Monday, December 31, 2007

Eves Dropping

Late yesterday evening, I received an e-mail from Christopher, a deep-thinking theologian and friend, asking for reflections from those of us in the church who have children. He was interested in our response to a curious post, "on what is and what is possible" over at Thomas's Journal, suggesting that children ought to be better disciplined to attend late Christmas Eve services in the name of teaching them that Christianity "costs" something. Christopher's response is here.

Christopher generously urged me to post my thoughts, so I posted them to the thread under the original post, and here they are, in a more edited and expanded form:

Who is to pay the "cost" of attending late-night masses: the children who get bored and difficult, or the parents who force them to sit still through the midnight service?

While I tend to agree with Brother Tom's general idea (Christianity costs something) I disagree about where he directs this concern, particularly at children.

My son this year gave up two Sunday early afternoons to practice being a shepherd for our 4 p.m. Christmas Eve pageant. He learned more about the Christmas story and the joy and preparation that comes with it, I am sure, with other children, re-telling the story, and then sharing in Eucharist, than in only sitting. . . fatigued. . through a much later and less frenetic (for a four-year-old) Christmas Eve service.

This past Sunday, the "Low Sunday" after Christmas no less, a neighbor who recently began coming with her two children was smiling with delight following our 10 a.m. worship. She had e-mailed me about halfway through Advent asking if she might bring her children to join in the pageant rehearsals, already under way. I said, "Of course!" "
They've been back every regular worship since.

This morning, her 8-year-old showed me a drawing of people in worship with, "yay church!" written all over it. He was beaming ear to ear. I was stunned, as this was particularly surprising in a town, county, and region of the country that is known for its militant secularism.

He said he insists on coming every week now. His mother nodded and admitted her children are the driving reason she makes provision each Sunday for church.

I don't think it's always true that adults need to teach children about sacrificing to attend church. Quite the reverse may well also be true - perhaps more so!

More broadly, I am not entirely sure "cost" is appropriate as a theological premise or a spiritual discipline, particularly when it comes to joining actively in the worship and mission of the Body of Christ. I think it might be more compelling to argue that God's desire is that we give up mammon for grace, "bread and circuses" for the true bread which came down from heaven -- not because the "sacrifice" builds "character" -- but because the latter truly nourishes us and our neighbors as people made in the image of the Divine. Mammon, constructed as it can be upon violence and greed more often will leave us empty and alone, especially if it is central in our lives.
While I eschew church consumerism, if our people are bored or feel truly unfed or malnourished by "church," that is partly our responsibility as leaders. Grace is not being served. Uninspired, irrelevant, insipid, or age-inappropriate liturgy can be deadly to the spirit of the People of God. We do well to take this seriously; we do worse to wag our fingers when people, most of all our children, express boredom at it. I've written more on this in a slightly different context.
At Church of Our Saviour, we mix it up with Godly Play, a new fourth- and fifth- grade program called "Cloud of Witnesses," designed in large part by our Associate Rector, Este Gardner Cantor, a dynamic Middle School program, a Youth Group, and Adult forums, as well as our regular Rite I, Rite II, and Rite Something liturgies.
If people (from infants to adults) attend regularly, they get exposure to just about everything. Regardless of where they most feel at home worshipping and encountering God in our community, they hear proclaimed the transformative Gospel of Christ with an authentic passion. I believe that is what is key here, far and away from forcing tired children to sit still on one of the most exciting nights of the year.


Padre Mickey said...

A wonderful post, as always.
I know that as a child I certainly enjoyed the Christmas Eve service once I was at an age in which I could participate: singing in the children's choir, participating in the pageant or serving as an acolyte, and I think this was true for my daughters, too. I think that the Christmas pageant is an important part of the Christmas Eve service for that reason; I love children of all ages to participate.

Here in Panamá, we have our pageant on Epiphany, and that service is a favorite of the children of Parroquia San Cristóbal.

Happy New Year to you and yours, Richard.

R said...


And to you, as well!

Anonymous said...

Don’t know exactly who to reply to here or how, but here’s my two cents’ worth, as a 65-year old mother and grandmother (and deacon):

First of all, it was incredibly important to me as a child and teenager not only to be IN the pageant, as I got older, but to be the audience for it, each year. I was just saying to somebody the other day that it’s quite possible my deepest theological underpinnings came from absorbing the Prologue to the Gospel of John, year after year, as the lesson began in darkness and then suddenly the cross was illuminated, before the pageant proper began. There are pageants and pageants.

