Keeping Children in the Worship Service

On September 2nd, 2018 we made a change to what our worship service looks like at ECC. Rather than being dismissed before the sermon along with the toddlers and preschoolers, our elementary students (grades 1-5) continued participating in the worship service with the rest of the congregation.

Of course there is a tremendous benefit in age-specific education. This is why our toddlers (2-3), preschoolers (4-5), and elementary students (grades 1-5) are going through The Gospel Project curriculum together (on their own level) either in their Sunday Classes or during the Kids Church portion of our Sunday morning service. We want them to be working through the Scriptures, seeing Jesus on every page, and becoming gospel-fluent. However, there are several reasons for keeping our elementary students in the worship service in its entirety. The long-term benefits and blessings of  having our children present in the worship service are well worth the temporary struggles that accompany such a decision.

The Pattern and Power of Scripture

First, the pattern of Scripture also supports keeping kids in the service. In the OT, children were included in the corporate worship of the covenant community to hear the word of the Lord (Ex. 12:24-27; Deut. 31:9-13; Josh. 8:30-35; Neh. 8:1-8ff.; 12:43). The reason? Deuteronomy 31:12 “…that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law.” Then, in Acts 2:39 Peter proclaims that the promise of forgiveness of sins through repentance and faith, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.

Second, in the letters written to the Ephesian and Colossian churches, Paul addresses wives and husbands, parents and children, bondservants and masters (Eph 6:1-9; Col 3:18-4:2). This suggests that children in churches under the New Covenant were present in the congregations where these letters were being read (cf. Col 4:16)!

Third, if we truly believe that God’s word is inspired, sufficient, and active, that the gospel is the power of God for salvation, that the Holy Spirit works through the word to bring illumination, conviction, and repentance, then we must pray that the Word of God will reach the hearts of our children in ways that they may not even recognize. Yes, they may be thinking, reasoning, speaking, and acting like children in the service. But as Albert Mohler reminds us, “the Word of God can reach where we cannot go”.

The Formative Power of the Worship Service

Parents are to be the primary disciple-makers of their children (Deut. 6:4-9; Ps. 78:5-7; Prov. 22:6; Eph. 6:4). The corporate worship service—where God’s word is publicly read, sung, prayed, preached, and seen in the sacraments—is a powerful and formative tool for discipling our children. It’s a time where they can learn through observation and imitation. Sitting through a worship service teaches them how to worship by listening to God’s Word read and preached. The content of the prayers, songs, sermon also gives parents an opportunity to teach their children; they can help them follow along, and afterwards ask questions and explain things to them.

Parents, we have the great responsibility (and opportunity!) to teach to our children, by our own example, the meaning and value of worship—not just personal/private, but corporate. If you don’t value and prioritize corporate worship, don’t be surprised if your kids don’t either.  John Piper explains:

The greatest stumbling block for children in worship is parents who don’t cherish doing that worship, [who] don’t love it. Children can feel the difference between duty and delight. They know if dad [or mom or grandma] loves being here. The aim is that the children catch the passion for worshiping God by watching mom and dad enjoy God week after week.

Our kids should want to be in church because they see that their parents want to be there. Imagine the cumulative effect on a child who sees his parents praying fervently, confessing their sins, singing joyfully, reading the Word reverently, listening to the sermon intently, and partaking of the Lord’s Supper week after week, year after year!

Raising Generations Today

Children also benefit from being in the presence of Christians of various ages because they are able to see that the faith of their parents is not a faith that they own alone; they see a faith that is important to all of the people gathered around them on Sunday morning. Keeping kids in the worship service helps cultivate inter-generational discipleship. When our children see this incredibly diverse gathering of people reading the Word, praying, confessing, and singing together it reinforces what Mom and Dad are modeling and teaching at home. It gives them a taste of the eternal—God’s saints celebrating him together. Jason Helopoulos puts it this way:

[They] must see, know, and learn that the singing of the great hymns of the faith, the preaching of the Word, reading of confessions, corporate prayers, etc. is anything but boring. It is the gathered life of the community of faith. It is our weekly rhythm—appointed by God, designed by Him, established for the ages—this is what we want them to know, because we want them to know and worship Him.

If our children grow up, from 4-18, totally separated from the church of their parents and grandparents, in their own “church”, which constantly caters to their age, desires, and interests, it shouldn’t surprise us to see these children grow up feeling disconnected from church, bored with church, and ill-equipped to become active members of a church when they are on their own. We want our kids to know that they are a part of the church as well.

Common Objections and Questions

One common objection is: “They won’t understand it! It’ll be over their heads!” But listen to how Piper responds to it:

Of course, it is over their head. It is supposed to be over their head! They are beginners. The English language is over their head as soon as they come out of the womb. But we don’t say: Well, let’s put them with other children in their own situations and limitations so they can understand a word or two. No. We immerse them in the English language every day—that they don’t understand 90% of—in the hope and expectation that they grow up into joyful use of the English language. Long before children understand fully what is going on in worship and what is sung and what is said, they are absorbing tremendous amounts of what is valuable.

Of course, there are some children who, for various reasons, will still struggle to sit through the worship service. And if you need to take your child out of the service to get some energy out, be talked to or disciplined, feel free to do so, but please come back in! We also have resources available at our kids’ check-in stations for young children to use during the service to help them follow along (i.e., pictures for coloring, paper for note-taking…and doodling). 

Parents, Prepare Your Children for Worship

Much of the success of this change will depend on our parents. Despite the common objections, we believe that there are several things parents can do to help prepare their children for corporate worship on Sunday Morning. In fact, preparation for the service can take place all week long.  These include:

  1. Worship with your family throughout the week. Set aside time during the week to sing, pray, read the Scriptures. Family worship not only helps you disciple your children, but it also helps Sunday mornings not be such a shock to their systems.
  2. Start preparing Saturday night. Ensure that your family gets plenty of rest the night before in order to have enough time Sunday morning to prepare and arrive on time for church.
  3. Arrive early enough to get drinks, use the bathroom, and accomplish other tasks before the service. This can help to limit the amount of trips in and out of the sanctuary.
  4. Worship with your children. Encourage them to read along, sing along, take notes, listen carefully. Helping them learn at a young to listen well, sit still, and pay attention will serve them far beyond two hours on a Sunday morning.
  5. If necessary, provide them with “quiet” activities, such as crayons or pencils for coloring and taking notes.

For more suggestions and tips, Noël Piper and Jeremy Walker have both written excellent and practical suggestions for helping your kids sit through “big church”.

Let the Children Come

We know that this transition is not going to be an easy one. It’s going to take work and patience. But we strongly believe that the long-term benefits outweigh the additional noise and fidgeting. As we make this change, let’s pray earnestly for the children in our church. Let’s pray that they listen, learn, and come to embrace the gospel. Let’s help parents with noisy children by not giving their kids more attention than they need. May we be patient, bearing with one another (Eph 4:2; Col 3:13), and may we set example for the kids in our service who are watching and learning from us.

Children are a blessing from God and a gift to the church. Yes, it’s a noisy gift; it’s a squirming and fidgeting gift; it’s a messy gift; but it is a beautiful gift. Children are serve as a visual reminder of those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs. Our Lord welcomed them with open arms, and we should do likewise.

For a helpful book on this subject, check out Let the Children Worshipby Jason Helopoulos

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Pitting the Spirit and the Word of God against each other is pure sophistry that creates a false dichotomy and unnecessary division between believers.