3 Ways to Avoid the "Children's Church" Ditch
The closest I've ever come to breaking a bone was when I was in 9th grade, and it happened, of all places, at church! Some friends and I were in the back parking lot of the church building. We were walking along the fence railing atop the retaining wall. On one side of this railing was a short 4 foot drop to the parking lot; on the other side was a 30 foot plunge to the bottom of a ravine. As my friends and I were walking along the top of this railing, I lost my balance, and couldn't regain control. I realized that I was going to fall into the ravine, and so to control the fall, I jumped with all my might towards a pine tree growing from the ravine. That skinny pine tree didn't keep me from falling, but I was able to control and slow my fall. When I hit the ground far below I had not broken anything, but it sure did hurt!
I share this story because as I think about my time in pastoral ministry, I realize more and more that ministry is very often a balancing act between the ideal and the real. For so many aspects of ministry there is a tension between the ideal that we are taught in seminary and at conferences and then the real-world experience of dealing with contemporary congregations and unchurched neighbors. As far as my recent experience in ministry is concerned, the area in which this balancing act has been most felt is in the area of our ministry to children in the church; namely, what should we do with young children during times of public worship?
I have been a member of, and served in, churches that have fallen off on both sides of the spectrum: On one hand, there is the church with no nursery, no children's church (or worship training) and even the infants are in public worship because (supposedly) that's "what the Bible says." On the other hand, there are the churches where no children under the age of 11 are ever seen in public worship because (supposedly) "they just can't sit still that long;" "kids can't pay attention to a 30 or 40 min. sermon," and "their parents are distracted by them." Like me, most of you have probably rested your ministry somewhere between those two extremes. In other words, you've had to balance without falling to injury! I'd like to share how I've found balance in my ministry between the Biblical ideal of children being under the ministry of the Word in public worship and the practical reality of our cultural perceptions and expectations.
The Biblical Ideal
During my time in seminary, debating with fellow students at coffee shops about "how to do ministry," the issue of what to do with our children during the worship service was absolutely clear. Public Worship is the main activity of the church gathered together, and our children are called to be involved in this vital part of life in God's family (Deut. 31:12-13). During Public Worship our children partake of the means of grace. God establishes and builds up his people through preaching (Rom 10:14) and reading (1 Tim 4:13) of the Bible, the sacraments (Mat 28:19-20), and public prayer (Acts 2:42). Our children benefit from these means, and we should be very cautious about withholding them from our children, especially when Jesus himself calls children into his presence (Luke 18:16). Moreover, our children will have a more robust picture of life as a Christian when they see what Christianity looks like at home and at church--especially when they experience the parts of church life that don't cater to their childish interests. There are aspects of Christianity that are challenging, and it is good for our children to experience such things! Sending our children out of the service under the assumption that "they won't understand" or "get anything out of it" is--if we're honest with ourselves--born out of a selfish desire for a break from them during the service, or out of a misplaced presumption that they have a shallow faith.
The Cultural Reality
While I believe that the Scriptures teach that children should be in Public Worship, there are certain cultural realities which make pastoral faithfulness in this area a complicated balancing act. If a church is to be out-reaching, a worshiping community where believers are built up in the Gospel and non--Christians can come to hear the Gospel, then we must acknowledge that the Biblical ideal for children does not readily mesh with our 21 Century American culture. First, there are very few communities outside of the church which expect young children to sit still and quietly for long periods of time. So when our unchurched neighbors do accept that invitation to come to church, their children have no practice or training for sitting still and being quiet. They almost inevitably will become a distraction to many, including their own parents. In turn, the visiting parents, out of fear or embarrassment, spend their time tending to their children in their foreign setting instead of sitting attentively under the means of grace. This dynamic usually ends up extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing for the visiting parents who then do not return. Would it not have been better for all involved for the children to have been in a worship training class outside of the service?
Additionally, Shepherding young children through a worship service is a two-person job. Yet, increasingly in our culture, there is a prominence of single parents. Are we loving them well by having no options to help them with their young children in worship, and yet expecting their family to function as a "churched" two-parent family would? What about the married couple where one spouse adamantly refuses to go to church when the other wants to? How do we help them experience and hear the Gospel? I personally know of a fine Christian woman, a friend of mine, whose husband was so busy running his business, that he was never home during daylight--seven days a week. She was not a Christian, but she started attending our church because she found out that she could get free childcare if she would only attend worship. So she sat under the preaching of the Word for months, just to get childcare, and God used that providence to draw her to Himself. Having a place for her kids to go while she was in church was the key to her confessing faith in Christ!
