Recently, my pastor decided to provide a “children’s sermon” each week, right before he preaches to the adults. The format will be familiar to many people. As soon as the pastor is ready to preach, he calls the children up to the front of the church. He sits with them on the steps. He usually has a an object or photo to introduce his topic, and he teaches in childrenspeak while the adults wait. This format and practice are believed by many to be a good way to engage children in worship.
I profoundly disagree.
Many try to say that the whole idea of children in the worship service is a big mistake. Children are noisy and fidgety. They don’t understand what is happening, and they get bored. The only way to hold their attention is to entertain them while they learn something without knowing it. People also complain because noisy children and crying babies interrupt and distract. It is better, they say, to eliminate noise sources so the grown-ups can worship in peace.
I profoundly disagree.
I was glad to read a concurring opinion last week. Speaking of the experience of young children in “big church,” the author wrote,
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.
Guess what. I remember going to church before I understood it, but those memories all come flooding back frequently in my adult life. Those memories are some of the earliest steps I took toward becoming the person I am today.
As a child, when we sang the Doxology, I thought the “heavenly hosts above” were sitting in the balcony. How I wanted to sit in that elevated company! But when I grew up, I came to understand something very different. Now my memories of worship as a child are even richer than before; the images are not changed, but my comprehension has changed.
I remember sermon content from childhood, too. Don’t doubt me. I learned about the beam in my eye and the splinter in someone else’s eye before I could understand it. I learned that people need to forgive each other over and over long before I could comprehend the math of “seventy times seven.” I heard about the Good Samaritan, and the selfish brothers James and John long before I was “old enough” to understand worship. I learned about the wide gate and the narrow gate, and I knew it was about choices, but I had to grow some before I understood how to make wise choices. Because I remember the settings where I first heard these stories, I know I was nine or younger at the time. When I heard or read the stories later, those new experiences built on the old ones. I could sing a lot of hymns by heart when I was nine or ten, so I know I heard them frequently and was attentive enough to get the words at a very young age.
I remember hearing about Zaccheus, too. Not just the Sunday School lesson. I heard the sermon, and I absorbed the truth that meeting Jesus can change someone immediately! I can still see my pastor leaning forward and gesturing toward the congregation. That memory returned when I later heard my Sunbeam teacher tell about Zaccheus.
I vividly remember an Indian pastor telling all of us that the ministry of Jesus was “preaching, teaching, and healing.” His sermon shaped my image of missions and mission work profoundly. I was nine years old at the time.
I have these memories, because my parents took me to church with them. They did not give me coloring books to keep me quiet; they told me to be quiet, and I knew the consequences of disobedience. The other parents did the same, and I saw more than one child temporarily removed from the sanctuary for an education in the etiquette and meaning of worship. My parents told me to bow my head and pray when everyone else did. (I knew about praying, because we did it at home.) They told me to stand up when the other people did, and be respectful of God’s house. I was not to scoot right and left, fall in the floor and climb back up into the seat. I was not to wander in the aisle. Bathroom breaks were taken care of before church. During church, we remained in church, and we behaved appropriately. I did not understand why we needed to be respectful of God, but I did not understand why I needed to be respectful of my parents, either. I learned all those things over time, but my early experiences prepared me for the higher level truths.
I remember wondering as a child how the ushers actually delivered God’s money to him, but I had no doubt that He received it. I remember wondering, when I was very small, if God hid in one of the rooms behind the choir loft to hear our prayers and hymns. In the big picture, I doubt my childish misconceptions were a lot farther from the truth than my adult ones. After all, my efforts at visualizing God suffer from warping by my sinful human nature at any age. However, I believe my parents did the right thing by taking me to “big church,” (a term I never even heard as a child–nobody had imagined a separate church service for children then) and I believe my faith is stronger because of it. My appreciation of and my glad participation in worship as an adult has roots in years of worship experiences that poured over me and around me and through me long before I understood any of it.
When Moses gave his farewell address to the Israelites, he spent some time talking about the importance of educating children while they were still children. Inspired by God, the creator of all things, seen and unseen, Moses told the Israelites to talk with their children about what they had learned in the wilderness. He told them to be talking with those kids morning, noon, and night. They were not to have children’s church, but they were to have Everyday School, conversations between parents and their children about God. Moses said children needed to be part of every worship service.
Children need to be in church. There is no other way for them to absorb the meaning of worship. There is no other way for them to grow up in the faith. Children need to be in church, and they need to recognize that they will need to grow up in order to understand it. That is what it means to grow up. Too many adults today never did grow up in their faith, because nobody let them be exposed to the necessity of growing up. They do not know that growing up is necessary. They still think that God has failed them if they ask for self-serving gain and don’t get it.
If children need the instruction and language of “children’s church,” then they need to receive it in Sunday School. When they go to church, worship is what they should be doing. They will not do it “right” the first time. They may have trouble singing the songs and following the hymnal, but just like the discipline of courtesy to adults and obedience to authority, they will learn to worship. God spoke to Samuel when he was just a child, and even though Samuel did not likely understand what it was all about, he did what God told him to do, and he never forgot the experience. Your children should not be led to think of church as something to tolerate while the grownups do their secret thing with God.