This essay available as a pdf here.
A Typical Sunday
Last Sunday my family went to church as we always do on Sundays. I am the music minister at our church, so I was standing at the front of the sanctuary during a brief period of silence before Communion when I heard a small but very noticeable burp from a few rows back, followed by “That was a burp!”
My son, who is 2 years old, was the belcher in question. Just prior to his burp he had also provided his regular commentary about the Communion process we were about to enter – “We have to wait our turn!” – just in case anyone had forgotten since last week. Being a 2-year-old, his voice is never exactly quiet, so I imagine our church is now fairly accustomed to his learned observations.
In one of our previous churches, the unfiltered sounds of children were ever-present. Sometimes they were silly and amusing, but aside from the occasional accidental burp, the sound of the children was not merely noise. It was more often the sound of children in full-throated worship, hollering their superlative version of the Sanctus – “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and mice, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the high-best!” The Doxology was another familiar favorite for the kids, as was Thomas Tallis’s “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night.” As my son now also does, many children as young as two could recite the Lord’s Prayer and other regular prayers during Communion or other parts of the service.
In other words, the sometimes boisterous sound of children in church was the sound of children learning to praise God, to thank him for his blessings, to confess their sins, and to pray for his will to be done. It was the sound of children being formed into the image of Christ.
My Family’s Story
We are a young family, with only a two-year old and one more on the way, so I acknowledge my lack of experience on the long journey that is child-rearing. And while I will attempt to persuade you that keeping children in the main church service is of great value, we stumbled into the practice ourselves. We had always intended to keep our son with us for at least portions of the main church service, but we also planned to avail ourselves of the church nursery, if only for a much-needed respite every week. This was especially needed as I have been the music minister at both the churches we have attended since my son’s birth, with about a 6 month gap during our transition between Virginia and Georgia. So my wife has no back-up during the church service, and the nursery would have been a big help.
The other key fact is that we have been in small churches for several years, where there was only one service time, so children could not attend both the full main service and Sunday school or a nursery. It was either/or. But as fate would have it, our son just couldn’t stay in the nursery. As a result, he stayed with my wife for the entirety of most church services, often through a large portion of the sermon before becoming restless and needing to leave until some music started again during Communion.
Thus, by necessity our son has been staying with us in the service for most of his life, and only since he was 2 has he been able to stay in the nursery for portions of the sermon. Fortunately, as a consequence of his presence in the main worship service, we began to notice how much he retained from the music and prayers and other elements of the service, much more than we had anticipated he would. And we also had strong role models (one family in particular) who helped us see in their own family how keeping young children in church was not only feasible, even during the sermon, but how it would also reap rewards in the life of the family.
The rest of this essay tries to describe why I think this practice is useful for families, but my family’s story is important because I want you to know that (1) we don’t have it all figured out, (2) what we now do intentionally, we once did partially by accident, and (3) we have nothing against some form of kids-only activities at church and are grateful for the service of the many who make that component of Sunday services happen. However, we now strongly feel that the main Sunday service has much greater value for children than is often acknowledged, so let’s explore that topic further.
Full Members of the Church
In my last blog I discussed at length my views on infant baptism, and how one of the benefits of infant baptism is that it acknowledges the salvation of children and their full membership in the church, realities that are at least implicitly accepted across all Protestant denominations through the doctrine of the “age of accountability.”
However, many churches do not treat children in practice as if they are full members of the church, even if they do have salvation. In particular, many churches treat children as if they are not welcome in “big church.” As one personal example, when our family was once visiting a church out of town, we were actually told prior to the service that our son would not be allowed in the main service. Given what we knew about his performance in the nursery, this meant that not only my son but someone else would also have to just stay home, and that is exactly what happened (my wife stayed home with him). I know of many similar examples both personal and otherwise.
Now I have no doubt that these people intended well – they didn’t want other people to be distracted and so on. But this stance had little grounding in the situation at hand. Our son generally is quite a good participant in the singing and spoken prayers in church, and if he does become too loud, we would always take him out of the service to calm down. In this case, our son was not even given a chance to prove he was able to participate in the service.
And this betrays the problem. Children are treated not as members of the church, but as distractions for the “true” church (adults). Young children especially are often treated as incapable of participation in any part of the adult experience of the church. And in many churches, even the slightest peep out of a child during a quiet moment will reward the parents with glares of disgruntlement from other worshippers. Those glares say again: “Your child is not welcome here.”
