by Dr. Dawn Rundman
Since March of 2020, I have been listening to children, youth and family ministry leaders wrestle with the devastating effects of the pandemic in their congregations, communities and the broader world. I’ve also learned about the remarkable innovations leaders like you have demonstrated, showing your commitment to supporting kids and families in new and creative ways.
Thank you for your faithfulness and dedication!
And now, friends, I want to share something that may be hard to hear.
We have a lot of work ahead of us with a particular demographic of our congregations.
This segment can be fussy, inattentive, and difficult to communicate with at times.
They are very opinionated and can be loud.
You have to repeat things with them. A lot.
And sometimes when you want them to tune in, they fall asleep instead.
That’s right. I’m talking about the babies in your congregation.
They weren’t even born when the pandemic started.
For some, they spent a lot more time at home with their parents than expected due to work-from-home situations.
And most of them haven’t set their bootied feet in your church’s space.
We have work to do because we know that an early introduction to the Christian faith can happen in vibrant, memorable, brain-altering ways when a baby is welcomed into a church community that worships together, enjoys lively social interactions during fellowship and delights in seeing the youngest ones present.
This cohort of babies born since mid-March of 2020 has not experienced the rich developmental context that the church can offer. The sonorous tones of a pipe organ or guitar or drum kit have not made waves through their little ears and bodies. They have not beheld the wide-eyed smiles and coos of doting older kids and grown-ups. The colorful, vibrant symbols of faith seen in banners, stained glass windows and other sanctuary artwork remain unseen by their little eyes.
We have work to do with these little ones.
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For almost two decades now I have been teaching church leaders and parents about the many ways that a young child’s presence and participation in church life, including (and especially) worship, help form and strengthen neural connections that can last a lifetime. (Anyone who has witnessed someone in the throes of dementia singing along to a Sunday school song they learned as a 3-year-old knows the lasting power of music in a deteriorating brain.)
Human brains are designed to form connective networks—millions of them!—that can be strengthened with repeated experiences. During the first few years of life, these connections form at even more staggering rates. Babies who receive consistent, loving care from at least one caregiver who is in love with them are off to a great start. When they enjoy playful interactions and can explore their surroundings through sight, sound and touch (especially with their mouths!), their brains start off life thriving on this type of stimulation.
While developmental neuroscientists have not specifically studied church environments as sites for healthy development, we can draw some connections between what we know from the science (repeated experiences in healthy contexts can lead to stronger neural networks that support development) and what we know a church setting can offer to young children and their families (safety, comfort, art, music, smiling faces, stories about God’s love and Jesus’ ministry).
What happens when we view a baby’s faith development through this neurological lens?
What happens when we view a baby’s neurological development through this faith lens?
A baby who is present during worship services can become a toddler who joyfully proclaims “Amen!” during worship and a preschooler who stages pretend baptisms of babies during bathtime and a kid who is ready to engage with Sunday school, worship and everyday faith moments, having built a spiritual vocabulary, heard God’s word and dwelled with God’s people in community.
And all the while, we can also be equipping the parents and other caregivers of these young children so they receive support, encouragement and doable skills for nurturing their children’s faith.
Ministry leaders, we have work to do because we have a group of babies graduating to toddlerhood who have missed out on many of these first building blocks of faith. Their parents may have watched online worship, but they likely did not have their baby nearby to watch the screen. Or their parents may have stolen those extra moments on Sunday morning to catch up on sleep or run errands or fit in one of the unending tasks faced by caregivers whose lives are so changed by the arrival of their infant.
So, what could this work look like?
Because the pandemic continues, demanding vigilance to keep ourselves and others safe (including and especially children since they cannot be vaccinated), and because you may be feeling levels of physical and spiritual exhaustion unlike any other in your life, I propose work that is simple and direct, work that brings joy to all involved and work that lays a framework for ministry in the years to come. I’ve described several ideas below that you can review to help decide what fits best in your current pandemic-era context and that could easily transition to ministry when restrictions can be lessened and eventually lifted. Even if you choose just one idea for these littles, you are engaged in amazing work that welcomes young children and their families into their walk of faith. All ideas can be used for the infants in your church community and expanded to include toddlers as well. For online events, extend the invite to little ones who are loved by congregational members, like grandchildren, godchildren and nieces and nephews.
Outdoor Gatherings: With fall here and temperatures cooling, plan a safe, distanced gathering in an outdoor location like a park or grassy spot on your church grounds. Invite families with little ones to bring a blanket for sitting. Plan a few simple activities, like songs, storytelling and sharing of highs and lows. When parents of little ones gather with others who share in the daily ups and downs of this time of the parenting journey, things can get deep fast. Bonus: the relationships parents form with each other during these vulnerable times may end up lasting for the entire time kids are in your ministry.
Online Storytime: Our baptismal promises include passing along stories of the faith. If you have not done so already, start building an online library of Bible stories told simply. The easiest way is to choose an age-appropriate story Bible, sit in front of your camera phone and press record as you read the story while you hold up the pictures. (Insider tip: the Frolic First Bible was developed for babies! Full disclosure: I was the developer of this Bible.) Bonus: If parents of little ones have limited biblical literacy, they may learn some stories along the way.
Caregiver Support: This pandemic has been hard for parents in a myriad of ways. For parents of young children, they have not been able to receive the in-person support they may have expected—visits from those within their social networks, childcare from trusted family members and friends and opportunities to bring their baby to community events. Develop a plan to check in with parents of little ones through texts, emails, postcards or other methods. Know what resources are available if parents express needs for more support, like mental health care, marriage care or monetary assistance.
Worship at Home: Parents may wilt at the thought of needing to lead any kind of formal worship experience from home. But we can offer an exciting take on worship if we think through what it would look like for the young children in your congregation to “play church” and then equip parents to do just that. For starters, look for blocks that can be stacked to look like your church’s altar, pulpit and lectern. Then cut felt pieces to be the paraments. You can also include a shell they could use for baby doll pretend baptisms. Add a photo or two of your church’s interior and you’ve got a Worship Kit for Littles! (If the thought of assembling these worship kits sounds overwhelming, I bet there’s a responsible pair or trio of middle schoolers who would love to do this for you.)
Prayer Partners: Match up little ones and their families with people in the congregation who have volunteered to pray for each member of the family. This can be a one-way street—let families know they can receive the prayers of other caring people in the church without needing to reciprocate, send thank-you notes or actively respond. Knowing that someone is praying for you and your little one can be balm for overworked parents and/or parents who are more loosely affiliated with your church.
Parent (Book) Group: Gathering in person was hard enough before the pandemic. Now it may seem impossible for parents of littles. Plan a monthly check-in time on Zoom for parents of little ones with a book as the focus. Accept that not everyone will read the book. (Okay, you as the leader may be the only one who reads the book.) You’ll give parents a time to check in with others on their parenting ideas and goals, along with providing valuable support.
Start with one idea or plan a few, but know that paying attention to the spiritual needs of these young children and their caregivers can lead to faith formation in wonderful ways.
Dawn Rundman is honored to serve you on the Connect Journal’s editorial board. She is director of faith formation resource development and assistant director of ELCA relations at 1517 Media, the publishing ministry of the ELCA. Her book “Little Steps, Big Faith: How the Science of Early Childhood Development Can Help You Grow Your Child’s Faith” comes with a 4-session book club guide if you are thinking of starting a Parent Book Club.