Earlier this week, Amy, our parish minister, said she wanted to talk with me about the worship service. “We’re going to have some dancers, and I’d like the children to see them,” Amy said, “but we’re also welcoming newcomers, too.” “Why can’t the children stay in for both?” I said. I thought it would be good for them to see the newest members of the church sign the membership book and be recognized, and I also thought they’d like to see the dancers. We both knew that the children would be getting religious education whether they were in Sunday school or in the worship service, and I assured Amy that those of us who were teaching wouldn’t mind — if we needed more time we’d run late, or some teachers might just as soon have a little less time to fill.
As it happened, the worship service started late to begin with, at about seven minutes past eleven. I always like to sit in the very back during worship services so I can observe how the children respond. The prelude, “Calm As The Night (Still Wie Die Nacht)” by composer Carl Bohm, played on cello and piano, lived up to its name: it was calming. Worship associate Wynne Furth opening the service with a very short poem “written a thousand years ago by Ono no Komachi, and translated by Jane Hirschfield who lives near here.” When she lit the flaming chalice, Wynne said she remembered the very first time she lit a match; she had waited after her parents said she was ready, until she herself felt she was ready to light a match. I thought what she said was short, matter-of-fact, and charming, and I wondered how the children perceived it.
When the new members were welcomed, I noticed that one boy in the very back row was busy coloring and one girl in the second to last row did not seem to be paying attention. This was not surprising: these were younger children, so most of what they could see was the back of the chair in front of them. I often think how much of what children see in church is the back of the chair in front of them. (a) Fortunately, the dancers made a point of extending their dance down the length of the center aisle; the boy who was coloring looked up as the dancers got closer to him, and once he looked up he didn’t go back to his coloring.
I walked over with the boy who had been coloring. This was his first day at church. I had met him briefly when I had talked to his father before the worship service, so I was able to greet him by name (I’ll call him Hank) and offer to walk to our Sunday school room with him. Hank looked a little bit anxious, and his father came walked over with us, but Hank (who is about seven) was ready to stay on his own, so his father left.
When we got to our room, I saw that all four of us teachers, Lee, Melissa, Susie, and me, were present; Oliver was also present;– but I did not see the girl whom I had spotted in the worship service. I thought she was old enough to come to Sunday school, and wondered if she had decided to stay with her parent and younger sister this first time at church, but I thought I had best check. I opened the door, and there was a girl standing in the patio, looking rather lost, her arms stiff and straight, her hands clenching each other. “Are you coming to Sunday school?” I said. She obviously didn’t know what I meant when I said “Sunday school,” so I continued, “Are you coming to be with the other children?” “I don’t know where I’m supposed to be,” she said plaintively, her eyes big and round. “You should come right in here,” I said as reassuringly as possible, “I’ve just come looking for you.”
So we began class with just three children, two of whom were feeling a little lost because they were at church for the first time. I had planned to tell a second story about Theodore Parker that followed up on last week’s story, do some creative movement based on the story, then ask Susie to lead the children in some beginning meditation, then have time for the children to work on our quilt project — but looking at the two new children, I threw out this lesson plan, because the most important thing was to make them feel at home.
We did attendance, and lit the chalice. Susie asked Oliver to light the flaming chalice, but he didn’t want to. I asked him to lead us in our regular chalice lighting words, which he did with some prompting from us adults. I explained the hang gestures that go with our chalice lighting words, and then I explained how we do check-in. Amy, the new girl, decided to pass, but the rest of us (including Hank) said one good thing and one bad thing that happened in the past week; actually Oliver told us two good things and two bad things.
“Now let’s play a game,” I said, and we began playing Zip, Zap, Zoop. We played for a good ten minutes. Lee was sitting in between Oliver and May, and when play came to her she would stop, look up at the ceiling and think, and then go “Zip!” to Amy, whereupon Amy would “Zap!” it back to her, and Lee would “Zip!” to Oliver, who would “Zap!” back to her, and finally she would “Zoop!” to Henry across the circle, who would then “Zoop!” right back to her; and each time, Lee would stop and roll her eyes up and think about what she was supposed to do. The new children were delighted that Lee, one of the adults, had to think about the game just as hard as they did. Towards the end, we added in the rule that if you did one of the moves wrong, you had to do the Funky Chicken. Oliver did things wrong twice in succession, and hammed it up, doing a full-fledged Funky Chicken Dance. Then Hank did something wrong, and felt he had to do what Oliver did; but when he had finished an Oliver-style Funky Chicken Dance, he said, “Let’s not play this game any more. I don’t like doing the Funky Chicken.” We said we would stop playing, and we assured him that he didn’t have to do a dance; we told him how Dorit, when she had to do the Funky Chicken, just said “Peck, peck.” in a bored voice. That made Henry feel better, but it was still time to stop playing the game.
