Children's Church

Question
Should children attend and participate in worship services, or provide special ministries to the children (e.g., children's church, nursery) so that they do not have to attend the general worship service?
Answer
Well, as I'm sure you're aware, there are a lot of different ideas on children in worship circulating these days. Since this topic is so broad, I'll answer by breaking down the issue into sub-questions (of my own invention) in the hopes that this will communicate more clearly.


Who is the Church?

The church consist of all its members, both adult and child.


What is a corporate meeting of the Church?

A corporate meeting of the church consists of a gathering together of members of the church.


Must members be in the same room or listening to the same speaker in order to be considered part of the same corporate meeting of the church?

No. We have many examples from Scripture that demonstrate that certain meetings of God's covenant community were either too large to have been heard or even seen by all those in attendance, or that specifically included segments in which people were somewhat isolated from one another, e.g.:
  • Passover: When it was instituted, this national celebration involving the entire visible church. It was observed corporately by the entire nation as each household did the same thing at the same time. There was no mass gathering of the community during Passover, but only a common celebration from household to household, much like our modern Christmas. Nevertheless, it was considered a national time of corporate worship.
  • Annual feasts: The annual feasts of ancient Israel were the only scripturally mandated recurring corporate meetings of the nation for worship. These were the feasts of unleavened bread (Passover), tabernacles (or booths) and weeks (first fruits of the harvest). They were to be observed by the nation, but the nation was to be represented in this observance by its adult males. That is, all adult males were required to attend in a locale to be appointed by God (this turned out to be Jerusalem). Those not in the appointed locale (women, children) were still considered part of the nation, and through the representation of the men the nation was considered to have observed the feast properly.
  • Preaching: Although in my assessment preaching is not a fundamental element of worship, we also have examples biblical of preaching in the covenant community. In Nehemiah 8 the nation gathers to listen to the reading and expounding of the Law — relatively equivalent to a modern sermon or Sunday school class. That meeting was attended by men, women and all who could listen with understanding. In other words, young children were not present, nor were those with insufficient mental capacities.

    Interestingly, in this instance we also find a distinction between worship (v. 6), which consisted of saying "Amen" and lying prostrate on the ground, and the earlier mentioned sermon. After the sermon and worship time, the community was dismissed to their homes, but the special corporate time had not yet ended — the entire day was still holy to the Lord, but the people were to spend the rest of it eating and celebrating (vv. 9ff.).
These examples are nowhere near exhaustive. They demonstrate that in addition to it being appropriate for the corporate community to gather with its full membership, it is also appropriate for it to gather in portions of that community, whether divided by age, gender or familial relationship. In these biblical examples, the entire community was considered to have participated.


What is Biblical Corporate Worship?

Biblical corporate worship may include any number of legitimate elements, not all of which must be present at any given meeting. John Frame makes a valuable statement regarding this point in Contemporary Worship Music (P&R Publishing):
It would be unscriptural to say that since worship is directed toward God, it doesn't matter whether the worshipers understand it or not. We do not glorify God if we fail to communicate on a human level.
The point is that worship is not worship if it is not intelligible. Paul makes this point in 1 Corinthians 14 when he instructs that all things in the corporate meeting of the church should be done for edification. This is why tongues cannot be uninterpreted, and why order must reign. The Reformers applied this thinking to conduct services in the vernacular rather than in Latin. It is the same reason we have services and even Bibles in English, and even one of the reasons that many churches use modern translations rather than the old King James. The same thinking rightly applies to children's ministries: If children can't understand it, it is unprofitable for them, and it is not real worship.


Can Children Understand Sermons?

Many pastors' sermons are farther beyond the comprehension of children than Elizabethan English is beyond adults. The arguments are often complex, and the vocabulary is often very difficult for smaller children. Can they use this as an opportunity to learn more complex thinking and vocabulary? Yes, of course. But is that the purpose for which we gather? No, it's not. We gather to worship, and learning logic and language is not worship.

Can we argue that children are learning to worship? I believe they may learn a little about how to worship, but mostly they learn that worship isn't enjoyable. Still, they can also learn good things, like how important God's word is. Even so, these positive things they learn are not worship — they aren't even learning the content of what is taught (i.e., the point the pastor is making in his sermon). When children don't understand the sermon, they aren't really "hearing" God's Word at all.

Now, some children are quicker than others, and some will get some of the sermon's content. But these same children would probably learn even more in an age-appropriate class. This would be true whether the class taught them how to worship, or instructed them in Bible content and application.


