Should Kids Join their Parents in Church Services or Go to “Childrens’ Church”?

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*A Guest Post: Evelyn Sweerts is a mother of four and part-time Theology for Ministry student living semi-rurally in Luxembourg.

We’re out for a family meal in our local Italian restaurant. A mixed-age group comes in. The adults sit down at one end of the table to talk; the kids whip out their PSPs and play in silence at the other end. Nothing extraordinary, completely logical and … depressing. But then, I’m a firm believer in the importance of family meals where everyone participates.

I sometimes wonder whether by having nursery and Sunday school we aren’t actually setting up an identical situation at church. The grown-ups share a conversation and a meal (the Word and the Eucharist) while the under 18s need to be ‘entertained’. This risks sending some or all of the following damaging messages to the young ones: you’re not capable of handling this situation; you’re not welcome; you should be doing something more fun than church (subtext: church is boring).

Some questions for you to ponder / answer: Should we expect kids to behave in church or should we be ‘entertaining’ them? If the latter, in church with books and cookies or with Children’s Church elsewhere? Is it reasonable to ask adults in church to be tolerant of noise and other disruptive child-like behavior? How tolerant? If you have kids, what do you do, or do you wish you could do? If you don’t, what’s your perspective?

My husband is a cradle Catholic and I am a denominational mongrel, and we’d like our children to grow up familiar with all the traditions in their heritage. To that end we usually attend a non-denominational Protestant church, but we do go to Mass occasionally. The Protestant church has a lovely Sunday school program, which the children enjoy. At Mass they squirm, and ask “How long still?” and whine about being bored. For sure it is easier for everyone with Sunday school. Yet I can’t help but feel that one of the strengths of Catholic Mass is that from about the age that children could reasonably be expected to stay at the table and participate fully in the family meal they are allowed to share in the Eucharist, as our two oldest do since doing their First Communion.

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)

Based on our experiences in these and other churches, I think there is room to re-think our paradigms about children in church. I believe every service can and should be a whole family service. Let’s not risk Jesus’ indignation, and welcome the little ones at our family meal with open arms. This option does not have to preclude offering something age-appropriate too.

So here’s what I’d like to see: a small segment of all-age worship that genuinely includes all ages; Bible readings from the Old and New Testaments, maybe a responsorial Psalm (in our love of the pericope as a basis for a sermon we’ve stripped far too much of the big story of scripture away, but that’s a discussion for another time); children get a chance to learn the response so that they can participate even if they can’t read (maybe by having the same response every week? “Give thanks to the Lord for he is good, his faithful love endures forever” could work); children leave the service for some age-appropriate teaching while adults worship a bit more, and listen to a sermon; children come back in and the whole church family shares communion after passing the peace. Having broken bread together, the congregation leaves to love and serve the Lord.

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  • Joe Watkins

    Interestingly, our church is asking this same question and our service structure has been more or less what you describe in your last paragraph for as long as I’ve been there (although lacking the scripture reading that I agree needs to be included). Despite our tradition of keeping kids in service until the teaching time, we’ve recently lowered the age students can go to the children’s teaching from 6th grade to 3rd to involve younger people in the service. 

    As we’ve been asking these questions in our own congregation I’ve begun to wonder if there’s not something deeper involved in the culture of the church where kids and teens aren’t really viewed as people. In the most extreme cases I would even say that people aren’t viewed as being complete persons until they are married and raising kids so that try as we might with programs, classes, and various church structures, kids, teens, and even adult singles are only seen a partial-people at best and are unable to be folded into the community of the congregation. I don’t think it’s done intentionally, but I think it’s a real dynamic in a lot of churches, and I think it’s why people are less tolerant of kids in services.)

    • Jessica Meschino

      In my church we have some wonderful teens who definitely are thought of as people. They do as much, if not more then many of the adults who attend the church. We have a week children’s program that runs during the school year that they were involved in, one is a nursery work, and her older sister is on the children’s church schedule (she assists with it). I just love these girls!

  • http://transformingseminarian.blogspot.com Mark Baker-Wright

    I think that these are important questions to ask, but at the same time, feel the need to provide some push-back.  I don’t see this as a question about “behave” or “be entertained,” but rather of providing age-appropriate instruction to ensure that all the people of Christ can grow. Asking children to sit through a long lecture where the worship leader talks using language a child has not yet learned does not promote their own spiritual growth the way a Sunday School lesson might. On the other hand, if we ensure that sermons use language that all ages can understand, they might well NOT be covering areas of spiritual growth that adults desperately need.

    I don’t pretend to have an answer to this dilemma. I do worry that sending children out of the “adult” worship gathering sends a bad message. But I don’t think forcing them to remain in that gathering at all times is necessarily the right answer. 

