It is Sunday morning. I am sitting at the front of the church looking across at the singers leading music as our worship begins.

Around the end of the front pew a small figure appears. She is alone. She stops at the front of the church and stands looking up… way up… at one of the singers. The little face watches intensely, filled with wonder at the sounds she hears. She is perfectly still.

The song ends. The grown-up singer makes a gesture that asks, “Do you want to be picked up?” The child seems amenable to being held; the adult bends down and lifts the child and holds her throughout the next song. This is at least the fifth adult I have seen holding this child since our service began.

She is a worship-wanderer.

It is not that this child is lonely; it is certainly not that she is neglected by her attentive family. But she likes to play the field at church. She is comfortable in this environment. This is a safe place for this two-year-old.  She can roam and, wherever she goes, she soon encounters an adult she knows and trusts or an older child with whom she feels some connection.

In article posted on FaceBook by Jaqueline,  Lisa Brown writes about  what she calls “feral church children.” I prefer  the term Jaqueline uses when she calls them “Free Range Church Children;” but Lisa Brown describes beautifully what I often see at church when she writes,

I love that young people are in church, not for a specified purpose, but just to “be.” Just to hang out. Just to be bored. Just to poke around. Just to get to know one another and be bored together. They form relationships, they form their own community. Like many, kids in our neighborhood are over-scheduled and super-structured. Parents work hard at keeping track of their kids, keeping them organized, and keeping them safe. “Constant vigilance” seems to be the watch word for parenting! If parents view the church as a place where they can relax their guard just a little bit… well, I figure parents probably need that break.

Not only do “parents… need that break,” children also need a place where they sense that they are accepted and embraced by a variety of adults. I am so touched that the little person I saw wandering around yesterday morning at church was comfortable being held by a variety of adults. I am touched by her boldness and equally by the graciousness and openness of the adults who so graciously make it safe for this little person feel free to roam.

We all know you get better eggs from free range chickens. You also get better worshipers from free range children. As children in church feel welcome to wander, they experience a sense of belonging. They learn to explore; they encounter other children and discover new adults with whom they soon feel at home.

We are not a high-pressure place. We want children to feel comfortable and welcome. We understand this means we may not be as tidy as tightly controlled environments might be. Free range children can be a bit messy at times. They are unpredictable. Free range children may not be as quiet as we adults might sometimes wish in our worship space. There is always a trade-off. What we sacrifice in slick, professional, polished worship, we gain in the tenderness, openness, warmth, and intimacy children naturally generate.

But it is not a free-for-all. Children learn by observing. The little child I watched yesterday was watching an adult who understood she was engaged in a meaningful and serious activity.

As children watch the adults around them share in reverent worship they begin to discover that church is not just playtime. The face I saw peering around the front pew yesterday, was filled with awe and wonder. Her little heart was opening to the mystery and beauty of life and she was learning to connect this stirring in her heart with the community of faith and the presence of God.

It was not a mistake that, when Jesus saw his disciples trying to prevent little children coming to him, he

was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:14-16)

We share in creating a reverent worship space in our faith community. Children play their role and have a lot to teach adults. Adults have a part to play as well in modelling for the children in our midst the kind of openness and tenderness that is a sign of God’s presence and action in our midst.


Here are some of the free range church children I was privileged to enjoy yesterday: