Wednesday, March 26, 2014

12 Developmental Steps for Children & Youth in the Life of a Congregation

I usually write about the things that our children and youth should know and how we can teach it to them at home and at church. But I have been thinking more recently about all of the things that we need to teach our children to be able to do as they grow in maturity as a member of a community of faith. 

So I thought through the ways that children develop in their capabilities as members of the community and came up with twelve markers (based on age and area of competency) to help us all think about how we are nurturing and encouraging children in their role as members of the church. 

This is not intended as a critique of children who have not yet taken these steps, but as an aid to examining how we share our expectations with children and youth and the opportunities we give them to meet or exceed those expectations.

In my experience, children and youth are ready for many of these things much earlier than we would think. They are simply waiting to be asked to rise to the occasion. 


1. By the end of elementary school, a child should be able to follow along in a worship bulletin on their own, understand the cues for sitting and standing, and be able to use the worship resources as needed throughout the service - song book, hymnal, Bible, etc. This skill is obviously best nurtured when children are regular participants in worship.

2. By the end of middle school, a student should be able to slip in and out of the sanctuary during worship without being noticed. This can come in handy if they need to excuse themselves to the restroom, if they are helping with programming outside the sanctuary during worship, or if they just need to take a break to be able to make it through the rest of the service. Honestly, this is a skill that many adults lack, and in a youth it shows their growing appreciation of the sacredness of worship.

3. By the end of high school, a youth should be able to greet and welcome a visitor to the worshiping community. This could mean a hearty handshake and hello during the passing of the peace. It could mean making space in the pew for a stranger who needs a seat. It could even mean noticing when someone can’t find a hymnal and offering theirs.


4. By the end of elementary school a child should be able to look up a passage in the Bible using the regular notation for chapter and verse, e.g., Matthew 5:19. This skill is developed by following along with scripture readings in worship, looking up passages on their own in Sunday school, and reading the Bible regularly at home. 

5. By the end of middle school a student should be able to read and teach a simple Bible story to a younger child or group of children. This skill is directly related to a student’s ability to comprehend and understand a narrative from the Bible and to convey it in their own words. Again this comes from practice especially in a congregation where youth are encouraged to work with and mentor younger children.

6. By the end of high school a youth should be able to apply a story from the Bible or a piece of scripture to their own personal experience. This is the next step in reading comprehension: beyond retelling or explaining a passage to actually being able to apply the Bible to their own lives or the lives of others. Granted, not all of the Bible is easily applicable. But, for example, if they were engaged in a conversation about the parable of the Prodigal Son, they should be able to understand the story as it related to a time when they themselves have received or offered unearned forgiveness, and reflect on how that might relate to the grace offered to them from God.


7. By the end of elementary school a child should be able to sit in the front of the sanctuary or chancel for the majority of worship without being a distraction to the congregation. Many elementary age children are able to do much more when it comes to leading the congregation in worship, but sitting as a part of a choir or worship team without drawing undo attention to themselves is an important skill that we often overlook.

8. By the end of middle school a student should be able to clearly read scripture for the community as a part of worship. Many students will be ready and capable of doing this much earlier, but by the end of middle school this should be second nature. Again, this skill can only be nurtured by giving them practice and experience. 

9. By the end of high school a youth should be able to serve as liturgist for the entire worship service. This is the end result of a natural progression of giving youth opportunities to practice different worship leadership skills throughout high school. Even the most self-conscious teenagers have told me that standing in front and speaking church and doesn’t make them anxious, because they know they are loved by their community. 


10. By the end of elementary school a child should be able to host a visiting child during a Sunday morning. This can mean taking a visitor by the hand (literally or figuratively) to a Sunday School classroom, helping them know where to sit in a larger fellowship gathering, making small talk with them, and basically doing whatever they can to help the visitor have a good experience at church that day. This is the kind of skill that is developed by clearly expressing our expectations to children - explaining what it means to provide hospitality and making sure to thank a child at the end of the morning for their willingness to help the teachers and Sunday school leaders that day. 

11. By the end of middle school a student should be able to volunteer side by side with adult volunteers in the congregation. Often we put a bunch of teenagers to a task as a group and hope that the gift of being together will motivate them to be helpful to the community. Ghettoizing youth in the congregation does little to help them learn to be productive adult members of the congregation. I have seen middle schoolers very effectively lay sod at a Habitat House with adults from the community, work in tandem with adults to decorate the church for Christmas, and even co-facilitate crafts for young children at a church fellowship event. Working side by side with adults who are not their parents helps them feel like their time and skills are just as valuable as those of the adult person with whom they are serving.

12. By the end of high school a youth should be able to participate thoughtfully in a committee meeting or Sunday School class with adult members of the congregation. As soon as youth realize how valued they are in our aging congregations, they will take their role and contribution seriously as they share their ideas and opinions in the larger conversations that happen in the church. They have opinions, and they can learn to articulate them well--and by giving them opportunities to do so, adults can learn how to truly hear them and take their sharing to heart.

What expectations do you have for your the children and youth in your community? How do you help them rise to the occasion?

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1 comment:

  1. Gosh Rebecca - this is so helpful -- I feel like it should be titled: "12 Developmental Steps for Children, Youth and Adults in the Life of a Congregation" -- I'll be sharing it broadly -- thank you!