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Photo: Brad VanBodegom of Bethel CRC, Waterdown
Photo by Brad VanBodegom of Bethel CRC, Waterdown

Churches have been worshiping online for months because of the global COVID-19 pandemic, and restrictions on gatherings and physical distancing are likely to continue for some time. How are congregations working to involve children and youth during this time? Here are stories from four Ontario churches.

Joanne Adema is the coordinator of youth, fellowship, and outreach at Bethel Christian Reformed Church in Waterdown, Ont. She reflected, “After the first service online, we realized that this was going to be a longer-term thing than we had expected. The kids needed to know that they are still an important part of Bethel!”

Bethel CRC’s online worship services are formatted as a series of YouTube videos, so each element of the service is recorded and posted separately and can then autoplay in sequence for viewers. The children’s message has a hazy finish around the edges to set it apart, and it is introduced in the same way each week, with Pastor Bruce Adema walking across the platform to see ‘the Johnson family,’ Playmobil figures set up to introduce the topic. He then speaks with Sally Johnson, a puppet voiced by Joanne, on the theme of the sermon for the week.

Having the same characters each week provides continuity, said Joanne. The response has been positive. “Feedback says that the kids enjoy it -- and maybe the adults even more,” said Joanne.

Grace CRC in Chatham, Ont., also includes a prerecorded children’s message in their online worship services. Early in the pandemic, worship coordinators Rachel Hoekstra and Emily Nywening asked members of the congregation to offer a short children's message during the service, and two people signed on. Sylvia Taekema and Matt Weverink have different presentation styles, and each of them coordinate with Hoekstra and Nywening to tie each week’s message to the sermon topic.

The messages have grown into a 15-minute “kids’ church” that now runs just before the main worship service on Sunday mornings. Children from the congregation, helped and recorded by their parents at home, lead prayers, songs, and litanies. For special occasions such as Father’s Day, children are also invited to be part of a special video shown during the main worship service.

During the week, children are given challenges to complete, such as starting a garden or building a tower as tall as Goliath. They can send in photos or responses to share the activity with others.

Engaging children in the worship and community life of the church is important, said Taekema, because, “it helps maintain the regularity of 'going' to church each week. It helps kids 'see' each other each week and meet together. It helps communicate to our children that they are important members of the church and that we have not forgotten about them.”

At The Journey church in Kitchener, Ont., the children’s message, as well as the rest of the service, is shared through a conferencing app. This allows Karen DeBoer to speak directly with the children. She often asks them to bring something connected to the sermon, such as a walking stick for a message about the journey on the Emmaus road, or a paper boat for the story about Jesus calming the storm.

Children’s ministries that usually run during the week have also been canceled because of the pandemic, so churches have had to be creative in continuing those important ministries while following guidelines.

Bethel CRC used online conferencing to continue meeting each Thursday with their GEMS girls’ club until the end of the season. And several participants in GEMS and in the Cadets boys’ club earned the new “Stay at Home” badge. To help stay connected, church members brought care packages to the homes of GEMS, Cadets, and Kingdom Kids (Sunday school students).

As churches planned summer programs such as Vacation Bible School (VBS), they needed to adjust, because in many areas day camps too are restricted or not allowed. Bethel CRC is planning a “drive-in” VBS in August, and Grace CRC remains hopeful that they will be able to hold their annual Soccer Camp for Christ later this summer.

Immanuel CRC in Simcoe, Ont., decided to go online with their VBS program, using green-screen technology to put VBS volunteers in the mountains on the Rocky Railway. Creative Arts Pastor Kay-Marie Stroud noted, “We have certainly been enjoying this new venture with lots of laughs. This year we are including theme-related songs, drama skits, puppets, cooking, and prizes.”

To make VBS more intergenerational, said Stroud, “We are emphasizing participation from all of the people in each child’s home.” In April, congregation members were invited to join a six-part baking challenge. In May, the church featured a new cooking show with one of the children from the congregation as the host. “She is starting to get a following,” said Stroud, “and we are hoping she can be a ‘special guest’ in our VBS this year.”

Many are eager to resume worshiping together in church sanctuaries -- hopefully in the near future. In the meantime, church leaders and members are finding things to be thankful for.

Henrietta Irwin, a VBS volunteer at Immanuel CRC, said, “I have to say that I am pretty excited about the endless possibilities for VBS this year.” Her fellow VBS team member, Ada Kloet, agreed, adding, “We hope to reach children around the world with the message of the power in Jesus!”

Is your congregation finding creative ways to continue being the church during this time of pandemic? Email communications@crcna.org with your story ideas.