Should We Keep Our Children In The Worship Service?
If we had to pick the one practice of our church that sets it apart from other churches in our area, it would have to be the inclusion of young children in most of what we do, especially the worship. Some people call this “a family-integrated church,” but that name can mean different things to different people and so it’s probably best to avoid a catch-all term. Our church has no objections to having special classes or outreach emphases that might divide up age groups. Sunday School classes are fine. We also have a nursery. But still, what stands out is that most everyone brings their children, even toddlers and infants, to the worship service, and that our worship service is designed to include children as well as adults.
Our reason for this is pretty simple. We believe that everyone should worship the Lord. Sunday morning is the regular opportunity to do this, and it only seems natural for parents to bring their children with them. Buy doing so, they are teaching them how to participate, from the earliest of ages, and they are exposing them to the ordinary means of Grace by which God works His Spirit in them. We believe that it is a blessing for the children to be able to worship, and we find that the children are a blessing to us as they grow into worshiping with us.
Biblical Examples Of Children In Worship
Now, we should admit that the Bible does not give a specific “instruction manual” for how to conduct a worship service. If you go to the New Testament hoping to find something similar to the Book of Common Prayer, then you will be sorely disappointed. You won’t even find a chapter that teaches who should attend worship and when. This means that we shouldn’t make absolute laws out of these things. However, what you do find is a general command that people go to worship services. For instance:
And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:25)
The word for “the assembling of ourselves together” is a word that is used for official meetings. It’s the same word that a modern term “synagogue” comes from. So Hebrews is talking about formal assemblies. In chapter 13 of Hebrews we are told that these assemblies even include some kind of ruling officials who have to “watch out for your souls, as those who must give account” (Heb. 13:17). So it is talking about an organized time for Christians to get together for prayer and worship and follow the instruction of religious authorities. We now call this “church.” So you need to go to church. That’s the first point.
There are several examples of different kinds of worship services being held in the Bible, and we do find several places where children are present at them. For instance, children were present at the celebration of the Passover:
And it shall be, when your children say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ that you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice of the Lord, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt when He struck the Egyptians and delivered our households.’” So the people bowed their heads and worshiped. (Ex. 12:26-27)
Children are included in the tithe feast from Deuteronomy 14:
…exchange [the tithe of your fields] for money, take the money in your hand, and go to the place which the Lord your God chooses. And you shall spend that money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen or sheep, for wine or similar drink, for whatever your heart desires; you shall eat there before the Lord your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. You shall not forsake the Levite who is within your gates, for he has no part nor inheritance with you. (Deut. 14:25-27)
Children are also included in the seven-year reading of the law:
Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your God and carefully observe 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 which you cross the Jordan to possess. (Deut. 31:12-13)
Something similar appears in the covenant-renewal ceremony of Joshua 8:
Then all Israel, with their elders and officers and judges, stood on either side of the ark before the priests, the Levites, who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord, the stranger as well as he who was born among them. Half of them were in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and the cursings, according to all that is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, with the women, the little ones, and the strangers who were living among them. (Josh. 8:33-35)
There are no detailed descriptions of a worship service in the New Testament. However, there is the famous scene where people bring their “little children” to Jesus for prayer and the laying on of hands. The disciples of Jesus, for reasons we are not told, rebuke the people for doing this, but Jesus speaks out and says, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them, for of such is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 14).
Beyond these Biblical passages, the logic of covenant theology and infant baptism would lead us to believe that children should participate in the ordinary worship of the church. You can read this previous article for more about that point. If we believe that our children belong to the covenant, and if we offer them baptism, then it only seems right that we allow them to hear the word and join in the singing and the praying.
But won’t children, especially babies, be a distraction? This is probably the most common objection that we hear. And to be honest, sometimes young children can present challenges. Yes, babies cry. Yes, toddlers squirm. And this can put a burden on the mother, especially if she doesn’t have extra help. But, speaking from the perspective of the church at large, the distraction level is not really that big of a deal. A little bit of crying is a fairly normal thing for those of us who have kids, and gurgling and cooing is downright cute. It’s really only the very loud crying or tantrums that pose a problem, and we have a nursery for situations where mom and dad need a break. If a baby is having a really hard time, they can always be dropped off there. We don’t have any policy that forbids this, and several of our families make use of the nursery regularly.
