by Allie Naskret
The children watched in wonder as Olivia Stewart Robertson (M.Div., 2008) laid out a felt carpet and carried over the basket of wooden figurines. She placed the carved wooden figures of Zacchaeus and blind Bartemaus along the road to Jerusalem that Jesus would travel. She was preparing to tell the children about the season of Lent and Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.
“Children have the innate ability to know God and worship God, if we give them a space that’s geared toward them,” says Olivia. Over the years, Olivia has developed a deep love for teaching and nurturing children in their spirituality. Part of her ongoing ministry has been to train others in creating engaging spaces of worship for children, through an educational program called Young Children and Worship.
When Olivia was a young girl, she was part of the first Young Children and Worship program, a Montessori-based Christian education program developed by her grandmother, Sonja Stewart. Young Children and Worship (YCW) “presents a joyful way for children to worship God, [inviting] children and adults to experience the wonder and mystery of God through a unique storytelling format and multi-sensory materials.” Group leaders create a worship space that cultivates the imagination and invites children to engage with God through various forms of creative expression.
Nurtured in a Young Children and Worship center, Olivia was instilled with a love for learning at a young age. She fondly remembers her grandfather, Jack Stewart, a professor emeritus of ministry and evangelism at Princeton Seminary, telling her stories and listening patiently to her questions about faith. Influenced by her grandparents’ caring example of teaching, Olivia developed a desire to become a teacher. In high school, she participated in Young Children and Worship training and began helping her grandmother lead training workshops for others. She also began serving as a youth leader at Westminster Presbyterian Church, her home church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Olivia later attended Hope College, where she studied elementary education. She then enrolled at Princeton Seminary, with the goal of becoming an associate pastor or director of Christian education. At PTS, Olivia says she was challenged and nurtured by professors and friends. Though there were dry moments in which she wondered what God was doing, she found that PTS was a “great place to wrestle” with her faith. Olivia says that her time at the Seminary helped her to think theologically about storytelling and other aspects of children’s worship and education. Specifically, a Christian education class she took with Professor Rick Osmer taught her research and curriculum-writing skills that have been valuable in her ministry.
In her current position as director of children, youth, and family ministries at the First Presbyterian Church of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Olivia works with young people of all ages – from infants and elementary school children to college students and young adults. She facilitates the church’s Sunday school and coordinates teachers, works with staffing and training for Young Children and Worship, runs junior and senior high youth programs, and leads a weekly Bible study with the youth group. For Olivia, seeing young people grow in their faith has been one of the most meaningful parts of her ministry.
Since 2000, Olivia has helped lead numerous Young Children and Worship training workshops throughout the country. She continues to carry on the legacy of her grandmother by sharing this educational program with others. At Pottstown Presbyterian, Olivia coordinates a team of volunteers to lead Young Children and Worship. The children’s worship follows the traditional four-fold order of worship that many Protestant churches use: the gathering of God’s people, the hearing of the Word of God, the response to the Word, and the sending out of God’s people into the world. Children are told a Bible story with multi-sensory materials, including beautiful hand-carved wooden figurines. After the storytelling, the children are invited to enter into a time of wonder about the story. The children are asked “wondering” questions that invite them to engage with the story and listen for God’s voice. Then, children are given a chance to respond to the story in various ways – they can use art and craft materials, pray at a prayer table, dance in the dance corner, or build with materials such as blocks or clay.
Olivia’s experience with Young Children and Worship is that children are “completely engrossed,” once they are invited into the story and encouraged to respond in creative ways. When given the opportunity to worship in such a setting, children often “respond in ways that would astound adults,” she says. Olivia is a patient teacher and a masterful storyteller who is able to invite children and adults alike to participate in the wonder and mystery of the biblical stories.
Watch below as Olivia tells the story of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem to a group of children at the First Presbyterian Church of Pottstown:
If you are interested in using the Young Children and Worship program in your church, please visit the YCW web site for resources and information about training workshops in your area. Young Children and Worship materials are made with care by Sally Selzer’s ministry, Worship Woodworks, and can be ordered from the web site. For those in the Philadelphia area, there is a special woodworking ministry called the Build-It-Bus, [http://www.builditbus.com/] which can provide the guidance, materials, and tools necessary to make the wooden figurines and other storytelling props for Young Children and Worship.