Where Have All the Children Gone in Your Church?

Where Have All the Children Gone in Your Church? July 22, 2012

“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.

Jesus calls us — all of us, of all ages — to worship God in spirit and in truth, not in trendy panda or pirate curriculum with themed snacks and the world’s largest chocolate bars — as good as that might sound to some of us Ghirardelli lovers.

3 Forgotten Things

I suggest that when we segregate worship based on age, we forget three key things:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

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    No, I do not agree with your premise, and your quoting of Peter’s words in Acts 2 makes no sense whatsoever. Age appropriate study, training, worship, singing is not un-biblical. We do not put kindergarten or even elementary children into college classes to learn. What’s so hard to understand about teaching children at their level of comprehension? Periodic worship as families is fine, but children’s church violates no Scriptural principle that I know of.

    • Jim,

      I didn’t claim age-separation in worship to be wrong, just not wise or what I see to be the most biblical approach. In addition, worship is not college or school or other professionalized learning setting that, frankly, has only been around for the last century or so. A comparisoon really would not apply.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Terry Floyd

    Great article, I couldn’t agree more. Our Pastor is onboard with your thinking and we did eliminate age separated S.S. for a while. We have since brought back classes for children ages 3 years through 3rd grade, for a couple of reasons, first, so many people think it’s necessary or complained and second, their children wouldn’t behave in an class where they are required to sit quitely and listen. I still think worship and study as a family is better than age separated classes, not that they’re wrong, they just aren’t working. We’re losing our children to the world. (praise God mine are serving the Lord) When they’re all together, you can go home as a family and talk about what was taught. If they didn’t understand, it’s a time for dad to teach, but you know exactly what they heard. My son was a Youth Pastor for several years and has seen that if the family is not involved, very few remain in church once they become young adults. I’ve also seen this same in our own church. I’m all for bus ministries, my Pastor’s family was saved as a result of one. I just believe that if all that money and effort went a different direction, it would produce more fruit.
    Your Brother in Christ,
    Terry Floyd

    • Terry,

      I see great value in age segregated Sunday School settings. I’ve seen attempts to do them together and they just don’t work as well — for evybody. But worship is different, don’t you think?


  • I completely agree. We’ve forgotten that age-segregation is a very new idea. Many of our grandparents attended one-room schoolhouses. Sunday School was conceived to address a few specific problems, literacy being at the top of the list, because many kids worked jobs instead of attending school.

    The issues that led to creating SS are no longer valid, so why do we keep using it? It isn’t as if age segregated worship is all that more effective, and it certainly doesn’t follow any perceivable Biblical pattern. As a matter of fact, the only segregation I can clearly see in Scripture is by gender, and even then, everyone is still in the same area, standing in the court of the temple, sitting on the grass…

    • Good points, Susan. Can’t you see the disciples dividing everyone into age-groups for Christ’s sermons?

      I know. I know. Those weren’t worship services. But still…


  • Anne G.

    I was raised in the Catholic Church and there was no such thing as a nursery or “children’s church” (not in the 80’s, anyway). So when I was in my 20s and started attending evangelical Protestant churches, I wondered why the children were banished from the service. Now I am a mom, and I got very annoyed one time when I took my daughter to an Easter service at a local Methodist church. She was 7 months old at the time and quite well-behaved for an infant I might add. I think I counted five or six people who approached me (from the parking lot to the sanctuary) and either said “Oh, would you like to bring your baby to the nursery?” or the more pointed “We have a nursery, would you like me to show you where it is?” They were obviously displeased that I intended to keep my daughter with me in the service. She sat quietly on my lap, but when she started babbling (as infants do), a few people gave me dirty looks. I never went back to that church!

    • Anne, Thanks for sharing your experience. I fear you are not alone. Do you think such people are aware of the impact their percption has on the Kingdom? And is there a connection to our use of day schools in the last 80 years as the “proper place” for children to be? Hmm….

      • jim robinette

        Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the pews were populated by people who knowingly wanted to be in them for the purpose of offering this greatest of prayers to Our Father and for no other reason. Why would someone, no matter how well intentioned, purposely bring ANY distraction into this sanctuary during this prayer. A talking, resstless or crying child, regardless of age, is no different in distraction than a noisy cell phone! For the people around you, you have ruined the experience they came to Mass to experience!
        Bring your child to Church at some time when you may pray in private where you are the only one experiencing the distraction. Just ask yourself how well you felt you were particpating in the “prayer” while wrestling with, correcting and otherwise dealing with your child. That would be exactly the participation you imposed on your fellow worshipers that Sunday morning.
        I feel exactly the same way about anyone who feels that their comments, even in a whisper, to another at any time within the walls of God’s house are more important first, to the sanctity of the place, and secondly, to the prayers being offerred by those on their knees and with heads bowed before, during or after Mass. Walk through the doors and shut up! It’ s respect for God and the people who are there to worship him….not listen to you!

        • Jim,

          I’m with you on people talking in church. I’ve seen some churche where it takes a good twenty minutes of singing to get them to quiet down. As to kids in worship, I agree that they should be removed if distracting, but they need to learn to experience worship or they will never be discipled to do just that.

