Monday, February 10, 2014

Children's church or children in church?

"Children's church is a problem, but it is not the problem. It is a symptom of much larger problems." -- R. Scott Clark

Sunday School has a long history and has become almost a standing ordinance in most Baptist churches. The idea of "Sunday School" (or "Sabbath School") harks back to the mid-1700s, with the founding of Sunday Schools "as we know them" associated with Robert Raikes. In 1781 Raikes, the editor of the Gloucester Journal, felt a need to prevent children in the slums falling into crime. He thought the answer was education -- religious, moral and social. The earliest Sunday Schools operated as independent entities, but gradually they were made part of the program of the churches. By the early 1930s in the United States Sunday Schools by and large had made a transition to part of the regular Sunday morning services.

This writing investigates a more recent measure directed at children's ministry -- the "children's church". It is a 20th century phenomenon probably no older than 60 years. "Children's church" is built on the principle that the regular preaching service is directed toward adults and that children need something more age-appropriate, something which is "kid friendly", presented in a way they can understand. The mix usually is designed to "learn about God while having fun." Games and snacks are often attached to the "age-appropriate" music and lesson. A co-dependent principle is that removing them from the main worship service allows adults/parents to worship without distraction. Some urge this with a twist on Matthew 19:14, saying that children are an important part of God's kingdom and that churches should not hinder them by expecting them to sit still and be quiet in “Adult Church”.

A church should want parents of young children to be present in church services. That same church should also want those children to be present in church services. Some want the parents to attend, but without the distraction of their young children. Much of the "children's ministry" and "children's church" ideas are societally driven rather than biblically driven. We worship at the altar of what is convenient. Someone has said that we often worship a worshipful atmosphere more than we worship God.

Objections to children in church
* Having children in the adult worship service is too distracting for the parents, and it is too boring for the kids.
* By keeping the children in the adult service, they learn to hate the worship service.
* We need to speak "age-appropriately" so children can understand the message.
* Adult service hinders children, and Jesus said not to hinder them.

Biblical examples
The model of having children assembled with or learning along with the adults is a pattern that seen throughout the Scriptures.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9; 11:18-21 teaches parental diligence and responsibility at all times.
Deuteronomy 6:20 Children will see the observance of testimony of God and ask "What meaneth these?" How will they see and ask if they are not there?
Deuteronomy 12:7, 12, 18; 16:9-11 Households participate together observing the statutes of God
Deuteronomy 29:10-12 All present before God to enter into covenant
Deuteronomy 31:10-13 Children gathered with households to hear the reading of the law
2 Chronicles 20:13 Judah brought their little ones to the fast proclaimed by Jehoshaphat
Ezra 10:1  Men, women AND children assemble with Ezra as he weeps and prays
Joel 2:16 A fast is proclaimed and all the people are to gather, even "those that suck the breasts".
Ephesians 6:4; Colossians 3:20-21 That children are directly addressed assumes they were in the assembly hearing the reading of Paul's letter.

The benefits of children in church
Children benefit from being in the meeting between God and His people. They are in the presence of Christians of various ages rather than only their own peer group. They see how their parents worship and learn that this is an important part of their parents' lives. They are exposed to togetherness rather than the societal trend of family fragmentation. It ought to be the goal of every church to reverse this trend rather than reinforce it. Adults benefit from children being in their meetings. They are reminded that it is not all about themselves, that they have a calling to train up children, and that gospel is to be passed on. We are reminded that life, families -- and God's family -- are made up of the old and the young.

Practical considerations
Operating a nursery and/or children's church takes adults and young people out of the worship service. It violates the injunction of Hebrews 10:25 to not forsake the assembling of ourselves together. Even if young children are not church members and not subject to the injunction, those that we separate to chaperone and instruct them are. Behaving is worship service is an important step in training young children. Both parents and children miss the experience when children are whisked away to nursery or children's church.

As age-specific "youth ministry" has blossomed so has the loss of young people in the church. Could there be a correlation? The response to the loss of young people has most often been to urge the doubling-down on more "youth ministry" and different (and more extravagant) kinds of it. And yet the decline continues. Perhaps our solution is part of the problem?

The Bible knows little or nothing of age-specific ministry, age-specific music or age-specific worship experiences. These are the makings of our cultural views of expedience and are a detriment to the edifying of ourselves and our children. Even very young children recognize hymns and imitate other actions they see and hear. Someone has said, "We have kids in church just as we have kids at the dinner table: not because of their manners but because we love them and they are a part of our family." Far too often in our society children not valued highly. Some approaches to dealing with children are simply scheduled selfishness and codified convenience. Parents who will not discipline their children can be selfish too. They ought not let their children run wild in church meetings. They should respect others who are present. But church members ought to be indulgent, prayerful and helpful as young parents try to train their children to be in church services. It is a learning experience for all concerned. If parents enforce commands at home, then the child in church is simply learning an extension of that same principle.

Finally, we must consider how this meshes with other substantial teaching of the Scriptures, such as soteriology, ecclesiology (corporate worship, the gathered community, church membership, etc.), parental authority and responsibility. I will hope to address this in the near future.

Some things others have written
Small Children at Worship Services – Why Are They Present?
Children in Worship–Let’s Bring it Back
Where Should Children Worship?
Seen and Not Heard in Church
Do Children Destroy the Church’s Worshipful Atmosphere?
Children’s Church is the Church
The Mystery of Children's Church
Re-Thinking 'Children's Church'

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