The Mystery Of Children’s Church

childrens_church2I can understand why evangelicals and others, who do not have a covenantal theology, would exile 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” (or whatever more clever name it may have). From what I see, this appears to be a common practice. Sometimes the bulletin explains that the children are sent out of public worship in order to “prepare them to worship.” Really? This seems like sending one’s child from the dinner table in order to prepare them to eat.

I understand the practical problem. 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 won’t make time and the church won’t make them make time. So, congregations are making due.

It’s hard to know where to start with this complex of problems. Obviously there is a misunderstanding of the nature of the Sabbath. There’s a misunderstanding of the nature of worship. There’s a misunderstanding of the nature of baptismal vows and church membership. There’s a misunderstanding of Christian nurture and there’s a misunderstanding of the nature of Christian parenting. Other than these things, as they say, “it’s all good.”

In such a case, the act of sending children out of the stated service for instruction sends a more powerful message than the instruction is likely to send. It sends the message to the children that they are not really members of the covenant community. It sends the message that the gathering for public worship may be marginalized if something else is deemed more important. It sends the message that it’s 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 misunderstandings: 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 wouldn’t 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. Jesus didn’t come to facilitate a happy, upwardly mobile lifestyle, and discipleship calls us to die to the mall and live to Christ.

Yes, having children in church means that it will be slightly less entertaining and possibly less emotionally moving. It’s a little harder to be enraptured by the latest chorus 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 emotional “high” this week as you did when there was children’s church. That’s okay. Worship isn’t about your experience of religious ecstasy. It’s about hearing God and responding appropriately, according to His Word.

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

Church leaders don’t want to challenge parents and parents don’t want to be challenged. The cycle has to end somewhere. It should start with pastors and elders. That’s why they call it leadership. A leader goes first. A leader takes the risk. Elders and pastors need to get over their desire to be popular, to be liked, to be “successful.” Perhaps the reason that parents don’t see any contradiction between their definition of “success” and the Christian life is because their pastors and elders haven’t shown it to them?

Children’s church is a problem but it’s not the problem. It’s a symptom of much larger problems. It’s not too late, because it’s 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.

This post first appeared on the HB in 2008.

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  1. Prior to joining the URCNA, I came from an evangelical background that loved the idea of Children’s Church, only it was often called something else, such as, “Kid’s Own Worship.”

    I regret to say that I was part of the problem, because not only did I as a parent send my children off to “Kid’s Own Worship” but as a leader I sought to make this iteration of Children’s Church “better.”

    I know better now.

    I think the realization came to me after a few occasions of actually volunteering for a few of these aberrations on the Lord’s Day. Not only were the children, without question, disengaged from the rest of the Church, the stuff that was being used as “curriculum” was horrible. I still remember one Sunday being horrified that the catechesis for that day consisted of two coloring sheets, a craft, watching a DVD, and snack time.

    This I could not abide, so that day I led the children through a recitation of and an age-appropriate discussion upon the Lord’s Prayer and we listened to some Psalms on my smartphone during snack time. At the end of the morning, I encouraged the children to talk to their parents about what they learned and to ask their parents during the week to go through the Lord’s Prayer with them.

    I’d like to think I did some good, but I am a realist. You can’t improve what is largely a bad system.

    • Andy, I do believe it is a fair and related question. There is, in my mind, no difference between a 3 year-old going to a “nursery” where she plays with toys, puzzles, and coloring books while public worship is taking place in another room than, say, “children’s church” where they are excluded from public worship to be catechized(?) or sing psalms (?) or hear bible passages narrated in kid-friendly ways (?).

      In fact, I cannot see how the 2nd and 4th commandment dont militate against such a practice. Covenantally speaking, how are children exempted from the need to be in worship. I understand that people take recreational exceptions to the fourth commandment, but keeping their children from public worship seems to be a 5th commandment issue (in addition to a 2nd and 4th). For example,

      Q. 130. What are the sins of superiors?

      A. The sins of superiors are, besides the neglect of the duties required of them, an inordinate seeking of themselves, their own glory, ease, profit, or pleasure; commanding things unlawful, or not in the power of inferiors to perform; counseling, encouraging, or favoring them in that which is evil; dissuading, discouraging, or discountenancing them in that which is good; correcting them unduly; careless exposing, or leaving them to wrong, temptation, and danger; provoking them to wrath; or any way dishonoring themselves, or lessening their authority, by an unjust, indiscreet, rigorous, or remiss behavior.

