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.
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.
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
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
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
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?
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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)
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