Children in Worship Services: Disciples or Distractions?
by David Michael, Pastor for Parenting & Family Discipleship
Children are everywhere at Bethlehem and we love it! This has been one of the marks of our church for the past three decades. With all our hearts we rejoice that those who are a “gift”, a “heritage”, a “reward” from the Lord (Psalm 127:3) are weekly testimonies to God’s kindness to us and his blessing on our church.
We believe that children should be active participants in our worship services from the invocation to the benediction. By the time children are age 4 we heartily encourage parents to bring them into the service.
We know that this effort comes with challenges and difficulties for the children, their parents, and those sitting around them. We are eager for children and their parents to feel and experience our warmest welcome into the service and we are eager for everyone to be able to engage in the worship service with minimal distractions. To this end, I would like offer the following points for our consideration.
First consider three of the convictions that feed our desire for children to be present when the church gathers for worship.
1. Children are absorbing more from a worship service than we think they are.
- Children observe an intensity and earnestness in corporate Sunday morning worship that often impresses on them the greatness and the glory of the One we worship.
- Even though they do not understand every word or concept in a sermon, young children do pick-up on the hunger and passion for the word of God that they observe in both preacher and listeners. We are people of the “the book” and children learn that this book is central in the life of a follower of Jesus.
- Many ideas and streams of thought in an average sermon at Bethlehem are complex and over the heads of our children, but it is amazing how much children can absorb. A four-year old can be taught to listen for key words and interact with a message that enables them to be good listeners and often glean the central message of the sermon.
- The hearts of children can be just as responsive to the work of the Holy Spirit in a worship service as an adult can. Even when their children have not understood the words of a song or sermon, parents have often testified to their children being spiritually impacted at various points in the worship service.
2. Lifetime habits and attitudes are more easily formed and more likely to endure if established early in life.
- The habit of regularly participating in corporate worship.
- The habit of listening. If we help children develop good listening skills when they are young, even if they do not understand everything being said, they are more likely to benefit from the ministry of the word as their minds mature and are able to grasp more complex ideas.
- The habit of self-control. A seventy-minute service is a long time for a four-year old to sit. For some it may even be impossible but most can be taught to sit quietly and resist distraction for that period of time which will also serve them well in the years to come.
3. Important values are reinforced.
- Like every human being, children are created for worship and when they gather with us for worship they contribute in ways that are unique to children and can benefit the whole assembly.
- The presence of children in our worship services helps to reinforce to our children that they are included in our fellowship and the Body Christ is established by faith and not by age.
- The presence of children in our worship services also reminds the church body of our responsibility to teach our children to fear the Lord and diligently teach them what we have learned of God and the life of faith.
- Children are “adults in process”. By the grace of God, we are raising children for worship and therefore providing ample opportunities to observe the kind of people we pray they will become must be part of our “Education for Exultation” strategy.
Second, please consider the following points that will help maximize the benefit of our corporate gatherings and minimize the distractions that potentially hinder the hearing of the Gospel.
1. “Adults in process” require sensitivity and patience from everybody. Parents need to be sensitive to other worshippers around them and other worshippers need to be patient with children and parents.
2. A child does not instantly understand how to behave in a corporate worship service. It requires training and discipline. Family Discipleship offers some resources (The Family: Together in God’s Presence and Suggestions for Helping Your Children Worship, also available in the literature racks North and Downtown and at the South Information Desk) and counsel for parents who would like some help with this.
3. A child’s negative behavior is not the only distraction. A child may start singing, or waving at people, or trying to kiss a sibling who does not want to be kissed. As cute or as sweet as it may be, please remember that we want God and his Word to be the center of attention—not our children.
4. During this “training” phase, when a child’s behavior is distracting we encourage parents to remove the child from the service until the behavior can be corrected. If you anticipate having to leave with your child, it is best to sit where you can exit the sanctuary without disrupting more people than necessary. For security reasons please do not release your children from the service unattended by an adult.
5. Resist the temptation to be annoyed by restless children and their parents who are struggling to deal with them. Take the opportunity to pray for the parent and to pray with vision for the child to become a man or woman of God who is mighty in faith and an influencer for the glory of God and the spread of the Gospel in their generation.
6. As much as we delight in having any child in our services we know that it is difficult for infants and toddlers to be meaningfully engaged in the worship service and to go 90 minutes without being distracting. Therefore, our nursery staff takes great delight in ministering to these children while their parents are in the service. Nurseries are available during all our weekend services except for occasional special services. We know that for various reasons some older children are not able to stay in the worship service. There are “restless child” areas provided at each of our locations which offer a higher distraction threshold but even in these areas we should do our best to minimize the distractions and be as sensitive as we can be to those who are around us.
7. For all of us, let us respond to occasional disturbances and inconveniences with patience and with eyes of vision and faith. Let’s transform our irritation into prayer for the children and their parents who are faithfully raising them to fear the Lord and delight in his presence all the days of their lives.
O, may God give us the desire of our hearts for the children of Bethlehem. May not one be lost and may every parent know the joy of seeing their children walking in the truth (3 John 1:4).