Let the Little Children Come to Me: A Sanctuary for Children
Sunday mornings have become one of the most segregated days of the week for Christian families as churches divide up their worship services according to age demographics and musical preferences (i.e., contemporary, traditional, emergent, etc.). If this were not enough, many also add “children’s church” to the mix, so that parents can drop off their sons and daughters for an “age appropriate worship experience” with the benefit of being able to focus without childish distractions in the sanctuary. While well-intentioned, I believe having a separate liturgy for children—which often amounts to singing a few dumb downed praise songs followed by Bible coloring—to be an ill-conceived lesson in parental and pastoral neglect. Our sanctuaries should not be kept away from children because the sanctuary is the best place for children.
The Liturgy as Baptismal Birth Rite
Bringing a child to church is often an exercise in aggravation. But then again, so are many other facets of parenting and the rewards are well worth the effort. I know! I raised two very talkative daughters in the church. Children giggle, cry, and throw tantrums; and yes, they often have to go to the bathroom, or annoyingly swing their legs until they hit the back of the pew. But they also sing, pray and learn like the rest of the family. While we do not want our children to be disruptive or hamper good order, we must always remember that baptized children are members of the church. As Jesus reminded his disciples:
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:16).
Children should be among the worshipping community of the redeemed. It is their baptismal birth rite as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. They won’t participate as mature adults, but we shouldn’t expect them to. Nevertheless, they are growing in wisdom and understanding as they take their place alongside their fathers, mothers, and siblings.
Young children will have their bad moments in the service, which may require some parental discipline, but our satisfaction as parents (and for me as a pastor), comes a few years later when we see them stand in the midst of the church confessing a faith of their own. Such a confession was nurtured in the liturgy as they learned the same prayers, creeds, readings, and hymns as their parents and generations before them. Keeping children in the sanctuary reinforces the timeless and multi-generational nature of the holy faith.
In a culture that promotes self-interest, children in church learn that something much bigger and more important than themselves is going on in their midst. The kingdom of God is being established, and they should know that they belong to it.
Worship: A Family Vocation
I know that your three-year-old son is not going to sit still and listen attentively to my carefully crafted homily. Your seven-year-old daughter may not be able to read well enough to follow along to the opening hymn. Your son or daughter may even complain that church is…wait for it…boring! So what?
I also know the beauty of seeing that same three-year-old say the Lord’s Prayer because he has heard it prayed at church and home since infancy. I know the joy of hearing that seven-year-old sing, “Children of the Heavenly Father,” at the top of her little voice. God’s Word is living and active, and the Holy Spirit is at work even in the lives of our children.
If you are a father or mother, then God has gifted you with the vocation to raise your children in the things of God, including worship. Don’t hand off this precious responsibility to a kind church volunteer. I know it means a few years of being distracted or sitting near the exit or the back pew, or from time to time getting the stink eye from an unsympathetic senior parishioner. Again…so what?!? Your child is as much a part of the church as anyone else, including yourself and that unsympathetic senior.
If you are a parent of a young child in church, here are some pointers from one who has been there and done that:
1. Speak to your children as they grow about your expectations for their behavior during the service. Teach them not only what to do, but why we do it. If you’re not sure, then ask your pastor.
2. Your children should know the consequences of bad behavior in advance. Whatever form of discipline you use, use it consistently. If your child throws a tantrum during the service, take them out of the sanctuary quickly to a quiet place and deal with the situation. Once resolved, bring them right back into the service. Rinse. Repeat. As many times as necessary. And know that your parental, “Shhhh!” is often louder than your child’s cry. To summarize my friend Jeff’s approach, “My children quickly learned that it was a lot more fun to be quiet and respectful in the pew than it was to be taken out to the narthex.”
3. Bring soft toys and coloring books with an emphasis on the word soft. They’re not going to maintain interest for the complete service, however, pick a part of the service on your drive to church and tell them that you want them to sing or pray or listen attentively to that particular part of the liturgy. As your child grows, expand that to multiple portions of the liturgy until they are completely engaged. There is a lot of physical movement in the liturgy, so have them sit, stand, and kneel with you during the service. Otherwise, let them draw, play quietly, etc. You’ll be surprised how much they learn and observe when you think they’re just playing.
4. Take the liturgy home. Children quickly learn the difference between duty and delight, so if parents want to impart the faith, they must know and cherish it themselves. This begins in the home. Use the Lord’s Prayer or sing one of the songs like the Agnus Dei or the Doxology before dinner or bedtime. I often see young children coloring until a portion of the liturgy that they know by heart comes along and they immediately join in because they learned it at home. Young children take pride in being able to participate with their older siblings and parents when they can do so.
5. After the service, ask your children questions about it. What was their favorite hymn today? What reading or story did they hear? What stood out in the sermon to them? In other words, engage your children as intelligent disciples that are growing in the things of God. Ideally, your pastor will address the children in his sermon, since they too are members of God’s household.
Armed with the Gospel as Adults
Many Evangelical youths, including Lutherans, have moved from felt-back Moses nurseries to pizza parties and lakeside summer camps but have never been given the privilege of witnessing the Gospel for every season of life (from font to funeral) alongside babies and blue-haired seniors. In an attempt to meet their supposed childhood needs, the Bible and worship were dumbed down, leaving many college-bound students unarmed and unable to defend the faith in which they were allegedly reared.
When an atheist or agnostic professor actually engages and treats our sons or daughters as an intelligent adult—challenging their often naïve understanding of Christianity—it is no wonder so many have jettisoned the faith. If all they learned in their age-appropriate worship setting was simple morality (do this/don’t do that), as is often the case, then they quickly learn that the world is full of nice moral people, and most of them don’t even confess Christ crucified.
As Marc Yoder put it, “Don’t let another kid walk out the door without being confronted with the full weight of the law, and the full freedom of the Gospel.” There is no better place for such a beautiful confrontation to occur than in the liturgy with mom and dad where Christ has promised to be present to forgive sinners with his Word and Sacraments.
Brian William Thomas is a writer-in-residence and pastor at Grace Lutheran Church in San Diego, CA. His writing focuses on confessional Lutheranism in a post-Christian culture and reclaiming ancient pastoral practices for present day service.
What are the differences between Lutherans and Calvinists, and do they really matter? In Wittenberg vs. Geneva, Brian Thomas provides a biblical defense of the key doctrines that have divided the Lutheran and Reformed traditions for nearly five centuries.