On Helping Children to Participate in the Divine Liturgy

We attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and sometimes during the week as well. Admittedly, there are times when it may seem like a long service to us adults, and it is certainly even more so to our children, for whom time feels different. Depending on the child, their age, and their ability to understand what is going on, the Liturgy can seem a daunting service. Getting beyond merely attending (being present) to truly ATTENDING (paying attention and participating) is not easy for any of us, especially for children.

Some have translated the words ‘Divine Liturgy’ as “the work of the people.” Perhaps a better translation is “the offering of the people for the whole world.” Either way, it is the people who do the work or the offering. The Orthodox Church considers all of its members, including children, to be an important part of the Church’s life. Therefore it follows that even the children are needed to do this work/give this offering. So, if it is important that every member of the parish participate in this work/offering, but if it is a challenge even for adults to be fully present and engaged, what can be done to help the children? This blog post will offer a few suggestions, as well as links full of even more ideas of ways that all adults in a parish can help the children of their parish to participate in the Divine Liturgy. Regardless of our status as adults: whether we are parents, godparents, Sunday Church School teachers, or any other adult in a parish, we share the responsibility for helping to raise the children who are a part of our parish.

Rather than focus on the things children should NOT do during the Divine Liturgy, we will frame this blog post more positively. Here are things that children CAN AND SHOULD do during the Liturgy to participate more fully. (I will include a few personal anecdotes as well, to serve as illustrations for some of the ideas.) Children in our parishes can:

See – The very tiniest among us can see the candles, at the icons, at the clergy, at the choir… (For an idea of how to do so: I have always loved watching my husband during the first moments that he holds our godchildren during a Liturgy when they are still very young. I am in the choir, not with him, but I know what is happening. He whispers, “Where’s Jesus? Can you see Jesus? Can you see Mary, His mother?” and I know that he is pointing their thoughts towards why we are in church: to be in God’s presence and to lift our hearts and minds towards Him.) Young preschoolers can look for items in the church such as crosses, animals, the color of Jesus’ robe, etc. Older preschoolers can count how many of those items they see, how many candles are burning in front of Jesus’ icon today, etc. Young elementary students can look for the icon of St. John the Forerunner, the Evangelist whose Gospel we hear during the service, what’s in the window by the Theotokos in the icon of the Annunciation, etc. The list of things to look for is limitless. It takes a little adult pre-planning to think of things for the children to look for, as well as placement in the sanctuary that allows the children to be able to see, but throughout the Liturgy, the children’s attention can be directed to look for things in the icons or in the service itself.

Kiss – Even very tiny children can show their love for God and their veneration of the saints by kissing the icons, the Gospel book, the cross, the priest’s hand, and even their fellow parishioners. (When our baby goddaughter and I arrive at the icon of Christ after communion, I whisper, “Let’s kiss the icon of Jesus. We love you, Jesus! Thank you for giving us your Body and Blood so we can live more like you this week!” and then I venerate the icon. She has yet to kiss the icon, but I know that she will, in time. And in the meantime, she looks intently in His eyes while we have that quiet moment together. We have an older goddaughter who has taken a while to be willing to do any of this kissing, but she has begun to do so. She just needed some time and to be willing to do this on her own. That’s okay!) Be sure to include the children around you in the Kiss of Peace, as well. Encourage your own children to make peace with their siblings before church; or during the Kiss of Peace if need be.

Talk – Although there are many opportunities to be silent, with a little practice beforehand, children can (and should!) talk during the service! There are plenty of opportunities to talk, but we must help them learn when those opportunities are, and what they should say during those times in the Divine Liturgy. With a cue until they get the hang of it, very young children can begin with the “Amens” during the Anaphora. Then, as they learn the following, they can also join in for (probably in this order): the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, the communion prayers, etc. (They even get to SHOUT in church on the Sunday of Orthodoxy! When that Sunday approaches, we must practice, “This is the faith…” with our children ahead of time so they know what to say! My children loved that part of Sunday of Orthodoxy when they were younger. Actually, they still do, even though they are in their late teens!)

