by Ruth Ideen-Sall
It is time for reentry to church for families and children after the interruption of the pandemic. The experiences of the past year have marked all of us forever, and perhaps most of all, it has altered the lives of our children. When I think about all the children of my congregation, I have moments of joy for the ways we stayed connected through the pandemic with letter writing, supply drop-offs, Zoom Sunday school and homemade videos that enhanced our family worship. But there is deep sadness for the many children that have not been connected to the church for over a year. For a myriad of reasons, families had to make the hard choice at times to pull away from more screen time or outdoor programs.
There are specific ways that the pandemic has impacted the children in our congregations. Children may not have been in the church sanctuary for many months as part of the larger congregation. Children may not have gathered freely on a Sunday morning to sit in a classroom and hear the Bible story and experience an activity to enhance their faith formation. Children may not have had choir rehearsals or music. Children were the first group we protected by pulling them out of schools and keeping them safe with us in our homes. And as we start to return to our faith communities where adults and teens have been vaccinated and feel safe from the virus, our children may be the last group to have this protection.
So where are the children now? Have they been attending online worship or Sunday School? Were they able to check in with their pastor or Sunday School teachers? We might have a hard time knowing how families have remained connected during the pandemic. It changes how we approach different children as we start to plan activities at the church. A few ideas come to mind for how to frame the reentry for kids.
First, kids are most at ease in a setting of play and friendliness. They have been through a very isolating experience of pivoting to stay at home, learning online and then returning to schools where social distancing protocols completely changed the landscape of their lives. As we start to come to church, it is important that the first experience they have is one of welcome. We need to welcome the silly, the joyful, the playful, the weird and the wild. We are so happy to see children again, and they will know this by our response to their quips, their zany ideas, their jokes and their laughter. Games, crafts and play will be an important part of reentering the church for children. For my congregation this is happening in our outdoor Sunday school class. We have taken a step back from traditional Sunday School where children are separated into classes by grade. We are having all children together in a one-room schoolhouse where they hear the word of God, sing fun songs together and enjoy outdoor activities. We have a big supply of sidewalk chalk, bubbles and outdoor toys. Our main goal has been to create a time of play and exploration with all ages together enjoying fresh air and laughing in God’s great creation.
Second, children need a space to reflect and talk about how this past year has been different for them. When we start up our faith formation classes again, they will need to have some time to share what they are feeling. Kids are incredibly resilient, but the changes over the past year are immense. A place with adults that listen to their thoughts and worries is a place that shows the love of God in action. They feel valued, cared for and heard. By providing good listeners, we will show our children that God’s love is steadfast and has been here all along, even when we have not been in a physical building with each other.
In planning for reentry to church activities, one consideration will be how long it has been since volunteers, teachers and shepherds have been out of practice working with kids. Even for the most seasoned teacher, the past many months have brought our schedules to a halt, and we have missed a lot of time with the children and families in our congregation. Going back to basics is an important place to start when planning and training teachers for the fall. The fundamental reason we teach children about God is so they know that God is love. God loves them. God loves the world, and God’s love teaches us how to love one another. If no other story is as important for the next few months in the church, it should always come back to the love of God and how we experience God’s love every day. Children can grow in their faith as we affirm that the sacrifices of the past year were made with care and compassion for others.
Third, as we reenter worship with the whole congregation, children need to be included as much as possible in the congregation. If it is part of your church’s tradition to include lay readers, consider asking a child who enjoys speaking in front of others to be your liturgist. Connecting children back to the patterns of worship is an important and, maybe, the hardest aspect of reentry. If children have been watching worship online or over Zoom, they may feel less connected to the congregation after such a long time. We have found that a lot of kids in our congregation were not interested in watching church and were choosing to skip the service this past year. It became important to us to have a Sunday school Zoom class that met during the height of the pandemic to provide a church connection.
Worship can be one of the most difficult places to draw children back to church. Our congregation surveyed families to ask how they felt about returning to the church sanctuary and found that many were hesitant since children are not yet vaccinated. We decided that starting an outdoor service in the spring out on the church lawn was a way to reach out in welcome for all those who were feeling uneasy about being in the building. The service has been a wonderful place for families to worship together. People are asked to sit with their pod, socially distance from one another and remain masked for the sake of those who are not yet vaccinated. We know that some of our protocols are going to shift in the next few months, but the experience of returning together to worship—to sing, pray and commune—has been one of deep joy for all ages. We also know that some families will be ready to move back indoors for worship before others. We have been intentional to try and accommodate different needs during these transitional times.
Finally, we have children who have grown and changed since the pandemic began and are in a new stage of life. The babies are toddlers, the preschoolers have started school, the elementary students moved on to middle school and so on. Part of the fun of reentry is finding ways to welcome families to church who were not involved in the same way before. There have been several families in my congregation who found themselves much less busy during the pandemic and wanted to join committees for the first time. It will take some creativity and intentional activities to reconnect with families and “meet” some kids for the first time.
There are still a lot of unknowns in this transition time back to in-person church activities and Sunday worship. We have learned an inordinate number of details about how an infectious disease can stop our whole world for months. We have also learned how to pivot, over and over, and recenter our compass on the love of God while finding new ways to reach out to our congregations in care and love. Here we are again in a moment of change as we try and wrap our hearts and minds around re-entering the church with one another. Let us move forward with joy and care, the same steps we have been taking all these months. What a delight it will be to return to our churches, like a long-awaited family reunion, eagerly anticipating reconnecting with congregants of all ages.
Ruth Sall is the Director of Children’s Music and Ministry at Abington Presbyterian Church in Abington, Pennsylvania