Second, I had to reread your point a couple of times, Thomas, before I could grasp that you were actually suggesting that small children should be kept up until midnight on Christmas Eve! That’s practically child abuse, even by fairly strict 1940’s and 50’s standards! Midnight mass was something I started going to—being allowed to go to—only when I was about 16. And then I went with a date, so most of the spiritual content was up in smoke. In “those days”, we all went to church on Christmas morning at 10 AM.

We all have our patterns of what we would like best in terms of liturgy, and it’s probably never going to be perfect for any of us. A case in point is my 94 year-old mother in Austin, Texas. She is actually in pretty good health, walks miles, etc., but as she puts it, as cheerfully as she can (i.e., fairly ruefully), “I can’t see and I can’t hear.” What she keeps hoping for (totally futilely) is the following: a Rite Two service, short, no music, brief sermon, Eucharist, that starts at around 10:30 AM so that it allows her time to pull herself together, but still fits into the schedule of the van that takes people to churches from her residential apartment. What is available, however, is 11 o’clock services with long sermons and even longer musical presentations: “It’s like a concert!” she complains (she who is a subscriber to the Austin Symphony).

Now, the point here is not whether any of her preferences are our own; it’s that they completely ignore all the people who 1) go to a Family Service at 10 (my mother also doesn’t like anything too child-oriented these days, just because of her short “sitting up in a pew” span) or 2) want to go to a longer, richer, deeper, near-professional music-accompanied service at 11 that lasts—heavenly!-- till 12:30.

Nobody is wrong! some are just inconvenienced. For most of her life, Mother had exactly what she wanted; now it’s no longer available, and things are not the way they were at St. Mark’s, Shreveport (fill in the blank for the name of whichever parish we each of us idealize and miss.)

Oh, and for what it’s worth, I tend in general to be on the side of those who think small children should not be expected (even allowed?) to sit through a regular service until they can sit still long enough not to distract the others who maybe have been longing for this one quiet, spiritual hour as the center of their stressful week. (Of course as soon as I say that, I become the devils advocate and take the opposite point that children are delightful in their “unformed” state and that we should learn from their innocence and spontaneity.) Ideal would be what tends to happen in most of our parishes, I would guess: some muddling through with a combination of all of these.

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

In Christ,

Betsy Payne Rosen

Anonymous said...

The problem behind much of this thinking is the idea that when they are in church, children are supposed (suddenly and impossibly) to become adults!

Look, I was raised in a parish where the rector believed and taught that attending Mass should become as ordinary as breathing for children -- and the only way to do that is to have them at Mass from the moment of their baptism. But they have to be at Mass AS CHILDREN, not as adults.

So, his rule was this:

(1) that there be no restraint on children at the Eucharist: if they want to wander about the church, they are free to wander about. They even sometimes, in a wondrous innocence and curiosity, wandered up to the altar and stood next to the Celebrant.

(2) Every adult in church was to take "parental" responsibility for ALL children (to keep them from falling, hurting themselves, etc.) Often children would choose to sit with a friend or an "aunt" or "uncle" rather than with their parents.

(3) Next to the baptismal font near the door of the church was a great heap of stuffed (i.e., silent) toys for the children to pick out if they wanted to play.

(4) Children were to be present for the ENTIRE Eucharist -- the sermon was taken out of its usual place and put at the END of the Eucharist -- i.e., after the children had left for Sunday School.

(5) Nursing babies were to be nursed in church!

(6) We always had our Christmas-present-opening at home right after supper on Christmas Eve. Then we went to bed for four to five hours and got up for Midnight Mass. There was never an "issue" about this, and it worked perfectly well.

As a result of the above, there were NEVER any child noises in church, and they were NEVER disruptive, and, above all, they (and their concerned parents) felt constantly welcomed and loved!

This priest was rector in our parish for some 27 years. During that time he sent TWENTY-FOUR people to seminary, and the parish produced TWO founders of religious orders -- a record I challenge any parish to equal.

It seems to me that "Christmas pageants" do nothing except appeal to the worst maudlin and sentimental dimensions of religion and suggest to the child that religion is all about dressing up in costumes and doing "make-believe" and "let's pretend"-- and the chance for parents to see their cute little darlings all dolled up in sweet angel's wings, or shepherds' bathrobes, or whatall.

I know this sounds like I am a curmudgeon. That is not so - I was for several years a professor of Human Development at two colleges, a major consultant for teacher training for one state, and director of training for Social Workers in another state --and I know how children learn and what children need for healthy development. They do not need to be sentimentally "condescended to" and their childhood need not be compromised by demanding they act like adults.

Well, that should displease almost everyone.....

Rick D said...


Thanks for your post. As a father of two boys, aged 12 and 8, who are active in our large and busy parish in Washington DC, I read it with interest. As usual, I agreed with your points, and wish to add one observation.

My 12-year-old, Daniel, declared his desire to attend midnight mass this year. He and his brother Matthew would already have sung with the boy choir at 6pm, but he wanted to go to midnight mass even though he would be "alone" (without family but surrounded by familiar faces) while I sang in the adult choir. After some discussion, we agreed to this plan.

As it happened, I developed laryngitis on Dec 24 and could not sing that evening. Daniel was still firm about wanting to attend, and so I had the infrequent pleasure of sitting in a pew with my 12 year old. He sang with gusto, followed the liturgy closely, and appreciated the handbells and the incense (rare for our parish).

So here was my unexpected present: watching my 12 year old start the beautiful and scary process of claiming his church. Exchanging the peace with this boy who seemed to grow and mature every minute of the service. Feeling anew the excitement of this special moment as I watched him enjoy it, and remembering the first few times I went to midnight mass as a child.

It really was the best Christmas ever.

Marshall Scott said...

I made two comments at Thomas's site that I will share here. The first was, "De gustibus non disputandem est.

The second was that I think it's been a while since we discussed the better venue for the education of children in the faith. We've largely bought into the Protestant academic model of Sunday School (and considering the cost of some of the materials for Sunday School I think "bought into" is particularly apt) and largely lost the model practiced in Orthodox Churches, and still largely in Roman Churches, of the Eucharist as the proper venue for educating our younger siblings in Christ. I think that would be a conversation worth having again.

Anonymous said...

I don't know where I stand on any of this, I'm just glad to see a discussion of children in church. I don't see this topic written about much elsewhere.

As a Gay man without kids I have exactly 2¢ to offer.

• No opinion about Christmas pageants. I have never seen one in an Episcopal church. I can dig what Padre Mickey's doing on Epiphany, as well as sympathize with Fr. John-Julian's point about pint-sized shepherds in bathrobes. I'm not sure I'd want "cute kids" as the focus on Christmas Eve. Christ has to be the focus.

• I have never attended the early evening "family" service on Christmas Eve in my parish, but I know it's well-attended, and I like that. Kids are part of the family in every sense.

• This year at midnight mass (which is getting earlier and earlier, and better attended) we had the loveliest string quartet, which just fascinated a toddler. Her grandma picked her up and carried her up the side aisle to the front, and the little girl just stared in awe at the musicians making that sound. The moment was perfect - we all wanted to see! - and once the girl's attention wavered, grandma knew it and carried the girl back to the pew. After all, awe was what we all felt in that moment.

• I seldom become distracted by "kid sounds" but I do resent total inattention in school-age children. Either do godly play or sit in the pew and listen, like it or not. I do not want to see dad and 10-year-old son reading soccer mags or playing video games when the rest of us are trying to worship.

• I am convinced of the importance of involving children in the liturgy and the fullness of parish life as soon as possible. They should participate as lectors and acolytes; they should be seen and heard. At some age-appropriate time they should be entrusted with technology, digital photography, their own podcasts, video and web pages on the parish site. It's one thing for adults to say, "Here's what we offer to children and youth," and another to empower the kids themselves. Let kids be the ministers and the adults will follow.

Richard, keep writing as a priest and parent.

klady said...

Surprised to find this still under discussion but hope I can add something that makes sense.

The difficulty I have with this issue is that it tends to polarize people towards one extreme or the other. It shouldn't be between a) all (or very nearly all) children must suffer through long and (to them) boring services and be quiet or else or b) children are not only welcome but they can wander freely and make noise or play, at least as long as they are not totally disruptive. All children are not alike, for one thing. My two children both attended the 11 p.m. Christmas Eve service practically since they were born simply because we, the parents, preferred that service and, quite frankly, we were able to do it without much stress on us or them, simply by engineering it so that they fell asleep, usually on a pile of coats, and we and another couple or couples who did the same thing would have some go up for communion while some watched the kids and then switched off (Christmas Eve usually having enough communicants to pull it off).

