Thursday, 9 January 2014

Well, would you want to worship there?

Recently I've had the privilege of doing a bit of editing on a handbook for Sunday school teachers. And for the most part I just plugged along, cleaning things up here and there, and rearranging things a bit. But every once in awhile I became totally distracted, because really, Sunday school is my passion. I love pretty much everything about Sunday school. I love the rituals, the stories, the prayers, the response times and of course, the conversations. And so I kept getting completely drawn into the material, imagining new ways of engaging children and new ways of embracing the spiritual practice of teaching. 

On each read through I was caught by a different part of the discussion. One in particular though, grabbed me each time - creating and setting aside worship space.

Worship space matters. It really does. We know this. We pay very careful attention to the environment of our sanctuaries. This is evident in even the relatively simple worship spaces in many Mennonite churches. We wrestle and agonize (I've seen it) over carpet choices, and pew or chair placement, on colours and fabrics and visuals (or lack of visuals). Should the pulpit be here or there? How large should it be? Should we have one? Why do we have one? Should we hang banners or art pieces? What kinds? Do we use candles? What visual would help the congregation to focus this week? How will the communion elements be displayed? ...

We care a great deal about our worship spaces. At least we do for our sanctuaries. But what about our Sunday school/faith formation spaces. The spaces in which we engage the biblical story and learn together with children, youth, and adults. These are spaces in which worship happens too. Particularly for children, who are often not the "target audience" during the actual worship service. Sunday school for children is where they meet God. It's where they enter into the biblical story and pray together. It's where they fellowship and grow and are welcomed into the faith community. Sunday school is their worship space. And that space matters.

But let's face it. Often our Sunday school rooms get the short end of the stick. They aren't generally the most hospitable rooms in our churches and often they more closely resemble closets  (can we say teeny tiny?) or offices than worship spaces. I'm not saying that Sunday school rooms need to be all tricked out with electronics, or painted a zillion funky colours, or have ultra cool furniture or be filled with expensive toys. I actually wouldn't advocate for any of those ideas.  I'm simply aware that environment plays a role in one's ability to enter into a worshipful space. It's true for most adults and it's true for most children as well.

Some things I've noticed in leading children in worship (simply from my personal experience):
  • Toys, particularly toys made of plastic, are often distracting and lead to a particular style of play that isn't conducive to worship.
  • Chairs, tables, paper and pencils (particularly when they are all used at the same time) are distinctly reminiscent of school and elicit school oriented responses.
  • Room to engage the story, pray, and sing using our whole bodies leads to creative and embodied worship.
  • A few carefully placed objects (a rock, a pitcher of water, story figures) can help children focus.
  • Interesting objects that aren't part of their regular every day experience (candles, hour glass, prayer beads, chimes, an altar), help them to focus even more.
  • Technology (videos in particular) tends to lead to consuming rather than conversing.
  • Special spaces, special foods, carefully prepared, make children feel valued.
  • Items made of fabric, glass, wood, stone, ceramic, and metal make children feel valued too (notice how these are less often used up and tossed in the trash).
  • Engagement through multiple senses leads to reflection at multiple levels.
  • Chairs that leave slivers are ouchy.
A worship space doesn't need to be elaborate to be meaningful. But it does need to show some intention. It needs to communicate that our children are valued and worthy of hospitality and preparation. It needs to communicate something of the holy, something of ritual, something of mystery. At least, if that's what you want to invite them into. If you're just looking for them to learn that Noah was 500 years old and then do a crossword, ignore my post entirely. ;)

And I'm not saying that we can't meet God anywhere at anytime. Certainly we encounter God in the most mundane and least expected locales. But I do think that when we make space to intentionally be in God's presence, there's a lot of merit to making sure that people feel welcomed into that space. There's a lot of merit to creating a space that facilitates worship. And that's every bit as true when you're 3 as when you're 30.

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