      I would love some help in understanding how the children’s church argument could not be maintained by all nursery advocates. In some cases, they are precisely the same thing under a different name.

  2. In my experience, the majority of young children who join their parents in church are not too well-behaved. To be honest, when I’m worshiping, I don’t enjoy hearing babies crying, toddlers standing on the seat or shuffling around and kicking the chair in front of them, or kids crinkling their candy wrappers. It’s also very distracting to have the parents keep whispering to their children to be quiet or sit still, passing out candy or Kleenex, or even walking in and out of church when their children get fussy. This is not only a distraction to those without children who are trying to listen to the message, but it also means that the parents of those children are not giving their full attention to the message. God’s house is a place that should be treated with reverence, and the pastor’s messages are very important. I want to give God’s Word 100% of my attention during the service, and it’s hard to do that when there are disturbances like that.

    Another reason I think children’s church is a good idea is that I remember being a child myself. I was raised in a very strict family and at first was never allowed to go to children’s church or nursery, but was made to sit through the entire service quietly and politely. I didn’t understand most of what the pastor said, and to be perfectly honest, I came to think of church as really boring. Later, my parents decided to let me attend children’s church, and I really came to love singing the songs, learning the catechism, and hearing Bible stories told in a way that children could understand. I definitely got a lot more out of that experience than I did from sitting through a church service where I didn’t understand much and was tempted to daydream. I came to think of church as something to look forward too, rather than something to dread.

    In children’s church, children are able to make friends and have Bible lessons that are at their learning level. They are (hopefully) taught by people who love children, and I think that it’s a great precursor to going to church with their parents. It helps kids learn to love church and think of it as somewhere they want to be, not just somewhere that they have to sit for a long time and be quiet.

    • Becca, if I am reading you correctly, the two main arguments are (1) children’s church can be made more fun than public worship and (2) parents don’t take seriously the responsibility to train their children for public worship.

      May I ask you a few direct question, not knowing whether or not you have children? Perhaps everything you said is true: it’s somewhat distracting from your desire to apply yourself diligently to the means of grace and it’s not as fun for children. But is it a problem that your children aren’t worshipping the Lord? Given that what the pastor says is so important, shouldn’t children be permitted to hear those words? Is not a minister qualified to consider the ages in a worship service and preach in ways that they understand? I mean, he does it for you. Also, sacraments are visible signs of the gospel? Children certainly should see the gospel proclaimed, right? Are you confident that it pleases God to remove His (little) people from His presence?

      Those are some questions that I have had to consider as a new parent. It isn’t always as easy as “I can focus better” and “they’ll have a good time.” What about family worship? Should we color or read children’s stories with my daughter instead of reading the Scriptures and engaging in godly conference? Should we sing some children songs rather than sing psalms because the metrical psalter can be difficult? Should we pray when the baby isn’t around because she might interrupt us? I would suggest that the challenges are worth enduring. Yes, enduring for a season. Also, elders and pastors should meet with parents who are not training their children. Perhaps those parents and children can sit in the back for a while? Maybe they can remove many of the distractions and toys during the service, so children don’t get noisy? And maybe, humbly suggested, you and I can work on our patience during their growth in grace just as the Lord has mercifully endured our many grievings of His Holy Spirit?

  3. I do agree with a lot of what you said, and I’m not trying to be argumentative or rude, so I hope I don’t come off that way, and I apologize if I do. However, it bothered me when you said in your reply that children who attend children’s church are not worshiping the Lord, and also that they are removed from God’s presence. First of all, God is omnipresent, so we are never removed from His presence no matter where we go, whether it’s children’s church or the regular service. He is there with us in both places. Also, I believe that people worship the Lord in different ways. One can worship God both by sitting through the regular church service (singing hymns and listening to the message) and also by participating in children’s church (singing songs, listening to Bible stories, and even doing Bible-related crafts). “Worship” is defined as “feeling or expressing reverence and adoration for God” and there are many different ways that we can do this. I don’t want my children to feel that the only way in which they can worship God on Sunday is to be in the sanctuary with the adults. I believe that God can and does work through not only the pastor, but the teachers and volunteers who are in charge of children’s church.