I read the same story I had read last week, the story about Theodore Parker and the turtle; as I said earlier, none of these children had heard the story before. When the story was done, I told the children that we would draw pictures of the story. But Amy said she didn’t know how to draw very well. “I’m nervous,” she added to me in an aside. We determined that some of the children did not know what to draw, so I told them they could draw the moment when Theodore Parker was about to hit the turtle. Some of the children did not know how to draw a turtle, but Oliver did, and I said we could see what Oliver drew and then all copy it. “It’s been a long time since I’ve drawn a turtle,” said Oliver, but he proceeded to draw what everyone said was a beautiful turtle. The other children, and some of us adults, copied Oliver’s turtle. At last we were all done, and one by one we showed our pictures to everyone else.
I caught Susie’s eye, and said that maybe we could do some meditation now? Susie said yes, though we exchanged a look that said: Maybe this won’t work out so well this week. We all sat down on the floor (we had been sitting around a table for the rest of the session). Susie did a simple, short explanation of how to meditate. She had us all sit comfortably on the floor, and when Hank couldn’t quite sit still she told him that while he could not sit on her lap (she needed to be able to mediate, too) he could lie on the floor next to her. Amy sat cross-legged next to me. Susie explained what to do if any thoughts came into their minds. Amy said, “But I can’t think of anything.” Susie said, “That’s good, Amy, when we meditate we don’t need to think of anything at all.” Susie wound up doing a sort of extemporaneous guided meditation, with a few moments of silence at the end.
The worship service was running late, so I decided that we would play a few name games. We played the Grocery Store Game for a while, then we played another name game. Hank and Amy were feeling a little more comfortable by this time, but even so, any time there was a little extra stress they would begin to feel nervous: you could see it in their body postures.
At last it was time to do a closing circle. I showed everyone how to hold hands so that each person would have one hand up and one hand down. Then I reviewed what we had done, inviting the children to add what they remembered of what we had done. “I am so glad you were all here this week, children,” I said, “and hank and Amy, I hope you’ll come back next week.” “Oh, I’ll be back,” said Amy, “I’ll be back every week.” Hank, however, was too busy finding his drawing to say anything; and when his father came in to pick him up, he was anxious to who the drawing (although by now he wasn’t quite sure what the drawing was about).
Comments for the reader:
(a) The New England ancestors of Unitarian Universalism designed their meetinghouses so that all nearly everyone in the church could see and hear everything; pulpits were high so the people sitting on the floor and in the balcony could see the preacher; altar tables stood in plain view in front of the pulpit so everyone could see the communion service when it came time for communion; and both pulpit and altar table stood in the center of one of the long walls (or the rooms were square) so that the sight lines were as short as possible. We lost something when we started building churches instead of meetinghouses, that is, rectangular buildings with the pulpit on one of the short walls so that those who sat in the back of the church were quite a bit farther from the worship service than those in the front. Worse yet, in many of our churches, we have moved the worship leaders down closer to the floor in a misguided attempt at egalitarianism — moving the worship leaders closer to those who sit in the front rows, but out of sight of those who have to sit in back. The end result is that children often cannot see what goes on in the worship service, as happened this week in our church during the new member welcome.
(b) We are facing two obvious problems in this Sunday school class. First, we don’t have many children who come regularly to this new 11:00 Sunday school session, so if three families decide not to come to church on a particular week (as happened this week), we lose most of our regular children. Second, because most of our newcomers seem to come to the 11:00 worship service on their first visit to church, we get children who have never been to our church before, or indeed who have never been to any religious institution before.
(c) Church is a completely new experience for many children in our postmodern secular society; thus many children do not know how to act or what to do when they get to church. Years ago, I remember talking to one eleven-year-old boy who was so curious about religion (he had already read much of the Bible on his own, at age eleven!) that he convinced his mother to take him to church; weeks alter, he told me that one of the most difficult things he had ever done was to walk into that church with his mom. Over the years, I have seen many children react to their first visit to church the way Hank and Amy reacted: Hank was easily distracted and had a very hard time sitting still; Amy looked to be on the verge of tears at times; both children showed anxiety and nervousness in their body language (and I suspect that there may be gender differences in how children respond to stress: boys may be more likely to act out physically, girls may be more likely to tend towards tears).
(1) When new children come to Sunday school, what do you do to make them feel comfortable? When a new child is easily distractable or appears close to tears, how do you address those feelings?