  • Mark

    I want to say that I see the positive and the negative towards both sides. A little of my background is that I am a youth pastor. At the church that I am currently called too we have a Spanish and an English service. during our English service our children have “children’s church” on some weeks and not on others or Spanish service only has children’s church on rare occasions. Like wise I take the teens out of the Spanish Service and not the English. This however has it roots in that the teens who have been raised in America speak English better than Spanish therefore they get more out of me pulling them out. (There’s more to this, just wait)

    I am a strong proponent of age related/appropriate curriculum, there is just some weeks that where we need to be as a church is too theologically deep (not that children can’t understand deep when given the opportunity, but when a child doesn’t an allowance or have a job then why should the hear a sermon series on tithing money only) or be God’s mouth piece more for the older generations. This can be done on a week-to-week basis, or better yet, have planned weeks where children are taken out. Plan that a specific week or groups of weeks children will be in the service deemed a family service, and pull the children out other weeks (but make sure children’s church is more than just baby sitting.)

    Even though I push for age appropriate curriculum (other wise I would be out of a Job) I think that the Bible gives us the picture that the older familial generations are to teach our younger generations (Look into the Israelites crossing the Jordan on the way to the promised land. In paraphrase is says make this monument so that you call tell the younger generations what God has done for you!) Since we started taking the Spanish students out I have pushed to do something where I take them for a few weeks then they are “with their families” for a few weeks (this gets seen as me trying to just go home early since I don’t speak Spanish but that isn’t my push) because…

    Studies have shown that when we constantly alienate (yes I used that word on purpose) our children and teens separating them from the rest of the body once they leave the youth ministry they aren’t sure where they belong. (they have never really made a connection with any one in the body of Christ that is older other than their youth pastor, but their youth pastor is now telling they are no long a teen and they don’t belong in the youth group but they never felt like a part of “big people church”) The result being that we loose them until about the time they have kids and realize they made some bad choices and the church offers alternative lifestyles that will hopefully push their kids away from the same bad choices. (Studies show the parts about losing them and that they come back at around 35 on average the rest of that is my thoughts as to why they return. Unfortunately I can’t remember where I have read these studies to point you too them.)

    I would point out that if we are going to pull our children/teens out away from there families to learn at “their level” we still need to challenge them. We still need to push them. We also need to encourage older adults to be apart of their “process” so that they can make connections with the church outside of the youth pastor so that when the time comes from them to spread their wings and go to big people church they feel apart of it. Their is also one more point to the challenge them to grow spiritually. A Barna study shows that the beliefs that a child forms by age 8 what the die believing. God is about statistics and can do amazing things but we should do our part to reach them by age 8 and make Gods just a little easier (make him only tug their heart strings because we have listen to him not make him have to chase the children down).

    I hope this doesn’t come across as I know better then you, that wasn’t the attempt. I was attempting to give an idea as to a very specific concern. I leave the final thought that while church teaches about God, in the worship services, if that is the only time our children see this relationship then no matter where they worship they have missed out on what a true relationship with Christ looks like. Our Children should learn about God first at home then in Church not at Church and when applicable at home.

  • Linda K

    There’s definitely pros and cons both ways. I think that’s one of the advantages of having more than just a Sunday morning service each week. Our church still has three services a week, so on Sunday mornings the kids have their own separate service that is age-appropriate. On Sunday night, everyone is together for worship & a sermon.

    • Linda, I think you would like the book by Tim Kimmel, Connecting Church and Home. Writing a review today, so look for it soon.

  • Bill, your article is superb and your theology unimpeachable. Bravo!

  • Bill, I whole-heartedly agree. I once heard a radio preacher explain the importance of the preached word. He really did a very nice job of it. But then he blew me away when he said, “And that’s why we don’t allow children in the sanctuary during the sermon.”

    • LOL! That is hilarious!!Except that it is sad. I sat through countless sermons as a child. It wasn’t until many years later that I began to realize just how much of the word I had unintentionally soaked up.

      Thanks for the comment, Doug!

  • Thank you, Bill- good, nay excellent article. Just a few thoughts to interject:
    One of the ways we get people to stop ‘talking’ is to call them to worship.
    One of the ways to get a whiny child to stop whining is to actually tell them to stop whining. It’s called ‘obeying daddy and mommy’… and some parents, for some odd reason, don’t do it.
    One of the best ways (see a pattern here?) that we insured our children’s love of worship was to never put them in ‘children’s church’, or to allow them in the youth group. The first is a novelty that perpetuates immaturity, and the second, while it CAN be a good thing, was not, and can sadly accomplish much of the same effect as the first.

    • Tim,

      You make a great point about the call to worship. The practice is, of course, a thoroughly Biblical one and gives a practical mark for the beginning of the service. I do think we have developed some children’s ministry as away to enable parents who are not effectively training their children to sit still in a worship service. Rather than doing the messy business of helping them figure out their kids, we shuffle them off to Sunday day-care — or at least it can be that way.

      Thanks for the comment. Good words.

  • Sarah Hamaker

    That’s one thing I love about our PCA church–families are encouraged to have their children in the service with them. Yes, it takes training to ensure your three-year-old can sit through an hour-and-a-half service, but some coloring books and patience usually does the trick. Our four kids (ages 4 to 10) have no problem (usually–with kids, there’s always that caveat!) sitting through the service. The older ones learn how to take notes from the sermon for their classes after the service, while the younger ones learn how to stay quiet and listen.

    When traveling, we often encounter the well-meaning saint offering to whisk our kids away. Most of the time, we smile and say no thanks–and then get compliments on their behavior after church (not that that’s the reason we don’t put them in children’s church). But we hope to be an encouragement to other families that worship is a family affair.