Kids aren’t just “welcome” here. Kids lead us here. And when they do, miracles are born.

Kids aren’t just “welcome” here. Kids lead us here. And when they do, miracles are born.

Rehearsals for the 106th annual Winnetka Congregational Church Christmas Pageant on December 12th have already begun. As preparations for this beloved event gain steam, I’ve found myself reflecting on why we’re so committed to doing everything we do here intergenerationally – to remaining open to hearing God’s grace expressed through voices of all ages.

A story that keeps coming up for me is one about a particular fifth grader.

She’s a natural introvert, known for her quiet kindness. One week, she worked up the courage to tell me she wanted to participate in worship in some way. So, I asked if, maybe, she’d like to lead the Call to Discipleship.

If you’ve never visited Winnetka Congregational, our service begins with a child or youth welcoming us into worship by leading our Call to Discipleship. Children are ALWAYS welcome in our Sunday morning worship – we’ve got Children’s Bulletins, coloring sheets, and crayons in “Kid Bags” in the narthex. But central to our commitment to being an intergenerational church is the belief that children should be more than welcome. We believe in the power of our children and youth to lead, in their own right. Exactly as they are.

So, we call upon the voices and leadership of our kids. Not just once a month. Not just on “Youth Sunday” or holidays. But every Sunday. And, at the very start of each service.

This particular 5th grader conveyed her wish to help lead. But when the Sunday she was scheduled to speak came along, her shyness kicked in big time. And just minutes before the service. To help ease her nerves, I suggested we invite her mom to sit up front with her and to stand alongside her when she read. She agreed, and when the time came to read, she and her mom walked together to the lectern.

The nerves won. And, as sometimes can happen to any of us, the girl froze. But when Mom, standing a little behind her, started to read the first line, you could feel the energy in the room focus. You could feel every single heart in the place open to hold this young person. The crowd was so supportive, so non-judgmental, so WITH her, whatever happened, whether she read or not.

An energy, a holy-spirited energy rippled through everyone there that day. It was a moment like Jacob had when he woke up after his dream of wrestling with an angel. A moment of “surely God is in this place.”

In the warm, safe embrace of that energy, the girl joined her mother to read the second line… ever so softly. Then a little louder, and a little stronger on the third line, as the mom gently tapered her voice to make room for her daughter’s. By the fourth and final line, her mom stopped reading all together. And the room rang with the girl’s voice… solo.

In just four lines, you could see the transformation that had taken place. You could feel Christ in the room. You could feel the congregation truly being “church”. You could see the confidence in the young leader’s face, her posture, her smile.

In the presence of a community that was authentically and palpably open to her… she’d found her voice. She’d found herself. And, through her, God had reminded us how we are all ministers of The Word. That church is the often vulnerable, always tender, sometimes miraculous work of both making room. And finding room.

That fifth grader wasn’t the only person who experienced a transformation that day. When I spoke to her father after the service, he reflected on how strikingly different the energy that morning felt from times he’d witnessed someone struggle during a presentation at his workplace. It made him think about the culture at work, and how he–and any of us–possess the Spirit-inspired power to effect change, to find a way to respond when things don’t go as planned that’s less from a dog-eat-dog world view and more from a “love your neighbor as yourself” one.

If we didn’t invite and encourage young people to fully participate in the life of our church, that moment wouldn’t have happened. For the girl. For her mom. For the congregation. For that father. For any of us. That shared experience changed all of us in different ways. And we grew both from it, and in it. Together.

It might seem like a small story. Yet it holds immeasurable power.

You may have seen the statistics floating around saying that 40 to 50 percent of kids who are part of a youth group in high school don’t stick with church in college. I would venture to say a huge part of the reason for that is that too often churches haven’t really included them. They’ve offered “programming” for them. But they haven’t deeply listened to them, haven’t involved them in worship and leadership starting at a young age, haven’t provided them a safe place to ask all the questions or to use their gifts, whatever they may be, as an integral part of church life.

Here at Winnetka Congregational, we’ve been committed to being truly intergenerational for a very long time. We haven’t always done that perfectly. And we continue to grow into what that could look like. But for us, being an intergenerational church is a part of our larger commitment to being an “Open House,” fully and deeply inclusive, open to each and every voice, no matter how loud or quiet, or how young or old, or their orientation or gender, or the color of their skin, or their socio-economic or marital status, or how sure or unsure they might be about God or the Bible or the whole church thing.

We believe that’s what God meant church to be. And when churches are truly trying to be that, it empowers us. It transforms us. And it enriches us. All of us.

So, if you’d like to experience that amazing gift that our young people bring to us, join us any Sunday. And definitely join us on Sunday, December 12th for our 106th Christmas Pageant. Our children and youth are putting together an incredible morning of Christmas carols, amazing costumes, heartfelt storytelling, and some of the cutest “sheep” and “donkeys” you’ll ever see. It’s a wonderful time for the whole family to connect and celebrate the magic of the season, and a perfect time to check out what we mean when we say that kids are more than just welcome… they’re leaders!

By the way, so that everyone can enjoy the Pageant together, we’ll be welcoming guests both in person and through our livestream. You’ll find all the event details here.

We hope you’ll join us. It’s not just an event where we’ll celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus. It’s one in which we’ll let the children lead us to a greater experience and understanding of what Jesus invites us into – a beloved community that includes and embraces everyone, a place where there’s room for us all.

The Rev. Jeff Braun is the Senior Pastor of Winnetka Congregational Church, a progressive, LGBTQ-inclusive, justice-oriented and family-friendly church on the north side of Chicago. His calling is to share God’s word of love as spoken through Jesus, to make sure that everyone knows they have a seat at the table and to help us all recognize our oneness in God and with all God’s children.