Editors Note: This is Part Two of a duo set of articles on the problem with Children’s Church, why we should burn it down, and what we should do instead. Part One where I argue to burn it to ashes can be read here.
It continues to mystify me when the forth commandment became the forth suggestion. Therefore it should come as no surprise that for Christians who have so low an opinion of gathering on the Lords Day that they would be either intellectually lazy about the ecclesiology regarding children, or actually lazy about raising them up the the way they should go. The tragedy of this quagmire we have gotten ourselves in is that to end it is near impossible. There is the cottage industry of children’s ministry churning out curriculum, the ever present problem of habit or tradition. Someone can always point to the “success stories” ignoring that those are a minority, an in spite of not a because of. There is the ease of it: no children to be distracting in the service, parents get a break from their kids, pastors don’t have to worry about them being disruptive, it is a great draw to bring families into the church… The list goes on. But we have to question, is this actually what a faithful church is supposed to be doing or have we at best bought a seeker sensitive lie or at worst made comfort our idol?
In the last article I laid out many of the major problems with children’s church. In this one I intend to lay out the obvious solution, and give some clarity on effective children’s ministry.
It should also be noted that I have skin in this game. I have been a missionary to children for 23 years with a global children’s missions organization. One of my degrees is in the field of children’s ministry. I have taught children, trained children’s teachers, and advised churches on children’s ministry. All of this and I still say; Children’s Church, burn it with fire, and then from the ashes build and by that work, strengthen the full church.
The Elephant in the Room
In full honestly my argument works better if you are a paedobaptist than credo. I am arguing for children being a part of the body and, as a credo-baptist myself, it can make a certain sense to send out the kids because they aren’t yet part of the body. So let me throw out a couple of points to my credo brethren. First, if you are moving them out because fencing the table would be hard, then let me say deal with it. Church is not about efficiency. The table should be fenced against non believers anyway, kids are no different. Second, they are not members and you don’t want them thinking they are until they are. Well good news members meetings can have childcare! Hire some sitters from the OPC church down the road if you are afraid of keeping votes in the nursery, and have the meeting. Or have the kids sit in and don’t count their votes if they try. Third, CHILDREN’S CHURCH DOES NOT WORK.
Keep Children in the Service: Train Them
I sometimes wonder if acceleration of the anti discipline movement comes from the self perpetuating failure to actually do the hard work of discipling children and the resulting chaos that ensues. We didn’t like the little bit of discipline we got so we back it off a notch for our kids, and chip chip chip the monolith falls down. We stopped taking God at his word and doing the hard work of discipline and training and then said that God had lied based on the exceptions that we were now churning out as the rule.
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” – Proverbs 22:6
Children can be trained, it takes a lot of work on the front end but in so far as it goes with the worship service I can also give assurances that they do grow up as well. It would be better for them to grow up into being members of the body than suddenly graduating into a slower, duller, less entertaining… And here I should pause to clarify I am writing of real churches: the ones who take worship seriously, actually know what they are doing and why, have theological depth. The opposite of charismatic cults or the cults of personality that rhyme with Ftephen Surtic.
So, a real service is an adjustment for kids who are used to something more happy clappy and sermonette-y. But they keep getting sent over there because when they are squirmers and screamers they are distracting to mom and dad especially, and the surrounding people in general. But that is ok, there is not a sacred secular divide that we as protestants recognize. The body has gathered, the word is read and preached, the table is opened, and if mom and dad miss a sermon point or a line of a hymn, or a cry pierces the church, that is fine. It can be dealt with. And with discipline and training, kids can learn to participate and even sit still.
To Show Self-Control
Early on this means roaming the building, which on occasion is cute. If you have never been in a service where a two year old sneaks free and gleefully bolts across the front of the sanctuary squealing with glee, you frankly have not lived. So anomalies can happen that that is fine, The adults will live. The service provides an opportunity to learn self-control and it even can provide an opportunity for children to be examples to adults.
This is the part where I argue against screens. Church is an analog place in a digital age, and that is a good thing. As a people our attention spans are so short. I am almost willing to place a bet that if you turned out the lights on any given Sunday in your average church you could still illuminate the room with all the screens that are on. Sure some of them are Bible apps, but I have observed just how tempting those two clicks to a social media feeds are for everyone. I see it all the time, a quick glance, scroll, scroll, scroll, double click back to the Bible app, and try and figure out what verse the pastor has moved on to.
