Little ones at church

The day after I posted my church experience, I wrote a follow-up post about the church and young people. But the afternoon I wrote it, I got a splitting headache and my lights started flickering and my furnace, which was turned off, started blowing air-conditioned air through my furnace vents. So I thought maybe Satan was attacking me, but then I thought – with cool air in summer? And I laughed, and figured somebody hit an electric pole and it was just a bad day.

But I’m still going to share what I wrote. Late.

Yesterday Last week I shared the story of my childhood church. I have tried multiple times to write the story of my second church community experience, in Ohio, but I found I cannot. I do not think I am still angry, though I may be without realizing it. There were good parts, and good people. But I have no words for the sense of displacement I felt for a decade in that place. So we must move on.

When I talk about my experience, one of the things that stands out is my birth church’s premium on children: relating to them, including them, loving them, laughing with them, working alongside them, giving them a life and a place.

I hear this question a lot in our churches today: Why are we losing our young people? Why are we losing our young people? But I do not think we are losing our young people. I think we are losing our children.

People in any group find inclusion through being valued, which I break down into two things: being seen, and being needed. I’m concerned that there’s a whole group we’re missing – not the 16-20 year old’s, who are becoming adult enough to draw our attention – but the quiet 10-15 year old group. We sort of assume their parents are taking care of them at that stage, but I’m not worried about young people leaving the family. I’m worried about them leaving the church, the place where they’re not finding enough belonging, enough reason to stay. We’re reaching to engage them too late, and we’re finding they’ve already checked out.

And it’s not primarily a pastoral/ political problem, the kind of thing somebody else should do something about. We-the-people are the ones who connect to them, or not.

What would it look like if every child in your church had a personal connection to every adult? Or, if your church is so populous that your blood pressure went up just thinking about it, to several key adults? What would your church look like if you made a point of speaking personally to several children each week – especially in that 10 to 15 year old age group? Calling them by name, asking about their interests, laughing, reaching your hand to touch their shoulder?

(No, it would not solve everything. I cannot think of anything that would solve everything. And I admit I am in danger of caring too much about little ones; you might say they are my life work.)

What is the role of the children in the Kingdom? What place can they fill at church that no one else can?

If there is no role for them, why do we keep producing them?

Or are we just thinking ahead to their adult contributions?

I do not for a moment imagine this type of disconnect is only a Mennonite problem, yet as Anabaptists we are in position to miss an important piece, because although we enjoy children, we tend to hold them at arm’s length when it comes to active church participation. We believe in believer’s baptism. Adult accountability. Adult communion. Adult jobs. Adult discipleship and leadership.

Why did Jesus say, “Let the little children come to me, and do not forbid them, for this is what my Kingdom is made of”? Why did He say, “If you want to be part of me, you have to become like them”?


How are children seen and needed at your church? How were you? What are some practical ways we could we do better at drawing them in?

As always, I am influenced by the book Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand: How to Create a Culture that Cares for Kids, by James Vollbracht.

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Esther Smith
5 years ago

Much food for thought. Thank you.

5 years ago

This… I agree 500%. Thank you for voicing this. Our future is in our children and so much of the time we don’t even know it.

5 years ago

You have spoken my heart! And more importantly I believe, God’s heart!

Jolynn Schmucker
5 years ago

I have felt burdened by this for a long time but I do not have answers. Our pastor sometimes has a class for children before he preaches the sermon. He does a great job and I think they like it – it gives them a chance to ask questions and give responses in at least part of the formal service.

5 years ago

Oh Shari, I loudly echo your sentiment. I recently read the quote, “Be the adult in the lives of your students that you needed when you were their age.” The quote was directed to teachers but it can be applied to any position in life. Our church is so small and some Sundays our pastor’s six year old son passes the offering basket. I made the comment to someone that it’s not very often that the usher is barefoot! I love it that our church can use the young ones. In our church at Hartville, it was common for the young boys 10-15 to help passing the offering basket. I love it when our young boys feel a part of church life. Thank you, for writing. This inspires me to find that child at church and to pursue them.

