We moved a pew
Genesis 22:1-14 So… we moved the front pew and front kneeler last week. It happened a bit suddenly, I realize, and I’m sorry for the shock and any upset it has caused. It is a change that has actually been contemplated for several months now, in and amongst the conversation around children’s ministry. But that conversation had not broadened throughout the parish, and so this change came about seemingly out of nowhere for many people. So today I want to explain and explore some ideas and vision, dilemmas and directions, as they relate to our ministry with our youngest parishioners, starting here… with this opened up space.
The purpose behind moving the pew is to open up the space to allow us to create a kind of child-sized sacred space. It is in following a back-to-the-future movement around the country, where churches are gently altering their worship space to facilitate children of all ages, particularly very young children, to remain with the community throughout worship, rather than being taken out to a nursery or Sunday School.
Beginning around the 1950’s it became common in the Anglican church and some other denominations to separate the children from the adults during worship. For many of us now, we can hardly imagine it any other way. It’s the way it’s always been. And yet if we go back further into our history and tradition we discover that such separation is a relatively recent, modern innovation. Until the mid-20th century, the entire, multigenerational community stayed together for worship.
We don’t have to look far for examples. Earlier this week I asked our own Esther about her experience of church as a child. When I asked if I could share what she told me, she agreed. She described: “Oh, I’ve been going to church my whole life! When I was a kid, every Sunday I went to Sunday School at 10am, church at 11am, and then because my sister was running a Sunday school at another church, I went there at 1pm.” The church she attended was one of our sister denominations and what she described was a common traditional pattern: everyone attended an age-appropriate Sunday School either before or after common worship all together. Esther ran the Sunday School here at St. Andrew’s in our early years and it took a moment of us talking together to realize that the ministry model that she herself experienced, and that worked so well to mould her into a lifelong church-goer and Christian disciple, was different that what we have done here and across our church for several decades.
Another parishioner of a different generation, Rosemary, noticed the same thing and also agreed that I could share parts of our conversation. Rosemary grew up Roman Catholic and always went to church. There was no Sunday School because religious teaching happened in school. It is a pattern that remains common in the Roman Church. Like Esther, Rosemary barely noticed how different her experience of church and worship was to that of her children and many others like myself, who grew up in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and beyond.
The difference in ministry model also happens to correspond to a significant drop-out rate from church among younger generations. We have long noticed, for decades, that children who attend nursery and Sunday School and then become confirmed as young teenagers are often never seen in church again. We jokingly refer to confirmation as “graduation from church.” But what we might not notice is that many of those young people were rarely, if ever, in church to start with. This wasn’t our intention. We did what was right at and for the time. But with the benefit of hindsight, we might ask ourselves why we thought that upon confirmation, teenagers would suddenly become practicing, participating adult worshippers, when they hadn’t been through their young lives? I remember a seminary colleague saying in class one day that her experience as a child and teen, was that she and her contemporaries were only allowed in church on Christmas and Easter. “And then we grew up,” she reflected, “and the adults were surprised that we only came to church on Christmas and Easter.” Sometimes we just don’t realize what we’re teaching.
I’m not suggesting that there is a simple cause-effect relationship relating to our approach to ministry with children and youth. There is no question that there are other significant factors at play, many of which are utterly beyond our control. That means, however, that we need to pay even more attention to those things that we can influence and impact. Courageously asking theological questions and being really honest about what we actually believe is one. Courageously asking questions about our models of ministry and being willing to experiment with new things… new things with ancient roots mind you… but still, approaches that are new to us and that might ask us to give things up. Things like “the way its always been.” Things like our expectations of adult-only worship. Things like making space for new people or little people. Things like the front pew.
Another influential reason to re-consider children’s ministry is simply that whatever the cause, there is a dearth people in their 40’s, 30’s and 20’s among us. That means that the familiar model of parents organizing to staff a nursery and Sunday school, is no longer possible. It was one thing, and a lot of work, when there were many more stay-at-home parents and a large enough cohort of people in a similar life stage to make it work. But that modern ministry model is now breaking down, just as it is in other aspects of church life. And so we seek new ways of discipleship… new ways that are, more often than not, based on ancient ones. It’s called the “ancient-future” church. It’s taking an ancient faith and ancient practices, older than the modern world, and tweaking them for the 21st century.
A hundred, five hundred, a thousand years ago, people of all ages, from infants to the elderly, worshipped together, though child-sized sacred spaces that helped engage children at their level amidst the common worship space did not exist. But just as we don’t live in the late-20th century, we don’t live in ancient times, so creating a space for children to participate in common worship and still be their lively, active little selves is an ancient-future way to bridge worlds. How will it work here exactly? We don’t know yet. There’s no formula and no magic bullet. We’re going to experiment with how best to keep children in worship and send them out for occasional special times together. We’re going to experiment with engaging children through the course of worship. What works well over time, we’ll keep. When it doesn’t work well, we’ll try something else. We started by moving a pew.
Today we hear an ancient biblical story about children and worship. This story from Genesis about the almost-sacrifice of Isaac is one of the most difficult in the Bible, and we do ourselves, our faith and our God a disservice if we try to romanticize away the sheer horror of a command to kill one’s own child. Even as sacrificial proof of one’s obedience to God. Especially as sacrificial proof of one’s obedience to God. Murder is not okay. Ever. God-ordained murder is even worse. We must never preach or practice anything that even hints that such belief and such behaviour is somehow okay.
That said, earlier this week I re-read the homily I preached here, 3 years ago today, on this passage and I was struck by just how relevant it seemed for today. So I’m going to directly quote from it: “The whole bloody sacrificial system that was commonplace in ancient times is foreign to us. This cross-cultural mis-understanding makes so many stories harder for us to really understand. In this case, it might be important to realize that the Canaanites, whose land, culture and religion was influential and in some ways shared by the Israelites, [they] practiced human sacrifice. It was familiar in those days to offer a first child to God, though an animal was usually offered instead. In the end, however, this story, speaks to a different kind of God – even if it isn’t God’s finest hour. It says that no matter what you Canaanites might do, we don’t sacrifice our children. We – don’t – sacrifice our children! If we expand that idea to a metaphorical level, I wonder what it might mean? Are there ways in which we have, in fact, sacrificed our children at church and for our faith? Do we think that to be obedient and faithful, we have to sacrifice our children? If so, how can we find the courage to speak for them, to fight for their life, instead of passively accepting a command that kills – if not the body, then the spirit and soul.”
Do we think that to be obedient and faithful, we have to sacrifice our children? Despite so much that’s terrible about this story, in the end God ensures that this is not the case. We don’t sacrifice our children. Not to be faithful or obedient. Not to be like the people or culture around us. Not to avoid change. Not for any reason. That we have children among us is a gift… a gift from God. And a pew is a small sacrifice to make, to offer hospitality to them and their parents. So that the smallest among us can fully participate in worship, as themselves, just as we come as ourselves, we moved the front pew.