“Come, you children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the Lord” Psalm 34:11
Being the brand new pastor of the most prestigious church in town, I was trying hard to watch my P’s & Q’s. I had made my mind up BEFORE taking this job that I would adopt a low profile at first and try to change as little as possible. Sure the weekly “special” music was not to my taste, the organist was a bit of a pain, and there were lots of little things that needed attending to (like praying that God would convert half the congregation!). But since I was the new kid on the block (and my congregation was largely composed of people over seventy!), I decided that I would spend most of my time preaching, teaching, and visiting the “saints,” while seeing how things developed in other areas.
However, there were some things that needed immediate attention. Like most broad evangelical churches, toddlers were automatically placed in the nursery. Slightly older children were dismissed immediately before the sermon for “Primary Praise.” For those between the ages of 10-12 there was “Junior Church.” The teens (there were only a handful) were allowed to sit in the balcony together.
But each week, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. A few minutes after the sermon began, one by the one the teens would start leaving the balcony. OK, nature WILL call on occasion, but EVERY WEEK? And why should it affect the ENTIRE youth group (all five of them)? And how come NO ONE ever came back until just before the closing hymn?
Being a naturally suspicious sort, I asked Carl, one of the deacons, to check the situation out for me. Sure enough, the very next week, as the sermon began, the teens started disappearing. I gave Carl the subtle sign that we had agreed on; “Hey Carl,” I yelled, “Go find out where those teenagers are going.” Five minutes later Carl appeared in the balcony with our missing teens trailing behind. He spent the remainder of the sermon watching them like a guard dog.
It seems that some years before, when the church had hired a youth pastor, the teens had been granted permission to be released from the service so they could watch “worthy” Christian videos in the fellowship hall downstairs. Though the Youth Minister had been gone for over a decade, the practice had continued, unabated (and even worse) un-noticed until now. The rationale was that the young people found the service “boring” and the oldsters were afraid that they would grow up and leave the church unless they found SOME means of keeping them in the building on Sunday morning. Watching “Christian” videos seemed like a good compromise. So years after the Youth Minister was only known as “Good Old What’s His Name” the teens continued to wander downstairs during the sermon to watch “Christian” TV, which now consisted of Heavy Metal “Christian” Rock groups.
Now these were not “bad kids. It’s not as if they were smoking dope downstairs or plotting subversive activities or the like. And in one respect, they were only doing what their parents were doing upstairs; just choosing a slightly different form of spiritual entertainment!
But the really pathetic thing was that the parents’ strategy didn’t work. Remember above when I mentioned that most of my congregation was over seventy (for the first year I was at that church I couldn’t help feeling I was preaching to a cotton field, since all I could see were little puffs of white hair in the sanctuary)? My question was, “Where are your grown up children?” Unlike most communities today, their kids had not all moved away after finishing school. The vast majority of the church had grown up children STILL living in the same small community and STILL carried on the rolls of the church as members BUT THEY NEVER ATTENDED worship services during the three years I was its pastor. The “kids” had grown up to essentially abandon the faith. They had no interest in God, or His Word or in any other aspect of the Christian life.
But EVERYTHING had been done to keep these “kids” in church. They had Sunday School, Youth Group, Junior Church, and constant fun and games to keep them entertained. They were never allowed to be “bored” and they were never challenged intellectually or spiritually (lest it drive them away). But they left anyway. They left because inside, they were spiritually dead. And the church had done NOTHING to bring them to an awareness of their hardened hearts.
And the handful of teens still left of a once “mighty” youth group was headed the same way. These kids had NEVER learned how to worship because neither had their parents or grandparents. Worship in their mind equated to “spiritual amusement.” The kids had one set of criteria, the parents another; but both consisted of making the worship service as “seeker” friendly as possible. At rock bottom, this church was really about entertaining men, rather than honoring God. The result was an entire generation lost to the Kingdom. It is no accident that CONSERVATIVE evangelical churches regularly lose 70% of their children to apostasy by the age of 25. Clearly, this strategy for reaching our own children did not work.