A second objections goes like this, “Won’t the kids hate going to church?” This assumes that the kids will be largely “left out” and simply forced to go through the motions. It might also be the case that the question assumes that the kids can’t sit still through the service. Whatever the precise meaning, the idea is that the kids won’t enjoy themselves and the whole thing will be a big struggle, making Sundays miserable for everyone.
In our experience, however, the kids can sit through the service about as well as the adults by the time they are about three years old. Children actually learn by routine, and the more they are exposed to the life of the church, the easier it is for them to participate in an orderly manner. If the children are really having a hard time with the service, the odds are pretty good that the adults are having a hard time too. This might be a clue that the sermon could be shortened a bit, or it might tell you that the service is designed for only a certain portion of the congregation. If you are only engaging in highly intellectual theology, you are probably leaving a lot of people out. Our service has a formal liturgy, and the children typically love the parts which repeat every week the best. We have opportunities for them to talk in the liturgy– the responses and the Amens, times for them to stand up and to kneel down, times for them to raise their hands, and times for them to walk around and greet others– the passing of the peace. None of this is “pitched” to kids. In fact, most people assume it’s very much for adults. And yet the children enjoy these ritual parts the best.
Another objection is that the children “won’t get anything out of it.” The service is mostly addressed to the adults, and it will just go over the children’s heads. This one shares a lot of assumptions that the earlier objection shares, and we would say much the same things in response. But it also assumes that the sermon is the only part of the service that people “get something out of it.” But that shouldn’t be the case. Our service has several places of congregational response, many of which stay the same throughout the year. Young children quickly memorize them. We also sing and celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, which we allow young children to participate in as well.
Also, it’s worth asking whether it really is the case that we wait until children “can get it” before we introduce them things. Consider, do you parents take time to talk to your babies? Why? Surely you know that they cannot understand. But of course, the reason you talk to your babies is because talking to them actually helps them learn and grow. It’s an important part of their development. Parents regularly begin introducing conversation, song, and story to children before the children can necessarily understand what’s being said to them. We do this because it is an ordinary way of teaching and training. This is what’s in the background of those famous bible verses on child-training like Deuteronomy 6:6-7 and Proverbs 22:6. We start when our children are very young on purpose. That’s the best time!
A Personal Illustration
For most of us, the most convincing argument for having children in the worship is simply what we experience in our own families as our children grow up. Basically, the proof is in the pudding. If I may switch into a more personal voice for a moment, I’d like to just share something from my own family.
My son is currently three years old. He’s every bit the boy– full of energy, wiggles, and noise. He doesn’t read yet, and he’s doesn’t always want to “cooperate” when we try to have our times of reading, teaching, or praying. But he has learned to participate in our church’s worship service, and he has impressed us with his ability to memorize key parts of the liturgy. He loves to shout “Amen!” throughout the service, sometimes a little too loudly. He can pray the Lord’s Prayer. He sings the Doxology and Gloria Patri. He even recites the Nicene Creed. Again, he doesn’t read yet, which means that he isn’t reading from the bulletin. No, he has the Nicene Creed memorized. At three years of age, he can say this:
We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible: and in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from Heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man, and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into Heaven, and is seated on the right hand of the Father. And he shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead: whose kingdom shall have no end. And we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son; who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified; who spoke by the prophets. And we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church; We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. Amen.
Let me be sure to clarify that I’m not bragging about my family’s unique ability here. We don’t even do anything to particularly reinforce this. We haven’t begun reciting this at home for training. My son has learned this simply from being in the worship service every week. And he’s not alone. The other children around his age are doing the same thing. This is an ordinary benefit of including children in the worship service.
Children love repetition. The fact that they hear “the same thing” every week in church is actually one of the best things for them. It makes the service familiar. It makes it inclusive, as they know exactly what’s coming and can even join in. And it makes it inclusive for them at very early ages.
That’s really the message we want to send: you are welcome here. This is a place for you. Keeping kids in church isn’t only about kids. It’s about creating a unified people of God who look at one another as members of the same body. It’s about covenant identity. It’s about community. It’s about loyalty. It’s about growing together with the other people God puts in our churches. Including our children in worship is really just a natural way of being the church.