As I mentioned before, I understand the importance of age-appropriate instruction, and we have always taken our toddler out during at least part of the sermon (but we will expect him to sit through the sermon before long as well.) I also understand that each child is different, so I think it is important that parents consider what is best for their children and do accordingly. But there are a number of reasons why I believe it is misguided for the church as a whole to treat children as if they are not welcome in the entirety of the main worship service.
- Children are full members of the body of Christ, and they need to know it, and see who else is in that body with them.
If children truly are full members of the body of Christ, they should not be excluded from any communal gathering of the church on principle. It’s fine for children to have periods of time to be on their own with other kids, and I applaud the many adults who sacrifice a large amount of time and energy to love children through ministry. But children need to see in practice that they are part of something larger, something that encompasses not only themselves, but their parents, grandparents – everyone. The Kingdom of God welcomes young and old alike, and children need to see that acted out. They need to pray and sing with people of all ages, to see that glorifying God is for everyone.
Intergenerationality is perhaps even more important as children transition into adulthood. The Fuller Youth Institute has done some great research on what helps maintain mature faith when adolescents become adults. One of the key insights they have found through a number of large data projects is that high schoolers who participate in intergenerational worship (ie, “big church”) are more likely to have mature faith both in high school and later on than those who do not have such an experience.
What is conspicuously missing in their analysis is any suggestion that youth group makes much of a difference in the maturity of young adults’ faith. While youth group is not a bad thing, what really makes a difference is adult interaction and support, and that generally is felt most strongly outside of the youth group setting. Children and young adults need to interact with their elders in the faith in meaningful ways, and one important way to facilitate that is to get everyone together, every week, to worship God as a single body.
2. Children soak up wisdom and truth that will stay with them for a long time.
I am constantly amazed at my son’s memory for songs and prayers. With minimal effort on our part (basically, taking him to church, playing music around the house, and saying prayers at bedtime), he has learned a number of hymns and prayers that he will hopefully sing his whole life: “Come Thou Fount,” “Jesus Shall Reign,” “All Praise to Thee,” the Doxology, the Lord’s Prayer, and several others.
Much as I like to brag on my son, this ability is by no means unique to him. When children are young, their ability to memorize is at its peak, and we should be encouraging them to memorize things that will last them a lifetime, not only kids’ songs and rhymes that they will outgrow in a few years’ time. Sunday services are a great time for kids to begin learning songs and prayers together with you, though reinforcement at home is a necessity.
While our son is not yet old enough to comprehend the sermon, I have heard stories from other parents who keep slightly older children in for the full service and then expect the children to discuss the service on the way home from church. I am always amazed to hear how much these little ones can glean from the sermon and the other elements of the service. Children are capable of much more than we often think they are, and a little intentionality on the part of parents can go a long way toward encouraging them to absorb meaningful wisdom in the form of songs, prayers, and other service elements.
3. Children need to form the habits of discipleship, and the younger the better.
James K.A. Smith discusses in several of his books how our practices shape our loves, and our loves direct our lives. So if we are constantly acting out consumeristic practices that teach us to love material possessions, we will continuously direct our lives more and more towards materialism. The same is true of faith. If we habitually practice the elements of faith, singing to God with our voices, reading Scripture, kneeling in prayer, eating the elements of Communion, working with our hands to the glory of God, our loves are guided by these actions, and it becomes easier and easier to orient our lives to that which matters most: God. Of course our minds matter too, but the point is that the physical practices of church are significant for shaping our lives. They are not just mindless rituals; they are doing something in us.
Any English teacher knows that if you want to help a child become a reader, you do a few things with them from an early age: you read to them regularly, you keep books around (lots of them), and you take them to bookish places and activities (libraries, bookstores, etc.). This begins from the earliest days, long before the child can understand what you are reading to them. But the research shows that these steps are almost a sure-fire way to help your child become a reader.
The same is true of training a child into the Christian faith. As a parent, I want to help my children form good habits that point them towards Christ. In addition to praying, singing, and discussing the faith at home, part of that training is to bring them into the main church service every week and expect them to participate, so that they too can form the habits that they will continue to practice throughout their lives, rather than only focusing on games and other aspects of church that only persist in youth. The life of faith is hard, and the earlier children can have their loves directed toward God through practice, the better.