But our covenant children are members of Christ’s church and therefore need to be under the ministry of the Word and Sacraments JUST LIKE THEIR parents. Why then, do we exclude them from what God Himself says is essential to their spiritual well-being? I love my children, and can think of no higher ambition for them then to love the Lord their God in the same way I do. Yet over the years, I have come to see that as a result of the programs we design for our covenant children, of the ones who DO remain in the church, they are too often LESS spiritual, LESS godly, and LESS interested in the Faith, than the average adult convert. Why is it that people who make a terrible mess of their lives and have to spend years repenting of their sinfulness, make STRONGER Christians than those brought up in the Faith? Why is it that so often, our programs for children end up DULLING their spiritual appetites rather than honing them? I cannot help but believe that there is a causal relationship between our approach to children’s ministry, and the weak kind of adult Christian we so commonly see.
“But” many people will say, “It is so hard for our kids to sit through the worship service. The little ones are a distraction, they cause noise, and having them in the service offends people. Visitors DEMAND a nursery so they can worship in peace. Besides, children cannot understand the sermon and surely it is better to put them together, by themselves, in a place where they can learn at their own level?” Sure, it all sounds reasonable at first, but think with me for a moment about the above argument. At its most fundamental level, when parents tell me that their children cannot sit through a normal worship service, they are really saying that they cannot control their children’s behavior. So the REAL problem is that Mom and Dad are NOT properly disciplining their children. Therefore they want to create a “program” that will remove the symptom (squirmy, noisy and obnoxious children during worship) rather than deal with the REAL problem, raising self-controlled, well-mannered children who understand and enjoy true, Biblical worship. Hmmm. Does anyone else see a reason here why the Christian Church is in such dire straits today?
May I suggest that the solution is NOT to remove bratty kids from the worship service, but rather to TRAIN THE PARENTS to raise godly children? And I think that is why so many of my brother elders are happy to give in to the parents desires here and safely seclude the kids in a nursery. Trust me, as a pastor, it is a lot easier to keep parents happy (and retain your job), by getting kids out of the parents’ hair on Sunday morning, then it is to teach those same people HOW to be godly parents. But that is exactly what God requires of His man in the pulpit. We are not social directors for the spiritually inclined, but His ambassadors entrusted with the words of life. God will not judge us on the great and glorious Day for how well attended our services were (nor for the quality of the special music, or even how polished our oratory) but we WILL be judged for what kind of character our ministry produced in the lives of our people (cf. 1 Cor 3:13-15).
Worship is “the religious duty we owe to God” and that duty entails the reading, singing, praying and preaching of the Word (as well as the right administration of the sacraments). The Word of God is central and instrumental in equipping the saints (2 Tim 3:15-17). God demands and requires that we teach our children how to worship Him (cf. Deut 6:4ff, Eph 6:2ff). Thus, our children need to learn HOW to worship properly; and I hardly think stomping on the floor while singing “Father Abraham” qualifies in this regard.
Yet in today’s church, far too many adults want essentially the same thing as those teens in my old church watching Stryper videos; spiritual entertainment, rather than worship. Churches use drama, dance, videos, special music, etc., as a means of “livening up” the worship service, seldom asking themselves whether what they have concocted is acceptable to God. Clearly, true, spiritual worship is something that does NOT come naturally (cf. 1 Cor 2:14ff). Adults have to learn how to worship God in Spirit and Truth (Jn 4:24) and therefore we ought not be surprised that children will need to learn how to do so themselves. The question is, “how do we teach them?”
Family Worship and Public Worship
We begin with Family Worship, a long forgotten concept in most Christian homes today but the absolute foundation for our Presbyterian and Puritan ancestors. In 1647, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland required fathers and heads of households to lead their families every day in worship (see The Directory of Family Worship, republished by Greenville Presbyterian Seminary). The Scottish Kirk thought this duty SO important, that fathers who failed to do family worship were subject to church discipline, even leading to excommunication. When men took these duties seriously, they literally changed the world (never forget that Scottish Presbyterianism was the theological back-bone of the American War of Independence). When Family Worship declined, so did the religious and social health of the nation. Obviously, if a child is not taught at home how to worship God on a daily basis, then he will be lost, confused and bored when he comes to Sabbath worship.
