Robert from Columbia, South Carolina, writes in to ask, “Pastor John, I am wondering if there are situations in which a separate children’s time — in Sunday school rooms, completely apart from the Sunday gathering — is necessary. Our church is wrestling through this issue. 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). Most parents want a break and desire a 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 you have a strong leader in your church, because weak leaders will never stand up against the onslaught of criticism that will come if you 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 children in worship. We did not have a lot of them, but they were beginning to come. The people all wanted to know what to do about it. Will we have a children’s sermon in the middle, the little three-minute delay where the children walk to the front? Will we have children’s church, then bring them back in to the service if they do not disappear when they turn thirteen? What will we do?
“God-centered worship is supremely important in family life and in the life of the church.”
My wife, Noël, and I teamed up. We have not done anything quite like this since. We teamed up because we both felt unbelievably strongly about this point. We staked our lives on it. We wrote a paper for our people arguing against having children’s church and against having a mini children’s sermon in the service. We urged parents or other responsible adults to bring their children to the service after they were about four years old. We provided a nursery until then. Eventually those nurseries became very God-focused, nurturing places to help get little children oriented toward God and ready to go with Mom and Dad to the big service.
The article we wrote is on the Desiring God website. It is called “The Family: Together in God’s Presence.” I am going to quote from it, but I am going to leave out the very thing everybody wants to know — namely, how do you control kids? That is the part my wife wrote. So, if what I say here is provocative enough to get your interest, then go to the website, search for the article, and read what my wife had to say about that. I think the big issues are worship, parenting, and how to transmit ideas to kids.
Let me 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 during my 33 years in the pastorate with tremendous seriousness, earnestness, and expectancy. Do not hear those words as standing contrary to joy. Think serious joy. Think deep joy.
We were and are a happy people at Bethlehem. However, we tried to banish all that is flippant, trivial, chatty, and chipper. I abominate chipper worship services. We called Sunday morning “The Mount of Transfiguration,” meaning it was an awesome place of glory where you were to fall on your face almost speechless in the presence of God. Sunday evening (or Wednesday evening, or whatever else you do) was “The Mount of Olives,” the familiar spot where Jesus probably lay down, put his hand on his elbow, and talked things over with his disciples. Those times are utterly crucial in the church as well.
We did not have a children’s sermon as part of the Sunday morning service. We believed that even though it might be fun for the kids, it would weaken the spiritual intensity of our worship in the long run. “For everything there is a season” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). That is so crucial. People think you have got to put everything in the Sunday-morning service. But to us it seemed that for at least one hour a week out of 168 we should sustain a maximum intensity of moving reverence. I will say that again, because I really like that phrase: a sustained maximum intensity of moving reverence.
Authentic Worship Witnesses
Of course, our arguments for bringing children to worship will carry weight only with parents who really love that. They will only convince parents who really love to meet God in worship and want their kids to grow up breathing that air. The greatest stumbling block to children’s worship is parents who do not cherish their own worship. They do not love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. They know whether or not Dad loves being here.
“The greatest stumbling block to children’s worship is parents who do not cherish their own worship.”
So, the first and most important job of a parent is to fall in love with the worship of God. If you go to church out of duty, feel forced to, or have any reason other than a love for being there, your kids will know. They will hate it just like you do. You cannot impart what you do not possess. You want your children to catch authentic worship. Authentic, heartfelt worship is the most valuable thing in human experience. You cannot calculate the cumulative effect of 650 worship services spent with Mom and Dad — between the ages of four and seventeen — in authentic communion with God and his people.
We aim for children to catch the passion for worshiping God by watching Mom and Dad enjoy God week after week. If the children saw Dad praying, face in hands, before worship week after week for twelve years, how would it impact them? If they saw Mom and Dad beaming with joy as they sang God’s praises, how would it impact them? Millions and millions of children never see their parents sing, let alone sing songs to a great God with joy. It seems wrong when parents send their kids to children’s church during their most formative years rather than having them right there to shape them. Why would parents not be jealous to model for their children the tremendous value they put on joyful reverence in the presence of Almighty God?
Worship: More than Fun
Of course the service is over the children’s heads. It is supposed to be over their heads. They are beginners. The English language is over their heads when they come out of the womb, but we do not 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. For a while, they do not understand most of it. But we hope and expect them to grow up into joyful use of the English language. Long before children fully understand the words said and sung in the service, they are absorbing tremendous amounts of valuable experience.
This remains 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 shows that children hear and remember remarkable things. The content of the prayers, the songs, and the sermon gives parents an unparalleled opportunity to teach their children the great truths of the faith. If parents would only learn to query their children after the service and explain things to them, they would sow enormously valuable seeds for their long-term growth in the knowledge of God.
“The first and most important job of a parent is to fall in love with the worship of God.”
There is a sense of solemnity and awe which children should experience in the presence of God. They should sense the sacred moment, the sacred place. This likely will not happen in children’s church. Unfortunately, it is not likely to happen in many adult services that put a high premium on horizontal chatter rather than vertical joy. We should aim to awaken them to the greatness and majesty of God, not just his tenderness and familiarity.
Those are some thoughts about why we should value having children in worship. We could say so much more, especially about the kind of parenting and discipline at home that makes 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 this: Parents should most earnestly desire heartfelt, passionate encounters with the living God in worship. And there is no better way to impart this than by worshiping together with Mom and Dad in the service.