• Michelle Whitlock

Balloons in Church


I was recently challenged to name my personal non-negotiables when it comes to visiniong new ministry and changes. If you have talked with me about my PhD dissertation, you know that one of my few non-negotiable is intergenerational worship. I am pretty passionate about worship that includes people of all ages, and I want to explain why.


Corporate worship is an act of the corporate body of Christ. Worship teaches us how to be followers of Jesus. It is tied to our identity as children of God. Each week, we enact the story of our faith as the body of Christ. We do this through song, prayer, scripture, sacrament, and more. These practices teach us how to be the body of Christ. Truth is, we can learn a lot about Christianity in a Sunday school class, but we become Christians by practicing the liturgy.


It is only in the last century that the church universal began offering Sunday school or children’s church during the corporate service. For 1900 years, Christian worship was inherently intergenerational. Developmental theories and educational trends in the 20th century led the church to approach children and youth ministries in new and exciting ways. Unfortunately, it also caused us to move away from intergenerational worship. As a result, the last few generations of Christians never learned how to be Chistians - they never (or rarely) practiced their faith in corporate worship.


Studies show the steady decline of young adults in the church is directly related to age segregated ministry. Fuller Youth institute estimates “40 to 50 percent of kids who graduate from a church or youth group fail to stick with their faith in college.”[1]

Their research suggests intergenerational worship and relationships are the key to solving this for future generations.


In addition to the statistics, our United Methodist theology affirms infant baptism as an entrance into the body of Christ. Once we have welcomed these children into the church, we have a responsibility to teach them much more than Bible stories, church history and doctrine. We have the responsibility to teach them how to be Christians, which requires participation in corporate worship. Yes, age appropriate ministry is very important in our Christian education, but Christian formation happens over time in worship.


Christian Education scholar, Karen Marie Yust makes an analogy which may be controversial for some, but I think it is an accurate description of the problem.

“Congregations have even become adept at labeling the practice of excluding children from worship (the primary work of a religious community) as a form of age-appropriate hospitality, without recognizing that ‘separate-but-equal’ doesn’t work any better in congregational life than it did as a racist practice in the 1950’s and 1960’s.” [2]

Separating children and youth from corporate worship implicitly suggests they are not really part of the body of Christ. Yes, young children sometimes need to leave the room. Yes, worship with children can be noisy. Yes, intergenerational worship is different, sometimes messy, imperfect, and often challenging --- but isn't that part of the formative experience? Worship itself should be all of those things. That is how we grow and become better Christians together on the Way.


I believe children and youth teach us adults just as much, if not more, than we teach them. After all, Jesus tells us we must have child like faith to enter the kingdom of God! When someone suggests worship is boring for children and youth, I remind them it is often boring for adults as well. Maybe instead of creating something separate we need to create something different together.


Presbyterian Poet Laureate, Ann Weems, wrote a poem that I believe describes the changes needed to embody intergenerational liturgy at it's best.


BALLOONS BELONG IN CHURCH

by Ann Weems


I took to church one morning a happy four-year-old boy

Holding a bright blue string to which was attached

his much loved orange balloon with pink stripes...

Certainly a thing of beauty

And if not forever, at least a joy for a very important now.

When later he met me at the door

Clutching blue string, orange and pink bobbing behind him,

He didn't have to tell me something had gone wrong.

"What's the matter?"

He wouldn't tell me.

"I bet they loved your balloon..."

Out it came, then -- mocking the teacher's voice, "We don't bring balloons to church."

Then that little four-year old, his lip a little trembly, asked:

"Why aren't balloons allowed in church? I thought God would like balloons."

I celebrate balloons, parades and chocolate chip cookies.

I celebrate seashells and elephants and lions that roar.

I celebrate roasted marshmallows and chocolate cake and fresh fish.

I celebrate aromas: bread baking, mincemeat, lemons...

I celebrate seeing: bright colors, wheat in a field, tiny wild flowers...

I celebrate hearing: waves pounding, the rain's rhythm, soft voices...

I celebrate touching: toes in the sand, a kitten's soft fur, another person...

