First time visitors to our church sometimes express their surprise that children, even the youngest, participate with their parents in the entire worship service. Many congregations created an expectation for the parents (and children) of Sunday School or Child Care being available during the entire worship service or during the sermon. This convenient arrangement seems to relieve the parents and other adults in the church who are expecting a quiet, comfortable setting to listen to the preaching of the Word. But looking at it from biblical pedagogy, I think this practice can be risky, introduces bad habits, and carries the wrong messages.
Just to clarify: No, I am not against the church organizing activities for children. I am against these activities substituting participation in the worship service. In other words, I am in support of the children participating in the entirety of the weekly worship service. I oppose excusing the children from the meeting between the family of God with its Head.
Several years ago, my wife Jola, our children, and I visited a church. Once inside the building, we were surprised to find out that out of the 70 people assembled, we were only one of two families accompanied by children. After the service we asked the other family if there are any other children at this congregation. We learned that indeed, there were other children, but they were distracting the adults and the pastor from fully participating in the service. Therefore, the other parents choose to leave their children at home or with a babysitter.
During the service we were pleased with the behavior of our children. They were 1, 3, and 5 years old at the time. We only had two crisis moments, maybe two, when a book fell on the floor, or they spoke louder than they should have (which solicited unpleasant looks from other congregants). When shaking the pastor’s hand after the service we heard these surprising words: “Someone must have been distracting us during the service,” followed by a gaze at our children. I do not remember our immediate reaction but the word “us” struck hard and we remember it till today. “Us”, obviously referring to the adults, which implies that the worship service is no place for a child.
The Czech Brethren used to say – “If you cannot hear a child crying in the church, soon you will hear the elderly cry”.
God who speaks – Ages 12+?
As early as the gospels, we read about people who had difficulty accepting the presence of children next to Jesus when He spoke publicly (Matthew 10:11-15). A church void of children is a pleasant site for the devil. He would consider any place more suitable for them than the church and Christian worship. The Psalms frequently remind that engaged Christian children are a strong defense against creeping ungodliness. According to Jesus Christ “Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise” (Matthew 21:16). From the beginning, the children of God’s people were prepared, as arrows in a quiver, to gain the enemies’ gates. (Psalm 127: 4-5). The arrows are sharpened in the worship service which is the heart, the engine, of a healthy church.
King Herod knew the consequences of a baby’s birth in Bethlehem. He had good reason to become scared and angry. Not without reason, the forces of darkness target children of God’s people, like the Pharaoh or Herod did. The practice of removing them from the presence of God and His word, dressed up as developmental psychology or enlightenment ideologies regarding the limitations of the human mind, withhold from the children the important elements of participation in the school of Christ.
Taking the children out of worship to attend “Children’s Church” is a relatively new practice in church history. I’m not denying their good intentions. As a father of three I honestly can say that I empathize with the intentions of my dear brothers and sisters in Christ who genuinely care about the children’s growth in the faith. I just cannot agree with the path they are taking. Both from Biblical reasons and from my experience. My conviction in the matter could be summarized as follows: Sunday School, Catechism, Bible Lessons – Yes, but in addition to the service, not instead.
I’ll present you with twelve reasons why I believe children should participate in the entirety of the weekly Sunday worship with God’s people. If you are a parent, Sunday School teacher, leader, or a pastor in a church where children are not present in the service, I hope these will encourage you to reflect on and discuss these topics with your congregation.
1. The Lord commands to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy
The commandment to follow the spirit and the letter of the law is not only for us but also for our children (Ef. 6:1-2). The fourth commandment requires us to hallow the holy day also in Deuteronomy 5:12-14. In the old covenant this was the last day of the week (in remembrance of the creation and the exodus from Egypt). In the new covenant it is the first day of the week (in remembrance of the new creation and freeing us from the bondage of sin). Therefore, the children of believers should be present in the weekly gatherings of the church before the face of God. This is a Biblical and moral obligation also under the new covenant (Hebrews 10:24-25).
