Children in Worship

An article yesterday over at Reformation 21 on family-integrated worship caught my eye. I enjoyed the historical peek at a time period in Scotland when the church was wrestling over having children in worship. Though Dr. Denlinger is not speaking against family-integrated worship per se, he is sounding a note of caution to advocates who assume that the church has always welcomed children in the sanctuary until modern times. As an added humorous bonus, he also linked to this Lutheran Satire video on the subject which I had not seen.

Just as the questions of whether children should be baptized or should come to the Lord’s Table are often matters of discussion in pastoral theology, so too is the subject of children in worship. As I worked through a position paper a number of years ago on this issue, I thought I would republish it here for any help it might give to others. Please note that I write this as a Presbyterian pastor, so my views of the covenant sign of baptism greatly impact my understanding of this subject.

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Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

An increasingly common practice found in the evangelical church is that either prior to the worship service or at some point during it, the children of those assembled are removed to another part of the building to participate in activities separate from the ones in which their parents are engaged. Often deemed “Children’s Church,” “Young People’s Worship,” or simply “Youth Activities,” the children of the congregation are offered fare that is supposed to be “more on their level.” Youth leaders use a wide array of activities, games, visual stimuli, and dramatic portrayals to hold the young people’s attention and seek to instruct them in the faith.

Often the explanation for this practice is that the children cannot comprehend what is taking place in the worship service, and that the adults need time to concentrate on the service without the distraction of children’s needs. Yet in response to this movement the following questions are raised: “What is the will of the Lord for the children of the church? Does the Lord of the church desire the children to be present in the worship assembly?”  Questions such as these can be answered with three Biblical truths.

The Lord Views the Children of Believers as Heirs of the Kingdom of God

One of the underlying reasons for this practice of separating the children from their worshiping parents is not believing that the Lord regards the children of believers as rightfully belonging to the visible church. That children of believing parents are to be considered as members of the covenant community has been the case throughout the ages. When God first began to reveal the gospel through Abraham, who is not only to be recognized as the father of Old Testament Israel but the father of the New Testament Church as well (please see Galatians 3:6-9), he included the children of Abraham in all his promises to him.

These promises, the highlight of which was the removal of sin and the restoration of life with God, were received by faith and were to be symbolized with the rite of circumcision. The Lord gave the promises not only to Abraham but to his children, and thus he commanded that the sign of these promises be placed not only upon Abraham but also his children.

I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your descendants after you…This is My covenant which you will keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Genesis 17:7,10).

Circumcision was to teach Israel that only through the blood and pain of a male descendant of Abraham would the filth of their sin be removed. Literally dozens and dozens of Scriptural references could be given regarding God’s promises to the children regarding this truth. Let this quotation from Deuteronomy 30:6 suffice, “Moreover the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul, so that you may live.”

These promises made to Abraham and Israel came to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. As the One who removed our defilement at Calvary by being made our circumcision (II Corinthians 5:21; Colossians 2:11), all the promises of God have become, as the Apostle Paul tells us, “Yes” in Christ (II Corinthians 1:20). The church of the New Testament, consisting of both Jew and Gentile, has become the New Israel, the spiritual descendants of Abraham (Romans 4:9-12). One of those glorious promises God has made through Abraham to us is that the children of believers in the New Testament age are then regarded as heirs of the covenant God made in Christ. As Peter preached the gospel at Pentecost and urged the listeners on toward faith and repentance, baptism, and the reception of the Spirit, he declared to them, “For the promise is for you and your children and and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself” (Acts 2:39).

Consequently, in Christ the sign of the promise was transformed and applied to the children of believers. The cleansing waters of baptism replaced the bloody rite of circumcision for, as the Apostle Paul states, “in Him you also were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, in the removal of the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with Him in baptism…” (Colossians 2:11-12). That baptism was applied to both believers and their families then should be expected and demonstrated in the New Testament, which is seen in the household baptisms that are recorded (Acts 16:15, 31-34; I Corinthians 1:16). As baptism signifies entrance into the body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:13), the children of the church are to be viewed as members of the church and heirs of the promises of God.