4. Children encourage adults in faith.
It is truly a deep encouragement to see little children worshipping God. They approach God in such simplicity and without any shame for the intensity of their singing (or the lack of pitch). We adults can too easily fall into opposing problems, either becoming too rigid and formal or becoming apathetic and complacent. Children, especially the youngest children, easily avoid both of these extremes when they worship, clearly engaging with God in worship that is sincere and meaningful. Children are a great reminder that we must all have their kind of faith when we approach God.
The Problem with Fun
In my view there are clear practical reasons to keep children in the main church service. But there is also a larger underlying problem with the church’s approach to children’s ministry. It is increasingly common for Christians to realize that “seeker” oriented services are ineffective. In the attempt to make non-Christians feel welcome, many seeker-oriented churches water down the faith so much that is becomes unrecognizable as truly Christian faith. When seekers realize they can get the same thing from Oprah, they stop coming – there is nothing unique and compelling about Christianity.
The same principle is at work in many churches when it comes to children and youth. We often treat youth as if they are incapable of approaching the adult-version of the faith, even in small ways. So we take the children out of the larger body of believers and try to make sure they have fun, hoping they will associate church with fun and keep them coming back as they get older.
But when have you ever heard anyone who is serious and committed to Christ talk about how fun the Christian life is? The Christian life is demonstrably not fun. Christ himself says we will be persecuted for our faith, sometimes even killed. How is that fun? And if the Christian life is not fun, why on earth would we want our children’s primary association with church to be that of fun? When they grow up and realize that Christian discipleship is actually a costly endeavor, that demands sacrifices from them, they will fall way, having been misled as to what Christian faith is all about. If there is one thing we absolutely should not do, it is to teach children that Christian faith is fun.
What we should teach children is that Christian faith is rewarding. This is a completely different view of faith. Fun is based on a short-term, consumeristic mentality – it is the “please me now” demand that bombards us day in and day out in America, that we try to appease by ever more consumption. In this approach, church is merely one more thing we consume for our pleasure. But the mature Christian knows that faith is rewarding in the long-term. It brings fulfillment and joy over the course of a lifetime, and does not reach its full fruition until after death when we are united with Christ.
This is what the word “blessed” tries to communicate in Scripture. After all, if faith is about “fun” or even “happiness” (a word which I maintain is inherently short-term and contingent—as opposed to joy), as the word blessed is often interpreted, how can Jesus say “blessed are the poor,” “blessed are the humble,” and especially “blessed are those who are persecuted?” A better way to think of these is to translate blessed as “how rewarding is the life of the one” who is poor, persecuted, or humble (my thanks to Bruce Waltke for this translation). These people may not be happy, and they certainly aren’t going to be having fun, but they find meaning in their life with God, relying on his grace, and they will find ultimate meaning and happiness united with him after death. The blessed are those who can delay the minor gratifications of this life for the greatest of joy in the next, a joy which we can begin to taste in this life as well.
The goal of the church should be to impart to children a true taste of what it means to live with Christ. That means showing them that faith is not fun, but it is rewarding. If we go to church looking for fun or short-term happiness, either as children or adults, we will be disappointed, because the world can always offer more fun or happiness in the current moment than the church can.
The church teaches the faith of Jesus, a faith that must endure trial, persecution, and death. But our faith also teaches hope, a hope that is vindicated in the resurrection of Jesus and which assures us of our own resurrection and everlasting life with God after death. The fun and happiness of today pales in comparison to this reward, and if we are able to show children this greatest hope of our faith, they will come back for more, because they will not be able to find it anywhere else.
I am convinced that one of the greatest services we can do for our children is to include them in the activities of the larger church, not just the kids’ ministry. Children are members of the body of Christ, and they deserve to begin learning what that really means and seeing older role models within the body. Children who participate in the intergenerational life of the church can soak up the wisdom of mature faith, in combination with a little effort outside of church to encourage memorization and other practices. And children who begin participating in the adult habits of faith, such as singing meaningful songs, praying meaningful prayers, and other practices, even if they cannot fully understand these practices until later, are more likely to retain these habits in adulthood.
The larger church can also help children realize the important fact that the Christian life is not a life of fun; it is a life of trial and sacrifice, but ultimately it bears the greatest rewards. A church that is segregated strictly by age is more likely to teach children a consumeristic understanding of Christian faith, rather than building in children the perseverance and fortitude that true faith requires. By the grace of God, we can encourage our children to develop strong and resilient faith, building up the next generation of the church to take the love of Christ to future generations.