the life of a baby in their congregation. Reading this made me smile so much and long to be a part of welcoming everyone, regardless of age and ability, to worship God. Unfortunately, many of my own church experiences have not been this welcoming to young children and especially babies. May Sarah and Penelope remind us that each and every person in the Body of Christ is important and has something to contribute.

A Year with Penelope

Penelope is the youngest of a family of four, who come along regularly to our family services.    Her brothers and sister are used to taking an active part in our services, which take place in the round and have been influenced by the principles and practices of Godly Play. This reflection started when I noticed how absorbed three month old Penelope was in what was going on in our services.  It led me to wonder:  Who do we consider to be part of the church? Is anyone too young to be part of the worshipping community?  

4 weeks: Penelope’s first visit to church was unremarkable – she slept throughout!

8 weeks: However her next visit to church was in a starring role.  It was Mothering Sunday and we acted three scenes to show the story of Hannah.  Penelope’s mother was Hannah and the first scene showed her childless at the Temple at Shiloh being confronted by the priest Eli.  Our second scene was after the birth of baby Samuel, where Hannah tells her husband that she will not go to Shiloh again until she goes to take Samuel.  Hannah walked down the aisle with Penelope showing everyone the baby she thought she would never have.  Penelope clearly loved the attention she was getting and responded happily to everyone’s smiles of welcome.

Three months: After Easter we were back to our ordinary twice monthly family services which are very visual and interactive.  Penelope was awake for these services; she would sit on mum’s or dad’s knee and watch everything, completely absorbed in what was going on.  As she was awake we offered her a shaker or bells during the hymns and Penelope’s five year old sister made sure she joined in with the songs and music.

Eight months: We had quite a long gap over the summer and by the time we came back Penelope was crawling.  No longer happy just to sit and watch she wanted to crawl off. Because of the nature of our service everyone was happy for Penelope to crawl around – when she started towards other areas of the church someone would field her and bring her back.  On one occasion the worship leader fielded her and sat with Penelope on her knee during the Bible reading.

Nine months: When Penelope was given a shaker she didn’t just shake it but rocked backwards and forwards to the music.  During our time of confession the children take symbols up to the altar (a tin of beans, a cup of water, a picture of friendship).  When the children gathered round in readiness to take up the symbols, Penelope crawled over to join them.  I found myself saying, “Sorry Penelope, you need to be able to walk.”  But afterwards I thought – does she?   Penelope thought she should join in everything – loud moans when she was sat on her parent’s knee during the creed – she wanted to go and look at the candles that were being lit by the older children. 

Twelve months: We had another long gap at Christmas which was taken up with the Christingle, the Nativity play and the Crib service.  Penelope was a little over one when she came back to family services.  She was still determined to join in – and to sit on the floor with the other children rather than on her parents’ knee.  She was now confident enough to join the others and play with some of the toys in the children’s area while the adult talk was going on.  The Godly Play stories fascinated her and she would sit quietly on someone’s knee (providing this was at floor level!) to watch.

But is this worship? Worship for me involves coming close to God and my own response to Him.  Sometimes I am on my own, perhaps walking along a beach, at others I am in church, a member of the worshipping community.  

We can never tell how close a person is to God but it seems unlikely that the God we worship does not come close to small wordless children simply because they cannot speak.  In some ways words confuse our relationship with God, we may always be so intent on explaining everything and defining our terms that we limit him.  Small children often seem able to take a short cut and bypass words.  They dance with ribbons to express their joy, watch intensely as the candles are lit and hold out their hands for the bread.   

It seems to me important that Penelope was accepted as part of our worshipping community.  This was symbolised for me on the occasion when the worship leader picked her up and sat with her on her knee during the Bible reading. She became “the child in the midst”.  Penelope belonged in the circle of worshippers, and everyone there simply accepted this.  In particular her brothers and sister clearly considered it important that from very early on Penelope should have the same opportunities for joining in worship that they did and made sure she was included in everything that was going on.  Perhaps we took our lead from them?

Baby Penelope watched and responded to our worship from a surprisingly young age.  She prompted me to start rethinking what we do when very young children and babies are present.

Sarah Douglas


  1. Thanks for this, Sarah. I like the idea of a rattle or bell during hymns, and think I would cope even with loud moans amidst a congregational response such as the creed. But I notice that you haven't said anything about noise (or silence?) during quieter parts of the service!

    I *am* struck that not only is your congregation accepting of children, but Penelope's family is also accepting of the congregation's corporate care of their baby. I have been in situations where I'd have liked to pick up a straying child to say, "We stay in this part of the church right now", but was too frightened of what the parents' reaction might be.

    Thanks, Sheila, for hosting this thought-provoking guest post!

    1. Very good question, Storyteller, about the noise level and I'll be curious to hear Sarah's response. The times that I have tried a "Pray and Play" sort of thing in adult church have always been the most stressful for me due to the noise factor.

    2. I think it's so wonderful that Sarah's congregation has learned to somehow worship "around" a little extra noise.

    3. Hi Sheila and Storyteller
      I think some of this is because we hold our service in the round. Also when the children are in, they are involved - taking round stones for confession, lighting candles for the creed, dancing with ribbons during the hymns, writing prayer leaves. There is plenty for a baby to watch.
      Having said that we do have about 20 minutes when the children go out - either for wondering and response or for the babies and little children to the Pray and Play toys in the nave. (The adults have an adult talk, reflection and intercessions.) This gives both groups a breathing space. We come back together for the creed, the prayer tree and the Lord's Prayer and the closing hymn.
      We do have weeks when the children are completely hyper and the adults find it hard to cope. It feels tense. And yet the following week the same children will be peaceful, reverential and focussed... As we have no hall or rooms in the church we have had to get used to hearing each other - though it took time - at least a couple of years.
      I think the trust that exists within the congregation is one of the advantages of worshipping in a small village church where people tend to know each other - though we do welcome visitors!

    4. Thanks, Sarah, for coming back to reply. It's reassuring to know that sometimes it works better and sometimes not so well. I love reading about all the different ways that children can participate in your services!