Things were not as they should have been. The air conditioning unit normally cooling the children’s worship space was not working. Without some fast, ingenious thinking, conditions would be miserable for all its occupants. Doors were propped open and fans were strategically placed. It was makeshift and somewhat precarious, but it might keep things comfortable enough. Then, just a moment too late, on our cue for dismissal from the main service, I realized I was following the children out of the sanctuary. Nothing was holding them back from racing down the hallway and running headlong into one of those fans! I held my breath as the children made their own way solemnly down the hallway, stopped at the open doorway, and turned expectedly that they might receive their call to worship before entering. Relieved, I went over to the doorway and knelt down to welcome them into the room with familiar words, “This is a special time and a special place. It’s not like any other time we have together during the week. We have come here to be with God, to hear and work with the stories of God, to listen to God, and even to talk with God.” Then, as each child was ready, they entered their sanctuary and our time together unfolded with barely any attention given to the fans keeping the room cool.
Children’s ministry is not for the faint of heart. I recently heard one of my seminary students describe working in children’s ministry like being Chris Pratt taming velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It’s not about control, but about building a relationship of mutual respect. Be sure, though, to not lose eye contact, because, at any given moment, the pack can go feral, putting everyone in peril. Maybe it isn’t the most inspiring analogy, but it did flash through my mind as we exited the sanctuary that morning.
Like the majority of my seminary students who prefer working with adults, I wasn’t looking for an opportunity to jump into children’s church. But, noticing the exhaustion in young moms’ faces week after week in my local congregation, I was emboldened to ask about their familiarity with Godly Play and offered to help them develop it for the congregation’s youngest members.
As a seminary student, I had learned about Godly Play, a worship method that nurtures spiritual direction and faith formation, and seen its benefits. Each week, Godly Play invites children into a carefully cultivated space in which they encounter God through sacred stories, parables, silence, worshipful work, and liturgical action. Every component of Godly Play is designed to help children become more aware of the mystery of God in the presence of their lives. Godly Play was developed by Sonja Stewart and Jerome Berryman in their book Young Children and Worship. It is based on Montessori education theories and shares characteristics with Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, as inaugurated by Sofia Cavalietti. Children and adults have been participating in this kind of formative religious experience that prizes contemplation and enjoyment of God in churches across the globe for several generations.
When the aim is to help children enjoy relationship with God, it is necessary to provide an environment that will respect and cultivate the child’s needs and capacities for their level of development. The adult’s role is to prepare the environment and maintain order in that environment so that it fosters concentration, silence, and contemplation in both the child and the adult. Stories from Scripture are the focal point. Using wood figures, felt cutouts, and laminated pieces, the sacred-storyteller shares God’s story, and with their imagination, the children enter the story and experience it. At the end of the story, the adult reflects with the children, using “wondering questions,” trusting the Holy Spirit to help each child grasp what they are ready to understand. Following the story, each child responds by choosing their own work. Some select materials for a story they have previously heard and work with them, reliving the story. Or they may choose to draw pictures about what they were thinking about as they listened to the story or about something else that is important to them. Just as Ignatian Contemplation and Lectio Divina rely on the presence and power of the Holy Spirit to help adults examine and discover new insights as they study the scriptures, Godly Play trusts the Holy Spirit’s presence will enliven and illuminate the heart, mind, and soul of the child.
Therefore, I needn’t have been concerned that Sunday morning. For ten months, the children had practiced walking with purpose and intention in preparation to encounter God during their worship time. Why should the Holy Spirit wait to show up in the room when the story was told? Why not be with them all along, from their time in the large sanctuary and as they walked along the hallway to the quiet, contemplative space the congregation has created for them? All, it turned out, was as it should be