One thing that churches do that is really dumb is to put age restrictions on everything.
When I was a teenager, our high school youth group was for kids in high school – 9th through 12th grade. Makes sense, right? But there was one friend in our group who was a year older. When he graduated high school, he was told by the leadership that he could not come back to youth group. He wasn’t going off to school. There wasn’t a young adult group for him. Basically, they told him, “You’re done with church. Congratulations!” Can you imagine?
I understand if you’re in a large church and there are 50 or so in one age group. But few Episcopal churches fall into this category. For some reason, small churches think they have to abide by the age-restriction rules. Nurseries have to be for babies to 3 year olds, Sunday school is for elementary kids, youth group is for middle school and high school. And so we’ve segmented out our education and will even put resources into education for a group of 3 seventh graders instead of putting them in with the group of 10 high schoolers.
It’s not just formation classes, either. This past Sunday I was delighted that my 5-year-old son served as an acolyte for the first time. I was incredibly proud, and most importantly, so was he. I posted his pictures all over the internet and got all kinds of affirming comments. One friend said that her church told her son that he couldn’t be an acolyte until he was in 4th grade. Now, I know I don’t know the history of that church and perhaps they have a good reason for something like this, but c’mon. In a world where kids are finding many things seemingly more interesting than engaging with the Creator of all things through worship, why are churches still doing this kind of thing?
My rule is “if they can carry it, they can be an acolyte.” Granted, my son was not swinging a thurible as a Kindergartener, but can he carry the Gospel? Definitely. Can he take the alms basins to the ushers? Most assuredly. His Kindergarten teacher saw the pictures on Facebook and asked him about it. He said excitedly, “I got to carry the GOLDEN things!” That’s the kind of wonder and amazement we all need in worship, where collection plates become golden things! Part of the reason we asked him to be an acolyte was that he was sitting in church with his mother, not really engaged all that much, and was causing trouble. Put a holy book in his hands, dress him in vestments, and the kid is ready to worship! He did a great job and discovered that church can be pretty awesome.
I have heard that some of our 4th, 5th, and 6th graders are already thinking they’ve outgrown Sunday School. With our new building we’ll be able to have more room for classes. Perhaps this group will decide to create their own class. But then the question will come: what’s the age cut off? Should we just include 4th graders and up? What about the 3rd graders?
My take is to not make hard-and-fast rules on ages. I know really mature 2nd graders and really immature 6th graders. One size does not always fit all. But the bottom line is this: If a young person expresses interest in anything related to the life of the church, our job as Christian adults is to only encourage it. If they want to be on Altar Guild, teach them how important it is to hold holy things. If they want to be on Vestry, teach them how to make leadership decisions in community. If they want to feed the homeless, give them the chance to be fed by that experience. This is why, at St. Nicholas, we have children who read the Scriptures every Sunday. They are not just acolytes, but ushers, Sunday School teachers, and even occasional preachers. This week at SNICK, we will have our very first Kids Eucharist, where they will do just about everything in the service.
Jesus wanted the little children to come to him, right? Why, then, does the Church continue to be the stumbling block? Hope that millstone is comfortable.