Recently I had an experience that helped me think a little more about the nature of church. As I mentioned in another post I am a Children’s Ministry intern. Because of this I sometimes find myself spending part of a Sunday morning in the 2&3 year old room. Children in that class fill in the gap between toddlers and preschoolers. They can talk but are kind of shy. They love to play and use their growing minds. Puzzles and books are a hit as well as cars. They also seem to have extra difficultly being parted from their parents. At home they may drive their parents crazy, but parting from them in a room full of other kids produces a lot of separation anxiety.
One morning I found myself trying to comfort a particularly anxious boy. He was constantly on the verge of tears and kept asking where mom and daddy were. Sometimes it’s not wise to keep their focus on the absent mom and dad, but in this case I thought it would be helpful to talk about it with him. I felt “the sanctuary” and “worship service” were two vague and abstract for talking to him about this. For this reason I began to tell him that his parents were in church. “They are in church, in a big room really close by. They sing and have to sit and listen to someone talk for a long time while you get to play with toys and have snacks. Look at all this fun stuff you get to do.” Something about this didn’t seem quite right thought. Wasn’t this little boy in church as well? Where did I get the idea that his parents were in church because they were in the sanctuary part of the building? The church he was attending with snacks and toys was just as much “church” as the one his parents were attending with singing and a person talking for a long time.
After that I made a conscious decision to change the vocabulary I use when talking with kids. If they ask where their parents are, I tell them that their parents are in big church while they are in little church. I use big and little not to suggest that one is more important than the other or more fully church, but to describe the big people who attend one and the little ones who attend the other. For little kids who find themselves living in a world run by big people this distinction tends to work.
We need to widen our gaze when it comes to church. The worship service is a part, even a small part, of something bigger. If you believe that children are capable of experiencing a relationship with God then it should be obvious that Children’s Ministry is as vital to the physical local church as any other part. High school ministry, middle school ministry, Sunday classes, small groups, benevolence care, and the worship service are all vital local manifestations of the church. Church is church, even for little people.