    I definitely believe that children’s church is about much more than just “fun”, and I’m sorry that I made it sound like that in my last post. In our family, one thing that is important to us is that our children come to see attending church as a privilege, and something to look forward to, rather than something that we are forcing them to do. My husband and I have noticed that when our children attend children’s church, they find us afterwards and are so excited to share with us what they’ve learned. They talk animatedly about the Bible story that they heard that day, and often ask us questions about it and share their thoughts, and we can discuss it as a family. They are always excited to go back next week and learn more. We don’t get the same reaction when they sit through the service with us, although they’re usually quite good about being still and respectful during the message.

    You wouldn’t ask a first grader to attend your college lectures with you, because while they might sit still and behave throughout the lecture, they won’t understand much of what is being said and it won’t mean much to them. In the same way, I believe that while children may sit quietly through the church service and the message, they won’t get as much out of it as they would in children’s church. The children will still be hearing those important truths from the Bible, but they will be hearing them in a way that they can understand and appreciate and even enjoy. It’s all about the way that the information is being presented.

    That being said, you are absolutely right when you say that children should witness the sacraments. I agree that there are some instances when it’s a good idea to have your children sit with you through the service, as long as they are generally well-behaved and respectful. And I definitely agree that I should work on my patience. On the other hand, though, I do believe that there are many great assets to children’s church, as I’ve already said. (Sorry for such a long comment!)

    • Thank you for the dialogue, Becca. I really do appreciate it. And you didn’t come of rude. I think we may, however, have different understandings of what is taking place in public worship. Also, I certainly agree that children might “understand” more in children’s church, but I believe that it is a spiritual work that children and adults most need. It is more than rational cognition; the Spirit must be working.

      If I might use a few areas in the WCF to make my point:

      CHAPTER 5
      Of Providence

      3. God, in his ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at his pleasure.

      7. As the providence of God doth, in general, reach to all creatures; so, after a most special manner, it taketh care of his church, and disposeth all things to the good thereof.

      CHAPTER 10
      Of Effectual Calling

      2. This effectual call is of God’s free and special grace alone, not from anything at all foreseen in man, who is altogether passive therein, until, being quickened and renewed by the Holy Spirit, he is thereby enabled to answer this call, and to embrace the grace offered and conveyed in it.

      3. Elect infants, dying in infancy, are regenerated, and saved by Christ, through the Spirit, who worketh when, and where, and how he pleaseth: so also are all other elect persons who are incapable of being outwardly called by the ministry of the Word.

      CHAPTER 28
      Of Baptism

      6. The efficacy of baptism is not tied to that moment of time wherein it is administered; yet, notwithstanding, by the right use of this ordinance, the grace promised is not only offered, but really exhibited, and conferred, by the Holy Ghost, to such (whether of age or infants) as that grace belongeth unto, according to the counsel of God’s own will, in his appointed time.

      The Spirit may work in children, despite their ability to demonstrate their understanding. I submit myself to the Lord’s judgment on this matter. I do believe there is a distinction between public worship and some other venue for communicating biblical truth.

  4. Just to be clear, you mean not having children in the service of worship at all e.g. parents head to the service, but the kids go elsewhere? Or do you mean children in the service for most of the service, but then leaving part of the way through?

  5. I agree with this post 100%, but I’m still struggling with the practicality of kids in church. I found it a little unnecessarily biting that the concern of distraction was presented in the context of unhealthy emotionalism. I see the difficulty of distraction, but I, Lord guard me, think I base that on emotionalism.

    I think that my perspective of what is occurring during service has much space to grow, but in its current state I see reasons (more of them, honestly) to keep children in service, and reasons to keep them out. I see service as a time we come together as a covenant community locally as an expression of the unified worship of our holy Father going on universally as well as heavenly. Also, it is a time where this glorifying the Father takes special effect upon the believer through the ordinary means. Both of these convictions hold weight, for me, mostly for keeping children I church. But within the first conviction I find a ground for dispute that I cannot easily dismiss.

