We attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and sometimes during the week as well. Admittedly, for us adults, there are times when it may seem like a long service, and so we can be assured that our children will sometimes experience that same challenge even more intensely. Depending on the child, their age, and their ability to understand what’s going on, helping a child to learn to participate-in and engage-with the Liturgy can seem a daunting task. Getting beyond merely attending (being present) to truly ATTENDING (“Let us be attentive…” paying attention and participating) isn’t easy for any of us, especially for children.
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 can contribute toward the act of offering worship. So here are things that parents can help their children do during the Liturgy to participate more fully.
SIT UP FRONT
Fr Allan encourages parents to sit up front with their small children. Children want to see what’s going on in the liturgy and to be engaged with it, which is much more interesting than looking at the backside of the person sitting in front of them. Fr Allan considers it a great blessing to have children near the front and the noises children make in church are far less distracting to him than you’re imagining. Of course, if your child is having a melt-down, it’s certainly time to take him or her to the Cry-Room until they’re relatively calm again. Once they’ve calmed down, it’s vitally important to bring them back into the liturgy, where they can continue learning how to engage with our worship.
The very tiniest among us can see the candles, the icons, the clergy, and the choir. You can whisper, “Where’s Jesus? Can you see Jesus? Can you see Mary, His mother?” In this way, you are 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 Baptist…the Forerunner, identify the Gospel writer whose Reading we hear during the service, what’s in the icon of the Theotokos, 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.
Even very tiny children can show their love for God and their veneration of the saints by kissing the icons, the Gospel book, the priest’s hand, and even their fellow parishioners. (When you take your child to the chalice for communion, you can whisper afterward, “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 you venerate the icon. Eventually, your child will also want to kiss the icon.)
Although there are many opportunities to be silent, there are many places that children can (and should!) talk during the service! There are plenty of opportunities to talk, but it’s our role to 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 time when we are sanctifying the gifts. 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.
Children can easily 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 Hymn to Saint John the Theologian, the Trisagion Hymn (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal…”), the Cherubic Hymn, the list goes on and on throughout the service. 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.
If a child wishes, they can help an adult pass out bulletins to people as they arrive for church in the narthex. When entering the narthex, a child can touch a beeswax candle in the narthex and light a candle with their parent’s supervision, while their parent explains that Jesus is the Light of the world. Children can hold service books, either a child’s version or the regular service book. If it’s arranged ahead of time, children can also hold and help pass the offering plate with the ushers. You can get them a prayer rope and teach them how to use it. They can bring crayons and color the picture in the bulletin, or bible-based/icon-based coloring books.
While in their parents’ arms, and then on their own once they know how to balance on their feet, children can learn how to stand reverently during the Gospel, and the Great Entrance. Explain to them why we’re standing reverently…to show respect and reverence for God’s Words and to show honor for the gifts of bread and wine being offered. Teach them how to cross their arms on their chest when they come up for communion. As children get older, they can stand longer and longer until they are able to stand for the entire Liturgy.
From an early age, children can listen to more and more of the service. The Epistle, the Gospel, the sermon, the music, the prayers… the list can grow a bit every year until they are listening to the entire Divine 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. 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 Allan!” just before the priest says, “Take, eat: This is my Body, which is broken for you, for the remission of sins…”)
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.
Children love to participate. They long to feel a part of things. They want to contribute to the world around them and especially to what’s happening in Church. The ideas above are merely a few ways that we adults can help the children to engage in worship during the Divine Liturgy.