Hence, the first step in teaching our children to worship is for fathers and heads of households to rediscover their duty to lead the family in daily worship. Let the father lead the family in singing the word, praying the word, and reading the word. Let the fathers show the children how to make just ONE single application each day from the Scriptures. And if Dad cannot get his children to sit quietly and reverently for fifteen or twenty minutes each day, then let him shut off the idiot box that is ruining his children’s attention span and get down on his knees and repent of his failure as a father to control his children. Fathers, God has made YOU responsible for the spiritual well-being of your family. YOU are accountable to God to bring your children up in the fear of the Lord. It is time for fathers to stop playing with their remote controls and get serious about this. Sorry, I know the above is pretty hard on Dads, but better to hear it from me NOW, then from God on the Day of Judgment. And better to DO it now, and see His blessings, rather than lose your children to apostasy, later. (For more detailed information, please see our “Beginner’s Guide to Family Worship.”)
“Be Still and Know that I am God”
Secondly, the time to start teaching your children to worship is when they are babies. Children are NEVER too young to learn, but teaching them is often difficult because we are often not willing to do what is necessary. Look, we all realize that babies make “happy noises” and no one in my experience has ever been frustrated with a baby cooing during a church service. It is the child who screams and throws a tantrum that drives us to distraction, not to mention the parent who refuses to correct them. It is the bored children swinging their feet, ruffling through hymnbooks, crawling under the seats, etc., that disturbs people and disgraces the worship service.
But there is even a more important aspect than just not annoying others. To worship God, one must be able to still one’s heart and mind, to stop the clamor and noise going on inside, so that the Word of God can penetrate deeply within. Hence, learning how to be STILL is a crucial skill; a skill we all need to learn if we are to properly worship our God in Spirit and Truth. We are not talking about some mystical experience here, but rather the discipline of learning to quiet our thoughts and emotions, so that God can speak to us, through His Word. Part of the reason why so many ADULT Christians have difficulty themselves in worship is that they cannot settle their minds to listen to the still, small voice of God as He speaks through the singing, reading and preaching of the Word. They do not know how to push aside all the worries, anxieties, and concerns about life when they come to worship. They are so busy trying to get to church on time, visiting with other Christians, getting set up for the service, etc., that they are not really ready to worship. A few moments of quieting the soul will do wonders for your attitude AND your appreciation of worship (and will make all the entertainment so popular today unnecessary AND undesirable).
Therefore, the first step in training your children to worship is teaching them how to be quiet before God. And we do that simply by training them how to sit quietly, without fidgeting. This can be simply done by practicing holding your children on your lap, at home, for fifteen minutes at a time during family worship. During the “lap-time” the child is not allowed to fuss, squirm, ask questions, fumble in your purse, play with toys, etc. If the child makes a disturbance, then discipline them. Teach them from a young age that you are the boss, and you are in control.
Not only will this help your children sit reverently in worship, but also facilitate their schooling as they learn how to focus their attention (and as well establishes a habit pattern that their parents are in control. Trust me; you’re going to need that control one day and the sooner you ingrain it into your baby, the better off you will be later on). For most children, once they understand that this is a battle you are determined to win, they will eventually settle down. Babies will often simply close their eyes and go to sleep (perfectly acceptable in an infant, less so if they are still sleeping during worship as an adult!). Some, depending upon temperament may laugh and coo at you. Toddlers will usually just snuggle into your body.
As the child learns how to sit quietly, on your lap, start singing to them. We used to publish the next week’s hymns in our bulletin so parents can practice the songs with their children at home. All children love to sing, if given the encouragement to do so. This way, they will associate your singing, with the need to be quiet and still. At the same time, as they get older, and the hymns become familiar, they will try to sing along with you (all of my children, from almost the time they could talk, love to sing. And trust me, musical talent pretty much skipped my family altogether).
