Recently, my dear friend and fellow blogger Allen Nelson and I had a pleasant discussion on our new podcast “The TAU Roundtable” on the subject of Children’s Church. Children’s Church, in case you are not familiar, is a weekly event some churches practice wherein they will remove the children from all of or part of the church service on Sunday Morning to conduct a different service designed to a child’s level of understanding. Allen and I could not have disagreed more about the practice. He wrote a piece for this blog which encouraged churches to end the practice, and in his gracious and loving desire to see children raised up in the knowledge and love of our Lord, defended his article on our podcast. His point of view emphasizes the value of preaching the Word from the pulpit and he firmly believes children can benefit from regular attendance to the sermon. I, on the other hand, am a Children’s Ministry Director for my local church. I stand proudly and firmly on the side that says there is much value in conducting Children’s Church and that it is the wise and right thing to do to love and care for children in our local gatherings.
I believe our discussion failed to convince my friend of my point of view. Allen can speak for himself as to why I was unconvincing and you can hear for yourself on the podcast. Truthfully, while I will continue to emphasize my love and deep respect for Allen, and will defend him as desiring to love and care for children, I did not find his arguments particularly persuasive either – except for one. That argument was: Children should observe their parents, grandparents, and other trusted adults as they worship, listen, minister, and generally participate in church. I wholeheartedly agree!
In my church, our tradition is to do the following:
- At 10:30 we begin worshiping through song. We encourage every attendee to be in their seats and ready by that time.
- Typically, after one or two songs or hymns, we’ll have announcements.
- Then, if the elders decide that it is time for a missions report, a special presentation from a ministry leader (like myself), a time to welcome new members, or something out of the ordinary we’ll pause here and have a time for that.
- Then one of the elders will read from Scripture, remind us of prayer requests, and pray.
- Afterward, two or three more songs or hymns.
- Finally, the music leader will pray briefly and then (and ONLY THEN) will dismiss the children from the service to Children’s Church.
- The children will participate in Children’s Church, and everyone else will participate in the sermon.
As you can see, in my church at least, the children ARE present for at least half of the service and do have an opportunity to witness their parents, grandparents, and other trusted adults sing; pray; read scripture; listen attentively to mission reports and whatnot; learn about new members; hear about shut-ins, new moms, and other things to pray for; and generally be “at church” with their parents. It’s great! In fact, let me prove to you how great it is.
If you’ve been following my twitter feed, you’ve doubtlessly discovered my wife and I have recently welcomed three adorable, lovable, and needy foster children into our home (We’re over the moon!). This past Sunday was the first opportunity we had to worship with them. My task was to manage the sweet, cuddly (and yes, nervous) 4-year-old. Typically, when we have new children with us (be they our nieces/nephew or foster children) we keep them close whispering directions to them so they understand what’s happening. So, with the sweet boy I had near me this past week I would whisper things like “Pastor Jimmy is praying, buddy, let’s pray with him” or “Stand up with me, kiddo, let’s sing together”.
What happened on Sunday, and what often happens in these moments, was affirmation of Allen’s point. When it was time for prayer he’d fold his hands like mine and close his eyes. When it was time to sing, even though he didn’t know the words, he’d try to sing along (and MY GOODNESS IT WAS CUTE). He’d sit when I sat, stand when I stood, and generally would follow my lead. He was mimicking me and observing me even to the fine details. For example, I have this tradition where I make my way to the back of the room just before the kids are dismissed to Children’s Church. My goal is to say “good morning” and fist bump/high five each of the kids as they make their way to their classroom. Simply, I feel it’s important to make sure they know someone was thinking about them enough to greet them. Guess what my little guy was doing with me? Yep! Fist bumps, high fives, and repeating “good morning!” as I did! I was very proud of him being brave enough to greet a bunch of people he didn’t even know. Allen’s fantastic encouragement to us was on full display!
I recognize that many churches practice children’s church differently than mine. Most of the churches Allen and others are responding to never let the kids in for much of the service at all, let alone for roughly half of it. I couldn’t disagree with that practice any more than I do because it IS misguided to isolate children from the vast benefits of participating in the church service with believers. Nonetheless, I draw the line when it comes to the sermon.
It’s not the worst thing in the world for children to participate in a sermon. But, as Allen admitted in his article last week most of them aren’t really participating. Here’s what I see when I’m a guest in Family Integrated churches or churches like Allen’s during the sermon: without fail there will be children in their own little worlds playing quietly. They’re laying under the pews or chairs; coloring books and sometimes even matchbox cars or baby dolls in hand, doing what they want to do quietly. With rare exception, they assume the posture of people who are having some downtime, not the posture of children learning new things.
I also see PARENTS who are often distracted and attending to their little ones. Parents can multi-task and they’ll be fine, but it’s a vastly different experience to listen with one ear and busy yourself with keeping someone else busy or quiet than it is to listen with both ears and take notes or follow along in your own book.
Let’s just be honest about these things. While I affirm the great value in children observing and mimicking godly behavior, I think we kid ourselves to believe my four year old would have learned more ignoring Pastor Jimmy preach on Acts 5:12-16 while playing with his cars than he did learning about Revelation 1 at Children’s Church. We are lying to ourselves that we act as if we believe the declaration of God’s Word from the pulpit is vital and the most important part of our week if we put ourselves in the position of dividing our attention from it. At that point, church becomes something a little different than what we claim it to be; both for ourselves and for our children. What it becomes was hinted at by Allen and others on our last episode, but whatever it ends up being it departs from the grand value we claim it to have and it doesn’t function as well for the believer’s benefit as we suppose it does.
Nevertheless, that ought not distract from Allen’s excellent point that there is great value in observing older believers, especially parents and family, at church. Do not think, however, those observations end at the dismissal for Children’s Church. When the kids at my church were dismissed this past Sunday they were ushered into classrooms, handed materials for the day’s lesson, and lead through a lesson. They had been prayed for throughout the week, the lesson had been prepared with the kids in mind, and the word of God was the central emphasis. Who had done all of that work? It wasn’t other kids, it wasn’t young teens, and it wasn’t students barely out of the home and in college. It was a faithful single lady who had been saved 20 years, two god-fearing moms, one of our elders who is also a husband and father, another Christ-honoring dad, and of course me – a dad, a student of the word, and a slave to Christ for two decades.
My children have grown up and will grow up watching many adults take time out of their Sunday and open the Word to teach them, not to mention help them find their place in their Bibles, drill them on memory verses, sing with them, pray with them, etc. At least half the time, the adult they watched and will watch is their own father and sometimes their own mother. Their observations of other believers don’t stop when they’re ministered to in a special way during Children’s Church – thank God! For some of those kids, it’s the only time we’ll get a chance to minister to them and lay those important foundations for the simple fact that some families do not (for reasons that baffle Allen and I both) participate in the Wednesday night, Sunday School, or Sunday night things both of our churches offer to children and families. What a great privilege they’ll have to benefit as my brother Allen wishes them to benefit; to watch adults care of them, work with them, pray for them, think about them, give them high fives, fist bumps, and birthday cards, and teach them the basics of the faith in a way they grasp and understand. What an amazing privilege that children of believers – often believers themselves- get to be surrounded by the very thing God gave us to surround the faithful, the very institution He has promised to bless and work through. What an honor it is to be a PART of the church, not merely AT church.
Oh yes, they should observe those things! They should see adults dying to themselves and ministering to them like it’s an important part of Sunday to teach little minds a little more about their Lord. My prayer is they’ll see, above all else, how seriously we take what we do on Sunday morning, how important it is to be a good student of the Word, and humble servant of others – even a servant to children.