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Children in worship

November 1996 | by Geoff Thomas

There is a certain difference of opinion concerning whether small children should stay in worship services or should have a separate class during sermon time.

Children should stay

There are those like Walter Chantry who is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He believes that children belong in church. It is his judgement that by the time children reach the ages of two to four, they are usually mature enough to understand when their parents tell them to be quiet, and to sit reasonably still for one hour. Furthermore, by the time a child is two to three years of age, his parents should have progressed far enough in their training of children to be able to enforce such basic orders, which their child can understand. Though teaching this behaviour to children may not be easy, it is not unreasonable. It has been done by parents of children with many different character make-ups.

Parents can help prepare children for worship by speaking of it as a privilege and teaching the child to look forward to it with anticipation. When a series of messages is being preached, read, talk about, and anticipate the lessons from God’s Word with your children beforehand. At the start a wise parent will sit in the very back of the church where there will be a minimum number of folk disturbed by the process of training and necessary exits. For this reason, members of a church should be considerate to parents by not insisting on occupying the back rows. Everyone in the congregation should be patient and understanding towards the squawks and thumps of new arrivals in the church. You can help by a kind welcome to the nervous parents, and by refusing to pay attention to the antics of the energetic child. Encourage parents who are taking the challenge and responsibility of training their children to worship. Pray for them. Commend the children after the services when appropriate. Reassure parents that they are doing the right thing. Offer to help with an individual parent’s older children if a younger child is being trained. Comfort parents after a peculiarly difficult service.

Certainly any child who has never had to be still and quiet for an hour will make noise and movement when he first is brought into the church. But it is proper to expect that the major problems with speaking out, standing up and trying to get the attention of others will be largely conquered in a couple of months. This is not to say that the child will never wriggle and whisper. But after a number of weeks there should not be excessive noises frequently made to disturb the whole congregation. You must expect your child to be still and quiet. Make training your children to worship a priority. Give it the time and energy which it deserves. Anticipate Sunday with excitement. Practice how we should sit in church. Discuss the various parts of the worship service. See that your child gets adequate rest on Saturday night and Sunday afternoon before the worship service. Do not be embarrassed to ask other parents of older children for hints and suggestions. Parents of small children need to recognize that training a child to worship requires much effort. Consistency over a long period of time is a key to success. Sporadic attendance, changing the rules and inconsistent enforcement of correction all undermine the effort. We do want parents of young children to be with us in church. We do want to be patient as they train them.

Children should not stay

Peter Masters at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, believes that children should be withdrawn from the worship service prior to the sermon to be taught separately (see Sword and Trowel, 1996, No.2, ‘Should the Children Stay or Go?’ pp.30-31). He believes that small children need appropriate and special instruction. Separate, specialized help for children is referred to throughout the Word of God. ‘Come, ye children,’ says the psalmist, ‘hearken unto me: I will teach you the fear of the Lord’ (Psalm 34:11). Children are to be respected as a distinct group for instruction. In 1 Corinthians 3:2 Paul speaks of a special teaching programme for those who were immature in spiritual matters. ‘I have fed you with milk,’ he says, ‘and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it …’ He acts on the principle that instruction must be tailored to maturity. How much more must this be so for young children! Little children simply cannot be given ‘strong meat’. Yet this is just what we expect them to digest if we do not provide special instruction. At best they follow fragments of a message and learn to be quiet. We acknowledge that well-trained children may behave perfectly throughout long sermons, but is this really doing much good? Less satisfactorily, many children learn not to listen. Even worse, they distract parents who may have to keep half their mind on monitoring their children. Worst of all, though rarely we hope, they make a perpetual noise, and form lifelong memories of interminable boredom. It could all be so different. Special classes would honour the biblical principle of special consideration for the young, as teachers responded to the Lord’s words, ‘Feed my lambs.’

Experiencing the power of the Word

So those two experienced pastors come to quite different conclusions. We have traditionally shared the convictions and practice of Walter Chantry and his congregation. We feel that the greatest need for children or for those with learning difficulties is that they experience something of the power of God in the Word as it is preached by a man of God. More than yet more simple instruction with the books and aids of nursery teaching and family nurture, children on the Lord’s Day morning need to spiritually sense something of the importance of the gospel being preached with the Holy Spirit sent down from heaven in the fellowship of the whole body of Christ. The presence of children hearing the sermons is a tremendous encouragement to the preacher. It makes him long that he deliver the Word of God in such a manner that its majesty be preserved and its marvelous lucidity. ‘The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple’ (Psalm 19:7). Whether there are biblical principles here that must be implemented by every congregation in a certain way we are unsure, and would leave the matter up to the local church. What seems to us the greatest argument for children not leaving the service half-way through is that the power of the Word is for them too. Families will have to be aware of the convictions of certain congregations. And pastors should have regard for the concerns of parents