When Abraham looked at the stars as God commanded him and believed that his descendants would number as such, the Bible declares that God was preaching to him the gospel (Galatians 3:9) and granting Abraham righteousness by his faith in this promise (Genesis 15:6). The glorious promise, like a lost treasure the modern church is yet to rediscover, is that the Lord desires to shed his grace down into the generations of those who love and follow Him. How this wonderful good news should capture the heart and imagination of every local congregation! “The lovingkindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to the children’s children, to those who keep His covenant and remember His precepts to do them” (Psalm 103:17-18). Thus, with respect to the church gathering for worship on the Lord’s Day, the proclamation of this wonderful news and the desire to pass the gospel of Christ down to the next generation should be a central reason for the church’s assembly. The church should labor and anticipate that the children unto many generations – indeed unto a thousand! – would be blessed of God by being regenerated in His timing so they too can trust in the Lord (Isaiah 65:23; Deuteronomy 7:9).

This then speaks directly to the issue at hand and leads us to the next truth regarding our covenant children.

The Lord Commands the Children of the Church to Worship Him

If God did not expect our children to participate in worship and share in the means of grace, then we would expect that when he addresses the worship assembly he would not command the children to worship. Yet this is exactly the opposite of what we find in Scripture. Many passages we use to call the congregation to worship speak to the young as well as the old. For instance:

O fear the Lord, you His saints; for to those who fear Him there is no want. The young lions do lack and suffer hunger; but they who seek the Lord shall not be in want of any good thing. Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” (Psalm 34:9-11).

Praise the Lord from the earth,…Kings of the earth and all peoples; princes and judges of the earth; Both young men and virgins, old men and children. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for His name alone is to be exalted…” (Psalm 148:7-13).

Praise the Lord! Sing to the Lord a new song, and His praise in the congregation of the godly ones. Let Israel be glad in his Maker; let the sons of Zion rejoice in their King” (Psalm 149:1-2).

The Lord of the church expects the youth of the congregation to be found among the assembled, as sons and daughters of the King, eager to rejoice and praise his glorious name.

The New Testament epistles testify to the expectation that children were to be found among those assembled. The Apostle Paul in the book of Ephesians directly addresses the children following exhortations to their parents. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. Honor your father and mother (which is the first commandment with a promise), so that it may be well with you, and you may live long on the earth” (Ephesians 6:1-3; see also Colossians 3:20). Since these epistles were to be read to the assembled congregation, it is apparent that children were included in the gatherings of the early church. This would also mean that the other aspects of apostolic instruction that preceded or followed the specific directions to the children were for them to learn as well.

If the truth be known, often the leaders of the modern church do not want the children to be there because, like at a stage production, their cries and noises will ruin their carefully crafted “shows” for the audience. Nothing like a baby screaming to ruin a good solo. But the church is not an audience, and worship is not a show. Rather, the church is the household of faith where the family of God gathers, including its youngest members, to sit and learn at the feet of Christ, and to rise as one to praise his holy name. As heirs of the kingdom of God, the children should be found learning and worshiping right alongside the rest of us.

To those in church leadership or others who would think that their worship assemblies are not really the place for children, or have the misconception that Christ does not really care if the children are there or not, we would remind them of a story in the gospel. Recall the reaction of the disciples, and then the strong words of Christ, when some parents wanted Jesus to bless their children. When the disciples saw these parents trying to bring their young children to Jesus, and saw some of them even bringing babies, they tried to stop them. “Jesus cannot be bothered with unimportant things like children! Those crying babies will drown out the message!” they protested. But Jesus saw the faith of the parents, he saw heirs of the kingdom, and so he rebuked his sincere but blind disciples with these words, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Christ bids them come. They belong in his presence. The kingdom belongs to such as them. When the church is gathered around the throne of Jesus in worship, do we really think he wants us to do so without the children there?

The Lord Expects the Church to Carefully Nurture His Lambs

Having hopefully convinced you of the importance of including our children in the worship of God, a final important truth to help in the application of this practice must be noted. Children are, well, children, and as such must be nurtured along in the worship of God. They cannot be expected to behave appropriately, give proper devotion, and receive God’s blessings without proper instruction. We are warned by the Lord to not put stumbling blocks in front of our little ones (Matthew 18:1-6), so it would be prudent to give some further instruction on how to best aid the lambs in Christ’s flock.

