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Children and the Divine Liturgy

From St. George Orthodox Cathedral, Rossford, OH
By Fr. Paul Gassios

There are different practices and viewpoints regarding child attendance at the Divine Liturgy. During my childhood I was used to attending half of the service and spending half of it in Sunday School. Young kids spent the first half in church, and then went to Sunday school after the sermon. The older kids began Sunday school when the Liturgy began, and then came to church for the last half of the liturgy. This practice continues today in some Orthodox parishes. In other Orthodox parishes, children attend the entire liturgy and go to Sunday school either before or after the service. It does seem as if the trend is moving more towards children being in church for most of the liturgy and not half of it. For some this idea may be hard to accept because one might believe that children can't handle being in church for an hour and twenty minutes. Kids get antsy, bored, and restless. They complain that church is too long and might even cause a scene. This is not an easy issue for parents to deal with. It is not uncommon to see parents remove kids from church because they have become too disruptive. Parents may consciously come late to church so the kids don't have to be there as long. They may also bring toys with them to church for kids to play with to keep them quiet. The problem with these approaches is they do nothing to help the child connect with worship and to pay attention to what is going on. Some might conclude our worship is irrelevant and too abstract for children to embrace. I would like to speak some on this issue and talk about some things parents can do to help their children in this area.

To begin, I believe it is in our created being to worship. At all ages it is in our very being to give glory to the One who made us. I remember when I was at seminary in the early 1990's I would watch the young children of married students who were attending seminary. It was amazing to see two year old kids going up to icons, or to the crosses on the table vestments and kissing them with no prompting from their parents. I remember seeing a four year old swinging around a play censer (made for him by his parents) imitating the priest. When I was five or six years old, I would wrap a blanket around me and stand in front of our RCA Victor Black & White TV thinking that was the altar and act like I was serving the liturgy. I have also seen these same behaviors in parish life. So I do not accept the notion that young children are incapable of attending the Divine Liturgy or Vespers and to worship God. We don't need 20 minute kid services, or to turn the Liturgy into a Disney DVD to "get the kids to be interested." So, what can be done to connect our kids to worship in the Orthodox Church?

The first thing that can be done is once an infant is baptized in the Church, regular attendance at Liturgy needs to begin immediately. When I say regular, I mean weekly. One to four times a year is not regular or frequent. Some may think that since an infant can't rationally understand the liturgy, that it is best to wait until the child is older and until Sunday school begins before attending church services. In fact some might believe Sunday school is the key thing that needs to happen to teach the child about church. Sunday school is a good thing but for centuries the Orthodox Church went about its business without the idea of a "Sunday school." The shaping and forming of Christian habits and behaviors begins in the home. If it is not happening there, no Sunday school program will able to make up for what needs to be happening in the family home which is to be a small icon of the Church. If these habits aren't being formed in a child's early upbringing it will negatively impact on their being able to connect with the Divine Liturgy.

When we anoint infants with Chrism at their Baptism, we anoint their eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, chest, hands, and feet saying "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit." These are the senses that the Holy Spirit empowers so that we learn about the world we live in and the One who made it. That learning process doesn't begin at the "age of reason." It begins at birth and it is an ongoing process. Young children take in what is around them. As we accommodate to them, they learn to adapt to the world they live in. I think there is a difference between a three year old child who has been to church regularly since Baptism, and one who has been there only once or twice. The latter is more likely to have difficulty because they are reacting to a new environment that they don't know and thus can't trust. They are not being bad or misbehaving they are reacting to a strange situation and their behavior is perfectly understandable.

Unfortunately regular attendance at services is still no guarantee. There is a qualitative issue also that needs to be addressed. What are we doing while we are in the liturgy and to what end? We are reminded of the Pharisee and Publican and how the Pharisee was a great temple person who did all the right things but for the wrong reasons. He was prideful, arrogant, and had no love for his brother. Being in the temple on a regular basis did him no good. If we are going to help young children to get in touch with that God-given desire to give glory to God, we adults need to be coming to Church with that same desire. Worship is the time to "lay aside all earthly cares that we may receive the King of All who comes invisibly up borne by the angelic hosts." Worship is the time where Martha needs to take a nap or needs to serve Mary so that Mary can be allowed to shine forth to ponder the things of God and "keep them in her heart." Worship is to be an encounter with our Lord Jesus Christ. But when we come to church after the sermon, bring toys, and spend a lot of time in the narthex, this serves only to pacify the child and make others happy because they don't hear the noise. These activities don't help connect a child to worship. I am not just speaking of our church in Rossford; this is something that I have observed in many churches so I am not trying to pick on any particular person. When I hear the "holy noise" of children in Church it makes me very happy because it tells me the parish has a future. We should be worried when we no longer hear that noise!

Neither should we expect young children to sit there quietly and act like adults; because they aren't adults. For a child, waiting for one minute is like ten minutes. Most children six years old and under have short attention spans and they do require more attention and support from their parents during the service to help them connect with what is going on. So what can a parent do as they come to church on a regular basis? Here are some suggestions.

