Updated: Dec 15, 2019
On Easter Sunday afternoon, after a very full Holy Week + Easter Sunday Children’s Chapel + Family Dinner, I collapsed at home on the couch with a roommate. And what better choice of movie than a resurrection of childhood imagination in the face of death: Finding Neverland? (Or, I’ve been subjecting my house to listening to the soundtrack for awhile now, and it was time to actually watch the movie).
Finding Neverland is one of my favorite movies; I’ve long appreciated the way it deals with grief, imagination and respecting children as full human beings. The slightly-fictionalized story follows J.M. Barrie, the play-write of Peter Pan, through his friendship with the Lewellyn Davies boys as they grieve their father’s death and worry about their ill mother. Through their friendship, Barrie re-discovers the thrill of childhood imagination, and through Peter Pan, he seeks to invite the cultured society of London back into the playful nursery of their youth. One key component in making opening night a success is planting a few dozen children in the audience to guide the adults back to the joy of play.
I was completely surprised by how emotional I became when the children begin to file into their seats. Squishing between adults, perched on the edge of their chairs for a better view, thrilled with the joy of merely sitting in a fancy theater, the children catch the adults off guard. According to high society London, they are not supposed to be at the theater. Even the text of the play recognizes that adults go to the theater while children stay home in the nursery alternately role-playing their parents and dreading the inevitability of growing up.
Anyway, the children begin to find their seats, and I start to tear up and wreck the moment by quietly, excitedly exclaiming, “look! it’s intergenerational! the play wouldn’t work without the children”. It makes perfect sense in the movie. It also made sense in the real life story where Barrie actually insisted on children in the audience. And it’s no stretch that it brought to mind children in pews on Sunday mornings.
Children have a fabulous way of suspending disbelief. They ask wonderful questions, but many of them also believe in ways that adults cannot. I think of the lectionary reading from last week where Jesus addresses Thomas’ doubts in the resurrection. Jesus is gracious to Thomas just as he is patient with those of us today who doubt. It’s not that the adults viewing Peter Pan for the first time were deficient or evil, but they were blinded by their age, experiences, and responsibilities in life. In order to fully appreciate the story, they had to have children alongside them. To know the full story- to celebrate the gift of the whole family of God in The Church- we must recognize and embrace the children of the church.
When I sit in sanctuaries where children are welcomed to participate in worship, I’m encouraged that the Scriptures are equally true for us regardless of our capability to understand, and I’m challenged to believe, trust, and worship with a child-like faith and spirit. Even when children seem to be struggling with engaging with congregation, I am reminded that I often struggle less visibly, but am no less loved and accepted for it. Perhaps, even, they are a signal that something in the service might be able to shift to welcome them more fully, or to engage the other congregants (if children are squirming, some adults are checking out, too).
At the end of the first act, J.M. Barrie is convinced that the play is a flop. It’s so different. The people have been inconvenienced by the children. The story line must be too fanciful. In his moment of despair, he is shocked to find that the audience considers it delightful, the best night at the theater they can remember. This is not to say that every play (or church service) must include children to be a success or that there is never a place for children to enjoy being with each other (I’m not anti- Children’s Ministry!). However, there is a certain and special joy that comes from welcoming the children, and even letting them lead through their presence and imaginations. That’s the kind of Church I want to be a part of.