Many churches assume that children are not really able to worship God. So when we want to involve children in a service, we dumb down the worship in the hope that children might somehow ‘connect’. In particular, we seek to make worship ‘fun’ – we play silly games and sing silly songs.
For instance, on the Sunday following our holiday club this year we sang as the very first verse of the opening worship song:
God’s love is bigger than a burger, it is bigger than a mouse
Bigger than an elephant and bigger than a house
Bigger than a bus and bigger than a tree
Bigger than a mountain, bigger than the sea
Another children’s song we often sing contains the following two verses:
Like a piece of fruit, stuck in jelly, I’m surrounded by your love.
Like a waterfall, cascading down, it soaks me from above
Like a washing machine, with loving power, you clean me inside out,
And when I think about your love, I just want to shout
Like the rising of the morning sun, each day I know your love
Like a pig that rolls around in mud, I love to feel your touch
And as your child I worship you, my servant-hearted King.
And when I think about your love, I just want to sing
These songs are fun. But is it true that worship songs need to be fun? Is it true that to get children involved we need to sing action songs of one kind of another? Why is it that when we have all-age worship we rarely sing any of the great hymns of the church? I recognise that time has moved on, but I remember that when my own children were young they loved singing ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty/Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee’. True, many of the theological concepts were beyond them, but nonetheless that hymn proved a means of bringing them into the presence of God.
This summer I had an experience which caused me to ponder again whether churches expect too little of their children. This experience took place in Sri Lanka. Let me fill in the background, before I relate the experience.
During a visit to Sri Lanka, Caroline and I spent six days in a children’s home founded by our friend, Fred George. Although now a British citizen, Fred was brought up in Sri Lanka. He came to the UK to be trained for ministry, and then stayed on in the UK, exercising a very effective ministry in London – as a result of which he was awarded the MBE for charitable work both in the UK and Srilanka. Fred, however, never lost his concern for his home country, and some years ago bought a large plot just a mile or so outside the seaside town of Tangalle, where he built a children’s home, which he called ‘Still Waters’. Currently there are 42 children, aged for the most part between 5 and 16 (because of lack of resources they do not normally accept younger children). Some of these children have no parents – others have perhaps a father or a mother who cannot cope with looking after children. Many of the children have been abused; many have suffered rejection; in one way or another they have all experienced a good deal of pain and trauma in their lives. But at Still Waters these children receive love and care in abundance. Without exaggeration they become one happy family. The children view themselves as brothers and sisters to one another. Yes, there is still pain – while we were there we saw one young girl in floods of tears having just been left by her mother. But for the most part there is laughter and happiness – we saw it in their eyes.
Although not every child comes from Sri Lanka’s minority Christian community, all of them attend daily prayers. For six nights we attended their evening prayers. These prayers were led by the older children, and tended to last for 35 to 40 minutes. Much of the time was spent in worship – although the Scriptures were also read followed by a brief comment on those Scriptures; there was often a testimony to God’s goodness, and there were also prayers of intercession. As far as the worship was concerned, there was a good deal of singing – the only musical accompaniment was provided by three drummers, who gave rhythm to the songs. There was also a good deal of praying – and it was the praying which impressed us. There were times when the children simultaneously spoke out prayers of thanksgiving to God; at other times they simultaneously confessed their sins; there was even a time of silence. Unfortunately from our perspective, we could not understand what the children were saying, for they prayed in Sinhala – but thankfully Fred was able to translate. But even without the translation, their body language spoke volumes – even the younger children were clearly caught up in worship, in a way in which I have seen few adults caught up. It was an impressive sight – and certainly gave me cause for thought. Can children worship God? These children most certainly could. Why cannot ours?