It’s 9:20am on Sunday morning, and my spouse and I are taking the dog for a walk, with a quick stop to pick up lattes at the local coffee shop which we’ve made it our personal mission to keep open during the pandemic.
Our kids, ages 14, 10, and 6, are at home. The oldest is probably still asleep, and the other two are likely curled up on the couch, each deeply engaged in a game on the iPad or the xBox.
Our children’s ministry director has a virtual event scheduled for 9:30. It’s a well done children’s event, and we made the kids watch for a few weeks, but they never developed any self-motivation to join in. And so, instead of rushing home, we walk awhile longer and make it home in time to watch the main worship service. The kids will likely not join us.
My 2019 self would be appalled at this state of affairs. Unsupervised children? Unlimited screen time? And, gasp, Sunday morning and we’re doing absolutely nothing to fulfill the vows we made when our children were baptized? What has happened to us?
My spouse and I are deeply committed church people. We’re both pastor’s kids, and churches have always been a physical anchor for us. I’m actually an ordained Presbyterian minister who spent many years specializing in youth and children’s ministries, but I’ve taken a few years off from full time church work to raise kids and support my spouse’s career goals.
Our oldest attends (virtual) confirmation classes, and the occasional outdoor youth group event. But, after months of virtual school, extended family video chats, and remote birthday parties, I struggle to get my youngest children motivated to join in one more virtual event.
We do what we can. When we drive by the church building, we remind them that this is where they will go to church when it’s time to go back in person. When case numbers have been lower in our county, and the weather balmier, we’ve participated in some well-thought out and safe outdoor activities in the church parking lot. The children’s ministry team puts together really wonderful at home bags, and even though they don’t use everything in them, our kids know that someone is thinking about them.
The minute it’s safe, we’ll be taking over a pew on Sunday mornings, sending people to Sunday School and signing up for every children’s ministry thing we can. But there are just things they’re not going to get from online church or children’s ministry, no matter how well done it is.
Children are multisensory beings. For a young child, church is about smell, sound, touch, taste, and the emotional vibe of the place. It’s about feeling the safety to be in and move around a space among a group of people. (Adults are multi-sensory, too: it’s just that we’ve been trained to lean into certain of our senses more.) It’s hard to evoke all those things through a two dimensional screen.
Church, and particularly corporate worship, is also one of the few places in 21st century North American society where we are not segregated by age. It’s one of the few truly multi-generational experiences—beyond their family of origin—that children have. My children have been blessed simply by the fact that there is this whole host of people who greet them by name on a Sunday morning, sing along with them during worship, give them a wink as they come down the aisle for the Eucharist, and, of course, make the best treats ever for fellowship hours.
My years of youth ministry taught me that relationships are some of the most important ways that we promote faith development in kids. There’s no Sunday School curriculum that’s more powerful than the relationship a child develops with a Sunday School teacher whose smile and greeting during coffee hour brings the welcoming love of Jesus to life for a child.
And hard as we might try, all of these things are difficult for us to manufacture in our virtual efforts. It is holy and good work that churches have done these months, using technology as a way to be together when we must be apart. I am grateful for every church professional who has worked so hard to find ways to be the body of Christ in this hard time. But the Church is the Body of Christ, and it’s hard to be a virtual body.
Children and teens are tapped out, stressed, and living with the trauma of this last year. They pick up on the stressors their parents and their society are living through, much as we may try to shield them. Our children’s worlds have shrunk; we have asked so much of them, and there is so much uncertainty.
And so, I hope and pray we are getting ready to move into a new phase. As we move forward, I hope all of us, parents and church professionals alike, will begin to think creatively about how we return, but also to give ourselves some grace to let go of things that haven’t worked in the past.
Further thoughts and steps
If the numbers of families interacting with your online ministry attempts are dwindling, please don’t panic. Please don’t feel like you have to redouble your efforts and discover the next great and amazing thing.
The transition back to in person church is a great opportunity to reclaim what was wonderful before, and let other things go. Take some time to step back and evaluate: what was working before Covid? What wasn’t working? What could our children, youth and family ministries gently let go of as we begin to regather? What’s the amazing new idea that gives you energy and excitement?
Start planning Covid-safe ways to interact and connect in person in the next few months. As we start to come out of the pandemic, it’s time to start rekindling the social threads of your community. If there are ways to meet safely in person, start making plans.
Stay informed about how the vaccine roll-out may affect children and families. Check with your county health department as a starting point for guidance.
Alternatively, think of contingency plans and non-contact ways to connect individually. A pastor colleague and friend of mine told me that her children’s minister undertook the enormous task of recording a short, individualized video greeting for each kid in their larger congregation. While the time and effort involved was big, so was the payoff: kids who weren’t into the larger weekly Zoom meetings loved getting a personal greeting from their ministry staff.
Check on your congregation’s parents. It’s been a long year. They may need an oxygen mask, which might be as simple as an acknowledgement that this has been hard and a reminder that they are being prayed for.
Most importantly, please take care of yourself. By and large, most churches and leaders have done an incredible and faithful job this year.
About the Author
Erica Schemper is a Presbyterian minister who has served churches in the Chicago area and California, with a focus on children, youth, and intergenerational ministry, and healthy congregational systems. Currently on a hiatus from full time church work, she keeps occupied with shepherding her family through this pandemic year, knitting, taking long walks with the dog, and contemplating what might be next.