One of the more obvious differences between the contemporary church and the church in every century up to the 20th is the tendency to remove children from the worship service and send them off to either playrooms or “children’s church.” The theory behind this is that they will not be able to sit through a worship service of over one hour in length and will disrupt the worship of the adult members of the congregation. Obviously a pragmatic argument can immediately be made that children used to sit through worship services of several hours length and the essential nature of children has not changed since that time. All that has happened is that we have become habituated to a practice that supposedly makes church “easier” on children and adults, but which does not have any sort of biblical pedigree and which is ultimately counter-productive on a number of different levels.
As in all matters of faith and practice though, our final appeal cannot simply be to pragmatic considerations. Our ultimate guide in this matter must be the teaching of scripture and the practice of the Apostolic churches.
At points in his letters, the Apostle Paul commands that his epistles be read in the church. For instance in Col. 4:16 Paul writes, “Now when this epistle is read among you, see that it is read also in the church of the Laodiceans…”
That Paul intended his letters to be read as part of the corporate worship of the church probably wouldn’t surprise most Christians, these were after all newly minted scriptures “given by inspiration of God, and… profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). But what might surprise modern evangelicals is the consideration that Paul feels that he can naturally address the children of the church in the midst of these letters: “Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.” (Col. 3:20) The reason that Paul can do this is because in the Apostolic church, the children of believers were included in the public worship service. Because of this, Old School Presbyterians have always held that this should be our practice as well.
With that in mind, we should be strongly encouraging parents to keep their children in worship and to that end I have included the following statement in our worship folders which says in part: “Our desire is that we would worship the Lord Jesus Christ as a covenant family. Therefore, children who are able to do so should remain in the worship service.“ However, we need to also acknowledge that the ability of a child to actually sit through a worship service lasting an hour or more depends upon the parents willingness to train that child at home in consistent family worship, and to enforce discipline during public worship.
Therefore, if our desire as church planters is to reach the unchurched and simply unconverted in our communities some acknowledgement of the above fact will have to be and made and some means of assisting families that have never had children and particularly infants and toddlers in worship will need to be provided. By God’s grace in our own congregation we’ve always had families who are new to the faith and still learning the fundamentals of Christian child rearing. Therefore our statement regarding children in worship also says: “We have a nursery for the youngest children; the drop-off is around the corner.” We also have a cry/feeding room for the moms which has the service on a small CC TV. The Nursery also has a CC TV and the nursery volunteers are encouraged to follow the worship as much as they can. We never have the same workers for both worship services, and we also have a rule that we always have at least two workers on duty and that they will always be women (you might be shocked at how much this simple expedient lowers the possibility of problems with pedophilia in your church.)
Inevitably, there will be people who would prefer that you had no nursery at all, and they may rightly point out that Presbyterian churches prior to the 20th century did not have nurseries and that this is a modern concession that clearly wasn’t in place in the Apostolic church. However, today’s Presbyterian churches are operating in a mostly pagan environment, and if they are effectively reaching their community they will routinely deal with children who have never had to sit still for more than a few minutes in their lives. I have visited homes of new believers (and unbelievers) where the children don’t even sit down for dinner but freely run back and forth between TV, toys, and table. Clearly jumping from essentially wild behavior to over an hour of sitting down for reverent worship in one leap is going to be nearly impossible. There are admittedly also times when small children are particularly mastered by sin, or when a mommy whose husband is away needs help taking care of an infant or toddler. In those moments, the nursery itself becomes an act of mercy on the Sabbath.
On the other hand, some of your parents and attenders will have been raised in churches that have always had “children’s church” and they may strongly advocate that you adopt the same practice. They will indicate that they feel it is very difficult for them to worship while they have to police their children’s behavior or are being distracted by other people’s children. In our own church we have answered these concerns by pointing out that while the Nursery may be a necessary concession, “children’s church” which essentially removes all of the members of the church under a certain age from corporate worship is the unbiblical product of the consumer culture and that it distorts the entire “one body” concept of the church. Regrettably, this has resulted in some families and individuals leaving to attend churches that do have a children’s church. And we also know that some visitors haven’t come back after their first visit because they don’t like having children in worship.
