The primary themes of Holy Week can seem inaccessible for the children in our midst. The betrayal, capture, and execution of Jesus are difficult concepts that we naturally want to protect them from. But they already know more than we like to admit.
The story of a dark-skinned man murdered by the state for protesting injustice is, sadly, one that all but the very youngest will have already heard. And for children growing up in the U.S. amidst the twin epidemics of gun violence and COVID-19, the concept of death is less abstract than it has been for generations. So how do we honor them with the truth, without traumatizing them, and still centering the promise of resurrection?
It’s a tall order for sure. But there are basic principles that can aid our planning as we assist our children and communities in journeying through the final days of Lent.
- Allow children to attend worship. When we are worshipping in the church building, it is easy to send the kids away to another room. I urge us to resist this temptation as most of us plan for worship at home. The children will undoubtedly hear things that are scary and that they can't fully understand. But we can’t fully understand these things either.
The death and resurrection of Jesus involve every being that is, was, and ever will be. This story involves the smashing of systems of oppression and the fate of the entire cosmos. None of us can understand all this on our own. We need community to make sense of complicated truths and to comfort us when we mourn.
- Break the flow of the worship up into smaller blocks of time, and keep services under 40 minutes. Educational research has shown us that, regardless of age, we all tend to do best with chunks of content 5-10 minutes in length and that our attention span shrinks when we're stressed. So make sure to transition frequently between different types of content.
- Don't pretend like everything is fine, for Jesus or for us. No matter how careful we are, children will overhear our conversations or find our phones unattended. If they don't hear the truth from us, they are left needing to fill in the blanks on their own.
- Make the experience of Holy Week as interactive as possible. Allow people of all ages to help plan and lead worship and take time to process both during and after. What do people understand (or not) about the details of the Christ-event? What do they think will happen to them if they too stand up to tyranny and oppression? How does the promise of resurrection feel in a year when we've lost so much? These are all questions which, if phrased in ways that are developmentally appropriate, can be widely accessible.
Lastly, remember that we are an Easter people. The resurrection of our Savior, and us with him, happens not just in a day or even a season, but, as Jesus himself told us, "now and forever."