When I was Associate Pastor at the Bon Air Presbyterian Church, the church had been including a time for children within the worship service for many years. In fact, before I went on staff there, my children and I attended that church (while Joan’s musical gifts enriched the worship of a neighboring congregation) and younger children were hiking up the aisles for “their time.” I credit Bon Air with eschewing the term “children’s sermon.” Bon Air called it a “children’s conversation.” Whatever terminology we use, that segment of the service remains a minor controversy in ministry with children.

Sometimes that time in the weekly worship service goes very badly. Often, the message is inane, unfocused, inappropriate for the age group, or just plain cute. It may be little more than an entertaining break in the flow of the “work of the people” or liturgy. Early in our family’s Bon Air days, I complained (respectfully, of course) that telling the children that God was like a can of string beans wasn’t good theology. With that critique, I was offered a place on the rotation, and accepted with only the slightest hesitation. I vowed to never use a can of vegetables as an illustration, but to always tie the children’s conversation to the lectionary reading for the day, and to avoid like the proverbial plague any metaphorical reference beyond the reasoning capability of a four-year-old.

Rather than going further into my personal rules or guidelines for this time in worship set apart for children, I’ll just highly recommend anything Carolyn Brown has written on the subject, and urge the purchase of her series Forbid Them Not: Involving Children in Sunday Worship.

Whether this following idea came from Carolyn Brown or a Montreat Conference Center event, I cannot recall. I might even give myself credit for it. At least, I’ll give myself a pat on the back for initiating this plan in my Vermont and New York State churches. If we are serious about including children in worship leadership, and not merely their “special time,” let them lead us into the service from the very beginning of the hour. Let them offer us fire, water, and the Book.

One child each week (or a family, or a gang) during the prelude comes forward to light the candles, pour water into the baptism font, and open the pulpit Bible. Now all of that depends on whether one’s church actually has those items, but since my churches did (eventually), let’s go from there.

In Vermont, when I arrived at the East Craftsbury Church, there were no candles. I suspect that either 1) it was the old Covenanter way of distancing themselves from Roman Catholics, or 2) at sometime in the past the candles burned down to stubs and there was no Cokesbury store nearby to refresh the supply. There was, however, an Advent wreath that had found its way into the East Craftsbury traditions, so we kept the center pillar candle, the Christ candle, and lighted it each week following Christmas, as a kind of peace candle. Thus, we had a candle that needed lighting as worship began. With the help of an adult, preferably a volunteer firefighter, a child could flick the liturgical Bic and light the flame, having been initiated into the idea that Christ is the light of the world, a metaphor children might grasp in time.

I was also surprised to find that there was no baptism vessel or font in the East Craftsbury Church. One Sunday, someone told me that there was a small silver dish the church used on those rare occasions when there was a baptism, but no one knew where it had gone. I rummaged around in the debris under the pulpit (you should see what those little pulpit “closets” hide: lozenge and tissue boxes, dusty hymnals from previous generations, candles from Christmas Eves long past, broken pencils and dried-up pens, etc.), and I found the silver dish. It would have been a candy dish in someone’s living room, but it held enough water to sprinkle a baby, so, once it was polished up, I placed it on the pulpit as a weekly reminder of our baptisms. It was modestly utilitarian, perfect for our rural Vermont community. And when it had come out to the light of day, I preached a sermon on remembering our baptisms.

So, after one child lighted the candle, another would process with a pitcher of water and fill the font (or dish). Yes, even if there were to be no actual celebration of the sacrament, filling the font each week was a visible (and sometimes audible) reminder of our baptisms as we began our worship. Might the child spill splash some water somewhere besides the vessel? Sure. Look, it’s only water, so don’t worry.

Then, a child would go to the pulpit, and open the Book. An older child might open to a reading for the day. A younger child, even held up by a parent, can just crack open the Book anywhere as a symbol that we are about to become “the people of the Word.”

When I moved to the First Presbyterian Church in Trumansburg, NY, the congregation’s children looked forward to those rituals, leading us all into the light, and engagement with Word and Sacraments. When I initiated this procedure, I confess that I was anxious about one more recruitment issue each week. But, as usual, I needn’t have worried; the children were eager to light the fire, splash the water, and pry open the big Book. I never had to beg for volunteers. Good for them! And good for us all that our children had a role in reminding us why we had gathered in that sacred space every week.

One note about getting this started. Children, as is true with the rest of us, learn by doing, and do best having learned. So, this ritual becomes a teachable moment. Why do we light a candle? Why is there water in the font? Why do we read from this Bible?

Finally, a story from my Bon Air Presbyterian Church days…  Bon Air had a more formal acolyte program for youth. When some of the kids entered the sanctuary to light the candelabra prior to worship, they weren’t always dressed for the role. No one worried about jeans or tee shirts, unless the tee shirts had questionable messages or ads on them. And they did. So, someone suggested that albs would cover up inappropriate clothing, as well as look liturgically spiffy. And how sharp that young kid looked as he moved toward the candles that first Sunday dressed in his alb. And how cool were those sneakers that lighted up blinking bright red with each step! Oh, well.

In our next episode, the pastor says to me, “Kellam, you’ll do anything for money!” It was about my doing a wedding in a shopping mall.