Paul Carter recently posted a short blog explaining, Why We Let the Little Ones Go from the Service. We greatly respect Paul’s life and ministry but disagree here with some of his points. We wanted to provide a response to his article from the view of lay-people, a normal husband and wife who have decided (along with a few others in our church) to keep our young children in the full church service from day one of their little lives.
At the start we should say that we consider this an open-handed issue, meaning that we don’t believe parents are necessarily in sin for sending their children to so-called “children’s church” or necessarily walking in God’s will by keeping them in the service. There is no key Bible verse that either side can hold up to show everyone God’s definitive word on the matter.
Rather, we have come to a conviction as a couple that we believe to be Biblical and best upholding God’s will for the family and the church. We are thankful to attend a church where, while different parents pursue different options for their families, the church leadership is committed to family-integrated worship.
We know that there are many families just like us out there across Canada, who are weekly fighting the good fight to show our children the riches of the preaching of God’s Word. We would like to encourage you, and perhaps give those of you who resonated with Paul Carter’s article a few considerations on the other side.
What does the Bible say?
The New Testament assumes that children are in the worship service and addresses them in the letters that are to be read during the corporate gathering, the hearing of God’s Word:
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. (Eph. 6:1; Col. 3:20)
The Old Testament provides many wonderful pictures of entire families gathered together to hear the Word of the Lord:
When all Israel comes to appear before the LORD your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones … that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. (Deut. 31:11–13)
There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them. (Josh. 8:35)
Although we do not solely draw our doctrine from the descriptive practices in the Bible, it is beautiful to see the presence of children at the reading of God’s Word throughout Scripture, and significant to note that this has been the practice for almost all of church history.
We believe in the transforming power of the preached Word of God
Corporate worship is unique and has unique blessings. The preaching of the cross is the means by which those who are perishing would come to the light, and those who are in the light might continue to be transformed into the likeness of Christ.
The kind of teaching that is done in children’s ministry is not the same as is done in the context of the gathered church. There is one church, and that church is made up of all different kinds of people: married, widowed, divorced, or single; male and female, young and old, black and white, those with special needs.
Children should not be expected to leave the worship service and be removed from the transforming power of the preaching of God’s Word. The Holy Spirit brings new life and provides faith through the preaching of God’s Word (Rom 10:17). Why would we let the little ones go?
We believe that God communicates in a way for all to understand
While children may not learn or reason in the exact same way as adults, this does not mean that even very young children cannot glean anything out of a sermon. Will a young child be able to comprehend everything the preacher says? Likely not.
We currently have three small children (ages 4, 2, and 1) who sit and worship in the service with us every week. Regularly at lunch time we discuss the sermon with our children—you’d be surprised how much they were actually listening, and the wonderful gospel conversations we have had.
Can there be a time for separate, age-appropriate learning? Absolutely. This is why in the past many churches had an adult and children’s Sunday school, which usually happened before the worship service.
But corporate worship is a unique experience. The preaching of the Word is not just for adults, but for all. As a family and a church, we don’t see the 40 minutes during the sermon as the one opportunity where our children must go get age-appropriate teaching; rather, we try to engage our children in Bible teaching at their level all week long. In daily family worship, we are able to teach our children catechisms, Bible verses, prayer, and singing.
As we live life as a family, there are constant opportunities to talk about God in age-appropriate ways. At bedtime, we are able to snuggle and read one of our story Bibles and apply the message to their heart just as powerfully as any Sunday school teacher would be able to. We believe that the weekly training is complemented well by sitting under the preaching of God’s Word on the Lord’s Day.
We believe that children are not a distraction from true worship
We always need to be careful with how we describe and think about children. Children are presented as many things in God’s Word, but “distraction factories” is not one of them. They are people made in God’s image, and are just as much in need of the unique benefits of the preaching of God’s word as the rest of us.
For those of us with children, training them in the discipline and instruction of the Lord is one of our primary callings, and we believe that the ministry of the Word is an essential part of this calling.
Distractions from the Word must be taken seriously. But what exactly do we consider a distraction? By all means, if a child is screaming or causing the service to be disorderly and confused, they should be removed by their parents. But what else what do we consider distractions? Coughing, body odor, people who say amen, raise their hands in worship, get up to go to the bathroom, or anything that remotely causes our mind to wander for second?
We must admit that while the distractor has responsibility in love to mitigate their distractions, the listeners around them also have a responsibility to listen and focus. Many people can watch a sports game or be zoned out on their phones without even hearing the voice of the person next to them talking to them. For us to be overly distracted by a squirm or noise while listening to the Word of God tells us more about ourselves than about the children around us, who are still learning appropriate behaviour and adjusting their growing bodies to sitting for an hour. Every squirm and peep is a reminder to us that they are God’s gracious gift.
The personal anecdotes that Paul Carter gives about disruptive behaviour in his church have simply not been our experience. It is reasonable that the children and adults around them who are not used to sitting in the entire service will have a hard time adjusting during the handful of times a year that they meet together. But when it is a week-in, week-out occurrence over years and years, everyone gets used to it—parents, children, and congregation alike.
Yes, we need to love each other and not be overly distracting. Parents should take into consideration those outside their family, and remove their children for a time if they are being too noisy. At the same time, it is not a supportive, burden-bearing church body if a parent knows that everyone will give them the stink-eye if their children make a peep.
We ought to strive for order (1 Cor. 14:40) and not confusion (1 Cor. 14:33), but we are also called to others above our own personal preferences. We are called to see children with eyes of faith, not just as a potential distraction but as a potential or present brother or sister in the Lord, who by God’s grace will hopefully be sitting under the ministry of the Word from the day they are born until the day they die—What a blessing!
