Sunday, April 28, 2013

Children, All

What with shrinking church membership these days, I wonder when we’re going to re-think the place of children in worship.

Most of the time children are often viewed as problems, special creatures that have to be dealt with in some extraordinary fashion in order to have a service of worship “work” for everyone in attendance. What shall we do with the children? And then we come up with a list of possible “answers” and hope something pans out.

First of all I feel obligated, in accord with “truth in blogging” requirements, to fess up that I have aided and abetted those who have pursued such policies that I’m about rant about. In some cases, I even thought they were fairly good ideas, at least in want of any better ones. I’ve learned a few things through the years, however, so now I rant.

One common solution to the puzzle of the presence of children in church is to get them out of there before the really adult part of the service. So, children arrive with mom and dad, and sing a hymn and say a prayer and then they are on their way. This is done, of course, under the pretense of doing something nice for the children, relieving them of the tedious sermon and setting them free for more fun endeavors. We all know that, even if there is a drop of truth in that, there’s a whole bucket full in the fact that it’s just as often for the convenience and quiet of adults.

I’ve always felt it strange that, in many places, before the children are dismissed to go where it’s educational and age-appropriate for them, they are subjected to a “children’s sermon”. By my observation, those things rarely qualify as anything children crave or take delight in. Usually the kids are put on stage and provide entertainment for the grown-ups in the room.

There are congregations that welcome back the previously discharged children, just in time for them to come to the Lord’s Table and take part in the Eucharist. That’s a laudable policy, to have children come to the table with the rest of the church family. The problem comes when they have been away while Scripture has been read and the Gospel proclaimed. For the little people, then, Communion has no liturgical foundation because the link of Word and Sacrament is broken.

Another way out of the children-at-worship dilemma is to keep them there the whole time, but treat them as second-rate congregants. Again the “children’s sermon” is employed, a mini-message for minor Christians.

But this approach to children doesn’t work, and shouldn’t. Children may be small people, but they are people nevertheless, no less important than any of the other people. Condescension is another word for insult, and when we stoop and dumb down to children, they can see it as the disrespect that it is.

For example, coloring books in the pew racks should be recycled and made into something useful. All such entertaining distractions to keep little minds occupied are designed to keep them out of the way, and an affront to any child’s dignity.

I recall a committee conversation some years ago with an esteemed Presbyterian church historian about the appropriateness of children receiving Communion. He proclaimed that, historically, this would not be acceptable because “children do not understand what happens in the Lord’s Supper.” When he was challenged as to whether or not he really understood the Eucharist, he admitted, “Well, no—it’s a mystery.” The committee member replied, “Children know it’s a mystery too.” We need to recognize that even small children have an intuitive understanding of what they experience in a church service.

What is more, children are curious, absorbing all sorts of data around them, learning constantly. The best way, it should go without saying, for children to learn how to worship is for them to worship, and the best arena is in the Sunday morning service.. They belong there for the whole time, certainly if they are of school age. There they can sit next to parents or other adults who will point the way through the order and whisper information that gives meaning to the new experience.

That’s not the only education growing Christians need, of course, but it is the rock foundation. We’re all God’s children, after all, whatever our age, and we never outgrow the need for the cultivation and increase of our faith.

Do children worship with adults on Sunday in your church? If not, what other arrangement do you have? Why?


  1. Thank you so much for this thoughtful commentary, Pastor Stark. Our UCC church is currently wrestling with this very topic. We are blessed with lots of kids, but we have the additional challenge of having a number of kids with autism or developmental disabilties who have a hard time restraining themselves during worship. While the occasional bursting into song and dance (and nonsense comments) doesn't bother many of us, there are others who have actually left the congregation, or are currently threatening to leave, because the children "won't behave." Your message reinforces my belief that our message that we will accept you "no matter where you are on God's journey" applies not just to adults. Blessings. - Linda

  2. The gifted church educator, Carolyn Brown, has a wonderful blog of creative worship ideas for children:

  3. Here is a great resource from “Reformed Liturgy and Music” that is a timeless one to share with parents and grandparents, we have it posted on our church web site:

  4. A hymn-prayer:

    Welcoming God
    ASSURANCE ("Blessed Assurance, Jesus Is Mine!")

    Children are welcome, Christ said one day,
    When the disciples just urged them away.
    Children are welcome at Jesus' knee:
    God's own examples for ministry.
    Welcoming God, you open the Way;
    Even the smallest worship and pray,
    Singing with faith and serving you well,
    Your life to know and good news to tell...

  5. Presbyterian Teaching on Children and Worship

    Here is what our PCUSA's constitution, our Book of Order's Directory for Worship has to say about children and worship

    W-3.1004 Children in Worship
    Children bring special gifts to worship and grow in the faith through their regular inclusion and participation in the worship of the congregation. Those responsible for planning and leading the participation of children in worship should consider the children’s level of understanding and ability to respond, and should avoid both excessive formality and condescension. The session should ensure that regular programs of the church do not prevent children’s full participation with the whole congregation in worship, in Word and Sacrament, on the Lord’s Day.

    W-3.3201 Setting an Order for Worship
    In setting an order for worship on the Lord’s Day, the pastor with the concurrence of the session shall provide opportunity for the people from youngest to oldest to participate in a worthy offering of praise to God and for them to hear and to respond to God’s Word.

    W-6.2001 Entering the Community
    The Christian community provides nurture for its members through all of life and life’s transitions. The church offers nurture to those entering the community of faith...,
    b. including them in the life of the community,
    c. welcoming them to participate in its worship and to come to the Lord’s Table,...

    W-6.2006 Resources and Occasions for Nurture
    The primary standard and resource for the nurture of the church is the Word of God in Scripture. The central occasion for nurture in the church is the Service for the Lord’s Day, when the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments are celebrated. All members of the community, from oldest to youngest, are encouraged to be present and to participate. Educational activities should not be scheduled which prevent regular participation in this service. An important and continuing context for Christian nurture is the home, where faith is shared through worship, teaching, and example.

  6. I am your contemporary. I graduated from seminary in 1964 and I believe I was radicalized by the whole social upheaval. I always preferred having the children in the worship service and sometimes giving leadership. If the children are getting bored, what about the older people? Are they just too polite to make a fuss? HM


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