2. Children of believers are a part of the Christian community
Children are a part of the Christian community, therefore, the visible church. In the entirety of scripture, God commands them to be a part of the service, that is, public worship by the people of God. (Deuteronomy 31:12, 14:25, Joshua 8:35, 2 Chronicles 20:13, Ezekiel 10:1, Nehemiah 12:43. Joel 2:15-16).
Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law (Deuteronomy 31:12). There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them (Joshua 8:35).
In the letter to the Colossians, Apostle Paul mentions children among its recipients (Colossians 3:20). Similarly in the letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:1-3). Gathering for Sunday morning worship is the principal activity of the covenant community and it should include all of its members (Acts 2:42, Hebrews 10:24-25). Therefore children, as an integral part of the new covenant community, should participate in the entirety of the weekly worship service. It is one of the key elements of their lives.
Participation in the worship service, listening to God’s word, prayer, worship, and communion are more important parts of their upbringing than all else. Attention devoted to the child’s education, language development, brain development, dexterity, and physical development are wonderful examples of the parents' care and love. However, these should be given a lower priority than educating the children unto Christ.
Obviously, not all church gatherings are designed for everyone. Sometimes in the family we have “Guy Time” that I spend with my son. Sometimes my wife and I go out for a date together. Sometimes I will take my girls out for dinner. Nevertheless, it is critical to cultivate community within the family: reading together, praying, singing, eating, going on trips and vacations. This is what shapes us, strengthens the bonds, gives a sense of identity, belonging, responsibility for one another. The life of the church as a spiritual family should follow the same pattern: gathering with peers at Sunday school, youth group, men, women, seniors, singles, and also being all together for Sunday worship.
3. Growth happens not only through words and reason
I hope I do not need to convince you that not everything that contributes to the growth and education of your child comes through the verbal process. The belief that change happens only as a result of our intellectual abilities comes from the enlightenment era and the worship of human reason. God nurtures and educates us not only through verbal instructions. Learning to listen to God’s word that speaks to us through the Bible is an important element of our spiritual growth. So is developing the love for our neighbors that is displayed by not drawing too much attention to yourself. Listening (even with little understanding), the child learns reverence for God, and learns the Bible and its importance in life. That’s why we include in our order of worship such elements as singing, weekly communion, lifting of hands (during the Doxology and the Lord’s prayer), kneeling, collection of the offering, reciting the Apostles’ Creed, and the Lord’s Prayer. The structure of worship has an educational purpose. The Lord is teaching us not only by filling our minds, but also engaging our bodies is worship (Romans 12:1). A child learns reverence for God not only by listening but also by participating, especially if the service is lively, liturgical, and joyful.
The children in our family learn not only through reading and verbal instructions. We also teach them through common experiences, actions, meals, listening, and paying attention. God shapes and strengthens us in complex ways using not only our sense of hearing but also taste, touch, and sight. He did not introduce Himself as the Greatest Professor but as a good Father. A child should learn very early to listen, together with the rest of God’s people, to what the Heavenly Father is saying.
4. Children understand more than we give them credit for
Every parent soon discovers that children learn faster and understand more than we – adults – imagine. Many faithful Christians believe that when God speaks to the church (during Bible reading or preaching) children do not benefit from it at all.
The Bible tells us that the Holy Spirit can penetrate even the barriers of comprehension set by the pediatric psychologists. John the Baptist leaped for joy in Elisabeth’s womb as a response to Mary’s greeting (Luke 1:42-44). It is true that none of our children is John the Baptist, but the Holy Spirit is still a member of the Trinity. He still acts upon children. Expressions like “not able to”, “cannot”, “does not understand”, “not possible” were never convincing for the Lord when referring to the scope and ability of His power over man. John the Baptist filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb? Children of Israel participating in the gatherings of God’s people? Three-year old Christopher who sits on his mother’s lap during the sermon because he was taught that when the Lord speaks, we do not run around? That’s not a problem for the Lord!
5. Children need spiritual socializing
Apostle Paul when writing to the saints – chosen, redeemed members of the church in Colossae – lists among its recipients’ wives (Colossians 3:18), husbands (Colossians 3:19), children (Colossians 3:20), and fathers (Colossians 3:12). We see a similar pattern in the letter to the Ephesians (Ephesians 6:1-4): one family, with different backgrounds, ages, and responsibilities of the members.