For me, after a decade of preaching in mixed assemblies, taking the children out would make things unnaturally quiet for me. It would be like going into the jungle and all of the bird and animal noises suddenly stopping. “Uh-oh, it’s an ambush!” And so while we do have a lot of ambient child noise (we generally have a little over 80 in worship of which a little under 50% are children) I wouldn’t ever want to give up all the blessings that come from having the children of the church in the worship service. I’ve been enabled to see children growing in grace and their ability to worship in public and had the priceless opportunity to address the children directly in preaching and other aspects of corporate worship. Just their ability to see the sacraments dispensed – something that wouldn’t happen if they were bundled off to another area – is a wonderful aid to their Christian growth and desire to call the God of their Fathers theirs as well.
For more practical advice on how to successfully incorporate your children into the worship service, I would recommend the following excellent little article from the Banner of Truth by Jeremy Walker:
I guess it is kind of silly for me to ‘amen’ the article, since I’m an elder in the same church. But I would add to this a testimony that having children, even young children, in church is a blessing to us and to them. Practically speaking, I believe it teaches them to concentrate, to control themselves, to listen effectively, and is a valuable discipline that will help them later in life. Of course, that is not why we do it, because the greatest blessing is the fact that I know they are sitting under godly preaching, and they cannot help but hear some of it. My oldest, Jill, will sometimes ask me questions about the sermon during the service. Instead of hushing her, I try to answer (in a hushed tone of course) and encourage her to ask more on the way home after the service. She is being exposed to the Gospel again and again.
Incorporating your children into corporate worship is not easy. I think that in order to do it, you really need to practice daily family worship at home, which you should be doing anyway. And if there are any parents reading this blog who wonder how a three or four year old (or even a six or seven year old) can sit still during worship, might I suggest that you turn the TV off? The more TV children are exposed to on a daily basis, the more their minds are conditioned to rapidly changing images and messages, and the harder it will be for them to concentrate for extended periods of time. Though it is funny in it’s own way I suppose, Sponge Bob Square Pants does very little to developing and attention span. And also make sure your children get to bed early before church so they are well rested.
No, our kids are not ‘perfect little angels’ when they are in church. But our four year old does pretty well most of the time, considering her age. and we are beginning to bring our youngest in to sit through more and more of the service. Is it easy? No. But is it important that they be there and partake of the activities of the covenant community? Absolutely! God commands us to bring up our children in the way they should go, and has ordained preaching as the ordinary means by which sinners are brought to faith in Jesus Christ. We should try to allow them to sit under the means of grace as often as possible for the sake of their precious souls.
Thank you very much for taking the time to write this! I’m a RE in a PCA church in Albuquerque that has just gone through a major split in the church over a similar policy. The church has always advocated keeping children in the service but it hasn’t been an issue until the last year when we had an influx of young families after a number of years of having very few young children. Surprisingly the complaints came not from the young families but from the older members who said that the disturbance of having young children in worship was irreverant (even though we had parents go to a cry room if their children started acting up). Regrettably we lost over a third of our membership over this and are just now recovering.
I especially like your “act of mercy” idea as a way of accomodating families that are not ready to keep their children in worship.
I bumped into this blog from the ByfaithOnline path. I never heard this discussed in church in all the 30 years that I Have been a member of the PCA. I did, however, have it modeled by my parents and by families in a then RPCES church, whose school (and often church) we attended. I think that you are right on about working on it at home and if nothing of the kind is, well, it’s not going to happen at church without a lot of tension. We had all our kids sitting through church before their 3rd birthdays (one was a lot closer to that birthday than the rest!), but when we took an unchurched neighbor’s children to church, we were glad for childrens’ church. I was glad you made concessions for what is, but encouragement on how to work through that.
I have written on this same topic several times and appreciate your words and the link to Jeremy Walker’s post. We have practiced non-segregated worship in our church since it’s inception. As an elder in the church, I agree…the absence of kids would be “scary quiet.” I recently finished another article on this topic and could not agree with you more. It requires daily family worship.
I’ve taken a tough stand with families that visit and just love that we allow kids in the service. I tell them that it is more than just sitting through church – if the little ones of the church are to be brought in, it should not just be to sit there. The expectation should be corporate worship (same for teens and adults!) and they should be participating.
I also remind them that grace needs to extend both ways. Let’s patiently tolerate parents that are training their wee ones for worship…but let’s remember that everyone else doesn’t need to hear Junior screaming…
Although we don’t provide Children’s church or even a nursery, we must have a high tolerance for distractions, because we often get visitors returning (willing to try it “one more time”).
All God’s Best,