To the parents: As parents of a covenant child, you must view your child as a gift of God to be trained in the way he should go (Psalm 127:5; Deuteronomy 6:5; Proverbs 22:6). If you want your child to worship the Lord on Sunday, then you must train him by worshiping God with him the other days of the week as well. If possible, it starts while they are nursing babes – praying and reading the word of God while you hold them in arms. As your child learns to sing, pray, and listen to Scripture around the table after a meal or beside the bed in your home before bedtime, he will then grow to love coming to church and doing the same with other friends in a more formal setting.

You must also constantly remind him of his baptism. The Triune name of God is written upon his heart and life (Isaiah 44:1-5; Matthew 28:19-20), so that when he comes before God in worship he comes knowing he belongs to Christ. You must also press upon him as he enters young adulthood the need to profess publicly his faith in Christ, bear the marks of true Christianity, and seek communicant membership in the church, to show he has received the inheritance of God’s kingdom.

Finally, never let the public worship of God be a safe haven for disobedience (“Mom and Dad won’t discipline me here because they would be too embarrassed.”). Take misbehaving children out of the assembly and correct them so they learn that God expects their fear and obedience at all times, especially in his presence.

To the church: If you are in church leadership, may you not find the removal of covenant blessings by God if you view children as a bother rather than the blessing and joy that they are? If you regularly separate the children from God and their families, will not the children grow up feeling that separation and living it out? Might not this be contributing to the ill fruit we witness today, such as the disillusionment of youth with the church, the disrespect among youth for the elderly, and the large numbers of young adults who are forsaking the faith?

The church should work at promoting an environment in worship where the whole people of God are brought together as one. Pastors should make sure that the elements of the service can be understood by young and old alike. They should regularly address the children before a song, through an object lesson, or in the midst of the sermon to remind the children the truths of God are for them.

Also, the church is a body, and members should seek to serve those with young children. Members should provide help to young mothers, a nursery or crying room for the very young or the disobedient or the children of visitors, and patience and understanding when a child is unruly in a service. The congregation should be diligent in seeing that the children are included and cared for in every way in the worship assembly.

Is not the last promise of the Old Covenant and one of the first of the New that the Lord would “restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers?” (Malachi 4:6; Luke 1:17). One way this can be realized is having young and old – grandparents, parents and children – seeking the Lord together in worship. Sadly, the church has fallen away from this glorious vision, and the last threat of the Old Testament has come true as seen in the lost children of our present generation. “I will come and smite the land with a curse,” the Lord threatened in the last verse of Malachi. Do not all blessings and curses originate in whether we are worshiping God faithfully or not? May we seek the Lord and follow his will for the children of the kingdom, that his blessings may be restored to us again.

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5 Comments

  1. Derek Vester February 25, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    Thanks for all that you write on here. The RP church has been a true blessing to my wife and I. I do have one question (that I will bring up on here at least). You said this: “One of the underlying reasons for this practice of separating the children from their worshiping parents is not believing that the Lord regards the children of believers as rightfully belonging to the visible church.” Is this something you assume is an underlying reason or do you have sources to support this claim from credobaptists? I really enjoy the 3GT podcast by the way.

    • gentlereformation February 25, 2016 at 2:29 pm #

      Derek,

      Thanks for your note, and I’m glad the blog and podcast are encouraging to you.

      Good question about that sentence. I certainly do not have sources from credobaptists to support my statement. Rather, it comes from observation.

      My pastoral experience would have me broadly associate removing children from worship with those who are in evangelical, baptistic churches.

      However, I believe there are doctrinal beliefs underlying that phenomenon. Theologically, it would seem to follow that if children are not viewed as truly part of the visible church, there would be less emphasis on having them in the assembly of worship and more emphasis in gathering them in an environment where they are being evangelized. This is quite typically the format of the children church model.

      Viewing the children as heirs of the kingdom needing to be evangelized versus seeing them as needing to be evangelized to become heirs of the kingdom works itself out in differing approaches.

      • Derek Vester February 25, 2016 at 3:22 pm #

        Thank you for the quick reply. I have many more questions, but I’ll save those for my Pastor. 🙂 Thanks again for all you do.

        • Barry York February 25, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

          Wise man to go to your pastor!

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  1. Kids Links | Kids Bible Reading - February 29, 2016

    […] Children in Worship | Barry York Barry makes a Presbyterian case for keeping children in worship services. I’d like to add a paragraph just to underline what I know Barry believes – that covenant children also need to be born again. […]

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