In two weeks, we will wave our palm branches and sing about the children who sang the praises of Jesus as He entered Jerusalem. So it’s appropriate that today we look at children in worship – and those who are not.
Children have not always been made to feel at home in worship. Many of you can remember the days when your parents dressed you up in little suits or dresses, with patent-leather shoes and gloves or clip-on ties and took you to worship on Sundays. There, you had to sit perfectly still and only open your mouth when it was time to sing or recite the Lord’s Prayer.
As parents became a little more relaxed about those aspects of bringing kids to worship, some of the older generations recoiled at seeing kids in jeans and flannel shirts or shorts and tee-shirts. As a result, many of those parents and their kids left and never came back.
Now, as many churches – especially in our economically-challenged area – find themselves in terminal decline, the older generations have realized the Church needs children and have become less concerned about what they wear and the distraction they cause. “It’s good to hear the sound of children in worship” was something you would never hear in the 60s and 70s, but you hear it all the time in churches now.
The problem is that the damage has already been done. Maybe no one minds the fidgeting, the crackly candy wrappers, or the fussing – but you cannot convince young parents of that. They are paranoid about little Jax or Zoey making a peep – and so they seek out churches that are made up mostly of young families or they don’t go to worship at all.
The problem is that churches that don’t make having children in worship a priority are breaking the promises they made when those children were baptized. This is right out of the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship:
Do you, as members of the church of Jesus Christ,
promise to guide and nurture this child
by word and deed,
with love and prayer,
encouraging him or her to know and follow Christ
and to be a faithful member of his church?
This promise motivates our Sunday Schools, Vacation Bible Schools, Confirmation Classes, and Youth Groups; we guide and nurture and teach children about the faith. In doing so, we obey the teaching from Psalm 78:
He decreed statutes for Jacob and established the law in Israel, which he commanded our forefathers to teach their children, so the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.
This is passing along the legacy of faith to succeeding generations, and we are tempted to congratulate ourselves on a job well done. However, Psalm 8 – which was our Call to Worship today – tells us that the job is bigger than just Christian Education:
From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise because of your enemies, to silence the foe and the avenger.
That Psalm teaches us that God wants children to praise Him – something which may be part of a Christian Education program, but is always part of the worship service.
And our reading today from Matthew tells us that Jesus was even clearer about making children feel welcome:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
And when do we usually experience the presence of Jesus most strongly? As we worship.
Because in worship, we are God’s people gathered – and God is present with us in a unique way. Who wants to keep children from experiencing God’s presence – from feeling Jesus’ love?
And yet – in much of the Church since the 1970s and 80s, the emphasis for ministry with children has been on making them feel special by giving them their own separate religious “activities.” Churches started hiring Christian Education Directors and Youth Pastors. Our own denomination in the past ten years has given Certified Christian Educators their own category in church government.
So the focus has been on Sunday School, Youth Group, peer accountability groups, and the like – not on getting kids into the regular worship service.
Perhaps the experts feared that the children would be bored in worship and would run away from the Church as soon as they were old enough.
But Lutheran pastor Tim Wright writes in his blog about the unintended consequences of the trend toward shuttling kids off to their own “Children’s Church” instead of having them worship with everyone else. He says the result has been the most unchurched generation ever:
by segregating our kids out of worship, we never assimilated them into the life of the congregation. They had no touch points. They had no experience. They had no connection with the main worship service –
its liturgy, its music, its space, its environment, and its adults. It was a foreign place to them. And so…once they finished with the kids/or youth program, they left the church.
Wright is writing about a completely separate Children’s Church for the entire time the parents are in worship – not the hybrid model that we use at Rock Hill. The kids get to worship with us – and now they join us for the Passing of the Peace. And we offer them their own “mini-sermon” – which is usually the main point of the regular sermon, offered in simpler terms and in much less time. If we are all honest, we will admit that we prefer it to the regular sermon for those same reasons.
The same goes for shipping kids off to so-called parachurch organizations like Young Life and Good News Clubs as a substitute for taking them to worship. That’s especially tempting, given the heavy Sunday morning sports schedules.
These groups do wonderful work, but children need to be connected to the worshipping community. If they are not, they run a serious risk of not making the transition to being faithful worshippers after they age-out of such programs.
The statistics bear that out. Children who went to Sunday School and worship are far more likely to attend worship as adults than those who went only to Sunday School.
But let’s set the statistics aside and listen to the message of Jesus to His disciples. It is crystal clear – let the little children come to Him, and do not hinder them.
Children belong in worship – so that they will hear and embrace the Gospel and carry on the legacy of faith. It is our baptismal promise to them, and we must keep it.