Robert from Columbia, South Carolina, writes in to ask: “Pastor John, I’m wondering if there are situations in which a separate children’s time — in Sunday school rooms, completely apart from the Sunday gathering — are necessary. Our church is wrestling through this issue, as many families have infants, some have wandering and noisy toddlers, there are rambunctious five-year-olds, and we have three children of varying ages with special needs (like autism and Down Syndrome). The struggle is: Most parents want a break and thus desire the separate time for children while the adult service is going on, yet the children workers wish they were in the adult service and feel limited in their ability to control the behavior of the children. What should we do?”
Children In or Out?
I hope there is a strong leader in your church because weak leaders will never be able to stand up against the onslaught of criticism that is going to come if you try to do what I am going to suggest. When I came to Bethlehem as a pastor in 1980, one of the first issues I had to deal with was about the children in worship. We didn’t have a lot of them, but they were starting to come. And the people all wanted to know, what are we going to do? Are we going to have a children’s sermon in the middle, the little three-minute delay where the children walk to the front? Are we going to have children’s church and then they come back in, maybe, if they don’t disappear when they are thirteen? Or what are we going to do?
Worship services should be a place of awesome glory where you fall on your face almost speechless in God’s presence.
So, my wife, Noël, and I teamed up. We haven’t done this quite like this since. We teamed up because we both felt unbelievably strongly about this, and we staked our lives on it. We teamed up and wrote a paper for our people arguing that we not have children’s church and that we not have a mini-children’s sermon in the service, but that parents or other responsible adults — if kids don’t have Christian parents — bring their children to the service after about four years old. We provided a nursery until then and eventually those nurseries, I put it in quotes, “became very God-focused and nurturing times to help get little children oriented on God and ready to go with mom and dad to the big service.”
That article that we wrote is at the Desiring God website. It is called, The Family: Together in God’s Presence. And I am going to quote from it, but I am going to leave off the very thing everybody wants to know; namely, how do you control kids? And that is the part my wife wrote. And so, if what I say here is at least provocative enough to get your interest, then go to the website and search for the article and read what my wife had to say about that. But I think really the big issue is concepts of worship and concepts of parenting and concepts of how things are transmitted to kids.
Authentic Worship Witnesses
So, let me just give a few thoughts from that article. God-centered worship is supremely important in family life and in the life of the church. We approached the Sunday morning worship hour in my 33 years in the pastorate with tremendous seriousness and earnestness and expectancy. And don’t hear those words as contrary to joy. Think serious joy. Think deep joy. We were and are a happy people at Bethlehem. We tried to banish, however, all that is flippant and trivial and chatty and chipper. I just abominate chipper worship services. Not all services had this flavor. Sunday morning we called the Mount of Transfiguration, meaning, an awesome place of glory where you fall on your face almost speechless in the presence of God. And Sunday evening — or Wednesday evening or whatever else you do — is the Mount of Olives, which was the familiar spot where Jesus probably lay down, put his hand on his elbow, and talked things over with his disciples. That is utterly crucial in the church as well.
“The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish their own worship. You can’t impart what you don’t possess.”
We didn’t have a children’s sermon as part of the Sunday morning service. We believed that even though it might be fun for the kids, in the long run it would weaken the spiritual intensity of our worship. To everything there is a season (see Ecclesiastes 3:1). That is so crucial. People think you have got to put everything in the Sunday morning service or take it out. It seemed to us that for at least one hour a week out of 168 we should sustain a maximum intensity of moving reverence. Now I am going to say that again, because I really like that phrase: a sustained maximum intensity of moving reverence. And our arguments for bringing children to worship, of course, will only carry weight with parents who really love that, who really love to meet God in worship and really want their kids to get that and grow up breathing that air. The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish doing that worship. They don’t love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. They know if dad loves being here.
So, the first and most important job of a parent is to fall in love with the worship of God. Any sense of being there out of duty or being forced to or some other reason besides I love being here, kids know that and they will hate it just like you do, deep down. You can’t impart what you don’t possess. And this is what you want your children to catch. You want them to catch authentic worship. Authentic, heartfelt worship is the most valuable thing in human experience. Think of it. The cumulative effect of 650 worship services spent with mom and dad in authentic communion with God and his people between the ages of four and seventeen is utterly incalculable.
The aim is that the children catch the passion for worshiping God by watching mom and dad enjoy God week after week. What would be the impact if, for twelve years, the children saw dad with his face in his hands praying during the prelude to worship? What would be the impact if they saw mom and dad beaming with joy in singing the praises of God? Just think of it. Millions and millions of children never see their parents sing, let alone sing songs with joy to a great God. Something really seems wrong to me when parents want to take their children in the most formative years and put them with other children and other adults to shape their attitude and behavior in worship rather than having them right there to shape them. Why wouldn’t parents be jealous to model for their children the tremendous value that they put on joyful reverence in the presence of almighty God?
“Children’s sermons can be fun, but they might weaken the spiritual intensity of worship services in the long run.”
Worship: More than Fun
Of course, it is over their head. It is supposed to be over their head. They are beginners. The English language is over their head as soon as they come out of the womb. But we don’t say: Well, let’s put them with other children in their own situations and limitations so they can understand a word or two. No. We immerse them in the English language every day that they don’t understand 90% of in the hope and expectation that they grow up into joyful use of the English language. Long before children understand fully what is going on in worship and what is sung and what is said, they are absorbing tremendous amounts of what is valuable.
And this is true even if they say they are bored. Music and words become familiar. The message of the music starts to sink in. The form of the service starts to feel natural. Even if most of the sermon goes right over their heads, experience has shown that children hear and remember remarkable things. The content of the prayers and the songs and the sermon gives parents unparalleled opportunity to teach their children the great truths of the faith. What an opportunity. If parents would only learn to query their children after the service and then explain things to them, it would become enormously valuable for their long-term growth in the knowledge of God.
There is a sense of solemnity and awe which children should experience in the presence of God. They should sense this is a sacred moment, a sacred place. This is not likely to be happening in children’s church. And unfortunately it is not likely to happen in many adult services that put a high premium on horizontal chatter, chatter, chatter rather than vertical joy. The aim is to awaken them to the greatness and majesty of God, not just his tenderness and familiarity.
“Even if most of the sermon goes right over their heads, experience shows that children remember remarkable things.”
So, those are some of the thoughts of why it is so valuable to have children in worship. There is so much more to be said, especially about the kind of parenting and discipline at home that make all of this possible. But you can go to the article for that and see what Noël and I wrote about discipline. The bottom line is heartfelt, passionate encounters with the living God in worship should be the greatest desire of a parent’s heart. And there is no better place or time to impart this than with mom and dad doing it together with the children in worship.
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