We believe that worshiping together takes priority over parental ease
Paul Carter is absolutely right in his blog post: parenting can be exhausting! It is a never-ending calling, and as he points out, especially relentless on mothers. We are advocates of a well-timed trip to the coffee shop, solo trip to the store, or a lovely book and bubble bath session after a busy day while dad puts the kids to bed.
More than just “getting space,” we prioritize the personal reading of the Word and prayer either in the morning or in the evenings when we can. That time alone with the Lord can be soul-filling and much needed.
But we have intentionally set aside Sunday mornings as a time to press into the responsibilities of raising our children in the Lord. It is the highlight of our week, not only as adults but as a family.
We love that our children get to experience that reality fully right next to us, by sharing it all with us—the fellowship, the singing, the prayers and call to confession, the preaching of the word, and observing our weekly communion. It is real life, it is messy, it is imperfect, it is grace.
For sure, there are extenuating circumstances and family situations where a young child in a well-run nursery would be a blessing to everyone involved. A parent may be going through a season where they just can’t find the strength to sit through church with the responsibility of disciplining all of their children.
We, however, being in average parenting circumstances, have found that when we are feeling weak as parents and go into a church service prayer-less, depending on our own strength, it never goes well. Resentment, selfishness and all sorts of sundry sins can bubble up to the surface. It is, after all, the Lord’s Day, and Satan would love to ruin it for us.
Yet when we confess our sins and our weakness, when we tell God that we can’t make it through this service on our own, it is there that we find that his grace is sufficient for us, “for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9). When we are feeling empty on the Lord’s Day, we beg for him to fill us up so that we can shepherd our children through church faithfully. And God is teaching us much through that humbling process.
A positive view
To anyone who feels convinced in his own mind (Rom. 14:5) that it would be a blessing to welcome and encourage children to listen to the preaching of the Word, it will not be easy; but there are many creative ways that as both parents and church members we can support a conducive atmosphere for children.
Pastors can easily support the families in their midst through a few small efforts. By providing church members beforehand with the sermon text, families can read together and discuss what they are going to hear at breakfast Sunday morning, or in the car on the way to church.
We have heard of a pastor who adds to the bulletin a couple of key words for the children to listen for in his sermon, which is a helpful practice for keeping young children engaged and provides a jumping off point for discussions after church—“Why was ‘faith’ a repeated word today? What does ‘propitiation’ mean, anyway?” If a pastor sees fit, they could even provide a discussion question for the sermon, which could benefit not only families but small groups and individuals that want to discuss the sermon afterwards.
And a pastor can keep in mind the children—and adults alike—as he crafts his sermon, taking care to keep his message a succinct, clear, focused exposition of the text that encourages, exhorts, and shows Christ. With that kind of preaching, even children will be able to discern the message you are presenting.
Parents also can proactively prepare for a positive church experience. We have found that when we discuss behavior expectations with our children in the car on the way to church, they are much more likely to be better behaved than when we forget. They are young, they need reminders even more than we do!
As discussed above, reading the passage together as a family and knowing that there will be a family discussion afterwards can definitely help keep children focused. Some families provide small snacks, story Bibles, or activities to keep little hands busy. As children get older, they can draw out what they are hearing in the sermon, keep a tally mark of key words that they hear, and even take notes.
During the week, consistent family worship can help prepare our children to sit and listen to God’s word. At times where our children have been sick on Sundays, we have even practiced sitting on the couch and watching a sermon video online.
While our children have sat in the service almost every Sunday of their short lives, they still can get fidgety and fussy, and we pray weekly that God will give us his grace as parents to be patient and loving in our discipline and instruction with them during the service.
Sometimes we have to remove them for a few minutes, or even for the remainder of the sermon. With multiple children, you will likely have all hands on deck, but it is important that when possible the father takes primary responsibility for training and disciplining the children during the service. No week is perfect. Sometimes, like other aspects of parenting, it can be tiring. But something being tiring or hard does not mean that it is bad, and we take encouragement from God’s Word—“Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up” (Gal. 6:9).
Our point is not to argue that every parent must keep every child at all times in the entire service to be a faithful parent. Primarily, we would like to exhort parents and churchgoers to consider the present and long-term fruitfulness that can result from inviting our young children joyfully, with open arms, into our church services.
And we would like to encourage those families who are taking in the preaching of God’s Word together that your labors every Sunday are not in vain—they are proper worship fitting for our Lord who said, while addressing his disciples who found children a distraction, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:14).
Al Mohler helpfully summarizes:
Wherever children are be found they are to be welcomed by Christ’s people. Christ’s people are to be more welcoming than anyone else to children. Our churches should not be places where adults cannot wait to put the children away in order to get to the adult tasks of worship. One of the scandals of so much evangelicalism is that we send people to their rooms as soon as we get to church. Now, I’m not arguing against the utility of a nursery for infants. I’m not arguing against the appropriateness of special programs to teach children. I am saying that when you look at a church and you look at a congregation you should see the congregation. You should see young people. You should see young couples. You should see older couples and older people. You should see those coming into the final season of their life and you should see those in the beginning season of their life. You should see people sitting in pews whose feet cannot touch the floor. And we should, in church, welcome the wiggling and the squirming, and we should hope that what is happening is that the Word of God is reaching those hearts in ways those children do not even recognize. They are speaking as children, they are thinking as children, they are reasoning as children but the Word of God can reach where we cannot go. It is one of the ordinary means of grace that our children, in church with us, will hear the Word of God, and sing the songs, sing the hymns, hear the music before they can sing it. In order that they, at the right time might find their voice.