    • Evelyn

      “rather of providing age-appropriate instruction to ensure that all the people of Christ can grow” – I agree, which is why I suggest something which I think meets both the inclusiveness and appropriateness criteria. But I still have huge questions about this on both sides – for example, by trying to cater to everyone’s separate needs do we risk losing sight of the fact that we are one body (with many parts…).  Or do we risk totally failing as disciple-makers by not gearing our teaching to our ‘disciples’? Honestly I don’t know. I wrote this post because I have a lot more questions than answers, and I’m trying to thrash out my thoughts.~ blessings~

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=9219015 Jonathan A. Aigner

    They should go with their parents.

    Unless their pastor is Mark Driscoll.

    • Jessica Meschino

      I think that depends (the go with parents part). Some children have a difficult time sitting to long in church if not engaged properly I have ADHD and i can remember my mother being quite annoyed at my behaviour during church when I was growing up. I just couldn’t sit that long listening to the boring messages (Catholic church). The major disadvantage of children being with their parents during the service is that they can distract their parents from being able to pay attention to the sermon and learn/ grow from them. If I was a parent who constantly had to tell one of my children to be quiet, i might miss half the stuff the pastor had to say. And I am one who really enjoys taking notes and might not be able to.

  • http://joelzehring.wordpress.com/ Joel Zehring

    Just one of several reasons why “worship services” are played out.

  • http://aprilkarli.com/ april karli

    Reading this challenges me to think about how the children are included in our gatherings. We’re part of a house church. We share a meal together (though we’re a large group and quite often the children end up sitting separately from the adults because they all want to sit together!). We also have a special time dedicated to the children to engage them in Scripture (they’re all very young). 

    The kids do enjoy playing together. My oldest daughter (10) hangs out and chats with the adults more than the others who are much younger (5-2yrs).  

    I think there might be some ways we can include them more. So often, though, it seems they’d rather just be playing together. It’s not easy.

  • Marc

    My wife and I have had a conversation about this. The church I have been called to includes all their children in their service. Part of my job description is inter-generational discipleship and in that respect I think including children in the service is a step in the right direction.

    However…my wife makes a good point when she suggests that while this means that the kids are included in the worship service, it also means that parents, particularly of the younger children, are not really engaged. We spent a number of years with our small children simply being at the service without really participating in any real way.

    I suppose part of the question is “What is worship?” and we’re likely to say that it’s not ultimately about what we “get out of it.” However, even if it’s about something else, like offering praise to God or some such, if parents cannot be “present” in any capacity whatsoever because of demanding children, in some respects they are just as well off to stay home.I don’t say that to be callous or to suggest they *should* stay home, I say this only as a parent who has lived through those early parenting years at church.I’m open to other opinions on that one. But perhaps we need to strike a balance somehow between inclusion (and encouraging inclusion) and providing other age-appropriate discipleship and worship (e.g. not simply babysitting) for the very young in particular.

    • Evelyn

      I recognize the phenomenon of being so distracted by the kids that you don’t actually follow the service! It is a real issue – and that’s without even getting into how the distraction affects those sitting behind. Again, I think I do suggest something that sort of meets all needs, but it is not a perfect answer by any means and yes, I do still have a lot of questions!

  • lg

    Nice post : )  I think inter-genreational worship services used to be the norm because it was simply easier — children were better nourished (with diets rich in raw milk and butter, liver, and bone broths) and thus better behaved and were able to sit still for longer periods.   Most importantly, they were pretty much sugar free spent much more free time running around outdoors.  So sitting still for a service was not such a big deal and it was an easy thing for parents to expect.  Today, however,  most children suffer from extreme sugar overload and too much time spent inside and in front of a screen.  It is impossible for those children to sit still during a church service.  –lg

    p/s I think we just need to live 100% sugar free: even from natural sugars and whole grains – using fruit for the occasional treat….  Whenever we do this my daughter is so much better behaved and calmer.  Sugar and processed food is just everywhere and is a serious issue, which is one of the reason we decided to homeschool for the early years.

  • http://caregiverheart.com/ Tryn Rose

    Thanks Evelyn! I love this thoughtful discussion. I get excited about the ‘big story of scripture’ you might discuss further. My picture of that is that a worship leader or the congregation can teach or model what to *do* to live a spiritual life here on the planet. If a minister talks about a difficult story in the Bible, s/he can lead from the pain to the hope; “Wow, that was challenging. Do you sometimes feel despair, or anger, or abandonment?..What can we do to get through those times?” “Pray for help! “Call on the name of the Lord for strength and hope!” I think church is a place to build community, to support each other and walk the path of life together with company that can inspire and support each other when needed. All ages can benefit from this approach; even grown-ups need reminding that calling on God, and then taking action with making choices of how to live in the future, is a great idea. 

