Do we have a tendency to save ‘real worship’ for children who are ‘old enough’? Do our toddler groups look more like babysitters’ clubs than churches? Should we expect under-fives to be filled with the Spirit? Children Can’s Olly Goldenberg explores how we can better engage pre-schoolers
There was chaos all around in the church crèche programme. It was one of those days when it felt like everyone was crying or misbehaving. The leaders had done everything they could think of to calm things down, without success, and had moved into survival mode, waiting for the session to end and praying the preacher wouldn’t over-run.
In the midst of the cacophony of noise, one two-year-old stood in the middle of the room and started to speak. “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus loves us every day. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus loves us every week.” Then she knelt down and sang a new song to God. By the time she had finished, the whole room was calm. Her praise had changed the atmosphere.
Can our youngest children really connect with God in such a spiritually significant way?
This is exactly what the psalmist refers to in Psalm 8:2: “Through the praise of children and infants have you established a stronghold against your enemies…” In other words, when young children praise God it’s not cute, it’s powerful. Something about the purity of praise from the youngest of children silences the powers of darkness.
In Matthew 19:13-14, Jesus uses a small child as a visual aid to show that the kingdom of God belongs to those who can be like children. The Greek word for ‘children’ in this passage is paidon, commonly used to talk about a child under the age of seven. It is these young children, not prepubescent preteens, that Jesus blessed in Luke 18:16. (Of course he wants to bless the prepubescents too, but that’s not the focus of this verse.) Luke 18:15 talks about the babies Jesus is calling to him (he uses the Greek word brephos, meaning infants or children still in the womb).
God wants these children to be in his presence, and one of the most significant ways we can enter into God’s presence is through praise and worship (see Psalm 100:4). The simple act of coming into the presence of God through praise changes us.
I have to physically remind myself to put my focus on God and actively engage in worshipping him myself when leading younger children
Children in God’s presence
Many expectant parents say they have noticed the baby moving around inside the womb in a specific way in response to the presence of God during a church meeting or during a worship time at home.
One day we were at a service where prayer was offered for anyone who wanted to be filled with the Spirit. I went forward for prayer with my nine-month-old baby. They prayed for me to be filled and for my baby to grow to know God. For some reason, this prayer annoyed me. Sure, I wanted my baby to know God, but I wanted more than that. I wanted my child to be filled with God, and not just at some unknown time in the future, but right then and there! After all, that was the reason we went forward.
As I sat in my seat, feeling annoyed, I decided to pray for my baby myself. “Lord, fill my son,” I cried. At that very moment, he began to laugh. It soon became clear that this was God filling him. He reached over and touched the lady sitting next to us and she was instantly overcome by God’s presence as the Holy Spirit filled her. The two ladies sitting behind us were in shock as they saw what happened.
On another occasion, I was busy washing up in our kitchen. Suddenly I became very aware of God’s presence in the room. This was not a normal occurrence during the washing up. As I turned around I saw my son kneeling on the floor, worshipping God His worship had made God’s presence more tangible in the room.
Several parents have shared how their babies were significantly affected by a worship event we ran for the under-fives: “After the meeting my baby spent the rest of the day giggling.” These babies had been filled with God.
So, how can we help our youngest children move beyond singing songs and help them connect with God in worship?
Have a routine
Young children love routine. If they know that in your children’s groups you start with playtime before moving to sit on a mat and hear about Jesus, they will mostly come to the mat to be a part of things before long. To begin with, you may feel like you’re herding cats as you gather the children to the mat. Every time you turn around to get one, another has wandered off! But don’t give up.
Perhaps have someone leading whose job it is to keep going, even if there is only one child in front of them, while other adults encourage the rest of the group to join in. The children will soon learn the routine, feel secure because of it and enjoy taking part.
Use the same songs over and over and over again. As the children learn them they will be able to join in. Some songs help kids learn Bible verses or a theological truth about God. These songs are great for teaching, but make sure you also include songs that express praise, worship and adoration to God. This will give them an opportunity to worship God with their singing.
Join in the worship
A group of children is looking eagerly at you. Meanwhile, you have one eye on the clock (to see how much time is left), one eye on the door (to see who’s coming in and to check no one is leaving) and one eye on the child who looks like he or she is about to cry. That’s three out of two eyes used up already! At the same time, you’re trying to be enthusiastic so the children will join in, but not too excited in case the youngest ones are scared by your burst of exuberance. An 18-month-old is clinging to your leg as if there is about to be an earthquake and, just as you’re finally about to start, a two-year-old, timing the exclamation to perfection, cries: “I need a wee!” All this while singing a worship song to the tune of a nursery rhyme.
I admit this atmosphere is not as conducive to worship as a Hillsong conference, but if we’re simply going through the motions of singing and not really worshipping God with the song, how can we expect the children around us to really engage?
I have to physically remind myself to put my focus on God and actively engage in worshipping him myself when leading younger children. As I start to worship, they follow suit… mostly. And even if they stand there with their mouths hanging open, they have been brought into an atmosphere of worship.
Enjoy the wonder of worshipping God with simple songs, and before long this will become your favourite worship session at your church.
Expect God to move
At one family camp we were involved with, the under-fives would arrive very restless each day. The room was filled with crying as young children were dropped off. However, God’s peace would move over the venue as soon as we started the worship time. One day, the children engaged in worship for half an hour; well beyond the natural attention span of the babies and toddlers with us.
We had prayed in advance, asking God to come and meet with the children, and he did. Our times of preparation before the crèche begins are crucial. Prayer doesn’t simply provide the bookends for a crèche meeting. It is the channel through which God can come and pour out his blessing on the children. When we pray, God moves.
One of the exercises we recommend for crèche leaders as part of our training course is to reflect at the end of a session on what God was doing. Sometimes this will be obvious: a child who joins in for the first time, a testimony from a parent of how a child has slept well since you prayed the previous week. Other times you may need to think a bit more: the way one boy calmed after worship, the facial expression of a girl who was worshipping God with all her heart.
When young children praise God it’s not cute, it’s powerful. Something about their purity of praise silences the powers of darkness
Opportunities to respond
Give the children opportunities to respond to Jesus in worship. This could be a time for them to pray and thank God in their own words. You could give them a model of prayer to complete: “Thank you God for…” It could be an opportunity for them to blow a kiss to Jesus (and then catch one from him). It could be a chance for them to listen to God - a creative activity that you do together. Responding to God beyond the time of sung worship allows children to find their own ways to connect with God and express their adoration to him.
God is worthy of all praise from all of creation, and he has ordained for praise to come from the mouths of babes and nursing infants. With such powerful praise going on, our crèche programmes should come with a warning!