1. Sit up front when you come to Church: When you sit up front, it enables a child to see more clearly what is going on in the service. For young kids between two and five we have books in the pew to describe what is going on during worship. Read that with your child as the service is going on and point out how what they see in the book is actually going on in church. For older children (eight to twelve) we have Divine Liturgy books for youth in the pews that they can follow which do an excellent job of explaining the liturgy with words and images.

2. Feel free to move around in the Church: Instead of removing a child from church because they are noisy, walk around with them in the nave and show them the church. This is a very good thing you can do with children between six to eighteen months old. I have no problem with parents roaming in the space of worship and showing their children the icons on the iconostasis and on the walls of the church. Young children will drink this up and love it. This is not avoidance; this is encounter. Let them see, let them touch the icon, kiss the icon yourself, and eventually your child will kiss it. Tell them these are holy people in our church who followed Jesus. Remind your young child who has been baptized that Jesus lives inside him or her.

3. Appropriate items to bring with you to Church: I am OK with parents bringing in a coloring book with biblical or liturgical themes in it. As a child is coloring it quiets his or her soul and it allows one to listen to what is happening on another level. Whatever items you bring they should be relevant to worship and have a Christian theme to it. However the coloring or other diversion should not go on the entire service. There are certain times that children need to stop and focus on the service. Have them pay attention to the Little Entrance, the Scripture readings, the Sermon, the Great Entrance, the reciting of the Creed, the consecration of the Bread and Wine, and the reciting of the Lord's Prayer. Encourage your child to sing along with the choir responses to the service. Be an example and sing along with the choir as well! Remind them when they should be making the sign of the Cross during the service. As your children get older, have them get involved in being a greeter and passing out the bulletin, passing the collection tray, or to go up to the choir loft and to sing with the choir. As the boys get older they may desire to serve in the altar. Finally as children do get older, the expectations for their attention to the service itself should be higher.

4. Is it OK for young children to have food? Our understanding of preparation to receive Communion on Sunday is that we fast from midnight on (except for health reasons). This rule applies to those who are developmentally capable of doing this. I see no reason why children seven and older cannot observe this rule. For children under 18 months old, I have no problem with parents having a small zip lock bag of cheerios to feed them during the course of the service and for them to still come to communion. But as they do get older they do need to be weaned from this.

5. Is there a time when it is appropriate to remove a child from the service? This should always be a last resort when all other attempts that I have suggested above don't seem to be helping. The noise and the disruption of the child need to be of such a magnitude that it is clearly rebellious in nature and mean spirited. Most parents will know when that point has come. When a child needs to be removed they need to know they are being disciplined for their behavior in church. I don't think they need to be spanked, but neither should their time in the narthex be a time for fun and amusement. If you want to put him or her on time out on the stairs (if they are developmentally able use this as a learning experience) and explain to your child they must sit there until they can tell mom or dad they will be good in church, this seems to be a good thing to do. You may need to tell them what being good means by describing how they need to behave. I would also encourage people in our church who don't have to deal with kids to be tolerant and merciful in their attitude when children become disruptive at times.

By Kristina

We attend the Divine Liturgy every Sunday and sometimes during the week as well. Admittedly, there are times when it may seem like a long service to us adults, and it is certainly even more so to our children, for whom time feels different. Depending on the child, their age, and their ability to understand what is going on, the Liturgy can seem a daunting service. Getting beyond merely attending (being present) to truly attending (paying attention and participating) is not easy for any of us, especially for children.

Some have translated the words 'Divine Liturgy' as "the work of the people." Perhaps a better translation is "the offering of the people for the whole world." Either way, it is the people who do the work or the offering. 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 are needed to do this work/give this offering. So, if it is important that every member of the parish participate in this work/offering, but if it is a challenge even for adults to be fully present and engaged, what can be done to help the children? This blog post will offer a few suggestions, as well as links full of even more ideas of ways that all adults in a parish can help the children of their parish to participate in the Divine Liturgy. Regardless of our status as adults: whether we are parents, godparents, Sunday Church School teachers, or any other adult in a parish, we share the responsibility for helping to raise the children who are a part of our parish.

Rather than focus on the things children should not do during the Divine Liturgy, we will frame this blog post more positively. Here are things that children can and should do during the Liturgy to participate more fully. (I will include a few personal anecdotes as well, to serve as illustrations for some of the ideas.) Children in our parishes can:

See -
The very tiniest among us can see the candles, at the icons, at the clergy, at the choir... (For an idea of how to do so: I have always loved watching my husband during the first moments that he holds our godchildren during a Liturgy when they are still very young. I am in the choir, not with him, but I know what is happening. He whispers, "Where's Jesus? Can you see Jesus? Can you see Mary, His mother?" and I know that he is 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 Forerunner, the Evangelist whose Gospel we hear during the service, what's in the window by the Theotokos in the icon of the Annunciation, 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, as well as placement in the sanctuary that allows the children to be able to see, but throughout the Liturgy, the children's attention can be directed to look for things in the icons or in the service itself.