  • Marla Abe

    When my nieces were about twelve and nine, I went to preach at their home church.  This was the church that they had attended their whole lives. They came up and stood beside me as I shook hands.  Several people asked me if they were my daughters! At that time I vowed that children would be present enough so that everyone knew their names.
    Research on my master’s thesis showed that intergenerational churches, where all ages are mixed, are the best for retention of youth and young adults. 
    Yes, children can get restless and often it is a good option for them to spend part of the worship time in separate worship. But children also learn a lot from being in the worship..they are entertained by the smiles and faces and proffered toys of the adults around them.  I remember the richness of sitting and half absorbing my dad’s sermons, but enjoying most that I actually had my mom sitting quietly beside me, holding my hand, not busy and off doing something as usual.  I colored, we played hangman, and managed to absorb a lot. Music sinks deep in to the heart.
    We also need to take it a step further and purposefully include the children. They can hand around mikes, give out folders and flowers.  They can help the elders by picking up dropped bulletins, or helping them with their walkers.  They need to be known that they, too, are indispensable to the body of Christ.
    I remember with great fondness the many grandmas and grandpas, aunts and uncles that both I and my children experienced as pastoral children.
    Let there be noise!  I always tell new attenders that we LOVE the sound of children in worship and their little noises will probably bother the parent more than the rest of us.  As a congregation with few children, we cherish every one God sends us.
    I understand the issue with the parent not being able to worship due to supervising the children. Maybe another adult could take the kids for a worship service and let the parent have some free time?  I know of one inner city church that really wanted to reach their community.  Each adult “adopted” three or more neighborhood kids to sit with them when their parents couldn’t come to church.  I thought of that sacrifice…of worship is giving, not receiving.

  • Mammao

    At
    our church, the children are expected to remain in the service from the beginning
    to the end with various activities (work sheets) to occupy them. This expectation
    is due to the belief that children may feel excluded from church life which may
    lead to them eventually leaving the church due to disconnectedness. Although this
    may sound like a good idea, my husband and I are contemplating whether this
    model is beneficial for our children for a number of reasons. The children not
    only become distracting, but have also reported that they find church boring,
    particularly because they don’t completely understand the message (age
    appropriateness).

    During
    my childhood, we were expected to sit through the announcements and participate
    in worship with the whole congregation (Pentecostal church), followed by
    children’s Sunday school while the adults listened to the ministers sermon.
    This system seemed to of worked in making a lasting impression on me and many others
    from our generation. On the other hand, when we attended a Catholic church at a
    younger age, we were expected to sit through the whole entire service, and I
    can only remember those times as excruciating and extremely boring. I can’t say
    that those services had any impact on me due to the lack of age appropriateness
    with the delivery.

    As
    a parent I believe that some of society’s concerns that are addressed in
    sermons are not appropriate for children, however the joint worship seems
    effective as my children love to join in and continue to sing the songs
    throughout the week.

    It
    is a growing trend in our region for children to experience a separate service
    from beginning to end (worship and preaching), which does wonders for
    accommodating the children’s needs, interests and culture of today, however I
    wonder about the exclusion factor. I’m interested to know of any outcomes with
    regards to the biblical growth and spiritual effectiveness of such programs (compared to children sitting through the main service) and
    the lasting effects that such a paradigm has had on children who are now older?
     

    As
    for the disciplinary benefits of children sitting throughout the main service, I
    suppose it’s predominantly the responsibility of the parents to enforce disciplinary
    standards and such boundaries are also set in place within a children’s church/Sunday
    school session.     
     
    I am also undecided about these different models and would love more info or stats on the subject.

    • Jessica Meschino

      How does the work sheet thing work for children who cannot yet read? Also, you said something that struck me and I remember as well. I grew up being raised catholic and was taken to church by my mom. We had to sit in the full service, beginning to end. I found that rather boring. I can’t remember a single thing I learned. And I’;; bet if my mom has asked me to recall something after we had gotten home, I probably wouldn’t been able to. The trouble with church services is that it is (in my opinion) difficult to keep it age appropriate for children without taking away from the adult age appropriateness of the service and vice versa. How does a pastor write a sermon that a child would understand, while still leaving it deep enough for the adult congregation members. That seems rather difficult.

  • http://twitter.com/chadharms Chad Harms

    I wrote a blog post that points to some Scriptural references that surround the issue of keeping kids in the church service. Some of it might serve as evidence to support your thesis here. http://creeksidebiblechurch.org/childreninchurch/

  • Jessica Meschino

    I am on the fence here. In my church there is only a small number of children, Two I believe would be able to sit through a service fine, but their 5 year old brother not so much. And in my opinion, he is too old for nursery. The trouble is partly whether or not a child can sit through a service alright, but also with regards to the sermon. Not exactly if ‘age appropriate’ language (in terms of understanding) is used, so much as how the interest of the child is kept so they at least partially pay attention and learn something from the message that can help them grow. You can have children who are very visual learners where any visual aid possible is a good idea, but where for many of the adults those same aids are distracting. I don’t see the point in children being in the adult service if all they are doing is flipping through the hymnal and or the bible and doodling and not paying attention/ having difficulty paying attention to the message. In my church we have sunday school before service, with one adult class, and several children’s classes. During the service, we have children’s church, but the kids don’t go downstairs until after the offering is taken (by this time we have sang some songs, greeted the family, done the bible reading and taken the offering).


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