    If we are coming into the presence of the holy Father in this metaphysical sense, we should not treat it lightly, stumbling into worship with empty jokes on our lips or some other behavior that would be fine elsewhere, but fall to utter vanity and irreverence when brought into this special approaching of God. Now, I don’t then make the leap that any distraction a child makes in service is evidence of this irreverence.

    The issue of distraction is one indicative, as the blog pointed out, of the larger issue of parents discipling their children at home and even the church not doing well at other ministries. But even with a family doing well in this area, a child can still be understandably distracting. But it is not this understandable example I find difficulty with, but with the authority’s permissive nature toward the existence of a family unit and/or a church ministry neglecting to chatechise and train self-control. My current difficulty, then, is with this allowance of this rebellion in raising covenant children, that it specifically is an irreverent attitude that disrespect our holy Father and hampers our worship of Him.

    Again, I’m convinced that integrated worship is the way things need to be, but this difficulty is one I’ve not yet seen how to deal with rightly yet. Currently, it seems that the best, practical solution would be to have sort of a more specified ministry directed especially to this group of families not effectively preparing their children (and to clarify my comment earlier, this isn’t always because of plain sinful rebellion, of course, but also due to ineptitude and other factors). This more specific ministry would be one not focused on a daycare mentality, but a sanctification/recovery mentality of taking disfunctioning family units and, Lord willing, making them functional.

    • Brandon R.,

      I agree with you, but I do think the distraction issue is legitimate. I simply disagree that the solution is to remove the child. The WLC is instructive on a few points I think (sorry, I don’t know any relevant sections from 3FU).

      Q. 155. How is the word made effectual to salvation?
      A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; of strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; or building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.

      It is the minister’s work to apply himself “to the necessities and capacities of the hearers” and my work to “attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer.” It is the Holy Spirit’s work, however, to apply the Word of God and communicate the benefits of Christ to us. I think there is this belief that if a baby makes a noise and you miss a word, worship has been interrupted and the congregation has been shorted. But that is not the case. Speaking practically, the minister may repeat himself if a noise interrupted him and/or us. We may move seats to find a location more suitable to the occasion. The parent might sit in the back and be ready to correct misbehavior or intemperance. We must remember that we are present to worship God, framing and preparing ourselves accordingly. Public worship is a corporate, covenantal endeavor. It is not individualistic. Babies need the Word preached and Gospel proclaimed as much as parents and non-parents. Parents and non-parents need to believe that. And preaching is not only a means of grace, but an element of public worship. It is different from someone using curricular materials to instruct children, to say nothing of the merit of such a practice.

  6. Our confession requires that God’s Word be available in the venacular tongue. Can it be proven unequiviably that a new born, a three year old and an adult have the same venacular? I believe in the ordinary means of grace, prayer, sacrements and the Word. But as Paul commands in Corinthans, I don’t practice any of these in corporate or private worship in an unknown tongue. I also don’t practice these in the original Greek and Hebrew. The higher order of Love would compel the teacher to instruct the student at a level of normal comprehension of the student. Christ, the Word of God, condescended to us and humbled himself. I think we do well to follow this example. Truly, I believe this controversy stems from a severe lack of family worship in the home. We can not expect the church corporate to do alone what we as fathers are commanded to do in teaching God to our offspring.

    • Ken, I am honestly not too clear on your argument. Are you suggesting that it is only when humans can speak in your native tongue that public worship is taking place or that those humans should be present? I am asking. Perhaps you could find an application of your view from Joel.

      15 Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly;
      16 gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber (Joel 2:15-16). Would those infants, according to the higher order of Love, be compelled to be present? I am trying to understand your point. Any help would be appreciated.

  7. So hypothetically…
    We are one of two confessional churches (different denominations) in our town. Last spring there was an incident at our sister church (where there is no nursery) where one of the elders stopped the morning service midway and lectured the families with small children for not keeping them quiet. Five families did not return. However, one of them has asked to be considered for membership with us (we have nursery up till 3yr olds). We told them we would do so on the condition that we receive a letter of transfer from their consistory (and the pastors met and discussed things). Any thoughts on this difficult situation? (addressed to the professor and any elders over 40 with 3 kids or more:)).

