General Synod ‘Prayground’ to set aside sacred space for UCC’s youngest members and their families
What’s the best way to integrate very young children into the life of the church? The United Church of Christ, as it hones its focus on nurturing little ones from birth through early development, is debuting one idea at General Synod.
The Faith INFO (Education, Innovation and Formation) team is creating a “Prayground” in the plenary hall for very small children and their families.
The Prayground will be located in the worship/plenary space, behind the delegate area and the bar of the house. It will replace a center section of seats with sightlines to the stage.
The idea is to integrate children from birth into the life of the church.
“Our hope is to model a Prayground or family space done well at General Synod which congregations can replicate when they go home and set a tone for a major priority for our denomination — nurturing children into a lifelong faithful relationship with God, church and one another,” said the Rev. Trayce Potter, who serves as the UCC minister of youth and young adult engagement.
Intentional space for families
Potter said the General Synod Prayground will be open during the three worship services and in plenary sessions for young children under preschool age and their caregivers. It will provide the little ones and their families a dedicated space “where children will be able to take in the sights, sounds and experiences of the church while simultaneously playing in a safe space near their caregivers.”
“One of my hopes for worship at General Synod is that we also provide a demonstration for local churches of what’s possible,” said the Rev. Cheryl Lindsay, UCC minister for worship and theology. “Many of our churches seek opportunities to offer multigenerational worship, which sometimes means liturgical acts. It can also include making space and extending hospitality, even when it might seem inconvenient.
“The invitation to be attentive to the needs of people in our community presents an opportunity to be the kindom of God in spirit and in truth. It also creates, in my view, a foundation seed, sense and memory of being encircled and embraced as beloved members of the church for children to cherish as they grow,” she continued.
“I am excited about the intentionality of space for families,” said the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, General Synod administrator and the UCC’s candidate for General Minister and President. “We are an intergenerational church; a reality of who we are that should be readily seen in all aspects of who we are, including worship spaces.”
Generous grant supports children
The Lilly Endowment grant resulted after the UCC was invited to apply for its Nurturing Children Through Worship and Prayer Initiative. The aim of the national initiative is to support faith-based organizations as they help children grow in faith and deepen their relationships with God.
Faith INFO sees the project as an extension of the UCC’s Three Great Loves campaign, launched in 2017, intentionally focusing on “love of children,” said Potter. Her position is shifting to encompass children and youth, with a new emphasis on birth through age 12.
As Potter said, “The hope is to redesign the United Church of Christ’s children’s ministry.” Praygrounds, as noted in the denomination’s grant proposal to the Lilly Endowment, dedicate sacred space to the church’s youngest members.
“Our Praygrounds will set spaces, often in the front of churches, between the pulpit and the congregation, where our small children can engage in developmental play for the duration of our services,” the proposal reads. “By reorganizing our sacred space, we hope to renovate our hearts and spirits, our communal life, toward a fuller commitment to the already intergenerational body of Christ.
“In this aspect of our project, the role of churches is to dedicate important space to children; the role of children is to expand our sense of what makes a spiritual community. Ultimately, we want to strengthen the conceptual and spiritual foundations upon which our youngest members can thrive in our midst and beyond.”
Using the grant money, the UCC plans to build resources and networks that would support a designation of child-centered churches, much like churches currently can be designated as WISE for mental health support, Open and Affirming for LGBTQ inclusion or Creation Justice churches.
An ‘inspiration and model’
While some may worry that incorporating little children into worship and plenary could be a distraction, organizers are already addressing that in the planning stage. “We are working hard to design a space that has developmentally appropriate materials that are soft (quiet) and engaging,” Potter said. “All materials are being carefully selected to minimize the noise that will be created.”
The area will not be on camera and will have a perimeter to protect children if they are somehow able to make their way out of the play space.
Thompson emphasized that the Prayground is not designed to replace childcare, which will be available at General Synod. It’s also not a space where delegates can bring children while they are immersed in plenary. It can be used for families during worship and, as she said, it will give visitors a way to participate in the process.
“It will be space where families could sit during General Synod, watch their children, but also have access to the screens and to watching the procedures,” she said. “This is not a space that is designed for delegates and their children … because delegates are attending in a way that requires their full involvement with Synod that wouldn’t allow them to split their time in sitting in that space.”
No sign-up will be required, and children and caregivers can come and go as they like. Adults will need to remain in the area with their little ones.
Potter hopes to survey parents and the wider church after Synod to see how the Prayground space is received.
As Lindsay said, “I pray that it may serve as inspiration and model for our churches well after General Synod has concluded.”
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