As the children get old enough to understand more abstract ideas, you can go through a Bible story picture book or the like. They will then learn to associate being still with singing and learning something. You can also teach them the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and other parts of a normal worship service.
All of the above can be done EVERY day in Family Worship. Admittedly, it does get easier as the children grow older, as well as a lot more fun. Having theological discussions with your own kids has got to be one of the finest times in life; you AND your children sharing in common your love for God!
Meanwhile as you work with your kids DAILY in teaching them how to be quiet, you are in effect teaching them how to be reverent. And once this occurs, they will find Sunday Services no great inconvenience. I dare say, simply practicing the above for just one WEEK, will teach most children how to sit through and ENJOY the worship service. Sometimes, we have allowed children who cannot yet read to have a piece of paper and crayon. This is NOT to draw pictures of butterflies and puppy dogs (or in some cases, tanks and airplanes). Instead, the children are encouraged to draw a picture of something the pastor has said. Often I have found the children looking at me intently as I begin an anecdote to see if I am going to tell a really gruesome story they can use as their artistic muse (and being a kid at heart, I try as often as possible to give them one particularly graphic illustration).
However, even the best kids, on occasion, will test and try you to see if the rules are still in force. My oldest daughter Elizabeth, when she was three was especially squirmy during worship. It did not help that Dad was still learning some of the above principles. She HATED not playing in the nursery with the other children and resented having to sit in the service. My wife Elaine was pregnant with Benjamin at the time, Matthew was just a baby and Johnny was just a toddler. And when Daddy was in the pulpit preaching, he couldn’t help Mummy with the children in the pew. Elizabeth therefore started developing some very bad habits. She discovered fairly quickly that nature’s call was a sure fire way to get out of ten or fifteen minutes of the sermon. She also liked to talk during the service, “Mummy I just want to tell you one thingâ€¦” loud enough that I could hear it from the podium.
Well, by God’s grace, I was in transition for a bit, leaving the pastorate for six months while taking some graduate courses. This meant I could sit with my family in the congregation and help Elaine with the kids while we attended various churches. And just like any other father, I HATED to discipline my children, especially Elizabeth. She was SO cute and SO charming and yet SO ANNOYING. She sat on Mummy’s lap, then went to Daddy’s and then insisted she have a seat of her own. Even though we took her to the bathroom immediately before the service, she still insisted she had to go again during the sermon. She rattled papers and dropped hymnbooks and generally made a nuisance of herself. Meanwhile, the very principles we are discussing here were brand new concepts for us. Nobody had told us what to do EXCEPT stick the kids in the nursery where they wouldn’t bother anybody, the LAST think we wanted to do.
So, we started by telling Elizabeth that Sunday was the day to worship God and that meant being quiet and respectful. No talking, no potty breaks, no squirming. I then began holding her during our family worship and she was not allowed to get down for ANY reason, whatsoever, and would get a spanking if she tried to do so. Yes, there were a few difficult nights, when it was a contest of wills. And though I dare say, my lovely daughter Elizabeth (now taller than her father) just MIGHT have a stronger will than her Daddy, I did have a stronger hand and applied it judiciously. But Sabbath worship was still a bit of a trial.
I still remember the Sunday when we went to church and Elizabeth tested all that we had taught her. She would not sit still, and she would not remain quiet. I remember having to pick her up, take her to the car outside and canalize her cerebral cortex by way of her gluteus maximus muscles through the vigorous application of negative reinforcement. She cried, and I cried and I held her until the tears dried. Then I marched her right back into the sanctuary where she sat out the rest of the service respectfully and quietly. And, we never had a problem with her since. She was a bright, intelligent child (and has grown into a beautiful, godly woman); once she realized that disrespect for God in the worship service brought her NOTHING but pain, and then she had to go RIGHT back to the very thing she found so boring and difficult, she quickly wised up.
