“But where have all the children gone?” The classic film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang portrays the rather bizarre kingdom of Vulgaria in which children have been outlawed, banished to hide underground, separated from the world of the adults. The zany plot describes how sweet treats get offered to entice stray children into captivity.
It’s weird. It’s a bit disturbing.
It also describes the worship services of many evangelical churches.
Of course, I add the usual caveat, not all of your churches do this. But a lot of them do.
What does it look like?
No, they don’t chase children into underground grottoes with nasty nets, but they are banished just the same. Here are a few ways it happens in evangelical churches:
- Children’s church. This approach splits off kids from parents so each can have “age appropriate” worship experiences. Often the sessions are segregated even further into elementary, middle school, and high school services. The entire approach reminds me of our popular assembly-line approach to modern education that isn’t working out so well for us anymore anyways. It’s not uncommon for sweet treats to be added to entice more kids into these services. No nets. Yet. That’s good.
- Protective policies. One mega-church I attended briefly actually included a blurb in the bulletin suggesting that we place our younger children in child care when attending the worship service. They recorded the sermons for use in a radio broadcast and didn’t want a crying child to disturb the audio quality. I think this approach well-meaning. The sermons at that church? Excellent. The radio program? High impact! But something about excluding young children from worship leaves me wondering if the end truly justified the means.
- Polite suggestions. With six children, we have often had kind parishioners — meaning no offense, mind you — notify us that separate services are available for our children. I think they assumed we obviously didn’t know about that option because our children were still with us. I love the kind gesture. It’s the subtle reasoning behind the polite suggestion that concerns me — as if everyone would be better off if children weren’t with parents in the worship service.
I suspect the reason we — as the evangelical church — do this is to keep our kids from becoming bored during the service. We think that if they are bored, they won’t want to come to church. At least if they’re coming for the candy, they want to come. My friend John Saddington (you really should follow his blog) notes here that “bored” simply means “not fun.” So true. Rather than questioning our own assumptions, we try to convince kids that church is, in fact, always a fun and exciting place to be.
Even if it’s not. We remake it to better suit their fun-palette at the moment.
This urge to attract kids to church by pushing their fun-button is not new, of course. I recall similar efforts growing up in fundamentalist Protestant circles — bubble-gum-blowing contests, the world’s largest chocolate bar giveaway, and dunking the pastor in a water tank to name a few. Few of those kids who came then even claim to be Christ-followers now. Even fewer go to church.
3 Forgotten Things
I suggest that when we segregate worship based on age, we forget three key things:
- A Promise. When Peter first preached the gospel at Pentecost, he argued that “the promise is for you and for your children….” (Acts 2:38-39 ESV) We can all disagree about the implications of that statement on the precise place of children in the visible body of Christ, but we can’t deny the tightly woven connection between preaching, parents, and their children in God’s eyes. The very first gospel appeal given after Christ’s ascension at the start of the Church culminated in a call to action for parents AND their children.
- A Warning. “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:13-15 ESV) Jesus said that wherever two or three are gathered together in His name, he would be present in a special way. (Matthew 18:20) If worship service is the place we gather expecting to experience the presence of our Lord, don’t we come dangerously close to imitating the short-sighted disciples when we discourage children from coming to experience His presence?
- A Process. Scripture tells us that our children will be moved to question us as part of their learning process. When they see the things we do in worshipping God, they will ask us about it. And they will learn. “When your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ you shall say….” (Exodus 12″21-28 ESV) If they’re not present to experience the Lord’s Supper, for example, the New Testament passover, how will they ever be moved to ask about it? How will they learn? How will they know? (You’re right. Better move on. That sounded dangerously like an ’80s Madonna song.) The church we presently attend does a fine job of encouraging this learning process, by the way, offering helpful sermon guides just for the kids. We appreciate it.
We may not like it, but our children are the future. There’s no way around it. Assuming Christ does not return, we will die. All of us.
What then? Will our children even know what church is as they reemerge from their segregated grotto? Or will they simply do what we’ve modeled for them and banish their own children back underground enticed by sweet treats.
If, that is, they’re still going to church at all.
Have you seen this age segregation in evangelical churches or even within other faith traditions? Do you agree or disagree with my concerns? Thanks for leaving a comment here so we can all grow.