As the band at Trinity United Methodist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, played the first chords of "All the People Said Amen," 22-month-old Liam sat on a soft blanket on the floor at the front of the sanctuary playing with a red rubber ball. A few measures in, the toddler stood up, moved to the aisle and started bouncing up and down with the rhythm of the music.
When the music ended, Liam returned to the blanket, sat down and resumed playing with the ball and other soft toys around him while the service continued just a few feet in front of him.
"Liam definitely feels the Spirit with the music and message, even as a toddler," said Kaitlyn VanHaren, Liam's mom and a member of Trinity.
Trend around the globe
Trinity is among a growing number of churches adopting a trend to incorporate space near the front of the sanctuary for young children to sit and play during worship services. The concept, called "praygrounds," is taking root around the globe.
"Often, parents and children sit in the back of church, hoping not to disturb anyone," VanHaren said. "I have found that children, especially Liam, are more attentive and active in the service when they are in the front of the church. There is more to see, hear and respond to that way."
Melanie C. Gordon, director of ministry with children at Discipleship Ministries, has seen praygrounds in a number of countries.
In 2014, Gordon participated in the Wesley Pilgrimage in England. "I was amazed at how many churches had a space carved out in their sanctuaries for children and adults," she said. "Everything was small and childlike. When I asked what the space is used for, I was told ‘We like for our children to be in worship with us.'"
On a trip to Sweden, Gordon worshiped at Abrahamsbergskyrkan (Abraham Mountain Church) in Stockholm where preschoolers seated near the front of the church in the prayground stay busy with crafts and books during church worship. Then a United Methodist congregation, the church is now part of the Uniting Church in Sweden.
"They wouldn't even think about the children being anywhere else but in worship," Gordon said. "You could tell the children were used to being in church, because they were very comfortable in the space. I thought it was wonderful."
All God's children worship together
Encouraging parents to bring their young children into the worship service and placing them near the front may be unprecedented in many churches. In recent decades, the trend in most mainline denominations has been toward children's church. There, youngsters are taken to a child-oriented service or activity in a space outside of the sanctuary for all or most of the service.
"I'm not sure where it started, but for the past 30 years, there has been a struggle about having children in worship," Gordon said. "Should they be there? Are they learning anything?
"What's been found over time is that when children who are separated out of the worshipping community get to an age to decide for themselves if they want to be a part of worship, they will likely decide not to be part of worship because it hasn't been part of their life. We know enough about the brain development of a young child to know they need opportunities to be part of something, so they see it as an important part of who they are.
"We are all adopted through our baptism into God's family, so we need to worship together," Gordon said. "We know children need to move and have some active time, so we need to find creative ways of engaging children in worship."
A prayground does not negate the need for a church nursery, leaders say. Rather praygrounds supplement existing spaces. Most churches continue to have nursery and Sunday school ministries.
Radical hospitality for youngest congregants
Often, church leaders view praygrounds as part of the welcoming ministry.
"The prayground is a space where children can see and be engaged, a space that's especially for them," Gordon said. "It's a way of offering a radical hospitality to children."
Beth Hagemeyer, director of children's education at Community United Methodist Church in Napierville, Illinois, agreed. "Our prayground has been a wonderful way to welcome all to worship," she said. In addition to the prayground, the church continues to offer a 20-minute children's church activity for which youngsters can leave the sanctuary.
Grace Space, the prayground at First United Methodist Church in Holland, Michigan, has brought positive responses from members and visitors.
"The first day we started it, we happened to have a guest who thanked me at the end of the service, not only for the warm welcome, but for having a space to worship with her children," said Tania Dozeman, student pastor at the church, and a consultant for the Michigan Vital Church Initiative. Dozeman led the designing of the prayground.
"Grace Space is a statement to the entire congregation that we are making physical and spiritual space for families," Dozeman said. "We are now embodying our inclusiveness and intentionality. This is a way to ‘walk the walk' for churches who talk about desiring more families in their midst."
In addition to providing a physical space for young children, the Rev. Lynn Piers-Fitzgerald, senior pastor at Holland First, said that praygrounds offer an opportunity for spiritual formation to begin at an early age.
"We want children to witness their parents and other adults worshipping to show that this is what our life looks like together as children of God," she said.
Trinity Church's Glenys Nellist is a vocal praygrounds advocate.
"I'm passionate about including young children in worship," she said. "I have a passion for getting God's word into the heart of little ones. I was immediately drawn to this idea."
Nellist, coordinator of children's ministries in the West Michigan Conference and a children's author, and Nichea Ver Veer Guy, Pathways to Discipleship director at Trinity, teamed up to develop their church's prayground.
"Children bring an energy and this unashamed love of worship," Nellist said. "If we can get past this fear of how much noise there will be or how much distraction there will be, then I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.
"I want young parents and families to know there's an intentional space for your child in the front or toward the front," she said. "When the space is near the front, the children know they are part of something bigger than themselves."
On the Sunday when Liam started dancing to the worship music, Nellist was standing nearby.
"When I saw Liam dancing, I was in tears and his mom was, too. Everybody in the congregation responded to that. This is not just impacting one little life that gets to hear the liturgy and dance to the music. If we can find a way to implement these in every United Methodist church, it will impact their congregational life."
The command to bring children into worship services may date back to the church's earliest days.
"I believe when Jesus said ‘Don't block the children, let them come to me,' I can imagine that the tone was firm," Gordon said. "‘Let them come to me.'"
Crystal Caviness is a public relations specialist at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tennessee.
Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, March –April , 2017.