Now I KNOW what some people who are reading this are going to say, “Sure, the big brute spanked a three year old and won, but won’t that just make the kids grow up to hate church?” Nothing could be further from the truth. Think about it this way. Much of growing up is learning the discipline one needs to accomplish anything. And AS you grow up, you learn HOW to appreciate things that as a child did not come naturally. For example, children NEED to learn how to eat vegetables. Very few children “naturally” like vegetables, they have to be taught how to do so. But as they are “forced” to eat them as a child, eventually they learn to enjoy them as an adult. Children “naturally” love sweet things. But if they do not develop “adult” tastes for savory things, they are going to have real problems in later life (such as weight problems, dental cavities, diabetes, etc.).
Or take drinking coffee as an example. The highlight of my morning is drinking that first cup of steaming black coffee while I read my Bible in secret worship. But black coffee is bitter and not at all appealing to a child (all of my children have asked for a sip of my coffee at one point or another, and all have responded with the exact same response, “UGH! How can you drink that Daddy?”). I had to learn how to drink black coffee and enjoy it. Interesting enough, my sons, as they matured, ALSO developed a taste for black coffee.
Now granted, there is no moral benefit to teaching children how to drink black coffee (and much to be said about never getting the caffeine habit at all), but it illustrates the point, some things take time and discipline to master. And simply because initially someone may have a negative experience with something, does not mean that it will necessarily make them avoid that thing in the future.
From personal experience, parents who train their children in the above manner do NOT make their children “hate” church. To the contrary, such parents seem to be successful in raising well mannered, intelligent and successful Christian children. In my own case, because my children were taught from a young age how to sit quietly respectfully, they consider that to be the norm and the older they grow, the more they enjoy worship. They have learned self-control. They sing loudly and with enthusiasm. They listen intently to the sermons and in so far as their own maturity and understanding allow, they follow the message, remember important points and ALL of them can give a concise summary of the Scriptures used during Sabbath worship as well as the application. Occasionally, when we can find one that is appropriate, I take the kids to see a film at the local theater. Since these are usually “kids’” movies, the auditorium is full of children about the same age as my own. Again and again, my children will turn to me and ask, “Dad, why are these children so loud and obnoxious? Didn’t their parents love them enough to teach them how to act in a public place?”
Are our kids “perfect?” Of course not. On several occasions when Mummy was in the “quiet” room with one of the babies, I have had to stop a sermon to discipline one of my older kids that were being a distraction (yes, I mean you and YOU!). Yup, it sure was embarrassing for the pastor to have to stop a public worship service to correct his own children. But they learned, and almost as important, the other families learned that raising godly, disciplined and well-mannered covenant children is a worthy and important goal. Since the pastor was willing to discipline his own children publicly, they no longer felt embarrassed about taking remedial action when necessary. And all our children are growing to love the Sabbath day and worship.
Some Do’s and Don’ts
First, sit near the back of the sanctuary and near the end of the aisle. This makes it a lot easier to discipline if necessary, than having to lug a screaming child down from the front of the church, while everyone is watching you (and if your kids are now all safely grown up and out of the nest, please leave the back rows empty for families).
Have a “quiet” room available. Do not take your child to the nursery (if your church has one) because it is a lot more interesting in there with all the other children and toys than it is in the sanctuary. You want to be careful that you do not teach your child that if they scream and make enough of a nuisance of themselves that the reward is going someplace nice where they can play. Instead, take them to a quiet place, sit them on your lap and discipline them if necessary (if a child is just being “noisy” rather than disruptive a spanking may not always be in order). The child will soon learn that the “quiet” place is even MORE boring than the pastor’s interminable sermon! If you have to take a child OUT of the service, the alternative should always be worse than staying in. Even very young children learn this quite quickly. At some churches, we have had a room, just down the hall from the sanctuary where parents can take fussy little ones. It has a direct feed from the pastor’s mike so that the parent can continue to listen to the sermon. The room is private and quiet, and not nearly as interesting as the main hall. And ladies, if you have a quiet room available, PLEASE, do not disturb other mothers in there trying to teach their children how to worship. Don’t talk and visit during the service. Keep the “quiet” room, QUIET!
