The Rev. Krista Taves believes children belong in worship. With adults. For more than 15 minutes.
And for the past three years that’s what has happened at the 100-member Emerson Unitarian Universalist Chapel in Ellisville, MO, a suburb of St. Louis. For fully the first half of every service, all children are in attendance. They take part in singing and candle lighting and are there for a prayer, the offertory, and a story before being sung out to their own children’s chapel.
Having children in the service for this long has been nothing short of transformational for Emerson, says Taves. But change didn’t happen without hard work.
When the idea was first presented, many parents were certain that their kids could never sit through a service. Adults who had been forced to sit through church as children were particularly nervous. There was also concern that the presence of children would result in less reverence and spiritual depth. “The resistance was strong, and absolutely normal,” says Taves. “We were moving from what we knew to what we didn't know."
She says the initiative started when the youth group balked at doing a youth service, telling her they “hated church.” Taves got busy. She drafted a plan with the help of Central Midwest District Faith Development and Growth Leader Dori Davenport Thexton, changing the standard one-hour Sunday morning format with concurrent worship and religious education to an all-ages worship hour and a separate all-ages religious education hour.
Taves and Director of Religious Education (RE) Lauren Lyerla got buy-in from leader groups in the church, and the Committee on Ministry held a listening session. “At first we listened to the concerns without trying to fix them,” says Taves. “Then we changed the plan to reflect the concerns and had a second session. People went from ‘why this can’t work for me,’ to ‘how can this work for us.’ ”
Because the change was substantial the congregation voted. There were two nays. The first year there was a drop in worship and RE attendance. Taves consulted with Thexton, who assured her it could take 18 months to return to pre-change attendance levels. Now, well into year three, “The results we hoped for have suddenly exploded in our congregation,” Taves says. “Longtime members have embraced it, seeing what is possible. There is a critical mass of new members who have never known the old system. In fact, many of them come from other churches where this is what they do. They came expecting that here, and are happy to receive it. Our church is splitting at the seams. A large percentage of our new families love worshipping with their children and their youth.”
After a half hour in intergenerational worship, children go to their own half-hour children’s chapel. Religious education classes for children and adults occupy the hour following worship.
A large percentage of visitors with young children stay for the RE hour, says Taves. “The kids go to Sunday school and the parents come to the adult education class where they have a chance to engage in fellowship and spiritual development at a much deeper level than they get in coffee hour. This means that on their very first Sunday, they build significant relationships. Then they come back the next Sunday knowing people.”
Emerson’s rate of visitor-to-member conversion has improved dramatically, says Taves. “And the rate of new members being engaged in the community has improved, which means that our retention rate has improved.”
Another benefit Taves points out is that teachers can attend worship and no longer feel out of touch with the congregation. “We have one church, not two. It is much easier to recruit teachers.”
The change has given older children a rite of passage into adulthood––when they decide to stay in adult worship rather than going to children's chapel. “We leave that up to each family. Many make the choice between grades 5 and 7, so we have middle schoolers who are choosing adult worship.” These children and youth can also choose to help with Children's Chapel, where they learn leadership skills.
Taves gets to teach on Sunday mornings under this plan. “I teach the youth class two months of the year. They know me, trust me, are more likely to seek me out for pastoral care. We offer the New Unitarian Universalist (UU) class four times a year during the RE hour. We have much higher attendance rates than when we held it on a weeknight or Saturday. I also teach an adult class two months a year. Everyone appreciates having the minister available for their class and I get to engage with more people on a more intimate level than in worship and coffee hour.”
She adds, “We are one of the only denominations that assumes kids can't sit through church. Our low expectations mean that they can't sit through church. Our assumption creates their inability. The result is that our children graduate out of the RE program with no experience of worship and the assumption that there's nothing in it for them. And we lose them in droves.”
“But now,” she says, “our youth graduate having experienced worship and knowing that they have a place in it. They are more likely to seek out a UU congregation when they go to college.”
