With Lent fast approaching, there are countless preparations to be made. From special music to new prayers, Lenten dinners, and extra worship services—there is so much that church staff and volunteers do in order to make the season one of contemplation, holy repentance, and increased closeness to the Divine and one another. But amongst all those preparations, it can be easy to leave out the needs of the young people in the congregation, especially those of small children.
Many church leaders I've spoken to over the years express feeling intimidation at the prospect of presenting such heavy concepts as sin, repentance, and death to their congregations' youngest members. But it's crucial to remember that these aren't foreign concepts to young children. They know what it feels like to do something wrong and wish for forgiveness. They know what it's like to feel adrift and need comfort when something or someone precious goes away. These are big feeling for small people, and the church is uniquely equipped to help navigate them.
One of the most important aspects of making Lent accessible to young children is making sure they know why we're spending several weeks being quieter and more thoughtful, both during and outside of services. Be sure to explain to children that Jesus went on a journey to the desert to talk to God and listen for God to speak to him and that we're spending time doing likewise. If your congregation uses practices like "burying" the alleluia, be sure that the children know that it's not meant to be a hard and fast rule or indicate that we aren't happy during Lent, just that alleluia is what we say when we're extra happy and that in Lent, we often are feeling less like celebrating than we do at other times of year.
Lent is, of course, a season of repentance, and children as young as two or three years old can easily connect with the idea of feeling bad when we've sinned, wanting forgiveness, and needing someplace to go with those feelings. As we plan our worship, it's crucial to make spaces for children to express them and ensure that at least one of the places that we ask for forgiveness uses language that is accessible. At home, making special time for naming sin, asking for forgiveness from God and those they've harmed, and providing assurance that they have been forgiven can be very helpful.
While it can be tempting to avoid talk of death with children, it's important to remember that they encounter death regularly—whether on TV, or through beloved pets or family members, they know death exists, even if they don't fully understand what it means. For children who are elementary age or older, they likely also know that their own death is a possibility, especially as gun violence in schools becomes more and more prevalent. As painful as it is, we simply don't have the luxury of not talking about death with the children in our lives. Additionally, adults need to know what is developmentally appropriate for children to understand and express about death and be very clear that Jesus is a unique exception—that other people and pets who die are very unlikely to return to join us here on earth, at least in the near future.
As your Lenten preparations progress, please include the children in your midst in your work, and may you be blessed by their questions and their wisdom.