The cathedral in Linköping, Sweden, was built in the 1230s out of the stones of an even older church constructed in the form of a cross in the 12th century. A beautiful gothic cathedral, there are many precious, historic artifacts to see as you tour the sanctuary, including a life-sized Tree of Life hung with gold fruits of the spirit, a pulpit carved with Bible stories, a 15th-century baptismal font, a wooden crucifix from the 14th century that has survived several fires, the Heemskerck Altarpiece painted in the 1530s in Holland, and the Afzelius Tapestries that tell the creation story.
But halfway down the right aisle is arguably the most precious artifact of all: a modern children’s play cupboard about 4 feet tall. It opens up to about 15 feet to reveal a child-sized altar and communion set; baptismal font and dolls to baptize; candles to light and a vase of flowers; an altar painting of Jesus; racks filled with child-sized priestly albs, chasubles and stoles; and a processional cross and bishop’s crosier. All are ready for dress-up games. The cupboard was made several years ago by a local carpenter and is constructed out of local materials.
Discovering the cupboard in the midst of this grand cathedral told me several things about how this church viewed its children:
First, the church respects and acknowledges publicly how children learn best. Children learn through play, says the literature near the “Barnens Altarskåp” or “children’s altarscape,” and play is life. This cupboard invites the children to explore the world of the church and questions about life on their own terms -- and right in the sanctuary, not off in a nursery.
Second, the church invites children to imagine leading worship, liturgy and ministry. It does not wait until the children are ready to participate in, say, a youth program, to think about leadership. Nor does it wall off the role of bishop or priest and the ornate vestments and trappings as too sacred for children’s role play.
Third, the cupboard’s placement in the side aisle of a building more than 800 years old, surrounded by historic artifacts, tells the steady stream of tourists from around the world that this congregation wears its history proudly and lifts up its children as equally important to the life of the church.
But all of these observations point to a congregation that is doing what theologian L. Gregory Jones calls overinvesting in the young. The cupboard does not just welcome the children into the service, but it welcomes them into the past, present and future of what the church is about.
The reality is that the church in Sweden is not growing, and seminary graduates are hard-pressed to find congregations to serve. But we can all learn from this congregation that knows what it might need to do to continue to make the young a vital part of the church today and tomorrow.