Children’s Ministry in a Pandemic: The Three Cs
A parish unexpectedly finds in the pandemic a way to engage children, youth, and families (CYF) in Sunday online worship.
On January 17, 2021, our small church in Orange County was back to being remote again. That brought some good news: the reengagement of our children and youth by means of our Sunday online service.
One form this has taken has been the participation of our youth as psalm lectors and psalm illustrators.
The psalm of the day on January 17 was Psalm 139; Justin was the lector and Chandler the illustrator. Our youth lectors record the psalm either as audio or video; youth illustrators, meanwhile, are given free rein to depict any part of the psalm in any art form. Submissions have been in pencil, animation, crayon, marker, paint—even Legos. We then post the image to our Facebook page and show it on screen during the pre-recorded reading of the psalm. This has become a beloved ministry of our children and youth—and one that inspires parishioners of all ages.
We’ve come to value deeply what I now call the three Cs of children, youth, and families ministry (CYF): Curiosity, Care, and Creativity. Perhaps this focus will also help you and your ministry to CYF, whether it be in a large or small parish, school, after-school program, or breakout ministry.
In my first school chaplaincy with preschoolers, not knowing they’d just been visited by local firefighters, I asked if they had any burning questions. My word choice incited some concern! Nonetheless, a four-year-old piped up: “Why does Jesus have cuts?” Children are innately spiritual and innately curious! Other curiosities that I’ve heard through the years as a parent, lay children’s minister, chaplain and priest include: “If we aren’t sure what to do, are we like Jonah in the belly of the whale?”, “Do atheists go to hell?”, “What does God look like?”, “Does God bless me if I didn’t sneeze?” and “Is there a religion without rules?”
Burning questions have been the fuel for my formation and ministry with children, youth, and families. If the first C is curiosity, then the first question for CYF leaders is, “Are we providing a space for our children to wonder and to express their curiosity?” We can trust that they are curious, but if we are not asking them about it, then we’re missing the boat. “What do you think?” should be our leading question.
At a webinar in January for the New York State Association of Independent Schools, author and activist Ibram X. Kendi pondered whether assessing our students’ curiosity would be a better way of determining how they process what they learn. “Start curious, stay curious, go anywhere,” was my children’s school motto. Several churches that my children have attended hold an open dialogue after the sermon, intentionally inviting a sense of wonder from all ages. Are we providing a space for our children to express their curiosity about everything and anything related to spirituality?
In March 2020, when all CYF leaders instantly had to rethink how to serve children and their spirituality, I instinctively leaned on that notion of curiosity which next led me to these questions: How do we convey how much we care about them and what they care about? How do we best do it on a live screen, a Zoom room, a pre-recorded video, a package sent home, a prompt, a school chapel, even around a dinner table?
Undoubtedly, clergy and laity who are steeped in children’s ministry have explored a wide variety of ways to embrace these questions in a pandemic. To make matters harder, Covid-19 meant that some of our most dedicated CYF volunteers couldn’t continue to serve as they had before. Nationwide and overnight, we were pushed to the wall. Some parishes had to adjust their children’s ministry paid staff by decreasing, eliminating or repurposing their hours. Caring for our youngest and their spirituality became a monumental challenge this past year. Not letting them fall through the cracks should be a very serious goal. How well are we doing that?
The wisdom of Maya Angelou should remind us all: “I learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel”—and how we make them feel is critical. We convey that we care for them when we notice and name them, when we include their voices in our planning, when we invite their lectoring, their leadership, their music, their attention, their passions, when we include them in corporate worship and also provide separate space for them, when we have fun together. What else? My wise chaplain mentor implored me: “Open up the chat sooner and let the children chime in!” Ask a pointed question and you’ll get pointed answers, and some may surprise you! Sometimes we forget to ask the people we are serving what they need most. Let us convey how much we care about what they think and how they feel, especially in pandemic times.
The pandemic has challenged the creativity of our CYF leaders. While financial and volunteer resources may have dwindled during the pandemic, online resources exploded. That can be overwhelming! Some parishes have taken wildly different new approaches because what has worked for years does not translate well to remote worship. Our diocese has seasoned, wise leaders bringing us invaluable resources. Whether using prepared programs such as Storymakers, Godly Play, Diddy Disciples, gleaning inspiration from online resources such as Dollar Store Sermons or the myriad of options on YouTube, or consulting books and blogs such as Faith at Home, my burning question for us is less how creative we leaders are being and more how creative are we inviting our children and youth to be! One parish is holding a CYF online talent show, another is inviting youth who study an instrument to record a piece of music for worship. Are we intentionally making space for their creativity to shine?
These Three Cs serve a common goal, which is also, perhaps, a fourth C: connection. Our children and youth matter. It’s not church without them. If we believe this to be true, then we must consider these questions seriously: How are we, lay and clergy leaders, connecting with them? How are we connecting them to each other? How are we more deeply connecting their spirituality in the home? How are we connecting them to our church, to the knowledge and love of God, and to love of neighbor? How are our older parishioners privy to what our youngest minds wonder? Are we providing opportunities for shared inspiration?
These are a lot of questions with no concrete answers. Approach them as food for thought. Spread the word and share this article with those connected to CYF ministry in any context. Hold intentional space to ponder your connection with children and youth in your setting.
We are still in uncertain times. Our in-person worship schedules are in flux. Our online worship schedules are (I hope) here to stay. How we minister to children has and will continue to be challenged and to change. How are we staying inspired? Are we assessing what connections are most fruitful? Are we continuing to ask ourselves, “How can we do it better this and next time?” Remember, you are not in this alone. Please reach out to your colleagues and ask for help. Join the Facebook group Forma: The Network for Christian Formation. There you will find an abundance of answers, inspiration, and partners. Finally, take a deep breath, let go of all yesterdays, thank God for the children and youth that are in front of you, and consider your next step for CYF that will spark curiosity, convey care and welcome creativity for a deeper connection to each other and to God.