How helpful would it not just be to children to have the ability to focus and learn from a sermon, but for adults to feel some shame over their inability to have the same self-control as a child. Also why is every teen glued to their phone during a sermon, they are trained that when they are bored look at their phone till something interesting happens. Start early, here is a physical Bible, phones stay home, you will live.
Listening is not just taking words in your ears understanding them and moving on. It is comprehension and application. In addition to a physical Bible as a child gets older help them take physical notes. Churches could turn all of that energy from preparing children’s church to preparing age acceptable sermon note sheets. Pastors might need to sort their schedules out to be done with their sermon by a certain time so that the children’s minister can take the outline or manuscripts and create the notes. But this is a part of feeding the flock.
Preach to Them
Do you know when adults perk up and pay close attention to a sermon? When children are directly addressed. It is also an opportunity to make clear, simple application. In fact, in all my years of ministry do you want to know what is different between teaching children, youth, and adults? Age specific application of the text, that is it. Adults need to hear the same thing over and over again just like children. They might know bigger words, but that is rare. Pastors sometimes fail to be effective because they think they are Tim Keller and they over estimate their congregations. If you can’t make something clear to a child, you don’t understand it yourself. Preach to the kids, the adults will benefit as well.
The Value of Sunday School
The obvious place and time to have children instructed and catechized is ignored because it is out of vogue. Sunday School is a brilliant invention of the modern church. It provides for specific teaching to specific groups, fellowship, the creation of friendships, the training and raising up of teachers, a way to identify future deacons or elders, it also has the advantage of not taking up as much of people’s schedule because they were already going to be in the building, so what is one more hour?* The downsides do exist and I will not deny them. There can be a potential for cliques to form, it may seem wasteful to have all this space unused during the week, and that can create a drive to fill that space with other things during the week. I would suggest that urge be strenuously ignored. It is possible to turn off the thermostat for that part of the building and then turn the system on Saturday night. I mean these days a Sunday School Superintendent could probably scream at his Alexa at home to do it remotely the night before.
Despite all this, let me bring this back to the kids. Right now the community group model is failing them. Most of the time they are shoved off into a bedroom with the other kids and a bored oldest one “keeping an eye on them.” Occasionally they escape and interrupt the adults and are sent out. My parents model was that we were present, but my father was a big believer in the children were to be seen and not heard model of things, so boredom reigned supreme under the threat of punishment later. Either way there is nothing that really instructs or builds up the kids, so it seems like children’s church would be a solution. But it also fails for all of the previously cited reasons. Sunday School solves this. And it manages to be personal, fun, and typically “school like.” Which brings me to the effective part. Sunday School is a class, a Bible class. There is a teacher who has prepared a lesson, screens in an effective Sunday School are verboten, so semi-Pelagian vegetables here thank you. Sunday School also can prepare children to be and participate in the service. They receive valuable interaction and activity, learning discipline then showing it in the time of worship.
The Place of Fun
My critique of children’s church has had a strong element of the silliness that gets passed off as teaching. Now I will admit there are those churches (usually smaller) where an actual human teacher sits down with the children to teach them a prepared lesson from Scripture. But this is far from the norm, typically it happens on a giant screen maybe there is an MC or some dancers to help the kids with the “motions” to the songs. And it is usually all in short segments and very silly, like Python without the intelligence. And this is my point there is a world of difference be tween patronizing silliness, and the oxymoronic sounding serious fun.
“Laugh and fear not, creatures. Now that you are no longer dumb and witless, you need not always be grave. For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.” – C.S. Lewis (Aslan), The Magicians Nephew
When children are in a scenario for them the kind of teaching can and should be geared toward them. And that teaching should be fun. Jesus himself was fun. In the famous parallel passage of “Let the little children come to me” Mark’s Gospel uses the greek to point out that when Jesus blessed the children he did so repeatedly. What this signified was that the children kept coming back for more, and if there is one thing that kids do is return to where they had fun. Jesus’ blessing, or his time with them was something that was fun. Children do not return to people who are boring. So we should create an environment that is geared toward them, Sunday School is a perfect opportunity for both teaching and fun. It has been that for years until it got jettisoned. The trick is, fun requires work on the part of the adult. And as it has been covered, right now the people of the western church are lazy.
Children have been despised and failed in our churches. It is time to see them for what they are, some are already brothers and sisters in Christ, some are not yet but will be. They should be evangelized and raised up into the body, not sidelined and then have a hail Mary pass run on them to try and keep them around. Which is what we have been doing.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 18:10
*Granted this is the least important of the reasons but for some churches, like in a rural area it is an enormous advantage.