When people ask about the demographics of my church, their first question is often about young families. Many associate health and growth in a congregation with how many young family units attend worship, give financially, and participate in family program ministries.
Well, we don't have many young families at Zion. In fact, if your definition of "young families" is two parents with small children, then that demographic is the Carlsons and…that's it. Seriously.
For generations, we've associated young families with health and sustainable growth in congregations. Sure, we like the sight and sounds of wiggles and giggles in the pews. We are proud of our Christmas pageants and the size of our youth groups. But these families are not feel-good statistics and healthy church trophies. These are, perhaps, our most exhausted and overwhelmed people. They struggle to navigate worship attendance around naps, confirmation around hockey, and pressure to lead when showing up is challenging enough.
Matt told me that he finally sang all four verses of a hymn last week. What do you mean "finally"? I asked. He meant that, since Jasper was born, he's never been able to focus on the worship service long enough to sing a whole song. All that work shlepping little people into the sanctuary by 10:00am for four years and he's only been catching snippets. I thought about all the brave parents who do keep coming to church despite the struggle - how intensely we pressure them to usher and teach and join a committee. Talk about an uphill battle.
So here's how I understand my call to welcome and serve "young families" at Zion:
I will celebrate the fact that you showed up.
And so will Matt. It's amazing that you are all fully dressed and you arrived together in one piece. Bravo! High fives all around. These are the simple miracles that birthed liturgical dance - I'm just sure of it. The nursery will be ready to receive your little squirrels if you can't wait for an hour of personal space. The sanctuary will also be ready to receive your little squirrels because their noise, questions, distractions, and LIFE are very welcome in worship.
I will guard you from unfair expectations.
All of them. I will notice, name, and absolve the internal pressures you put on your family by reminding you to be kind to yourselves. I will also provide a human shield between you and those who smother you with committee invitations and assumptions about your time or gifts. We will probably get coffee or a beer in the first few weeks - either at my house or while kids play at our ankles. And there I will begin by listening to your story. I will want to hear about your longings, needs, and dreams because I know how rarely you have an opportunity to voice those things these days.
And then I will be honest with you.
I will confess that your church experience at Zion will never be traditional or programmatic. We don't have a critical mass for lock-ins or children's sermons. But we do have sacred relationships that will change your children and your family forever. We have a professional Santa Claus in the choir who can inspire awe and joy in the heat of July. We have an open table where children commune, confident that they belong in the midst of all things. We have people of every age and demographic, ready to welcome kids into their conversations and coffee hour circles.
I will tell you that, on Sunday, my son begged to go to Zion early with me. I reminded him that I couldn't play with him since I need to be Pastor Meta. He replied, I know. I want to play with my church friends or help them get the snacks ready. You can do your work and I'll do my things.
And sure enough. He helped set up the sanctuary and played in the nursery and came up for communion with friends 5 and 10 and 20 times his age. He received the bread and the juice with such sincerity and then sat with them in the front pew while he slowly enjoyed them. Many noticed and smiled - my son relishes this ritual and makes a meal of it. Later members helped him turn an empty cardboard box into a robot helmet. Young adults chased him around, played I SPY, and asked him about his birthday party.
And so I declare to parents of small children everywhere: the future of the church is not your responsibility - the Holy Spirit is perfectly capable of working through and in spite of tantrums and tight budgets. We can figure out how to get along without you...
but we are SO much better with you!
you who stumble in during the Gathering Hymn
you who drop crayons and Cheerios under pews
you who embody the fierce and weary love of God our Parent.
So come when you can and come as you are.
And, if the stars are aligned and naps cooperate, you just might see my weary husband halfway back on the left hand side. He's the one giving every hymn a shot while holding wipes or Goldfish.