The Mystery of Children’s Church

In Christian congregations across the Western world, at a certain point during the worship service small children are dismissed to the what is often called “children’s church.” I can understand why evangelicals (without a direct connection to or confession of the Reformed faith) and others, who do not have a covenantal theology, would send out their children during public worship but I do not understand why so many ostensibly Reformed congregations have adopted the practice of dismissing their covenant children from the service to “children’s church.” After all, we confess that God has promised to be a God to us and to our children.

As a pastor, I understand the practical problems. Parents want to be able to concentrate on worship and children can be distraction from worship. At least some of the same congregations that have this practice also do not set aside time outside of the worship service for Christian instruction or catechism. So, it seems, they’re holding catechism during the worship service. I guess that the reason that there’s no additional time for catechism is that the parents will not make time and the church will not make them make time. So, congregations are making do. Sometimes the bulletin explains that the children are sent out of public worship in order to “prepare them to worship.” At first glance this seems like an attractive option: it seems to provide for a way for children to be taught while parents get a break and are refreshed in worship.

It is hard to know where to start with this complex of problems. Obviously there is a question about the nature of the Sabbath. There’s a questions about the nature of worship. There’s a question of the nature of baptismal vows and church membership. There’s a question of Christian nurture and there’s a question of the nature of Christian parenting.

Obviously, to address all these questions would require more than a short essay. Nevertheless, if we think about the creational pattern (Gen 1-2) we see that, in the beginning, before Moses, God set aside one day in seven for rest and worship (Ex 20:8). Our children are to participate in both rest and worship. If children are sent out of public worship for something other than worship then they are not really participating in the divinely intended pattern for human and especially redeemed life (Deut 5).

In our time we tend to think that worship is chiefly about our experience and we expect worship to be edifying (as it should be) and even uplifting. It is true that having children in church means that it may be slightly less edifying (because the parent will be more distracted). It also means that it may be less emotionally moving. It is a little harder to to concentrate when your child is fidgeting next to you or someone else’s is wailing in your left ear. That’s okay. You might not have the same experience this week as you did when there was children’s church. That’s okay. Experience is not the most important thing in worship. It is about hearing God and responding appropriately, according to His Word.

Judging by Scripture, however, God does not mind that the quality of your experience is diminished. He takes the long view. Your children will grow up not segregated from public worship and the means of grace. They will grow up a part of the community of the redeemed and watching baptisms (so they can see what happened to them). They will see the supper administered and they will ask, “When can I have it?” They will hear the Law and the Gospel (Dv) and they will grow up knowing that this is their identity, that It is really true, that God said, “I will be your God and your children’s God.”

When Christian parents present their children for baptism, they take vows to instruct them in the faith, to pray for them, and to bring them to worship. Does Children Church, even in its best form, really fulfill the promises we made? does not the act of sending children out of the stated service for instruction send a more powerful message than the even good instruction will send? does not it send the message to the children that they are not really members of the covenant community? Does it not perhaps send the message that the gathering for public worship may be marginalized if something else is deemed more important? It sends the message that It is acceptable to arrange one’s priorities during the week so as to require this ad hoc solution, that church is something we do but not something we are.

Underneath all of this there is another series of questions: Of what we are, who Jesus is, what he did, and what the implications are for those who would follow him. We may look like happy, upwardly mobile suburbanites but we’re not. We’re wretched, horrible people by nature. That manicured lawn covers over a multitude of hell-deserving sins. We’re gossips, murderers, adulterers, and God-haters. If the children’s church-sending parents understood that, if they really believed that about themselves and their children, they would find time during the week to see that their children are instructed. They would be catechizing their children, praying with and for them. Then it would not be a matter of squeezing a little instructional time into the Sabbath. They would be pleading with the minister to teach their children.

If we saw ourselves for what, but for the grace of God, we really are, then we would understand the grace of God. If we understood the grace of God, we would more and more embrace the consequences of following Jesus. Death to self entails death to the successful suburban lifestyle where that lifestyle marginalizes Christ and his church.

How will it turn out? Only God knows but faith not only trusts but it also obeys. We do have the biblical, covenantal pattern and we do have the history of the church. One of the persistent problems faced by the Reformed churches since the 19th century has been its failure to retain its young people. In that same time we have seen the growth of age-specific “youth ministry.” Could there be a correlation between our adaptation of non-Reformed patterns of worship and catechesis and the loss of young people in the church? This way of looking at things seems counter-intuitive when everyone else seems to be saying that the answer is to “be more like the broadly evangelical church.” Of course, that advice assumes that they are doing a better job of retaining their young people than the Reformed churches. That is a big and probably false assumption.

Our children and grandchildren are counting on us to be their leaders, to provide for them, to do what is best for them even if they themselves cannot see it at the time. Keeping our covenant youth in the service is not easy and it will be a big change for many but it is not impossible if we think about the promises God has made to us and that we have, in turn, made to him and to our children.

Children’s church is a problem but It is not the problem. It is a symptom of much larger problems. It is not too late, because It is never too late to repent. Grace is free for everyone, pastors and parents alike. God bless those noisy congregations with fidgeting and fussy children. Let the noise of children inhabit all our congregations.

Including noisy, fidgeting children into our covenant community and into public worship will take work and nerve. Parenting takes nerves of steel sometimes but there’s a great payoff: children who grow up knowing that they belong to Christ and to his covenant of grace. Another benefit will be to reduce pressure to create age-specific music and worship “experiences” for young people. God’s Word knows nothing about age-specific music. The only songs we have in God’s Word are intended to be sung by all of God’s people, together.

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