But Jesus said, "Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 19:14)
Where are children supposed to be during a worship service? For many of the evangelical churches in our community, the answer to that question is, “With one of the youth pastors in children’s church.” In our town, it is not uncommon for children to be in their own, separate programs – away from the adults – all the way through junior high school and even beyond in some cases. It should not be surprising, then, that many leave the church when they graduate from the youth program a few years later. Graduating from the youth program means graduating from the church as they’ve experienced it.
The concept of keeping children out of worship sends the wrong message on several levels. First, it implies something about the way we view children. We have low expectations of them. We don’t think they can be taught to sit still. We don’t think they can learn to follow along. We don’t think they’ll be interested unless they are being entertained. We don’t think they’ll benefit from what the “big people” do in church. Second, it implies something negative about public worship. We don’t think worship appeals to children. We don’t think worship actually does anything for children. We think the efficacy of worship is in our activity and not in the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace. Third, it reveals that we really do not have a healthy concept of what the congregation is. If we do not see our children as a vital part of the congregation instead of as potential, future congregation members, then we are always going to treat them as second-class citizens or worse, as an appendage that should be separated from the rest of the congregation.
If the goal is to see young people growing up into productive members of the kingdom, then we should get them integrated into the life and ministry of the church at an early age. How will they know the value of the public worship unless they are able to experience it themselves? How will they learn that God has promised to meet with His people in a special way in public worship, if we exclude them from it? How will we teach them that the power of worship is God’s working in us and not our activity if we act like we don’t think the Holy Spirit will minister to them in worship until they are 13 or even older?
Week after week the children of our congregation manage to sit through a service that lasts for an hour and a half. They join in the singing of praise. They listen carefully and take notes or draw pictures related to the sermon if they cannot write. They hear the scriptures being read. Do they understand everything that happens? Or course not – but they are learning what it means to worship God as part of the visible church. They are learning that they belong there.
It’s a process to get children to the point where they can be in the service and not be disruptive. Your church should have a staffed nursery so the very young have a place to go when they are disrupting the service. We should not keep our children in the worship if they become a serious distraction to the rest of the congregation. The goal should be to work with children to get them out of the nursery and into the pew by the time they are three years old. New parents should realize that this will be a process and it will take effort on the part of both parents (if there are two parents). Especially in situations where there is only one parent or when a family is coming from outside the church, the church itself needs to be proactive, patient, and gentle in helping families work toward this goal. Paying the price to train kids to sit and participate in worship will pay dividends, and the younger children in the church will benefit from good examples being set by their older siblings and friends.
A congregation that works to fully integrate all of its children into its public worship services will experience a great blessing in so doing. It will also bear witness to the world that it believes what the Lord Jesus says about children, about worship, and about the church.