    • As an Elder in 3 different reformed churches over the last 32 years, due to job moves, etc., as a father of nine, and grandfather of 5, I would say for any elder to stop the service and specifically lecture one group or another was wrong. As to the request to join your church, if this couple has a credible profession of faith, why would you not admit them to membership, unless there was some case pending against them in the other church, and that would be covered in a letter of transfer. Not sure what is accomplished by throwing in a discussion between the pastors about the situation.
      People leave churches for many reasons, some good some bad, some theological, but unless they left to avoid censure why would you put any hindrance in their way. Would you place the same demands if someone said they were switching churches because they had just bought a house on your side of town, and didn’t want to have to drive to the other side of town to attend their old church?

  8. Thanks, Mr Hudzinski
    That sort of echoes my thought on the matter, (and was the reason for asking for the letter). It still makes me uncomfortable, but I guess the problem is some of my own background and context. We’re a small enough town (70k) that everyone knows most of what goes on, and didn’t have any reformed churches until 20 yrs ago and now are blessed to have two, a lot of commitment by many people involved in that. Hard for me to fathom someone switching churches here because of moving, as 15 minutes takes you about anywhere in town. Before, the nearest reformed church was hundreds of miles away.
    On further reflection, perhaps what’s really bothering me is I’m having a hard time seeing the issue of nursery, ect becoming so divisive, so this post struck a chord. While I agree with the thrust of the post, language like ” exile their children during public worship ” seems a little much. I also think some of the counterpoints offered in the comments are worth thinking about.

  9. My family has experienced problems with churches that either don’t allow children in the meeting, or who have other arrangements for children but who “allow” children at the discretion of the parents. Usually in the latter case, the children must be extra quiet. When one child makes noise, it is a distraction to the whole assembly. But in our experience, when an assembly is full of children, all the noise becomes background noise, actually allowing for greater attention to what is going on. This follows the principle of “the darker the room, the brighter the light.” The fewer children there are, the more obvious their noise.

    Yes, “God bless those noisy congregations with fidgeting and fussy children.”

  10. Based on the title, this was not the post I was expecting. I am 100% on board with this post though. It’s also distracting to have children at the dinner table when my wife and I would like to have an intelligent adult conversation. Should we feed the kids separately? (Actually once a week we do…)

    So what I thought this post was going to be about, was grumping against Sunday School apart from the worship service, perhaps a legacy of Baptistic pietism. I’d be interested to hear thoughts on that, perhaps for another post?

  11. One thing people may want to consider when building a church, assuming you have the ability to do this, is to take into consideration the acoustics and intentionally set an area for families with little children that allows for less propagation of sound from the area. This gives me some ideas.

    Perhaps churches can have a room with a large window or opening to the congregation so rowdy children may be taken if too loud. This seems to allow for the continued participation in the service, a help when dealing with loud children, and consideration for others.

  12. We are dealing with this issue currently at our church and I thank you for your added thoughts on the topic. Our children’s church teacher (the pastor’s wife) has missed corporate worship for many years and as our church has grown older, the kids in children’s church were basically only mine. My husband and I decided to have them (4, 7, & 10 year olds) to stay in the service the whole time including the preaching for their benefit and so that the pastor’s wife would not continue missing all preaching and even communion. One huge benefit to having them in the service during the preaching is that we’ve been able to help them with self-discipline and (here’s the biggie) we often discuss the sermon with the kids to see what they understood. This promotes much conversation in the family and helps all of us to meditate further on the message. Also, our little ones often draw pictures that exemplify the message during the sermon. This helps their littler siblings to further understand the message. We’ve always had them in during the the rest of the service which I love since I can teach them the songs and help them to appreciate all aspects of how we worship corporately and can even remind them about how their Christian ancestors sang many of these same songs. I believe that getting our young ones to engage in church is excellent training so that when they reach adulthood, they will continue to engage and not leave the church as so many young adults do. Yes, they are an important part of the body of Christ.

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