Children Are Not Cute

Michelle and Dave Photo
Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin's project emerged out of a Seminary workshop while Bjorlin was still a student at North Park Theological Seminary.

Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and David Bjorlin collaborate for book on children in worship

CHICAGO (August 7, 2014) — North Park Theological Seminary professor Dr. Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom and alumnus David Bjorlin began a collaborative book project three years ago with a simple motto: Children are not cute.

The project originated while Bjorlin was a Seminary student in his last semester of the master of divinity program. Bjorlin, also a 2006 graduate of North Park University, was assisting Clifton-Soderstrom in teaching a series of workshops for Seminary students, one of which was on children in worship. The workshop attempted to instill the idea that children must be central to a vibrant worshipping community, not just a five-minute time slot and then off for juice and snacks. Near the end of the series, Clifton-Soderstrom approached Bjorlin with an idea to continue the discussion and co-write a book.

“If I see people that have potential, I want to do whatever I can to give them opportunities to take risks, try new things, and excel,” Clifton-Soderstrom says. “Dave was such a strong student and was so confident, and our working relationship was already positive.”

Clifton-Soderstrom brought her expertise in theology and ethics to the project, while Bjorlin brought his emerging expertise in liturgical studies. They also brought different experiences, with Clifton-Soderstrom as a mother guiding two children through worship, and Bjorlin as a worship pastor. The result was the June publication of Incorporating Children in Worship: Mark of the Kingdom. It is a theological text that provides a foundational argument about not how children can be active in worship, but why it is absolutely necessary that they are involved.

“In this field, you either get practical books giving you ideas for specific tasks for children, or historical books showing how communities have incorporated children in the past,” Clifton-Soderstrom says. “We wanted to present a rich theological accounting of incorporating children as they are, not who they will eventually become.”

The book weaves together personal stories of children in worship with traditional theological and ethical sources. “Michelle is a fine scholar and great thinker, but one of her greatest qualities is she is passionate about the average person gaining theological understanding,” Bjorlin says. “I am convinced story is the best way to understand God.” Both scholars point to one story featured in the book that was particularly meaningful.

In the spring of 2004 Dr. F. Burton Nelson, long-time North Park Theological Seminary professor and close friend and mentor of Clifton-Soderstrom, passed away. At the time, Clifton-Soderstrom’s son, Johannes, was two years old and she was working on a memorization project with him to help instill a sense of faith and tradition at an early age. They practiced the Apostles' Creed, along with other hymns and lists of saints. About six months after Nelson’s passing, the two were in Johannes’ room one night before bed. They began the back and forth of the Creed:

Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom: I believe in God…
Johannes: …the Father almighty.

Dr. Clifton-Soderstrom: Maker of...
Johannes: …heaven and earth.

And on they went as normal. They got to the end, and Clifton-Soderstrom gave her last line:…the communion of…

And instead of “saints,” the normal ending, her young boy responded, “Burton.”

As she writes in the book, “We stopped. I was surprised and moved. I do not know why he thought of it then, but he inserted the name of my dear friend in the right place, in the right way, at the right time. Eight years later, I still remember the rich way my son embodied faith, hope, and love—by speaking a single word.”

“Children surprise you in so many ways,” she says. “You take an activity that a child does and you assume the best of it. Seeing the best in what children do, and not seeing them as cute objects or a source of humor, is key to this project.” 

Much of the actual book writing process occurred while Bjorlin began a doctoral program in liturgical studies at Boston University School of Theology. The two would send drafts back and forth, have brainstorming sessions over the phone, and when Bjorlin occasionally came back into town, they would meet in person. Both Clifton-Soderstrom and Bjorlin say the transition from the faculty/student relationship to colleagues was simple.

“In a seminary context, it’s not as hierarchical,” Clifton-Soderstrom says. “We are all doing ministry together. There were moments when Dave would say, ‘I don’t want to change that.’ I had to stand back and say, ‘That’s good. He’s assertive and finding his voice.’ The transition was very natural.”

Bjorlin says, “Michelle never made that transition strange. She actively sought out what I thought in certain passages and really respected my voice.”

In a few weeks’ time, Bjorlin will have another opportunity to reconnect with Clifton-Soderstrom as a colleague, when he joins the Seminary as an adjunct faculty member for the coming year. It’s a similar path to Clifton-Soderstrom, who completed her MATS at North Park and later returned to teach.

“One of the strengths of North Park Theological Seminary is the faculty has always been approachable,” Bjorlin says. “My education was about more than just academics. It was about building relationships and personal formation. Michelle is a good example: people who went to North Park found a certain way of life, and they want to come back and be a part of this community again.” 

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