Our identity and responsibility are based on our relationships and roles. I am a husband, father, son, and brother. These roles and the responsibilities related to them are defined by bonds with other people. Spiritual pedagogy functions the same way. The education and growth of children is dependent on whether our home is their home, they bear our name, and whether they feel like a member of the family. That’s why the worship service has a very important socializing aspect. A child, when attending the entire worship, learns the following truth:
· The worship service is for me
· Jesus is for me
· God is here and speaks to me
· Church is my family
· The Lord’s table is for me because I’m a part of the Body.
Participating in the worship service is not the culmination of a stage in spiritual development. On the contrary, it is an event that shapes the development, rationale, emotions, sense of identity, and spirituality of the child as a young disciple of Christ. Participating in the service communicates to the child: “This is my home. There are my brothers and sisters, this is the Head of my family, who laid His life down for my sins, and these are His words that I should follow.”
Church is not a spiritual waiting room for children. This is their home. Here they should develop their familial habits, learn values, family history, faith, thoughts, and behaviors; here they are spiritually nurtured. They are a part of the family. Removing them from before the face of God is not going to develop this kind of thinking and behavior.
6. The Worship service is a family feast
The practice of excusing the children from the sermon is based on incorrect presuppositions regarding pedagogy, anthropology, and also liturgy. The basis of the faulty liturgy is the belief that we go to church to listen to the sermon. If this were the case, we should remove all barriers that could disturb this goal. One of which is the distracting children.
It turns out the pastor is not a university lecturer, but a servant of God’s word. The service is not a lecture hall but a family get together at a feast that (in the Bible) is a picture of salvation. It includes not only a speech by the Head of the family to their members (young and old), but also common prayer, joyful singing, eating and drinking, benediction, and community. Being together. Let’s not withhold these elements from the children. We come to church to meet God, not just listen to God.
7. God speaks to children
Each parent, regardless of their theological convictions, speaks to their children. Even when they are very young. The parents’ smile, their singing, tone of voice, type of words spoken – all have great value, even when directed at an infant. But when God speaks to His children through the word, sacraments, and liturgical dialogue, it suddenly “does not matter because they are too young to understand.” If we truly believed that, we should not speak to our children until they can grasp the meaning of most of our words.
In Biblical pedagogy, communication is the tool of education, formation, and development. We speak to our children not because they understand everything. We speak because we want them to understand. In this way we help develop their understanding and sensitivity, teach the meaning of words, develop a relationship, and give a sense of security. We do that because this is what our Heavenly Father does. He speaks to our children, and even to us – even when we do not have the full understanding of His words. We speak to infants and toddlers. Let God do the same.
8. Children are in need of the means of grace
Wherever God’s word is preached (Romans 10:14), the sacraments are administered (Mark 28:19-20). Prayer takes place (Acts 2:42-47), along with singing (Corinthians 14:26). Everyone who listens is blessed by the hearing and meeting with God alone. These are the means of grace through which God strengthens, socializes, and nurtures His people. Why should we withhold these blessings from children?
9. Education is a parental responsibility
God puts the responsibility for educating children in the faith on the parents, not the government, Sunday School leaders, or youth leaders (Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Ephesian 6:1-3). One of the key elements of this responsibility is making our children loving worshipers of Christ (John 4:23). Of course, this requires faithful work: preparing our hearts and the hearts of our children to participate in the worship service. When the children are little, it requires dividing our attention between the elements or worship and the needs of our children. Sometimes the parents desire to be able to “fully participate” in the service. They search for a church that provides the comfort of childcare during the sermon or larger parts of the service. I agree that this is an easier route, but not more profitable.
First of all, it is not profitable for the children because it deprives them of the ability to listen, shape their reverence for God, and develop habits of participating in the entire service. We reinforce the belief that the service is not for them.
