Real Talk with Mary Ellen: Parents Ask “How Do I Get My Kids to Attend Sunday Worship?”

I’ve occasionally watched the sun set over the caldera near Santorini via live webcam. In real life, Mike and I visited Santorini in one of our P.K. trips (pre-kids).  Re-living the memory activates my amygdala to good effect; beautiful imagery makes me feel happy. That emotional state  influences cognitive processes like learning, attention, modulation of behavior is no longer news.  Thank you brain science! Every school teacher will tell you that learning and engagement improves when kids feel safe, feel included, perceive the community reflects them. In short, a vibrant emotional and relational space is the antidote to student apathy and readies a kid for learning.

Jack and I notice a parallel process with regard to kids and worship. When kids are leading elements of our communal worship, kids experience more engagement. Adults are more engaged too- when kids lead- so said our Calvin Worship Grant results.

What’s happening now that we gather for worship online? We are gathering as a diverse community of digital natives, immigrants, sophisticates, and novices. Many, not nearly all, adults I’ve asked are harnessing their frontal lobes and willing themselves into a worship-full state as they are engaged by online worship Sunday mornings. As with the Santorini sunsets, some might be accessing memories as a lens through which they experience online worship. I asked kids how they are enjoying online worship. Full bodied, widely varying video responses can be found here!. 

Parents are writing for advice: Help!  My kids are struggling with attention; I’m losing my mind.

I noticed that many children of worship musicians  are enjoying online worship.  My theory?  They enjoy it  because they have an emotional and relational connection with the leadership. Well, assuming for the moment that the rest of us aren’t going to become musicians overnight, what can we do?

What follows are my opinions, not necessarily the views of All Angels’ Church:

  • Don’t make your kids attend.  Yea, you heard me.   Affirm with your family that you are the  go-to-church-together-and-worship-together kind of family. AND you agree that this online business is hard and some renegotiation of family policy is in order. 
  • It may be a long time since you wrestled with “what is the meaning of worship?”  It’s a very relevant question now because it is going to drive how you make decisions on Sunday mornings.
  • In utterly reduced terms- communal worship is at least a gathering of believers to praise and glorify God as a community. And the community is reciprocally built up and strengthened from having been in His Presence. Here come the tough questions: does your youth experience those gathered online as their  community?  Do they reasonably expect 5, 10, 20 people to know their name, to know anything about them? Do your young people reasonably expect  that they are specifically being spoken to? The musician’s kids are advantaged, happily, by their relational context. 
  • Maybe a viewing family will need to lean on their assembled family as the “community” and less the gathered virtual viewers.  Younger kids might want to haul out stuffed animals, dolls, action figures to beef up the ranks. 
  • My family’s favorite context is the dinner table.  Setting the laptop up on the table best signals community to us. Huge shared doodling paper might be the invitation to gather for elementary ages kids.
  • I appreciate that invitations to stand, sit, kneel may well be engaging to some.  In my experience, kids don’t so much “obey” as “agree” especially when it comes  to worshipful behavior. Maybe one kid in charge of adjusting lighting to suit the worship mood is their worshipful behavior. Or one kid is in charge of comments in the chat box. In one family, I heard kids figured out how to highlight lines on the digital bulletin.  Could matching colors to the worship state be their embodied worship?  
  • Maybe select 20 to 30 minutes of the service that best serves your family as worship.  Then enjoy brunch together as your spiritual act of worship. 

The last thing we want to do do is cultivate a consumerist, a la carte, voyeur attitude in our kids towards worship.  Neither do we want to amass  Sunday morning  memories of yelling: Sit still!  Stand! Kneel. Stop it.”   It won’t always be like this.  We are all learning. In the meantime, though, while most of the church is gathering with their virtual community together for Sunday morning worship, some families will be gathering as a family coming to worship, creating a worshipful space in their living room, seated in a way that makes sense for them, supplementing with worship activities that draw them into worship in their context. The livestreamed service is serving your family’s worship rather than you are serving it. For my money, it is far more important that your young people have a worshipful experience that includes them, affirms their relationship to the community, speaks to them…than they paid attention to a livestream.

Author: Mary Ellen Lehmann

Director of Children & Youth Ministries at All Angels' Church in New York City. Mary Ellen and her husband, Mike, have been married 30 years, and have four children. Several of them are adults.

3 thoughts on “Real Talk with Mary Ellen: Parents Ask “How Do I Get My Kids to Attend Sunday Worship?””

  1. Thank you Mary Ellen! We are former members of All Angels (PK, as you say) who are now in Pittsburgh. We have been doing some of the things you recommend for some time now but you have managed to relieve some of my guilt over it! Bless you for your ministry, Sarah Ito (42, mom of 3, none of whom are yet adults ☺)

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