I celebrate the sun that shines slab dab in our faces...

I celebrate the crashing thunder and the brazen lightning...

And I celebrate the green of the world...the life-giving green...the hope-giving green...

I celebrate birth: the wonder...the miracle...of that tiny life already asserting its selfhood.

I celebrate children

who laugh out loud

who walk in the mud and dawdle in the puddles

who put chocolate fingers anywhere

who like to be tickled

who scribble in church

who whisperin loud voices

who sing in louder voices

who run...and laugh when they fall

who cry at the top of their lungs

who cover themselves with bandaids

who squeeze the toothpaste all over the bathroom

who slurp their soup

who chew coughdrops

who ask questions

who give us sticky, paste-covered creations

who want their picture taken

who won't use their napkins

who bury goldfish, sleep with the dog, scream at their best friend

who hug us in a hurry and rush outside without their hats.

I celebrate children

who are so busy living they don't have time for our hangups

And I celebrate adults who are as little children.

I celebrate the man who breaks up the meaningless routines of his life.

The man who stops to reflect, to question, to doubt.

-- The man who isn't afraid to feel....

The man who refuses to play the game.

I celebrate anger at injustice

I celebrate tears for the mistreated, the hurt, the lonely...

I celebrate the community that cares... the church...

I celebrate the church.

I celebrate the times when we in the church made it...

When we answered a cry

When we held to our warm and well-fed bodies a lonely world.

I celebrate the times when we let God get through to our hiding places

Through our maze of meetings

Our pleasant facade...deep down to our selfhood

Deep down to where we really are.

Call it heart, soul, naked self

It's where we hide

Deep down away from God

And away from each other.

I celebrate the times when the church is the Church

When we are Christians

When we are living, loving, contributing God's children...

I celebrate that He calls us His children even when we are in hiding.

I celebrate love...the moments when the You is more important than the I

I celebrate the perfect love...the cross...the Christ

loving in spite of...

giving without reward

I celebrate the music within a man that must be heard

I celebrate life...that we may live more abundantly...

Where did we get the idea that balloons don't belong in the church?

Where did we get the idea that God loves gray and Sh-h-h-h-h

And drab and anything will do?

I think it's blasphemy not to appreciate the joy in God's world.

I think it's blasphemy not to bring our joy into His church.

For God so loved the world

That He hung there

Loving the unlovable

What beautiful gift cannot be offered unto the Lord?

Whether it's a balloon or a song or some joy that sits within you waiting to

have the lid taken off.

The Scriptures say there's a time to laugh and a time to weep.

It's not hard to see the reasons for crying in a world where man's hatred for

man is so manifest.

So celebrate!

Bring your balloons and your butterflies, your bouquets of flowers...

Bring the torches and hold them high!

Dance your dances, paint your feelings, sing your songs, whistle, laugh.

Life is a celebration, an affirmation of God's love.

Life is distributing more balloons.

For God so loved the world...

Surely that's a cause for Joy.

Surely we should celebrate!

Good News! That He should love us that much.

Where did we ever get the idea that balloons don't belong in the church?




[1] Kara Eckmann Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2011), loc 94 of 2861, Kindle. Powell and Clark cite the following research regarding this estimate: Barna Group, “Most Twentysomethings Put Christianity on the Shelf Following Active Teen Years,” Barna Update, September 16, 2006; George H. Gallup Jr., “The Religioussity Cycle,” The Gallup Poll, October 19, 2006; Frank Newport, “A Look at Religious Switching in America Today,” The Gallup Poll, October 19, 2006; LifeWay, “LifeWay Reasearch Uncovers Reasons 18 to 22 Year Olds Drop Out of Church,” LifeWay Christian Resources, August 7, 2007. Accessed January 20, 2021. https://lifewayresearch.com/2007/08/07/reasons-18-to-22-year-olds-drop-out-of-church; Christian Smith and Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).


[3] Karen Marie Yust, Real Kids Real Faith: Practices for Nurturing Children’s Spiritual Lives (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2004), 45-46.


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