On more than one occasion I overstepped the bounds of wisdom, even though I felt well within the bounds of my “rights” as a co-equal pastor with everyone else.
Our children were growing, both in age and number. The baby boom we experienced in the latter part of the previous decade had continued, and the kids who started it all were just beginning school. A few were even approaching the “tween” years. As they got older, families who would not have considered UBC in the early years because of a lack of friends for their kids began finding their way to us. This created several challenges.
With infants and toddlers, all a church really needs to do is provide a safe and nurturing space for them to be during the worship service, as well as caretakers who will speak to them the language of faith, introducing them to the love of God. But as they grow into early childhood, more intentional moments of teaching and discipleship are necessary. For our adults, these moments occurred during the Sunday morning worship service, as well as through Sunday School, Bible Studies and other small groups that met throughout the week. Up to this point, the only time we had for children to receive intentional spiritual formation was in classes held during the Sunday morning worship hour.
This gave rise to a question, one that most churches answer from their beginning, but we were just being confronted with: At what point do children join the adults of a church in the Sunday morning worship gatherings? The options for us, though multifaceted, basically boiled down to two: Continue to use the Sunday morning worship time for children’s formational activities, delaying their entrance into to worship services indefinitely, or integrating children into Sunday morning worship, and finding another time on Sundays or throughout the week for their more intentional discipleship activities?
The issue itself was a complex one, full of far-reaching implications for the future of UBC. If we decided to delay the age where children fully participated in the worship services, then at what age would that be? 10? 15? 18? If we had children in the worship services, then what about the distractions they would cause for the adults? And when would they receive more age-specific training in discipleship and formation? Would we put that time during the traditional “Sunday School hour,” (the time before the worship service,) when it is difficult for parents to get their young children to church, or sometime during the week, which would be just another activity on an already busy family calendar?
There was no easy answer.
But for us, it was extra complex. Not only did we have to contend with all the details and implications of the decision, we had to deal with an issue that became, over time, much more contentious than anything we had ever dealt with: Who decides?
In a traditional church the answer is fairly easy. There may be a lot of collaboration and conversation between parents, deacons, pastors and other contingencies within the church, but in the end the final decision on this subject would likely be made by a two-person team consisting of the person in charge of the children’s ministry, and the Senior Pastor. But we didn’t have a Senior Pastor, and the person in charge of our children’s ministry, Beth, was a part-time coordinator.
If it were any other issue, we would have all likely deferred to the pastor whose responsibilities most overlapped with the issue at hand. But what kind of issue was this? Was it a family issue? If so, then Josh, who was beginning to take on a greater role in ministering to all our new families, would have been the person to make the decision. Was it a worship issue for Tye, since a big part of what we were deciding was whether children would be in the worship service or not? Or was it a Spiritual Formation/Discipleship issue? If that were the case, then it would have been in my court.
We decided to host a town hall meeting with all interested “stakeholders”—parents, teachers, leaders, and really anyone interested in talking through the future of the children’s ministry at UBC. For some reason, probably because I angled myself for the job, I ended up being on stage with Josh to moderate the conversation. I knew I held a minority position, but one which I held (and still hold) strongly.
I believe that children who are physically and cognitively capable of making an attempt to be still and listen, regardless of how successful they may actually be at it, should be in the entire worship service along with the rest of the church, and that intentional teaching and formation times should exist outside of that time on Sunday mornings. (I actually believe babies should be in the service as well, but I know that is far more controversial.) Though I do believe that our whole lives are to be ones of worship, I think the fullest expression of worship is when the local church, with all its participants, cradle to curmudgeon, gathers to proclaim the story of God’s creative and redemptive work in the world, through song, hearing Scripture, and ritual. I believe children internalize God’s story by participating in worship, and adults learn how to more fully worship in spite of “distractions” when young people are there.
Others believe it is important that a child be capable of some basic understanding of what is happening in a worship service before they become full participants. Corporate worship, for those who hold this view, is largely concerned with cognitive activity. Kids, for those who hold to this view, can have their own version of worship services through “children’s church” and can even participate occasionally in “big church,” but their continual presence would be fruitless for them, and a burden for the adults. Not to mention the fact that parents need a place to receive teaching and encouragement away from their children.
(This issue of children in worship is complex, and one that many faithful, thoughtful followers of Christ have disagreed on. Because of the side of the fence I land on, I recognize that I have probably over-simplified the view of those who disagree with me. )
I wish I could say the sole reason I wanted to moderate this discussion was so my view, which I knew was a minority one, would receive a fair hearing. That was part of it. I did believe that what I was pushing for was less about children in worship than it was about our identity as a church that embraces messy, inefficient and beautiful ways of a congregation unconcerned with convention. If I didn’t represent my view (which was held by a few others,) then I don’t believe it would have been given the consideration it was. The strongest voices would have dominated, and we very likely would have put ourselves on a path to having no one under the age of 18 in the worship services. (I know that is an extreme reading of the possibilities, but there are reasons to believe this would have happened.)
But giving my view a fair hearing wasn’t the only, or even the primary reason I wanted to control the conversation.
I also wanted a win.
I was very influenced by the values of the Emerging Church movement, which was a reaction to the ways in which many institutional churches had acquiesced to the suppositions of modernity. One of those suppositions is that in any conversation there will always be winners and losers. A postmodern understanding of faith is capable of living in the tensions of disagreement, figuring out ways coexist and thrive amongst a plethora of different views, and even of submitting in humility to decisions you disagree with, without living under a system where the the strongest voices win.
But I wanted to win.
In the end, a compromise was made. We decided that we would have age-appropriate activities for children through the age of six during the Sunday morning worship time. Kids from ages seven through eleven would sit through the musical portions of worship, then would be dismissed during the sermon for their own time with a teacher outside of the sanctuary. Twelve and up would be in the service.
But in fighting so hard for a win, I think I lost a little of my voice on that day, ironically, because mine was the loudest in the room. I was rude. I cut off people who disagreed with me. I tried to get people to come around to my way of thinking by “teaching” them the theological and ecclesiological reasons undergirding my thinking. I was dismissive of real concerns.
And then there was another tiny little matter at hand: I was not a parent, and I was trying to teach parents about how the faith development of their children should work. It’s here where I completely missed the boat between how I believe things should be, and how they actually are. I get a little defensive about this, but I think with good reason. In just about every other area of human interaction and relationships, when a judgment about “best outcomes” needs to be made, we often look to someone whose situation in life allows them to be more objective than us. There’s a reason it is considered ethically irresponsible for a surgeon to operate on a family member, and why people who have suffered violence and abuse are often dismissed from juries on cases dealing with violence and abuse. Sometimes the very nearness that makes us experts on a situation is the same nearness that can cloud our vision.
I’m obviously not saying that parents should not have a voice, or even that their voices shouldn’t have prominence in situations involving their children. But all too often the capable voices of people who don’t have children are dismissed outright because of their status in life.
But things are as they are, and a more wise, single and childless pastor would have navigated those waters differently than I did. I got my win (or, more accurately, a “half-win,”) but I think I lost a little respect in the process. And this incident was one of many that set the stage for turmoil ahead.