It is a common question. I have had people ask me the exact same thing. What does the Church have to offer children? Should we not cater to them by including some children's music, a children's sermon, and some simplified liturgy that is understandable to children? If we don't, wouldn't we better serve children by dismissing them from the "adult" nature of the Divine Service and sending them somewhere for content designed for children in mind?
I have also had people say the same thing about disabled (both physical and mental handicaps). What does the Church have to offer those who physically cannot participate by speaking or singing or standing or kneeling? I have heard people say the same thing about the single, the single parent family, gay people, etc... What does the Church have to offer people who are alone, unmarried, and without a family (implication being that everything in worship is designed for the family)? What does the Church have to offer those single parents who must wrestle with their children alone and who often miss out on parts of worship because they deal with restless or moody children (implication being that since children don't get anything out of worship, at least the parent could appreciate the service without the constraints of uncooperative children to deal with)? What does the Church have to offer gay people (implication being that the only thing the Church says to gays is that they are unwelcome, evil, and corrupt)?
All of these questions begin with a false premise. We could spend a great deal of time dealing with the straw men used to dismiss what the Church has to offer folks who do not fit the prime mold of those who are there on Sunday morning. But I will not do that. Instead, I will offer a general response to the same question poised for different people and different circumstances.
What does the Church have to offer?
- God's Word... the simplest answer. We offer the Word of God, rightly preached, the Law and Gospel properly distinguished, speaking the Word and applying the Word in the sermon, so that God may work as He has willed and promised in the life of the person (no matter the age, the maturity, the ability, or sexual orientation). The Word of God is a means of grace. God is present in His Word and works through His Word. This is not exclusively nor primarily understanding but the communication of the Truth that endures forever, the Truth that is our way, and the Truth that manifests God's presence and His gifts. Faith is not an "aha" moment in which we finally "get it" but trust in the will and works of God that give us life and salvation.
- The Sacraments of Life and Worship... We offer the means of grace, the visible Word, through which God comes to us in the fullness of His divine mercy to impart to us the grace that enables us to stand. Through baptism we enter into the mystery of Christ's death and resurrection, we are forgiven of our sins, we die and rise to new life in Christ, and we exchange the old identity as no people for the new identity as the people of God. Through the absolution we who continue to sin find the power of grace both to call us to repentance and confess our sin as well as to forgive that sin and restore us to our Lord. Through the Eucharist we both become aware of our hunger and thirst and our hunger and thirst are satisfied by the bread which is His body and the cup of His blood, the intimate table fellowship that both unites us to the God whose table it is and binds us as a people who confess a common faith and live within its boundaries and discipline.
- Catechesis... We offer not only the directed catechesis of the confirmation program (youth and adult) but the ongoing catechesis of the liturgy and hymns of the Church. Faith is not something learned and mastered as if one were learning a language but it is also a culture and identity into which we are drawn and which we take on little by little through the liturgy and hymns of the faith (as well as the Word and Sacraments). Singing the faith is especially helpful for children and those with limited intellectual ability but this is NOT the dumbing down of the faith. Just the opposite. It is the life of the faithful in which the faith is passed on by the form and words of the liturgy and the words and music of the hymnody.
- Holy Life... We offer the vision of the holy life of faith. Here the sanctoral cycle is especially helpful and it is a sad reality that too many of our parishes and people have lost touch with this side of the church's calendar. We learn from and grow into the holy life of the faithful by knowing the stories of the faithful in whom and through whom God has worked. They are not so much the objects of our attention as the God who worked in them and through them. With this is our sense of a chaste and pure life (no matter where we find ourselves -- married, single, youth, aged, etc...). We do not mirror the values and goals of the world around us but the holy life of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is a goal of moral purity to be sure but it is surely more than that. It is the life of self-denial in which we learn to love our neighbor as Christ has loved us, where we learn to delight in the path of service, and by which we learn what it means to be great in the Kingdom of God. Holy living (perhaps we could call it sanctification but I am not sure that word says much anymore) is not the domain of those who serve the Church in churchly vocations but the path of life for all the baptized.
- True self-esteem... We just passed through Lent, Holy Week, and Easter Sunday. Throughout this path walking with Jesus to the cross we were reminded that our value is not something we discern or place upon ourselves but is reflected in the price our Lord was willing to pay for our redemption. We have value and worth not because of our abilities, gifts, productivity, or success. No, we have value and worth because we were purchased and redeemed by the holy and precious body and blood of Christ. Luther reminds us of this in the explanation to the second article of the Creed. In a world where fake and empty versions of self-esteem leave us high and dry when we depend upon them most, we have the great and blessed reality of the cross from which we draw our value as persons and learn the self-esteem that is true and real. As we learn to sing it, "God's own child I gladly say it, I am baptized into Christ..."