I'd be the first to admit, however, that not all children can, should, or will do that, so the practical difficulty becomes do you have a "family" service earlier, as well, and let people simply decide when their children are ready to sit through what, for us, beginning at 10:30 p.m. is 30 minutes of string quartet, bells, choir, etc. music followed by one to one and half hours of blessing the creche, full high mass, ending in reading the beginning of the Gospel of John in the dark with Silent Night. What we have done is have an early 5 p.m. service (mainly because Christmas Eve family dinners are traditional here), which both young parents and older people (who aren't up for 11 p.m. either) enjoy. We also have a 10 a.m. Christmas Day service, which has a small attendance (say 30), but is what some elderly people need and satisfies the rector who believes there should be mass on Christmas Day no matter who comes.

That's the Christmas part. As for the children part generally for Sunday or other worship times, what I find really aggravating in these kinds of discussions is that people assume that children "naturally" behave one way or another. We recently had a wedding attended by the local Burmese community and there were many infants, toddlers, and young children, and they sat through a long wedding with NO noise. Now, it may be that someone has a hyperactive child here and there, but some of this all is cultural, because I suspect that in past times, even in our culture, children were made to behave better and earlier or else people made sure they did not take them into the middle of a worship service. Yet people persist in arguing that children can't "be themselves" unless they are free to move around and make noise.

Now I don't believe anyone should take draconian measures to keep their children quiet. Nor do I think that parents should generally be consigned to missing out on worship because they cannot afford or obtain baybsitters or there is no nursery at the church to help. There's got to be some flexibility. Finally, in communities where informal liturgy is really what most people want and need, what the clergy, musicians, and others can do well, with joy and excitement, then by all means, go with it.

What I do object to is the assumption that children in general or persons of younger generations or the unchurched cannot tolerate "high church" and/or classical music -- don't like it, can't relate to it, can't grow into it -- and that no one should attempt some degree of decorum for such liturgies (not getting bent out of shape if children attend and make some noise now and then but nevertheless expect that the worship setting is aimed at older children and adults and that one should make some kind of reasonable effort not to let children run up and down the aisles and do whatever they want -- which, believe me, is what some parents think their kids should be able to do). All churches may not want a traditional worship style, and that's fine, but SOME can do it and do it well and not by definition be "unwelcoming." It is only because we live in a society where more and more people now think it is fine to take small children to late night movies, restaurants, and every place else at times that used to be for adults only, mostly because such parents are too selfish to consider foregoing going out or saving to pay a good babysitter, that we now have people who feel entitled to not only bring their children everywhere but to do so without lifting a finger to watch over them or discipline them.

The fact of the matter is that children buy into church (or tune out) in different ways at different times. My son was happiest in the nursery when he was young, and not being in the church until later did not in the least bit inhibit his sense of belonging or being welcome -- he had positive feelings about church because he liked the nursery until he grew out of it and was comfortable being in church. My daughter, on the other hand, was comfortable even at quiet weekday morning masses at age 2 -- quiet as a mouse. Two different kids -- wired differently, despite same parents and pretty much same parenting.

What for the life of me I can't understand is why anyone -- clergy or laypeople -- think that children MUST be in on the main worship service during infancy, toddlerhood, or even preschool years. Most people don't remember much of anything before the age 4, and nothing precludes children feeling happy and welcome in church starting at a later age and remembering THAT for the rest of their lives rather than being forced to participate younger (bad for hyperactive kids forced to be quiet and bad for more withdrawn, shy, quiet types to be compelled to do the children's sermon, singing, and other things in public).

Bottomline, why on earth can't each parish and pastor work out what is best for them? Why do people seem to place great theological significance on what should be a matter of style and taste? Having children bouncing all over the place does not necessarily mean they are going to be better Christians (or their parents) than those who have to wait to be altar servers, choristers, etc. in a more formal setting. (And of course neither is the reverse true). So why can't people just set aside the old sentimental pictures of Jesus kneeling with the children (unless we're going to get rid of church/temple worship altogether -- a different issue) and just try to work together to make worship a joyful thing, however it's done?