Once when my daughter was younger (11 years old), she had a conversation with me about our neighbors at the time. “I really like them,” she said. “Me too! Why do you like them?” I asked. “Because when I talk, they listen to me,” she replied.
It was an interesting response. From a mom’s perspective, I thought that we, her parents, did a pretty good job of listening when she talked and I never really felt like her voice went unheard, but obviously, these particular neighbors stood out to her as unusual. I asked her about that. Her response was convicting.
Well, yeah, other people listen but most adults only listen halfway. They don’t really care about what you are saying. They are just polite and listen because they have to. But (our neighbors) really listen. They ask questions and they laugh and they treat me like an adult. I like being heard. It feels good. It feels like I belong.
Her words struck me. Often this same theme repeatedly came up again and again when people left the church—they didn’t feel like they belong. They felt like they belonged in children’s ministry when they were little. They felt like they belonged when they were in youth ministry as teenagers. But once they were in “big church” they felt out of place, disoriented, like strangers in a familiar place but one where they didn’t belong.
This feeling or sense of not belonging could stem from many things.
If the only experience that children or youth have within a church is in age-specific ministries, then the sense of not belonging in the larger community of “big church” makes sense. If their primary experience with the rest of the congregation is a a performer or visitor but not participant, then it a feeling of being on the outside looking in could persist. If children and youth do not have the opportunity to meet and interact with the broader faith community, to worship with or even have their name known by the adults in the congregation, that also makes sense.
But what if the kids have been in some way a part of the corporate gathering and what if their names are known by the congregation? Could it be possible that what we are missing is their voice?
Is there a place in our faith community where our children and youth can speak and really be heard? Is there a space for them to know that the person or persons they are talking to aren’t just half-listening to be polite but truly listening because they care?
Do They Know That They Belong?
The importance of belonging goes farther than many of us can imagine. Belonging impacts our mental, physical, and emotional health in ways we are only starting to truly understand.
The benefits of belonging are astounding. It simply makes people healthier. Being an integral part of a social support system reduces the effect of chronic stress on your body dramatically because being in community reduces the overproduction of cortisol–the stress hormone. Belonging reduces your risk of heart disease and cancer while increasing your immune system’s resilience. Your brain works better because you’re not stuck in survival mode. You can feel safe again when you are part of a healthy community. (Source)
Giving space for all ages to have a voice, to be heard, can be a powerful way to create a culture of belonging. After all, Jesus tells us that we should be learning from children (Mt. 18:1-5) and that we are to welcome children (Mk. 10:13-16) but often children, even if they are included in the corporate gathering, aren’t given a chance to speak. That being said, I’ve served in churches of various sizes and know that space, time, and the flow of service don’t always allow for these types of promptings.
Here are some ways that larger churches may want to consider creating space for the voices of children and youth to be heard.