- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2009

Not long ago, I was in a synagogue, surrounded by toddlers, trying to pray in Hebrew.

As singer Rick Recht led us in choruses of “lai, lai, lai,” plus some simple phrases and hand motions, we sang about the crossing of the Red Sea.

Then we signed - with our hands - the Sh’ma, the passage from Deuteronomy that begins with, “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God.” We sang “Oseh Shalom,” about the Sabbath, and the leader then taught us about charity.

“That’s what you do when you’re a Jew,” he sang as my 3-year-old jumped up and down on the pew, entranced by the lively music.

I was never into kiddie devotions, and one agonizing four-month tour teaching Sunday school for fifth-grade boys destroyed any desire to return to children’s ministries. But once you get a little moppet of your own, the inevitable questions arise as to how to teach her or him about the Big Guy.

“Pastors rarely analyze what a truly spiritual child looks like or what it takes to produce one,” wrote Becky Fisher in Ministry Today magazine.

Nor do they recognize one. By sixth grade, I was writing essays on the Last Judgment. All I got in return was boring confirmation classes.

What does it take to train a child? I visited the Sixth and I Historic Synagogue in Northwest D.C. and a Methodist church in Northern Virginia with an innovative children’s ministry to find out.

If I took anything away from the evening at the synagogue, it’s that it is never too early to school your youngster in spiritual matters.

“Music is the best tool for Jewish education,” Mr. Recht said. “It has an ability to connect youth in a fun and positive and meaningful way to their faith in a way that other types of academic presentation struggle with.

“Judaism is not just about dogma, it’s about traditions and rituals,” he added. “When music accompanies those experiences, it captures those feelings and becomes the soundtrack for those experiences.”

In other words, music carries an emotional wallop that cements the spiritual lesson.

I dropped by the “Prayground,” a new kids ministry sponsored by Del Ray United Methodist Church in Alexandria. Six months in the planning, the effort depends heavily on volunteers to help usher, operate puppets and oversee the sound system.

When we arrived, there were two colorful bunches of balloons at the front. Each of the 20 to 25 children were given a rattle to shake.

The half-hour program included lively music and hand motions. Kids were encouraged to share “mad, sad or glad” thoughts - for which they received a “fruit of the Spirit” sticker - and a chance to place their offerings in a huge metal crayon, which is how my daughter coaxed me out of all my loose change.

“A penny in my pocket, a dollar in my shoe,” vocalist Melissa Jarvis sang as the kids gathered coins. “When I give them up to Jesus, there’s nothing He can’t do.”

Mark Mrini, the pastor, said a handful of new families have joined the church since the once-a-month “Prayground” began last fall as an experiment in kid-sized worship.

“Churches think all that we need to do with kids is fill them with information,” he said. “Children are spiritual people and there’s no reason why they can’t experience God in worship.”

cJulia Duin’s Stairway to Heaven column runs Thursdays and Sundays. Contact her at [email protected] times.com.

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