Thirdly, be respectful of others. If your child is causing a distraction, PLEASE, deal with him quickly. The rest of the congregation does have a right to worship in peace. And while, hopefully, they will understand your need to train your child, they will be most appreciative if they see you taking prompt action. Never let your children play with bulletins, hymnbooks or make any distracting noises.
Do NOT bring toys into the sanctuary. This is NOT playtime, it is worship time and the first thing they need to learn is how to be quiet (i.e. “Be STILL and know that I am God”). Allow them to draw on a pad or piece of paper (but please, NO tearing pages out of notebooks) ONLY if the picture has SOME relevance to what they are hearing.
Make it a rule that once in the sanctuary, NO TALKING under ANY circumstances (illness excepted; if a child is about to throw-up, then obviously, they need to leave). They must learn that the church service is about worshipping God, and that means silence, reverence and an open heart. You cannot listen, if you are talking. A great way to teach them this by NOT TALKING yourself in the sanctuary before worship; instead, use that time to settle your own heart, confess your own sins, and NOT as a social time visiting with others. Christian fellowship is one of the wonderful blessings of salvation; but please, if possible, do your visiting OUTSIDE the sanctuary. When you enter those doors, get ready to meet the Lord God who is awesome and majestic. (Can you imagine being given an audience with the Queen of England and as you are waiting for her to appear, giggling and talking about your week?)
Also, make sure that all the little ones have a potty break BEFORE the service begins. Recently friends of ours were attending a new church. Wanting to make a good impression they sat up front with their six children all bright and sparkling. Mom had to leave to take the baby out (to a “quiet place”) which left dad with their other five. Right during the middle of the Pastoral Prayer the five year old shouts out (in obvious distress) “I’ve got to go POTTY, now!” Dad was embarrassed of course, and thinking, “Why didn’t he go BEFORE we left home.” But the problem could have been solved by a mandatory visit to the rest room BEFORE the service begins.
Do not let your children entertain others in the sanctuary, nor let others entertain your children. Well behaved, smiling children are appreciated by everyone except nasty, old Scrooges. It will be tempting for some people to smile and play with your well-behaved baby. Resist the temptation. Though initially hard, the goal is to have your child grow up associating the worship service with focusing on God, not the playful smiles of a well intentioned person sitting near you.
Do encourage the pastor to arrange the worship service so that the children can participate. That means hymns and songs they can sing and things they can recite (such as the Lord’s Prayer, Confessions and Creeds, Responsive Readings, etc.). The more “entertainment” oriented the worship service, the more likely that children will become bored and disinterested. It helps if you can practice the hymns during the week.
Finally, give the children incentives to listen to the service. In our house, we make it a game, especially on the way home from church, for the children to find three things they can remember about the sermon. For the little ones, it can be stories or anecdotes. For the older ones, it can be more profound concepts and ideas. But we try to make it interesting to talk about God’s word, and make a contest out of it. As a result, the kids often try to outdo each other in remembering arcane points of theology.
Your children are members of the covenant community and they will grow in the faith the SAME way you do, through worshipping God in Spirit and Truth. As a Ph.D. with two earned degrees in the social sciences, I know that some of my professional colleagues will find fault with much of what I have written about above. They will argue that young children have such a limited attention span that it is unrealistic to expect them to sit quietly and learn from an adult worship service. They will also be aghast at any mention of spanking (which is prima facie evidence today of “child abuse” for many psychologists today) for “just being a normal two-year old.”
But please remember that most of these people have at best only an academic understanding of child-rearing. Professional psychologists have the highest divorce rate of all the professions. They seldom have more than two children. Their own children are likely to grow up to be the very sort of people you hope your own children never meet.
Instead of trying to accommodate our worship services to pagan principles of psychology, let us instead listen to Solomon, the wisest man to have ever lived (apart from the Lord Jesus) who under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit said, “Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
If Dad does his job at home conducting family worship, if Mom spends a few minutes a day teaching her little ones to “be still and know that I am God,” if the church makes just a few minor modifications to the way we do things, our children CAN learn to worship at a very young age. Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
May the Lord bless you as you train your children…