Sing – Children can sing “Lord, have mercy!” from a fairly early age. They can learn other responses to the prayers and refrains to the antiphons as well. They can learn to sing the troparia, the kontakion, the Trisagion Hymn, the Cherubic Hymn, the list goes on and on throughout the service. (A favorite song at our parish is “Blessed Be the Name of the Lord,” near the end of the service. The choir director’s granddaughter’s face has always lit up when we arrive at that song, even when she was very small. It is such a delight to watch her as she joyfully sings along!) As with many of the other suggestions for Liturgy participation, this one requires a little work together ahead of time. Gather a collection of CDs of the Church’s music at home, especially ones that use some of the same tunes that your church sings during the Liturgy. Play the CDs often so you can listen and sing together. Listening at home too, makes it much easier for the children to participate during the Divine Liturgy. Besides this additional exposure at home, a key to having the children sing along during the Liturgy is for them to hear other parishioners also singing along. Children who are surrounded by adults who sing along tend to join in as they are able. (Although, “a little child shall lead them” also applies at times: our daughter jumped into singing in the choir before I got up the courage to, and she has been blessing our parish with her voice, ever since! So perhaps it depends on the child…)

Hold – Children can hold service books, either a child’s version (our older goddaughter has worked her way through several versions, in increasing difficulty level, as she has grown) or the regular service book (when they’re old enough to read it – that same goddaughter has a little pocket prayer book containing the Liturgy that she now uses to follow along). Children can also hold and pass the offering plate. Some young boys like to hold a pretend censor and “help” Father or the deacons with the censing. Older children (and adults like me who need it to help them focus!) may want to hold a prayer rope and pray the Jesus Prayer during the Liturgy.


Stand – While in their parents’ arms, and then on their own once they know how to balance on their feet, children can learn to stand reverently during the Epistle, the Gospel, and the Great Entrance. As they get older, they can stand longer and longer until they are able to stand for the entire Liturgy (or at least all of the times that your tradition suggests for standing). (Our son challenged himself at a young age to stand for the whole service. His goal was to be an altar server – which can happen at age 7 in our parish – and he knew he’d have to be able to stand the whole service once he got to do that, so he started practicing when he was 5 or 6. Now that he’s a senior altar server, he is reaping the benefits of having learned to stand so long ago. Both of our children have joked about how tired their schoolmates get, standing during school concerts, etc., because “We’re Orthodox! We stand for hours every Sunday!” so they are quite accustomed to being on their feet. But they had to learn to stand for that long; and to choose to do it.)

 

Hear – From an early age, children can listen to more and more of the service. The Epistle, the Gospel, the homily, the music, the prayers… the list can grow a bit every year until they are listening to the entire Liturgy. Younger children may need to be challenged quietly during the Epistle/Gospel/homily, “Listen for (a word you anticipate will be said multiple times, like ‘Our Lord’) and smile at me or gently squeeze my hand each time you hear Father say it.” Older children can listen for a theme during the scripture readings. (For example, my 10-year-old goddaughter and I listened for “healing” in all of the readings during this year’s Holy Unction service, and quietly pointed it out to each other when we found/heard it.) Many children can listen for “one thing that you want to remember from Father’s homily today” that adults can ask them about during Coffee Hour or on the ride home from church. It can also be helpful to quietly whisper directions that help you both focus better during the Liturgy. (For example, “Listen! Jesus is speaking to us right now, through Father!” just before the priest says, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is broken for you, for the remission of sins…”)

 

Move – There are even opportunities for movement during the Divine Liturgy! Once again, it takes a little pre-teaching, but even young children are able to make the sign of the cross, bow their heads unto the Lord, kneel if/when applicable, reply to Father’s bow with one of their own, etc. We can help the youngest ones to do so, taking their baby fist in our hand to make the sign of the cross over their body, etc. The older ones, with a little preparation ahead of time, can participate fully when the time comes in the service without us physically helping them as much, because they have practiced and they know what to do. During the lenten season, children can also do prostrations! (One of my favorite memories of Great Lent was when my now-elementary-school-aged godson was about 3. He came to some of the lenten services with his parents, and I took great delight in watching him flop himself down wholeheartedly and then joyfully pop right back up again during the prostrations in the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was willingly offering his entire self in praise to God, and I can only imagine that God was infinitely more tickled than I was to see that enthusiastic worship!)