5 years ago

I’ve really enjoyed your last two posts and keep thinking I should comment and let you know! I guess third times a charm because this one is also spot on. We attend a very small church in northern MN (so much like the one you described, but no, not the same one). My 8 year old son is the oldest of a bunch of younger kids and then we don’t have any other kids older until age 13. We have the grandparents and young families but not the families in between. Its not because they have left, its just because they were never there. You wrote, “What place can they fill at church that no one else can?” and this question is making me think this morning….honestly, my boys, especially the oldest (and the 5 yr old takes all his cues from the 8 yr old) already have no desire to go to church. And I wonder if I am losing them already.

5 years ago

What if the 50 – 60 year olds among us would make it a point of doing special activities once a week / month with our 10-15 year olds? I did this for awhile with our girls and they loved it. Teaching them caligraphy, sewing, card stamping, baking cookies; and then letting them choose a menu and planning a special supper, inviting their parents to come. They served the parents and washed the dishes!
Maybe it’s just the interaction and the knowing that we care about their lives that cheers them on….

Rachel Shenk
5 years ago
Reply to  Ina

Yes to this!!! From my perspective we are really missing the link between the older generation and the younger ones. In the farm community we have observed how the Amish do this so right. Dad is milking the cows and running the farm while mom is gardening and selling produce. But its grandpa who is puttering around with sonny trailing along, teaching him the lessons of life. Something seems SO right about this.The older generation has the time and the life experience to pass on…sadly in most cultures they are either working or (here is another thing I keep hearing) “well, that was so long ago, I don’t remember what how I handled that [difficult situation] with my kids…” That is so frustrating!

5 years ago
Reply to  Ina

Ina, can you move to my town???I love this discussion and this article. I love how it’s not a rant, but an inward look. So many of these things are not solved by making another committee or another position to fill the need, but by taking personal responsibility and becoming aware of the need and how God may be calling me to fill it.

5 years ago

This subject is dear to my heart. Thank you for sharing! Also loved your last post.
The church we are part of is bulging with children and young people. There are two older ladies who give candy, some sticker-givers, and our dear bishop takes time to kneel down and talk with little ones, drawing something special on their hands. (Yes, we mommies have to sometimes instruct little people that it’s okay for Him to do it, but not them. ;)) I think we could do better about having children’s classes besides Sunday school. It’s rather rare. God help us to nurture the young ones!

5 years ago

What you said about how our thoughts about adult baptism, membership, participation is very succint. Thank you. One lovely tradition that has developed in our congregation is that the children are welcomed to help the deacons clean up the small cups, towels, and basins after our communions services. They exhibit such joy in the serving, as well as in the small piece of bread offered them when they are finished. They are brought in to the remembering and celebration, in an age appropriate way. I get teary-eyed every time I witness this space being made for them to be present physically before they can formulate all the positions / words.

5 years ago
Reply to  Janelle

This is beautiful! Such a great idea

5 years ago

I grew up in (and still attend) a medium size church. Yes, the 10-15 yr olds, you are right on, and i might add, it starts before that, from the time a child is born. There is something so special when adults other than your parents stop and talk to you! I still love those kind souls with all my heart and count it a PRIVILEGE to still go to church with them! They aren’t perfect and definitely have their faults, but those faults are so easy to overlook when I remember the handshakes and kind words during those years. Among the girls my age I was the shy one, not witty, not funny. not a PK, not at all popular, nor did I have any other quality that would make anyone stop and talk to me like they did to the other girls in my group. But a couple ladies noticed, I can still remember the thrill that would go through me when they took the time for a handshake and a smile. One day a kind lady mentioned that she saw how things were among my peers and told me to hang in there. It was SO NICE to hear the encouragement from someone who had no reason to care, but did anyway!!!!