What are the Important Elements of Biblical Worship?

In the Bible, the most common elements associated with "worship" are sacrifice, eating, prayer, songs, rejoicing, celebrating, and building up one another. Sometimes edification is also mentioned, but far less frequently. In general, such things as sermons and teaching do not fall within the parameters of "worship." I would argue that this makes the sermon the most dispensable element of a "worship service." I do believe that teaching and edification are important, but I do not believe that they ought to be the focus of our worship service.

Our children participate in worship with us when we sing and praise God, when we celebrate the Lord's Supper, when we baptize, when we vow, when we pray, and in many other ways. But whether or not they are present with us, in large part they stop worshipping — just like we stop worshipping — when the pastor starts preaching. I would place the sermon on the level with the Sunday school class. It has no more or less importance in Scripture, so far as I can tell. Both are the teaching of the church. If there is any point at which our children ought to be reasonably excused from the corporate meeting, it is that point which is technically not worshipful (especially for them, due to their lack of comprehension) and not edifying for them (again, due to lack of comprehension). This is the same point at which children in the Bible were also excused in Nehemiah 8: the sermon.


But What if Teaching is True Worship?

Even if teaching is true worship, it is not wrong to separate God's people during teaching. Again, they did this in the Bible (Neh. 8). Most of us do not have any qualms about separating into different Sunday school classes. Therefore, we ought to be able to separate different members of our congregation into different worship services without too much difficulty. Personally, I think these classes would be better conceived of as different regions of one worship service.


What are the Implications for Sunday school?

There are some differences between Sunday school and preaching. For one, we rightly require greater qualifications of preachers than of Sunday school teachers.

Preachers must be qualified to preach; Sunday school teachers must be qualified to teach the classes they teach. But there is no necessity to require Sunday school teachers to be qualified to preach, just as there is no necessity to require that preachers be able to teach Sunday school. Many pastors, by the way, struggle greatly when it comes to teaching small children.

There is also the issue of male headship. If we equate sermons and Sunday school, should we not restrict all teaching to qualified men. I believe the equation of sermon and class is appropriate, but that the premise that only men may preach is false. (On this point I depart from my own denomination!) As I understand the Bible, it does not teach that only men may preach; it teaches that only men may hold the teaching office of the church, namely that of elder. See Women in Authority for a discussion of this idea.


What are the Implications of a Policy on Children's Church?

Offering children's church gives lazy parents an opportunity to let someone else do their job. Then again, there is no guarantee that the parents will do their job if the child stays in the adult service. At least if the child goes to Sunday school, someone will be doing that job.

Offering children's church can help parents who don't know how to teach their children the gospel and train them for worship. Specifically, these parents can assist in children's church and thereby learn the needed skills.

Offering children's church gives churches a concrete way to fulfill their vow to help raise each other's children.

Offering children's church gives children the opportunity to continue to participate in real worship and/or to be genuinely edified, depending on the content of children's church.

Offering children's church does not impinge upon the ability of parents who are opposed to children's church to keep their children in the service and to "parent them in the pew." By contrast, not offering children's church forces everyone to live by the scruples of those who oppose the idea of children's church.


What Should Children's Church Be?

Based on the types of corporate worship we find in Scripture, I would prefer to see children's church dedicated primarily to worship and secondarily to edification, just as I would like to see with the adult worship service. Thus, I think it should consist primarily of songs, prayer and snacks, and secondarily of Bible stories and activities.

Snacks? Yes. Believe it or not, if we were to count, we would probably find that one of Israel's most common forms of worship was eating and table fellowship. This was an essential element of most sacrifices; the three annual corporate meetings were feasts; and it is one of the few things that we know the early church meetings modeled for us. Just a few noteworthy examples: Exodus 24:1-11; 2 Samuel 6:14-19; Acts 2:42-46. Songs are about the best way children have to rejoice in the Lord. They are also an effective way of teaching Bible content and theology to young ones. It is a primary means of this for adults too (Col. 3:16). Prayer should be self-evidently important. I would emphasize that children's prayers should be intelligible to children (i.e., short and direct). Stories and activities are another great way to teach Bible content. Stories are sometimes more effective, in my opinion, as activities can sometimes distract from content. In my experience, the better activities seem to be those in which children do things collectively rather than those in which they make things individually, but individual activities can also be profitable.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Creative Delivery Systems at Third Millennium Ministries.