Children love to participate. They long to feel a part of things. They want to contribute to the world around them. Here are a few ways that we adults can help the children in our homes/Sunday Church School classes/parish to do so during the Divine Liturgy.

These ideas are admittedly only a scratch on the surface of ways children can participate in the Divine Liturgy. What ideas do you have? Please comment below and help the rest of this community to better bless and assist the children in their parish. May we all work together to attend the Divine Liturgy; and, as we do so, may we all truly ATTEND, regardless of our age! Glory to Jesus Christ! Glory be, forever!

Here are a few resources with even more ideas of ways to help the children in your parish participate in the Divine Liturgy:

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Fr. Paul Gassios of St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Rossford, Ohio, offers this excellent article about the importance of having children participating in the Divine Liturgy. The article offers suggested guidelines for how often they should attend, where to sit when attending with children, when they can participate in the fasting, and more. He says, “When I hear the ‘holy noise’ of children in Church it makes me very happy because it tells me the parish has a future. We should be worried when we no longer hear that noise!” Read his article here:

http://www.stgeorgerossford.org/parish-life-and-ministries/reflections/4-reflections-sub/109-children-and-the-divine-liturgy

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Purchase a Divine Liturgy Book for Young Children and personalize it with photos from your own parish. This is a great book for your own children to use to familiarize themselves with the Liturgy. It would also make a great gift to godchildren, a Sunday Church School class, or other children in the parish! https://www.createspace.com/4773892

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“Giving children other things [ie: toys] to do during church teaches them that the Liturgy is for adults only and that is not what we want to be teaching our children.” Find this quote in context, part of one of a list of 10 things to do to interest your children in the Divine Liturgy, when you read this blog: http://www.freshandfaithful.com/?p=113.

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“Talk to your child about Church as often as you can. Liken things to Church. Make Church sound fun and exciting. For kids, it can be fun and exciting. [My son] loves Church because there is SO MUCH to look at, listen to, and do. Keep Church in the forefront of their minds.” This is one of many tips from Presbytera Marilisse I. Mars, in her blog http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/2013/01/time-to-go-to-church-a-time-to-fear-and-dread/.

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“Above all, pray for your children to grow in their love for Christ and His Church. No amount of practical advice can substitute for the work of God’s Spirit in the lives of your children. There is no magic formula for producing children who passionately worship the Lord. God has called us to train our children and set a godly example before them, but at the end of the day we must all lay our children at the foot of the cross and call upon our gracious God to be true to His promises and finish the work He has begun in the hearts of our children.” This is only one of the many helpful and practical tips for parents and all adults in a parish, to help them help children to join in during the Divine Liturgy. This entire article is a must-read for any Orthodox Christian adult who wants to fulfill their role with the children in their parish, whether it is parenting, godparenting, being a positive role model, or teaching Sunday Church School: http://www.stlukeorthodox.com/html/parishinfo/helpchildrenworship.cfm

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“Teaching a child to be an Orthodox Christian — and what that means every day — takes a huge commitment and constant effort on the part of the parents and godparents. Here are some of the things we learned the hard way, or were shown to us by people much wiser…” This is at the beginning of a list of ages/stages of helping children to participate in the Divine Liturgy, written by Nichola T. Krouse. Read her tried-and-true ideas here: http://www.theologic.com/oflweb/inchurch/lazyparent.htm

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Orthodox Christian Sunday Church School teachers can also help to influence children’s participation in the Divine Liturgy. “Classroom time should be set aside for questions and answers about that day’s worship.” Read more about this, as well as other ideas and suggestions here: http://www.goarch.org/archdiocese/departments/religioused/resources/religiousedbasics/reledbasicsarticles/reledbasicsliveliturgy

 

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