Third, as we are called to reach people in our specific context, we must acknowledge that as more and more people are delaying, or even foregoing, traditional marriage (in favor of living together unwed) this results in less couples having children. There is less exposure to children in public settings in our day. As a result, I've noticed that there is increasing intolerance for other people's children. Whereas in the past, unruly children could be endured, there are increasing numbers of adults who simply cannot deal with even the slightest child-caused distraction. We see this in the way in which Airlines are now responding to the frustration of passengers' to children on flights. I used to consider irritation with children as a byproduct of being an immature and selfish adult, but have come to realize that they are a product of their culture. If we are to reach men and women in the atmosphere of our culture, we must think outside the box--in a non-sinful way--in order to meet them with the Gospel. As they come to know Jesus, the goal is to bring them to a place where they too joyfully respond to the Savior's command to "Let the little children come to me!" Until then, having the children in a worship training time outside of the service, though not ideal, can be a great help to both the visiting parents and children.
The issue of children in the worship service is a balancing act. The simplistic answers that sound so straightforward in seminary or at the coffee shop often get extremely complicated when there are actual people in the equation! What follows is my attempt--flawed though it may be--to be faithful to the clear Biblical teaching on our children as part of the worshiping community and the clear command to reach people with the Gospel in the specific contexts in which they live. There are certainly other ways, but this has worked well in the church in which I serve.
1. Define the Ages of Nursery: We offer nursery during worship from birth through 3 years old. After that, the children are expected to come to worship. We are flexible on an individual basis. For instance, there might be a case where a 4 or 5 year old needs to be in the nursery because a visiting family expected it and did not know until they came that 3 years old was the cut off. The parents in our congregation know this, and so they can begin preparing their children even though they know that the nursery will still be available if needed.
2. Offer, but do not mandate, a defined children's worship training time during the sermon: I know that I just lost all of the rigid old school Presbyterians, but the rest of you, please hear (read?) me out. We currently have printed in the order of worship before the sermon that "children ages 3-5k are dismissed, if desired, to children's worship training." (Full disclosure: I have never said these words aloud in the service. My convictions will not let me.) There is no mandate for all children to vacate, nor is there the unfortunate practice of having no one under 12 left to hear the sermon! Those who feel as though they want or need such a training time for their children can make use of it. In addition, they are being dismissed to worship training! It is not craft time or nap time; it is a focused time of age-appropriate teaching, singing, and interaction.
3. Be self-consciously and purposefully child friendly in Worship, especially the sermon: I believe this area is were the "anti-children out of worship" people, with whom I have great sympathies, drop the ball. It is not enough to mandate, by pastoral or Sessional fiat, the end of children's worship training and the presence of everyone over 3 in the entire service. If we want to have all the children in our worship services, we must make it accessible--even desirable--for young children to be in the service instead of children's church. We must help our congregation to be welcoming and thankful for the presence of children--rather than being bothered by them. The pastor must be the cheerleader for children from the pulpit. Diffuse the irritation of the noise of a crying or complaining child from the pulpit! (A well placed, "Isn't is great to have the sounds of young children in worship!" from the pulpit always relaxes many a furrowed brow and embarrassed parent.) Let the congregation know that the leadership wants, and even cherishes, the little children in public worship.
Even more important than diffusing distractions is the practice of teaching the children from the pulpit! Address them from the pulpit! There is a rich history of robustly Reformed pastors addressing the "Boys and Girls" on their level in the sermon.
Another helpful practice may be to better equip the children in our congregation. I seek to provide the children with their own Order of Worship with one sentence explanations for the various elements of worship, together with a place to ask me or their parents questions. In addition, I provide a children's translation of the passage to be preached. (If it is a long narrative passage then I only provide an outline.) I am not one of those gifted pastor-linguists. I can do the Greek and Hebrew, but I have to work harder than most at the Greek and Hebrew. Yet, I have found that after I have done faithful exegesis, it only requires another hour or an hour and a half to produce a children's translation. I then use that work for the benefit of the entire congregation. I interweave the children's translation into the sermon for everyone present, and then I address the children directly at many points in the sermon, scanning the congregation to make eye-contact with children. It makes an enormous difference! The children sit up and hold eye-contact (unlike adults who look away!), I always see several adults using the children's bulletin, and many an adult has even confessed to perking up and paying attention whenever I address the children "because I know I'll understand what you are teaching."
Such sentiments from the adults brings up another aspect of being a child-friendly church. As our culture becomes more and more post-Christian, as we have more and more people who know nothing about the Bible or Christianity, we are having increasingly to repeatedly cover all the basics. Taking the time to speak clearly to children at various times in preaching also speaks directly to the unchurched without them feeling patronized. They are, so to speak, coming to know the God of the Bible and his Son Jesus Christ as being spiritually little children!
I am sure that that I could do things better and I am sure that there are other pastors out there doing it better. What I've sought to set out above is my feeble attempt to balance our Lord's clear welcoming of children with the reality that our cultural moment requires nuance on the place of young children in worship. May the Lord give us grace to seek to obey all that He commands us in the Scriptures--both regarding the nurture and training of our children in worship and the call to be sensitive to cultural norms for the sake of mission.