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Get the Rites Right

Gordon West

In many cultures around the world, children are officially connected to their culture, ancestry, and belief system through a variety of rituals or rites performed at significant milestones in their lives. These rites of passage may commemorate the birth of a child, naming of a baby, the beginning of adolescence, marriage, and even death. At each passage, the community or family is bound together anew as it commemorates the next step in the individual's life in relation to his or her community.

Rites help children know they're making progress, growing up, and continually reconnecting to their people. In the church, this was accomplished in earlier days through a series of religious rites of passage, some still in use today in more traditional or formal churches. Baby dedications, first communion, and graduation ceremonies with gift Bibles all represent rites of passage for young people in the church.

Unfortunately, today many of our churches have lost the heart of these rituals, if not the rites themselves. Is it any wonder, then, why the church seems to lose so many young people at the key transition points -- between elementary and junior high school, and between high school and college? We need to reinvest in meaningful milestones such as the following to continually reconnect kids to their church family.

Rites of Passage: New Life

New parents need to know that your church shares in their joy. Use the opportunity of a new birth to celebrate with the family and to connect parents and baby to your congregation. As with any transition point, the act doesn't need to be elaborate or expensive. However, it must be timely and consistent.

Don't neglect even a peripheral family. Regularly advertise in your congregation that you want to hear about new births. In smaller communities, have a volunteer check the birth announcements in the newspaper against your church rolls to see if someone on the periphery of your congregation has had a baby.

Home Visits
Visit the new mom and dad as soon as possible after the birth. Take along a simple gift, perhaps a handmade bib or a diaper bag, and a brochure about your church nursery. Even though many parents won't bring the baby to the nursery for a few weeks or even months, make this rite official by taking along the registration forms required for "enrolling" the baby in your church nursery.

Showering Love
Consider having a baby shower at your church and invite all the new parents from the last few months to attend. Include refreshments, a tour of your church nursery, and an introduction of your nursery staff.

Have the nursery leader explain to parents the safety and health standards you enforce and your church's desire to partner with parents in bringing up their young ones. Take family pictures, have your senior pastor deliver a brief message, and allow time for all the new parents to meet each other. A simple book on parenting or a family devotional makes a wonderful gift from your church.

Rites of Passage: Beginning of School

Starting school is a huge event in the life of a child -- and his parents -- so celebrate it at church, too! Since the transition to elementary programs and classes can be filled with anxiety for children, make the transition one that helps put their minds at ease and excites them about the new experiences they'll have.

Graduation and Reading God's Word
Invite the new kindergartner or first-grader and her family to a graduation party following a church service. During the service, ask the children and families to stand to be recognized as you connect the families to your congregation.

At the ceremony, present the soon-to-be readers with an easy-to-read Bible. This is an old-fashioned rite of passage that many parents will remember and that'll warm their hearts. It'll also prepare the kids to make God's Word one of their earliest books.

Previously, most churches awarded Bibles around third grade, but with the advent of Bibles written at younger reading levels, we recommend getting the Bibles into their hands as soon as they start reading.

Children's Worship
Promotion into the elementary ministry area at church should be accompanied by a rite of passage welcoming children into some form of children's worship or children's church.

Consider having a very special Sunday service just for your new kindergartners or first-graders. Explain to them the importance of worship and what's involved in kid-friendly worship. Involve as many of the adult worship leaders as possible to help develop a bridge between the children and the worship of the church. You may also want to use this as the kickoff for getting children involved in their own worship services.

Rites of Passage: New Spiritual Life

Scripture tells us that the angels in heaven have one big party whenever a sinner repents! Why don't we?

Faith Commitments
Red Mountain Community Church in Mesa, Arizona, celebrates spiritual births of people any age in the morning worship services by placing one silk rose in a vase on the platform for each new Christian. These remain throughout the year and start fresh each January 1st.

Westwinds Community Church in Jackson, Michigan, has a similar ritual for all significant decisions. At Westwinds, any person making a significant spiritual decision or commitment writes his or her name on a rock and places it in an ever-growing pile representing a solid foundation choice.

Spiritual Birthday Parties
The end of summer is a perfect time to plan a birthday party for all the children in your church who've become Christians during the year, because many of these decisions seem to happen during summer vacation Bible school and camp programs.

Invite the child's entire family to attend, and pull out all the traditional decorations and party favors that might be included at a child's birthday party, especially the cake and ice cream. Give each child his or her own new-life birthday gift, too. This can be a child-friendly Bible (if the child doesn't already have one), a study guide for new Christians, or a children's devotional book.

At the party, explain to the families the basics of living the Christian life on a child's level, and give tips to the families for beginning home Bible studies and prayer times for the entire family.

Shift!Help families celebrate milestones at home and at church. Check out the book, "Shift: What It Takes to Finally Reach Families Today."

Rites of Passage: The Preteen Years

Each of the milestones mentioned in this article is significant to children and parents. The beginning of early adolescence is no different. Suddenly the easy years of elementary school are fading and the craziness of teen years is coming. Once again, use rites of passage to reconnect preteens and their families to your church body.

Service

Although children of all ages can be involved in service projects, reserve special opportunities only for the preteen years. These may include helping in a preschool classroom at church or going out of town for a missions or service project for the first time.

Make these opportunities more official by requiring preteens to apply for the privilege of attending training and serving. Commemorate their appointment to a place of service with an official ceremony in front of your church or your preteen youth group. Either you or your senior pastor can commission them to serve.

Have your church's missions committee pray for and with your preteens in front of the church before they go out of town on a missions trip. Or after your preteens have completed training and are ready to begin serving in a preschool classroom, present them with certificates of completion in front of the youth group.

Membership
Having a place to belong where preteens feel ownership and acceptance is of vital importance. "Joining" your preteen group should be a modern ritual that helps preteens feel this connection.

Plan an overlap activity each year on a weekend retreat or at a weekend service or weeknight youth group where your oldest preteens welcome those who are entering the preteen youth group. Ask leading preteens to tell stories about what the group has meant to them and how to get the most out of the group. Present the new group members with tokens of membership such as T-shirts; official placement in a small group; and a roster of names, phone numbers, and email and IM addresses for all the kids and leaders.

Throughout the year, as new preteens join your group, present them with a "membership has its privileges" care packet. Include a brochure that tells about your group's activities and a T-shirt with your group's logo.

In a culture where children and parents are searching for identity and meaning, these rites of passage can help connect children and their families to your church body. Bring meaningful rites back to your church by adapting old rituals and reminding your congregation of their significance, or create new ones by taking simple things you may already be doing and instilling them with meaning, tradition, and expectancy. Rites of passage help families know they can count on your church to give their lives significance and community!


Gordon and Becki West are co-founders of KidZ at Heart International in Mesa, Arizona (www.kidzatheart.org) Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

 

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