5 years ago

Good post. Thank you. May I suggest that this problem is not helped by the fact that early on, children learn to go find their own age group after church, and go outside/downstairs or into the nursery/library and talk among themselves? I don’t have the answer to that either, but it doesn’t help the intergenerational relationships. I scrammed for the vehicle when I was a child, too, to chat with siblings and 2nd cousins. My husband visited with his age group, too. We aren’t there yet with our children. I’m just saying that it’s pretty hard to connect with children who are walking laps around the church. I do like to say hello and goodbye to them if we pass each other, even if they look at me like I’m strange.

5 years ago
Reply to  Kathryn Swartz


5 years ago

What if you have a generation of mothers who say, “Oh no! They’re not holding my baby!” We have very few babies in our church and lots of baby lovers. This has created a backlash that is hard to accept. I may not hold babies anymore? and I can’t produce them either? I’m dying! Thankfully the latest mother isn’t super protective. I do try to reach out to young ones but sometimes they look sideways at each other, chatter or whisper after I’m gone. etc. Or if you play volleyball with them once, you never will again! It needs to go both ways. And thankfully there are some connections there too. You’re right. At age 12 I could spend a long time visiting with my next door aunt-by-marriage and felt valued. So I try to pass that on when and where I can. And I miss sitting cross-legged on Grandma’s living room floor listening to the Uncles and her discuss Scripture! These posts touch deep feelings and memories for me.

5 years ago

You’ve got me thinking…….. And what I keep thinking is – maybe a lot of this does actually start at home? We’ve always had a lot of ‘grown up’ conversations with our kids; allowed them opinions and voice in topics ‘way over their heads’. One of the results of this is a 14 year old daughter who is one of my best friends and confidantes. She tells me that her friends complain about the way their parents treat them like little kids and that she doesn’t feel that way. I think this is the kind of relationship you’re advocating for between old and young in our churches. Maybe a place to start is cultivating that kind of relationship between parents and their children?

…I am still thinking…

5 years ago
Reply to  Shari Zook

Yes, you’re right. I was thinking after I commented that maybe I should have said “maybe one side of this is cultivating that…” rather than “maybe a place to start…” Maybe working on that side would help the part of kiddos receiving it? I dunno.

One little tangible thing is really putting your heart into that Sunday school class you get nominated to teach!! And that doesn’t mean just following the pathetic little SS quarterlies we use…….. ?(But that is a side rant!) I have fond memories of certain teachers who always did a little extra and made it interesting and special.

Dorcas G.
5 years ago

Your post touched a chord in my heart! I have often pondered that same question! I think you have unveiled truth! Thinking back to my childhood, we had a large church, but guess what sticks out in my memory- that minister that loved children and took the time to talk to us and give us ‘swing/rides’ on his long arms! In his older age, he gave out dozens of ‘birdie eggs(tic-tacs) to young children! My husband is now the minister of our church… it warms my heart to see him show that same love to the youngsters. When he was first ordained, he was one of two ministers and the church was small. Our two young sons were given the privilege of helping the deacon prepare and carry the buckets and towels to the appointed places for the feet-washing service in communion. This is still a tradition we use, asking a couple young boys to help out. You have given me inspiration to reach out- thank you!

Mama Zook
5 years ago

There is another side to this concept also…that of making little children from outside the Mennonite church feel welcome into the church!! When I was twelve and needed to leave my home, I wanted more than anything to become a part of that church that had loved me into their lives for the past 8 or 9 years!! And the Good Father made it happen, I am forever blessed because the older people in that little church were not afraid to love on little deplorables! Before they passed away, I made it a point to thank some of those who influenced my life at a time when I needed it most!

We attend a church now that often uses the younger ones to lead singing, (even though imperfectly), or have devotions, (even though it may be only three or four sentences besides the scripture they read)! We need to be ok with things not being perfectly, these are warriors in training!

5 years ago
Reply to  Mama Zook

Yes! Especially in larger churches were “perfect” is an option or the standard

5 years ago

Finally I have ordered my copy of ” Stopping at Every Lemonade Stand”! For a little over a year we have been in a church like this and it has been healing and revealing.