Kiss - Even very tiny children can show their love for God and their veneration of the saints by kissing the icons, the Gospel book, the cross, the priest's hand, and even their fellow parishioners. (When our baby goddaughter and I arrive at the icon of Christ after communion, I whisper, "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 I venerate the icon. She has yet to kiss the icon, but I know that she will, in time. And in the meantime, she looks intently in His eyes while we have that quiet moment together. We have an older goddaughter who has taken a while to be willing to do any of this kissing, but she has begun to do so. She just needed some time and to be willing to do this on her own. That's okay!) Be sure to include the children around you in the Kiss of Peace, as well. Encourage your own children to make peace with their siblings before church; or during the Kiss of Peace if need be.

Talk - Although there are many opportunities to be silent, with a little practice beforehand, children can (and should!) talk during the service! There are plenty of opportunities to talk, but we must 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 Anaphora. 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. (They even get to SHOUT in church on the Sunday of Orthodoxy! When that Sunday approaches, we must practice, "This is the faith..." with our children ahead of time so they know what to say! My children loved that part of Sunday of Orthodoxy when they were younger. Actually, they still do, even though they are in their late teens!)

Sing - Children can 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 troparia, the kontakion, the Trisagion Hymn, the Cherubic Hymn, the list goes on and on throughout the service. (A favorite song at our parish is "Blessed Be the Name of the Lord," near the end of the service. The choir director's granddaughter's face has always lit up when we arrive at that song, even when she was very small. It is such a delight to watch her as she joyfully sings along!) As with many of the other suggestions for Liturgy participation, this one requires a little work together ahead of time. Gather a collection of CDs of the Church's music at home, especially ones that use some of the same tunes that your church sings during the Liturgy. Play the CDs often so you can listen and sing together. Listening at home too, makes it much easier for the children to participate during the Divine Liturgy. Besides this additional exposure at home, 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. (Although, "a little child shall lead them" also applies at times: our daughter jumped into singing in the choir before I got up the courage to, and she has been blessing our parish with her voice, ever since! So perhaps it depends on the child...)

Hold - Children can hold service books, either a child's version (our older goddaughter has worked her way through several versions, in increasing difficulty level, as she has grown) or the regular service book (when they're old enough to read it - that same goddaughter has a little pocket prayer book containing the Liturgy that she now uses to follow along). Children can also hold and pass the offering plate. Some young boys like to hold a pretend censor and "help" Father or the deacons with the censing. Older children (and adults like me who need it to help them focus!) may want to hold a prayer rope and pray the Jesus Prayer during the Liturgy.

Stand - While in their parents' arms, and then on their own once they know how to balance on their feet, children can learn to stand reverently during the Epistle, the Gospel, and the Great Entrance. As they get older, they can stand longer and longer until they are able to stand for the entire Liturgy (or at least all of the times that your tradition suggests for standing). (Our son challenged himself at a young age to stand for the whole service. His goal was to be an altar server - which can happen at age 7 in our parish - and he knew he'd have to be able to stand the whole service once he got to do that, so he started practicing when he was 5 or 6. Now that he's a senior altar server, he is reaping the benefits of having learned to stand so long ago. Both of our children have joked about how tired their schoolmates get, standing during school concerts, etc., because "We're Orthodox! We stand for hours every Sunday!" so they are quite accustomed to being on their feet. But they had to learn to stand for that long; and to choose to do it.)

Hear - From an early age, children can listen to more and more of the service. The Epistle, the Gospel, the homily, the music, the prayers... the list can grow a bit every year until they are listening to the entire 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. (For example, my 10-year-old goddaughter and I listened for "healing" in all of the readings during this year's Holy Unction service, and quietly pointed it out to each other when we found/heard it.) 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!" just before the priest says, "Take, eat: This is my Body, which is broken for you, for the remission of sins...")

Move - 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. During the lenten season, children can also do prostrations! (One of my favorite memories of Great Lent was when my now-elementary-school-aged godson was about 3. He came to some of the lenten services with his parents, and I took great delight in watching him flop himself down wholeheartedly and then joyfully pop right back up again during the prostrations in the Prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian. He was willingly offering his entire self in praise to God, and I can only imagine that God was infinitely more tickled than I was to see that enthusiastic worship!)

What does love do?
1. Love produces freedom.
2. Love transforms loneliness into friendship.
3. Love transforms selfishness to the selflessness.
4. Love transforms the unlovely into someone lovely.

Children love to participate. They long to feel a part of things. They want to contribute to the world around them. Here are a few ways that we adults can help the children in our homes/Sunday Church School classes/parish to do so during the Divine Liturgy.
These ideas are admittedly only a scratch on the surface of ways children can participate in the Divine Liturgy.