Secondly, it is not beneficial for us – parents – because we escape our work and responsibility that was given to us. Of course, sometimes it means leaving the room with a crying infant or giving him additional attention when he is distracting other worshipers. But this is how God teaches us to be Christian parent, spiritual leader, and child's shepherd, demonstrating what it means to serve the Church and contribute to its growth by raising God-loving worshipers. We will not learn that without the children being in the service. During family worship, I correct the behavior of my children and give them my attention, not excuse them from the room so that my wife and I can pray and read the Bible in peace and quiet. If we want to taste the ripe fruit, we need to sow and patiently water. If we desire peace and a fruitful garden, without caring for the planted trees, there are many other ways to abdicate our parental responsibilities.
Thirdly, this is not a practice that benefits the Church. A childless family is not inappropriate on its own but becomes inappropriate if it desires to remain so. They are not required to concentrate and focus on their children, but are deprived of the privilege of their presence, correction and learning of God's truth that the children express. God gave us children so that we can develop an attitude of a child-like faith, trust, love, patience, and service to others.
10. Children learn by imitation
Children who participate in the entire worship service learn not only through listening. They learn that the faith of their parents is not a private matter. Faith is lived through families and communities that include the children. Children learn by imitation. They observe the adults and copy them. Do not take away the opportunity for them to watch us sing, pray, lift our hands, kneel, and listen to God’s word. Do we want our children to learn to listen? Let’s show them how it is done. The Bible speaks of great encouragement that the children draw from their parents’ joyful, engaged worship (Exodus 12:1-28, Deuteronomy 4:9-11, Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, Ezra 10:1, Nehemiah 12:43, Joel 2:12-17, Acts 16:33). Parents have the opportunity to form, correct, and encourage their children (Deuteronomy 31:9-13). Children should see and hear the Body of Christ in action, in person, not be separated from them by a wall. Christ desires to have the children with Him. Let the little ones come to Him (when He speaks the Word to His Church) and do not prevent them, because to such belongs the kingdom of Heaven.
11. Children are a blessing and means of instruction to the Church
Children are a blessing to the community. They are a living illustration that unless we lower ourselves and become like them with regards to the sincerity of our faith, we will not enter the Kingdom of God (Matthew 18:3-4). This is how the entire community can understand what it means for the church to a spiritual family. Each family should yearn for the presence of children in their midst. Childless families are an exception, not a rule. The presence of children in the service gives us – adults – the opportunity to develop our character. From self-absorbed Ebenezer Scrooge we can become the servants that support the parents and the children in their callings. If the presence of a crying infant is displeasing to us, we have a glorious opportunity to work on our virtue of love, patience, and understanding that the church does not stop at our pew.
The children in the church are our little brothers and sisters. Instead of seeing them as a problem, distracting the adults’ time with God, let’s focus on trying to learn their names. When was the last time we encouraged them in their faith, built them up with a kid’s word, wished them a happy birthday or brought them a gift?
12. Good habits have power
Habits are a very important part of the growth and development of one’s identity. A child who participates weekly in worship service has the opportunity, 52 times a year, to meet with God in the church. In 10 years this amounts to 520 meetings, in 15 years – 780. This has a great effect on their habits, ability to listen, think about church, God’s Word, music, prayer etc.
Church and worship are really important!
Most teenagers in western civilization do not participate in worship. How many of them do not participate because nobody chose to develop this habit in them when they were young? The witness of teenagers raised in a Christian home shows that many joined the entire worship service at age 9-11! If their “going to church” over the years meant coloring pictures, building with blocks, doing crafts, and playing games, we should not be surprised that they find the worship service exotic, boring, unnatural, and strange. I love Christian children’s music, children’s pictures, and crafts that decorate my office. But if this is what weekly “going to church” is to consist of, we are withholding something much more valuable from them. They should know the Lord's Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, the Doxology, they should sing psalms with us, they should become familiar with listening to public preaching of the word. In the body of Christ there is life. Children should absorb it, participate in it, and love it. The Lord wants our weekly routine to start with a worship service on the first day –before they start the Monday obligations at home, preschool, or school. The Lord wants to instruct and feed them as a part of the church. Do not withhold this privilege from them, and let’s not run away from our calling. The Lord promises that the fruit of our faithfulness will be sweet (Isaiah 59:21, Proverbs 22:6). It is a great calling and challenging work. Let’s not despair and give up. Remember, the Lord blesses those that rest in Him.
Translation: Joanna Haralson