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Dr. Tori Smit with the Presbyterian Church in Canada has practical advice for churches with few children

APCE workshop delivers six faith formation practices churches can use

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Ben Wicks via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Tori Smit, a diaconal minister and professional Christian educator in the Presbyterian Church in Canada serving the 262 churches in the Synod of Central, Northeastern Ontario and Bermuda — yes, that Bermuda — offered an insightful workshop during last week’s annual event of the Association of Partners in Christian Education, addressing a situation many churches find themselves in: “What to do when the kids are few.”

“It’s the most common phone call I get, maybe two or three times each week,” Smit told a crowd of more than 30 people meeting in person in Birmingham, Alabama and another 55 or so online. The call starts with the person apologizing for bothering Smit, then lamenting how few children turn out for Sunday school classes. Can Smit recommend a curriculum that will work with just a few children? “The teachers want lessons that are easy to plan,” callers tell Smit. “And if it was free, that would be great.”

Smit decided to come up with some answers, which turned up in her APCE workshop. Along the way she tried to ask and answer important questions: How do children come to faith? How can they grow in faith? What practices lend themselves well? Which are best suited with few children present?

Dr. Tori Smit

Smit’s research produced six best practices:

  • Provide meaningful participation in intergenerational worship. In many churches Smit knows, children are in church for just 15 minutes on a Sunday. “They’re given a five-minute children’s story, prayed for, and sent downstairs,” she said. “They aren’t participating in worship at all. … If our children aren’t present, our body is not complete.” Children “need to be climbing over and under the pews and learning the different parts of worship,” Smit said. One suggestion: invite children and youth to serve a brief term on your church’s worship committee. But keep the commitment on the light side. “A three-year term for a seven-year-old is a bit much,” Smit said. Children “are well-tuned to rituals, and they love repetition,” according to Smit. They also appreciate silence, wonder, awe, mystery and music. One church she worked with had an usher partner with a child to teach the youngster how to take up the offering. By the third week, the usher just walked alongside watching the child perform the worship task. After six weeks, the pastor said, “OK kids, you can take the offering now.” But the children said no. They wanted to stick with their friend, the usher.
  • Consider new models for church school. Some churches have switched to mid-week programs. Others hold seasonal, intergenerational events. Take all the time you would put into weekly Sunday school, she suggests, and put it into a once-a-month activity “that has a great VBS feeling to it.” Some churches are opting for project-based learning, such as in-depth learning about poverty or great music for the church. Other churches rely on small, intergenerational groups meetings in homes. Children help prepare the meal and participate in dinnertime conversation.
  • Support and resource parents for the unique role they have in the spiritual formation of their children. Smit hears from many churches that parents don’t know how to talk about faith at home. She encourages participating in religious activities at home, working faith into all of life and being part of an intergenerational community of faith.
  • We ought to share our stories of faith with one another as part of God’s big story. “Children come into the world spiritually connected from birth,” Smit said, “but they adopt their faith from the people they know and love best of all. They know you, and the person who gives them a peppermint at church.” Churchgoers ought to aim at telling their faith story “in the context of God’s big story, God’s continuing action.” One biblical example: when the apostle Stephen was arrested and asked by the high priest if the trumped-up charges were true, Stephen “went back to the beginning and told the whole story of why where he is now is part of God’s big story,” Smit said.
  • Involve children in service projects and acts of justice. “It’s the most transformative thing that we all can do,” Smit said. “Our children need to see we care for children.” Among other services, children can sort food in the food pantry or serve meals to people without a house. They can also take part in their church’s community garden.
  • Make “intentionally intergenerational” the default position of your congregation. “It’s not all ages in one space at one time doing individual things,” Smit said. “It’s actually the conversation and the possibility of faithful conversations across the table together.”

Smit said she recommends churches “pick one practice and work with it for a year.” During a sermon on the Parable of the Prodigal and His Brother, children can draw faces conveying the emotions of the main participants. They can use modeling clay to craft something they’re grateful for. “It gives them something multi-sensory to do during the sermon,” Smit said.


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