I married into a family that has been avid Chicago Cubs fans for generations. We have cheered our team on through both the good and the bad times. Just like with every team, there are certain rituals and experiences that are unique, especially when the Cubs win a game. One is that all the fans start singing “Go Cubs Go,” a song that only a Cubs fan could love. And the second is that a flag with a big blue “W” on it is raised to celebrate the win. ”Fly the W” has become a Cubs buzzword, and even a hashtag.
As pandemic restrictions lighten, my husband and I are back in the stands. At a recent game, a mom and dad with their children sat near us. As I watched them, it struck me that there are many correlations between baseball and a worship service.
Baseball, the American pastime, is a sport that many parents and grandparents share with children. Sitting together to watch a game, whether in the stadium or at home, creates a bond that can resonate from generation to generation.
But here’s the question: Do we bring the same intentionality to bear on passing down through the generations a desire to worship God? Or maybe let me ask a harder question: Are our children’s memories of worshiping God as fond as their memories of other things families share, such as baseball fandom? I wonder if there are some things we as a church can learn from these observations. Here are three thoughts.
First, children can catch a passion for what we love simply by being with us. A passion for baseball comes from sitting next to someone who is passionate about the game. As parents or grandparents share their love for the game, kids begin to catch this vision and embrace the sport. At a recent game, there was a spectacular play that had all the Cubs fans out of our seats. I then heard a dad go to great lengths to explain to his son why certain plays were so exciting and important. As the child asked questions, the dad shared his excitement and admiration for the sport. At that moment, the child caught a bit of his dad’s passion for the game. What happened next was beautiful: as other exciting plays happened, the child began to mimic his dad. He watched his dad, copied his dad’s celebratory behavior, and then leaned back into his dad for approval.
We share with children what we love. The question I am left wondering is this: How passionate are we about worshiping God? Do we share that passion with children? Are they catching the vision for the church and what it means to belong to the body of Christ by sharing Christ-centered experiences with us?
Second, part of parenting is intentionally training children in rituals and appropriate behaviors. Whether it is respectfully singing the national anthem or ordering a hot dog in a particular way, there are certain rituals and behaviors at a ballgame. Parents intentionally come alongside their children, whispering cues on how to act and behave (for example, in Chicago, where I am from, we learn from a young age that hot dogs do not come with ketchup).
Here is the key: No one expects the child to understand all of this the first time or to know what to do when. Children are allowed the space to try things out and to repeat the behaviors so they can learn how to do them well. And we also equip kids to enjoy the game. We give them baseball hats and t-shirts and encourage them to bring a mitt along in case they get the chance to catch a ball. This way they feel that they’re part of the larger experience. At some ballparks, kids are even allowed to run the bases.
So, when we are in worship, how do we equip children so that they engage in worship well? Are we whispering instructions as they experience the service? Are we inviting and encouraging them to belong to the larger church family? Do we allow the kids in our church “on the field,” or do we relegate them to the bleachers—or even worse, do we not even allow them in the stadium?
Third, children are coached by others to value the complexity of the game. My husband knows the Cubs minor league system so well that when we go to one of those games he whispers to me which players we need to keep an eye on. In a couple of years, he says, we might see this player at Wrigley Field. When he does that, it heightens my anticipation. I start paying attention to the player and figuring out why he might be that good. My husband doesn’t always tell me why the player is great; he just tells me to watch for him. As I start figuring it out, I pepper my husband with questions. And he patiently answers me, correcting any misinformed understandings, and then encouraging me to explore more.
As we engage in worship, are we coaching children in what they don’t understand or know? Do we whisper words of excited anticipation, or only discouraging words of correction? Do we take time to mentor our children so that their understanding of and appreciation for worship deepens?
Author and researcher Brené Brown writes “Collective joy and pain—whether at sports games or rock concerts, at vigils or funerals—are sacred experiences. They are so deeply human that they cut through our differences and tap into our hardwired nature.” Collective joy and pain are at the heart of all communal experiences. And whether it is at a baseball game or in a worship service, a child can take part in a collective experience and be shaped by the surrounding community so that worship becomes part of how they’re wired.
Church, are we raising the “W flag”—the flag of worship—with our children, inviting and encouraging them to participate so that the next generation will not only know about God but also love and worship God with passionate fervor after we are gone?
Mimi Larson is Faith Formation Ministries’ Children's Ministry Catalyzer. If you have questions or challenges about faith formation in children, welcoming children in worship, choosing curriculum, equipping volunteers, empowering parents, and more, contact Mimi at [email protected].