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Christopher D. Hall on the Disservice of Children’s Church
I understand the concept of “children’s church.” I sat in pews with small children before I was ordained. I know the constant juggling of Cheerios and crayons, the winces as plastic toys hit the tile floor, the random shrieks of babies, and the “whisper” of toddlers that carries halfway to the pulpit.
I’ve said prayers like this: “Our Father who art in . . . ssshh! Put that down . . . thy kingdom come, thy will . . . no, don’t color on that . . . Give us this day . . . ssshh! I said. . . .” It would be nice to have an hour of quiet, an hour of worship, an hour of attentiveness knowing that my children are hearing about our God and Savior.
Children’s church seeks to reach children at a level cognitively and emotionally appropriate to their age, all the while allowing parents to be attentive to worship, but it does a disservice to the children, disconnecting them from the church gathered as the complete Body of Christ, sacramentally present, serving the Body of Christ with our Lord himself. It does a disservice to adults, too, subtly giving them the impression that church is like the evening news or a PG-rated musical: adult fare that requires some maturity.
Worship Beyond Reason
We don’t, and will never, offer children’s church in the church I pastor, because the alternative—“adult church”?—is not just for adults. Worship is not simply a rational, intellectual exercise appealing to the hearing and understanding of adults. Nor is it a postmodern, emotional, narrative experience that, well, also appeals to adults.
It is an encounter with the Triune God, which does not depend upon our own mental faculties (or lack thereof) or upon our emotional backgrounds, baggage, or preferences. The Word of God works, despite our sin, despite our cognitive ability, despite our age and experience.
The church fathers called worship “reasonable” or “rational,” contrasting it with pagan worship, especially the mystery cults and the ecstatic worship of the gods. Irrational worship did not involve the intellect, but the basest appetites and impulses. Irrational worship was the entire giving of oneself over to the manipulation and influence of the gods, a losing of one’s self and awareness in the emotional experiences of the moment.
Rational worship is sober, engaging the senses in the worship of the divine, but also—especially—engaging the mind as well. It controls emotion, submitting it to the God of order: “For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor. 14:33).
Yet worship is not only the engaging of the rational faculties. Worship is the peaceful and ordered encounter with the revealed Triune God, who through his Word speaks not just to the mind but to the entire person, to the spirit.
The Word is “living and active” (Heb. 4:12). It lives and makes alive. We are formed by these words (and the signs that express them) because God is at work in them, because God creates faith by the Word: “Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).
This message, this “word of Christ” we believe, is not only a rational word of a human language, but the divine Word, the logos of John 1, the Word which does not return to God without accomplishing its purpose. “So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; It shall not return to me void, But it shall accomplish what I please, And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (Is. 55:11).
I’ve seen only a few pre-kindergarteners singing the liturgy, at least not without skipping, swaying, or twirling. I’ve only heard a few lower elementary kids comment on a particular sermon. But they have ears. They have received the Holy Spirit, for God is at work in them, even if they do not understand intellectually. “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them,” Jesus said. Jesus is there in those means of grace.
But I take this even further. We have a nursery for use during worship, and though my children are stuck there while I preside and my wife plays the organ, I wish my children were the only ones in it. Babies will never actively listen to a sermon, and even if they are happy and they know it, cannot clap their hands in children’s church, but I want even the littlest of babes to be right there in the sanctuary, lying in his mother’s arms as she tries to sing the “Alleluia” before the Gospel reading.
I want them there because they have faith, though it sounds strange to say it. Babies can trust; they know if they cry, their mommas will pick them up and they will be fed and loved and kissed. It is only a small step from trusting the father who will come running at their cries to trusting the Heavenly Father who gives us all we need and have.
God is no respecter of persons. Babies are welcome in my sanctuary even as they are welcome in Jesus’ arms. He loves them. It’s that simple.
A congregation my wife once attended was embroiled in a heated debate over whether to cover the tile floors with carpet. Several members were complaining about the loud clicking that the women’s shoes made as they went to the altar to receive Communion, thinking it too distracting.
The pastor agreed that it was noisy. But it was a beautiful noise, he continued. It was the sound of people going to receive the gift of eternal life given in the body and blood of Christ and returning from an encounter with the risen Lord.
Likewise, the shrieks of a toddler, the clunk of toys hitting the floor, the incessant scratching of pencils coloring in the bulletins—these are the beautiful noises of a family, of the Body of Christ. All of us who have been mystically united with Christ are given faith, the gift of the Spirit, the active, powerful Word.
God serves us with his supernatural gifts, and they do not depend on our age, intelligence, or capacities. God does not show favoritism toward those who can speak or those who are developed enough to pay attention for fifteen-minute or fifty-minute sermons. For we all enter the Body, becoming members of the Body the same way: through the gracious action of our God, despite our works, our abilities, and our sins.
With the Body
Though members of the Body of Christ may appear weak, or useless for an age—after all, what’s the use of an infant during the sermon?—each member has a role, a place. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many” (1 Cor. 12:12–14).
These many members of the Body of Christ are uniquely gathered at Sunday worship, and children’s church and nurseries remove the children from the Body at the precise place and time the Body gathers as the Body. Do we want children’s church to rupture that union at the one place during the week, or even in this world, where the Body is brought together?
Families who tragically lose a member, especially a child, sometimes acknowledge this loss of presence by keeping their loved one’s bedrooms intact, by setting an empty place at the table. These things are memorials to them, signs that the family has been shattered and pieces are missing. Such a feeling of loss ought to permeate our congregations when the children are shuttled out of the worshiping congregation.
Sure, they may be in a “better place,” yet their rightful place is within the Body, within the whole gathered together. God has given the kingdom of heaven to such as these.