The first half hour of the service is almost the same from week to week. “Many of the kids know the elements by heart,” says Taves. Many feel comfortable enough to light silent candles during Joys and Sorrows (all sentiments are written, not spoken). “We try to choose a rousing song for the first hymn. We sing both contemporary and traditional hymns. We did not dumb down the service expecting that kids would need that. We raise the bar for them, expecting that kids will follow our example.”
In the first year of the program, something interesting happened, Taves says. “Whether the children were able to experience an expanded Sunday morning depended on the parents’ expectations. It was all about parental buy-in and raising the bar and had little to do with the kids' ability themselves.”
Emerson also does a “Youth Pew Sunday” once a month, to specifically encourage youth. Youth choose the sermon topic, agree to come, and act as greeters, liturgists, and musicians. Some parents also set that as an expectation.
Another reason for the success of the first half hour is the children’s chapel that follows. If children didn’t want to come to it, they likely wouldn’t come to the adult service either. “The second half hour is an opportunity for kids to speak in their own voice,” says DRE Lyerla. “It’s like the regular service in a lot of ways. It really builds community.”
Emerson had 94 members when it made the change. It slid back to 87 last year. This year it reached 100 (with 65 to 70 at services). “This change is getting us where we want to go,” says Taves. “We are living our mission more faithfully in so many ways.”
Would this work for larger congregations and those with two worship services? “I’d put the RE hour between the two services,” says Taves.
This change wasn’t easy, she emphasizes. “It was difficult for the first two years. There was a lot of anxiety. Sometimes I worried that I had forced the congregation into something that wasn't right for them. I will admit, sometimes I became defensive and frustrated by the resistance. I learned how important it is for leaders, lay and ordained, to remain non-anxious and compassionate during times of change, even when we’re the ones creating that change. But we have come through it and are now seeing so clearly that all the things we hoped would happen have come to pass.”
She says more parents are asking for pastoral care for their children. “I can't help but see that this is because they and their children know and trust their minister. Children want a relationship with their minister as much as adults do.”
Linda and Jeff Gidday’s two children, now 17 and 20, were too old to get the full benefit of being in church as children. “Kids gain so much by being there,” says Linda. “The music, the liturgy, the ritual becomes an internal part of who they are. And kids love ritual. I’m totally in favor of it. It’s made us one church instead of two.”
Jennifer Nichols-Payne, district director for lifespan faith development for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) Southwestern Conference, has long been an advocate of including children in worship. “By not allowing kids to worship with us in the primary place adults get their spiritual needs met we’re saying they are not important enough,” she says. “A congregation has to have a clear vision that it is their responsibility to start creating lifelong UUs. If we don’t teach them our songs, our theology, our readings, no one else will. The rhythm of a worship service gets in your bones. I think people are afraid they’ll have to change everything about worship. I don’t think that’s so.”
At First Jefferson UU Church in Fort Worth, where 75 to 90 attend worship, children aged 4 to 8 are in services for the first 20 to 30 minutes. Older children stay for the full hour. The RE hour precedes worship. DRE Kathy Smith creates a children’s order of service for the intergenerational service with activities that are tied to the sermon message. Twice a year each RE class from third grade through high school acts as worship leaders for the service. Intentionally, there are no other options at that hour for children who don’t want to sit in service, except for those younger than four.
Says Smith, “Kids get exposure to worship that will be the same as that they will experience all through their lives. They hear the minister speak about UU history and they get a sense of us as a denomination. One of our 19-year-olds—his favorite hymn now is “We’ll Build a Land.” They’re developing a feel for the rhythm and ritual of worship.”
Smith acknowledges that some families come just for the initial RE hour then leave before worship. “A bare majority choose to stay,” she says. “We have some families who very strongly want a worship experience for the whole family.” And yes, there have been complaints that services are a little bit less serene with children wiggling and whispering. “But I say it’s all part of being a community. This is one of my greatest joys and greatest challenges, to make worship relevant to children.”