5 years ago

Yes, yes. We wonder why we are loosing the young people but I agree that it’s because we’ve already lost them. When they were younger, they were never ‘pulled in’ to the church, never made to ‘feel connected.’ As one who is still quite young and has moved several times in the past ten years, I can say it is not hard to leave a place where one was never known or valued. But to leave a place where you have been loved even by people whose faults you see clearly, that is a different story. It pulls.
It doesn’t take much to make a big difference… acknowledge them, let them be fellow humans to you and treat them as such. It takes so little and means so much and enriches you in return.
Just Amen, Shari. And thanks for the reminder. I see areas in my own life that I can put it into practice more than I have been.

Marsena K Weaver
5 years ago

Thank you Shari, as always, I enjoyed this read. My mind is busy….the comments were amazing, too. We are just past the 5 year mark of starting our small outreach church, and this what I LOVE about small church, but I am also seeing how as we grow in number, we *can* lose ground in closeness and communication. You have caught my attention, and I plan to put thought into how I can do this personally. God bless you for writing, and for making ‘littles’ your life work!

Alisa Schrock
5 years ago

This is so excellently thought-provoking.. !

5 years ago

I have taught the 3rd and 4th grade Sunday school class the last two years. I enjoyed connecting with them, a couple things I did was stand at the door as they entered and said good morning to each one by name. I also challenged them to do some Bible Memory work to earn a Bible with their name engraved on it. The first year they had to memorize Jude and the second year Psalm 91 & 92. We also had them over for a Sunday afternoon to go hiking and for supper, then we took them back to church in the evening. My prayer is that they see me as a friend and not just the preacher’s wife. We also have an older lady that gives out a couple of Smarties to each child that comes and says Hi to her.

5 years ago

Well. I thought from your title that you’d have something (miraculous) to say about training babies to sit still and be quiet. Oh well. It was a good post anyway.

5 years ago
Reply to  ClaudiA

? I wish! How about you write that post and share it with ME?

Regina S
5 years ago

Shari, I’ve been pondering this topic especially when I think of young people from my Christian homeschool that I watched grow up and have left the faith. Sadly one died in a high speed motorcyle crash a few years ago at age 22. I don’t think there are any easy answers. I like the ideas of taking the time to acknowledge their existence. I’m ashamed that I don’t know many of the children at our church. I think because they are separated during the service in their own classes. I would love to see more interactions between the adults and children and not just during the children’s class time. Maybe I’m rambling. Shari, you’ve given us much to think about.

5 years ago

I’ve always said there are two very special kinds of people in a church community: the ones who will take a crying baby out of your arms instead of quickly shoving her back at that point, and the ones who will love and listen to your children when they sprout front teeth too big for their mouths and suddenly aren’t all that cute anymore: and I’m still convinced of it. I really agree with the need to focus on the 10-15 year old group. Their minds are no longer liquid, easily stirred and poured and changed. Suddenly things are setting up, forming, taking shape. The time to do what should be done feels terrifyingly short. You need to move quickly and with great carefulness, or something will be damaged…at least, that’s the way I’m feeling as a parent of two children in this age group. I am grateful beyond words for input in their lives by any available godly adult.

Linda Stoltzfus
5 years ago

The questions you end with here have been my questions for years. I’m still looking for a solid revelation of what it is that we are to become like them in order to be like Jesus. I feel like so much of the culture I grew up in regarded children as having a “fallen nature” and inherently “bent to sin” which doesn’t jibe in my brain with what Jesus said about becoming like children. I am not saying these points are not valid to some degree but I suspicion we’ve missed something really huge in Jesus’ words. Could the problem of losing our children be related to our subconscious assumptions of who they are? Are we seeing in them what Jesus did when he said ‘you must become like them?

Aimee Stauffer
5 years ago

Thank you, Shari, for the challenge! . . . Was needed here in my heart!!!

Tabitha Schmidt
5 years ago

This post and these comments—my heart and mind have been touched deeply.

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