Children as young as ten are becoming full members at Woestina Reformed.
Pastor Kent McHeard waded into the pews during a service and sat down next to an infant.
“This child is not the future of the church,” he announced.
He let the statement hang in the air for a moment, watching as confusion and shock registered on the faces of his congregation.
Then he continued, “Children are the church right now.”
Someone had brought up this point at a denominational meeting, and it stuck with McHeard. So he decided to pass on the message to his own congregation in a children’s sermon at First Reformed Church of Rotterdam in New York, known more commonly as Woestina Reformed.
“When I was growing up, I used to hear a lot that children are to be seen but not heard. Unfortunately, that was communicated in our churches—not necessarily by saying those words, but by showing them,” McHeard says.
He elaborates on that attitude: “We want to make sure if a baby is crying, that they’re rushed out because of the noise. When families enter in with young children, we meet them quickly at the door to say we have a children’s space. What that says is that children are not welcome to worship with us. Children see that, and they wonder, ‘Are we part of the church now, or do I have to wait until I’m an adult?’”
McHeard challenged his congregation to make sure their children don’t have to ask that question.
In response, Woestina opened up a pathway to full membership for children. Now children as young as ten are invited to take a membership class and become full members of the church. This gives them a vote and a voice in the church, just like the adults. It means they can serve on committees and vote for consistory members.
“Our children are learning what it is to be called by God at a really young age and are able to live into their calling now rather than later,” says McHeard.
And membership isn’t the only way Woestina offers children a chance to get involved. They are also invited to participate on Sunday mornings. Once a year, children put on the whole service—they even do the preaching. And children read the Scripture in services regularly.
“We try to encourage even the very young to read. If they stumble over a word, we’re patient with them. We let them take their time, and they keep trying until they get it,” says McHeard. “What we’ve seen is that more children say, ‘Yeah, I want to do that that,’ because it takes the pressure off.”
McHeard has a special appreciation for how important this is. His youngest son, Parker, has a processing delay, and it takes him about five seconds longer than most people to process words and to speak.
“For the longest time, he did not want to read at all in church,” McHeard says. “But he saw that we were patient with other children and encouraged all of our readers to take their time. … Now he’s reading in church and even wants to become an assistant for me.”
Parker notes that there are some limits to what’s appropriate (“In the middle of the service, I can’t take my shirt off,” says the ten-year-old), but the many things he can do at his church have helped him see that “I can be anything I want to be when I grow up—like a pastor or in the U.S. military, maybe teach other kids about God.”
McHeard believes that not only Parker “but all children who are shy, who are going through identity crises, want to be part of the church. But for some reason, they feel they’re not. It might be that someone says, ‘Well, we don’t want to hear that person again’ after they read. And the children hear that. They want to be part of it, but say, ‘I’m not as good as someone else.’
“One of the things we want to eliminate is that you have to be good at it. All of us as part of this community of faith are chosen by God to serve.”
Woestina is not a big church. On a good Sunday, there might be nine kids who show up. But God is doing powerful things through each of the people that come through the doors.
“Sometimes smaller churches are hesitant to use their youth because it’s so hard to get kids [to participate],” McHeard says. “We are not concerned about the numbers. We are not going to wait until we have a huge number to have a youth group. One or two is a youth group. Everyone matters.”
The model set by children like Parker has even inspired the adults in the church to get involved in new ways.
“Since our congregation is smaller, I used to do everything in the service,” McHeard explains. “But since the adults are seeing children read, now they are also volunteering. ‘And a child shall lead them’—that’s been real in our congregation.”
Pray for children and youth to feel at home in RCA congregations and in the Christian faith.
Email firstname.lastname@example.org to find resources and ministry opportunities for the next generation.