Hidden Curriculum

Somewhere along the way the church decided that it is more important for children to be put into a Sunday school class to listen to lectures about what they should believe instead of participating in the central activity of the larger community of faith, the worship service. Now it is hard to find a church that does not separate  children from the worshipping community by placing them in age appropriate classes to “learn” about faith or practice worship. We have essentially decided that children don’t know enough, can’t sit quietly long enough, or do not have enough practice to be a part of corporate worship. Or we use the excuse that children will get more out of or have more fun in an age specific program filled with games, video clips, crafts, lectures, and discussion with children of similar age.

The first problem with that is a narrow view of what the corporate worship experience should be, one that is not child friendly at all. And I ask myself really…what would God think about children joyfully dancing to songs in the isles, cuddling with their parents, laughing, smiling, fidgeting, turning to the person behind them and making a silly face, drawing a picture, eating some cheerios.  In my mind, I see God smiling at those things.

Then I get back to the idea that children don’t know enough or need a special “children’s church” so they can practice worshipping God. I contend that by pulling children out of the corporate worship service and placing them in “kid friendly” programs, the messages we are sending them about worship are much more powerful than the learning objectives that the teachers are trying to reach.

In his book Will our Children Have Faith?, John H. Westerhoff III writes about the “hidden curriculum” (Westerhoff III, pp. 16-17). Much of how we learn and develop is shaped by what we experience in relationship with others. So what is the hidden curriculum guides the development of children in churches when they are not a part of the regular worship service? There are two dangerous messages encapsulated in this “hidden curriculum.”

Message #1

You are not old enough to worship God. You need to know more, grow more, practice more in order to be a valuable participant in the corporate worship service. Each church has a different threshold for when a person is “ready.” It might be when you have gone through the special Bible and theology classes that allowed you to be confirmed. Or it might be when you reach eighteen and we have done all we can do to teach you, now you are on your own. Some churches decide that there can be special services throughout the year, where children are allowed to participate, but those need to planned and prepare to make those meet the needs of these participants that are not able to handle a typical service.

Message #2

Worshipping God is no fun! You won’t like it at all. We have something much better for you. There will be games, crafts, singing, getting to know friends, silly skits, powerful lessons, time to talk about your prayer requests, and adults who care about you. You won’t find that in the regular worship service, so we offer this program that is better for you. Then when you hit the end of our programming…maybe it’s in 7th grade, maybe it is when you graduate high school, you will have to give up all those fun things you did, and suffer through the adult worship service.

This is when I look at the church and shake my head! What are we doing? What do Jesus’ words about “welcoming the children” mean to us? When will we realize that Jesus welcomed the children because they had something to offer, something that was different from what the adults had to offer?

When we separate children from the central activity of the faith community, when we decide they need to learn more, or decide that the most important thing about worship is meeting the needs of adults, rather than worshipping God as a community, we suffer. We suffer by not enjoying the richness that children have to offer the congregation. We suffer by having a few “trained” (or not so trained) teachers who invest in the children, instead of an entire community of adults who are invested. We suffer by a narrow view of what worship looks like. We suffer by presenting a “hidden curriculum” to children that is often more powerful than the “purchased curriculum” and presents a lesson that hinders our potential to have a powerful intergenerational community that walks together in our faith…and a community that I belive God wants us to experience.

Westerhoff III, John H. (1976). Will our Children Have Faith?. New York: The Seabury       Press.

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About Heather Ingersoll

This is me... wife of Ryan, my college sweetheart​, mother of Theo, my ambitious energetic toddler, faithful follower of Christ, well..strive to be a faithful follower of Christ facilitator and proponent, Becoming a Love and Logic Parent alumnus of Seattle Pacific University, PhD in Education alumnus of Concordia University St. Paul, MA in Human Services alumnus of Trinity Lutheran College, BA in Christian Education This is what I like... running, cooking, reading, bicycling, drinking tea, BBQs, mornings reading books in bed with my son, games with family and friends. Photo by Shawn Ingersoll Photography 2010, http://shawningersoll.com/

Posted on September 23, 2011, in Children's Ministry. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. We recently changed our worship services and education hour so that the are separated. Before we did just what you pointed out here, sent the kids out while the adults worshiped. We fully expected there to be a huge backlash to this, but joyfully the parents AND kids have joined in worship together.

    The only backlash I have experienced is with our youth. They grew up not having to go to church and being able to “skip out” and go to class where they played games and all the other things.

    Now they have to go to church and we have a few that have stopped coming, a few that sit outside the service and talk, and a few that attend church. Hopefully I’ll find a way to engage them in the service. If you have suggestions, let me know 🙂

    • That is an exciting change and exciting that the parent and kids have made the change joyfully. It makes sense that the youth a backlashing it, because of what they have been socialized to think about the “adult” worship service. It is a really hard change to make. I would start with the obvious, (which I am sure you have already through about). Find ways for them to be involved in leadership…reading scripture, praying, ushering, singing, playing music, etc. If there is a worship planning team, see if some of the youth can be a part of that team. Help not only understand, but see that the change isn’t all the sudden just making them go to church, but it is about wanting them to be a part of the community worship.

  2. So good, Heather! I think the alternate worship experience we create for children is a major contributor to the “graduating from church” migration that happens after confirmation. Older teens and twenty-somethings know better than to show up for whatever the church thinks they can handle. This hidden curriculum is so effective that children go away as soon as they can, and stay away until the need to do it to their own children brings them back.

  3. Amazing Heather! 🙂

  4. Teresa Ingersoll (MIL)

    You are AMAZING my DIL! And I love you so much!! Keep up the good work and thanks for taking care of my son.

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