I’ve seen the confused looks, and I’ve even heard the questions, some of them directly to me. “What about these children helping at communion? I’m not sure if that’s allowed. I’m not sure if I like that.”
I understand the sentiment, and I take the question seriously. To be honest, having the youth help at communion wasn’t even something that I thought would cause people to pause; it’s been my practice throughout my ministry. But I now realize it’s something new for many, and I never want you to think that I have a practice without a purpose. So, with Education Sunday (where we’ll celebrate the gift of education and inter-generational ministry) coming up, let me tell you why I think this issue is an important part of youth ministry, specifically at GSLC, and an important part of my pastoral ministry.
I’m always eager to answer these questions!
In seminary I took a provocatively titled class, “The Theology of the Child.” History is easy to forget. We feel as if we are far removed from it today, especially because we feel that children are often lifted up as special and exceptional (especially your grandchildren!), but children in the ancient world were the most vulnerable population, even more vulnerable than women or servants. Children were not even considered people in the ancient world, at least not until they reached their teens. Infant mortality rates were high, and parenting classes were hard to come by.
Child rearing and children were not that important to most in the ancient world, which was part of why God’s incarnation in the young child Jesus and his focus on children is so scandalous! He elevates the child!
In this seminary class we not only learned and discussed how children were marginalized and abused in the ancient world, but we also talked frankly about how children are still marginalized in this day and age. When wars break out, children are often the first victims and the scars are lasting. Hunger affects the developing child brain more than the adult brain, and there are too many children hungry in this world. Children are still used for cheap labor around the world, and are abused in homes, schools, and places of worship, often without notice.
And they’re also leaving the church in alarming and ever-growing numbers.
In my conversations with youth, one of the reasons they leave so readily is because we’ve given them no reason to stay: little connection with other youth, little connection with caring adults other than their parents and pastor, and little opportunity to practice the faith with and for the community. We’ve preached at them and taught at them, but the whole church catholic can do a better job at worshiping with and through them.
Oh, sure, the church has done a good job at giving youth opportunities to do some “youth” things for the church (remember Youth Sundays?). I want every Sunday to be a Sunday with youth. I want every Sunday to be Youth Sunday. I’ve found that our youth want to be a part of the church, fully. Many music programs, including ours, do this well! Many mission opportunities, including our own, involve youth well!
But I want us to do it well in all parts of our communal life, including assisting at the altar and serving communion.
And you should see their excitement when they hear they’ll get to serve communion with an adult. Yes, they might be shy at first, but I think it’s because they feel the weight of it all, even more than some adults! Yes, when they are an Assisting Minister they may stumble over words as nerves catch up with them. But think of what we’re asking them to do: write prayers for the community and communicate them to God on our behalf. Who wouldn’t be nervous?
And the beauty, of course, is that with practice this all gets a little easier and a little smoother. And almost every month I have a new youth who wants to help light the candles, give the blood of Christ to wanting souls, and pray the prayers. Think about that: we have youth wanting to be a part of church on Sunday mornings.
This is part of youth ministry, allowing them to minister to adults in real, meaningful ways. And we train for it, and practice it, and review it, and try harder each week, just as we expect all of our worship assistants to grow in these gifts week by week.
But even beyond all of these very practical reasons, we cannot ignore that the Biblical witness makes clear that youth are bearers of the faith.
Jeremiah thought he was too young to be a prophet, and God told him to stop using that as an excuse (Jeremiah 1:7). Mary was a young teen, and was chosen to be the God-bearer for a hurting world. And when the disciples tried to bar children from touching Jesus, Jesus said to them, “Let the young children come to me; do not stop them. For the kingdom of God is theirs.” (Matthew 19:14). We’ve lost how scandalous this passage is, but the children Jesus was inviting to him were not just some children tagging along with their parents. They were most likely street children: beggars, homeless, “not real people” in the eyes of the disciples and those hearing the gospels.
If children could hold Jesus in the ancient world, why should the church keep them from holding Jesus in these last days? And even our own tradition has lifted it up, as the blessed Martin Luther proclaimed that children are faithful from birth (Large Catechism XIIIA “Of Infant Baptism”). It’s part of our tradition.
In the ancient church (and in many churches today including the Orthodox church), any baptized person of any age could participate fully in the church, including Holy Communion. I long to go back to that practice and advocate it for our ministry together, not just because it’s theologically sound, but also because we have children abandoning the church at alarming rates citing that they don’t feel connected.
Let’s connect them in real, practical, tangible ways. It may take some getting used to, but I assure you that I encourage this practice with strong theological foundation, with Biblical witness as the lens, and, more personally, as a parent who wants his children to feel connected to the faith in such a way that they can, as one child said to me one Sunday, “be a part of it all.”
And in connecting them, over time, I bet you’ll also find yourself better connected to the faith, and to the young ones who literally have “faith like a child.”