Children’s Church Part 2 – Let the Little Children Come

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.

Proverbs 22:6

When I was a child, I had never heard of the thing called children’s church. Such an idea was foreign to me, even once I was introduced to it. Church was what I did with my family. We got up together, ate together, went to church together, sat together. Unless my mom was doing handbells or the Sunday my dad had to work, we did church together. Even when we didn’t go to a Service (which I don’t recommend missing), we did home church together. But then I learned of a thing called children’s church. Children’s church was a separate thing, a special thing, a thing where all the kids could get out of that boring, stuffy service and go to a set-apart place to learn about puppets and crafts and stories. Sometimes, Bible stories. But honestly, I can’t remember much except the rooms and the puppets. I didn’t understand the purpose of this. Why was I here when I could be in church, learning about God with my family?

While some separate instruction is good, I think as we embraced modern education principles, we got this idea in our head that Scripture is so Very Complicated that children simply can’t “get it” from the instruction of our 8+ year trained pastors. And those children can be so disruptive during the Service. They are so wiggly! It would be good for the parents, right? To not have such distractions while they are trying to learn about God? And the kids need Age Appropriate Education, yes? So let’s do this: let’s make them a Super Special Place to go learn about God. But, let’s not let it inconvenience us. Let’s put it….in the basement, or maybe the youth house across the street? That way it will be Special, unique, very kiddish, where they can have fu- I mean learn about God at their level.

It was a grand plan. But then, those kids grew up. And not only did they never get spiritual instruction at home, they never learned how to sit in the pew or sing the songs, and wow, this liturgy is so weird. They don’t know when to sit down or stand up or what words to say. Why don’t we have a screen for this room? What page are we on again? Why does everyone else know what to do except us? And why do I have to be here anyway? This is lame. I’d much rather play ping pong and fill out the Sunday School answers on a sheet and eat some snacks. Communion is for adults anyway, right? And then they go to college and we don’t hear from most of them again.

Now, I won’t lay the blame for our churches hemorrhaging our children at the feet of children’s church, youth programs, or ridding ourselves of the liturgy. I will in part, but not in total. I also lay the blame at the feet of poor leadership, the lack of love for learning Scripture and sound doctrine by teachers, and the apathy of parents who outsource their children’s spiritual education. I could go on for a whole book on each of these subjects. In fact, many people have. But I’m not here to talk about those specifics. I lay the blame for many of our issues at the feet of congregations who made kids and their parents feel unwelcome because they simply couldn’t be bothered with having children in all their wiggly wonder be in the Service. You are not more holy than them and you certainly aren’t any better behaved. I see your stares, you checking your phone, you staring into the middle distance. Hey, I even notice my noticing. And the church’s kids notice too. They notice your actions and their separation. Because under all the good intentions and fancy rooms and specialized programs, I see a desire to keep kids separate from the rest of the Church.

But it wasn’t always like this. We didn’t always have age-segregated education for almost anything, least of all worship. There were points in history where we did segregate by age (and even sex and ethnicity). But looking back, we always view it with a right disdain. Because we know that we should all be together. We had the older teaching the younger. We had mothers and fathers teaching all ages of children together. This was most evident in worship. We could talk about all sorts of Christian education, including Sunday school, but for now, I want to focus on the Divine Service. But before we get to the details of what the liturgy entails or why it is so good for all people (including children), let’s start with demonstrating that God wanted parents and children, adults and kids, young and old, to worship together. That we are all recipients of God’s promises.

Starting with the Exodus, children are included in the feasts and festivals that God wanted his people to practice year after year, helping them to remember all that God had done for them, including them in the promises and story, that they might teach their own children (Ex. 12:25-27, 13:7-16). The book of Deuteronomy repeatedly reminds Israel that they are to live and teach all that God has commanded to their children (Deut. 4:9-10, 5-7, 29:29). All were to be present for these moments of instruction, including children (Duet. 31:9-13). In Joshua, the Lord instructs His people to set up visible reminders of His works for both them and their children forever (Jos. 4:5-7, 20-24). When Israel returns to Jerusalem and they finished rebuilding the temple, all of the exiles together celebrated the Passover (Ezr. 6:16-22). Other writers have also commented on how little children were so present in worship they quickly learned all aspects of worship (Miller, McGinnis, Edersheim).

We will not hide them from their children,
    but tell to the coming generation
the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might,
    and the wonders that he has done.

Psalm 78:4

The New Testament is very similar. In places where children are present, Jesus welcomes and blesses them, reminding all who hear that they are welcome in His presence (Matt. 18:1-14, 21:15-16, Mar. 9:36-37, 10:13-16, Luk. 18:15-17). Paul reminds Timothy of his own instruction, which began in childhood (2 Tim. 1:5, 3:14-17). Families were present for many gatherings of the believers (Acts 16:11-15, 29-34, 18:18, 20:7-12, 21:5). And I think there is no coincidence that John and other writers so often call God’s people children (Jhn. 13:33, 1 Cor. 4:14, 1 Jhn. 2:13, 2 Jhn. 1:1-4). For these promises of God were for all, including children (Acts 2:29). Other authors have noted that both Jewish and Christian children were to be trained from infant baptism. From that moment, they were part of the Church and were to be included and instructed as such (Reu). They were to memorize the ten commandments, Psalms, and prayers. For those who had access to the Scriptures, they read them as a family during meals (Reu). Furthermore, the church fathers clearly saw the necessity to have children in worship. St. John Chrysostom has a bevy of comments on this subject. He repeatedly notes that parents are quite focused on earthly training, yet they neglect the spiritual, which is of greater value. Instead of following in the footsteps of our elders, we neglect them as though we know better.

How is it not absurd to send children out to trades, and to school, and to do all you can for these objects, and yet, not to “bring them up in the chastening and admonition of the Lord”? And for this reason truly we are the first to reap the fruits, because we bring up our children to be insolent and profligate, disobedient, and mere vulgar fellows. Let us not then do this; no, let us listen to this blessed Apostle’s admonition. “Let us bring them up in the chastening and admonition int he Lord.” Let us give them a pattern. Let us make them from the earliest age apply themselves to the reading of scriptures. Alas, that so constantly as I repeat this, I am looked upon as trifling! Still, I shall not cease to do my duty. Why, tell me, do ye not imitate them of old?

St. John Chrysosotom

He goes on much longer, bringing up the example of Hannah and Samuel. But he makes this profound statement:

Discipline your son in this, teach him this. This is the greatest riches.

St. John Chrysosotom

This being the kingdom of God. For he continues,

These are lessons which a man does not learn from a master, nor by art, but by means of the divine oracles. Seek not now he shall enjoy a long life here, but how he shall enjoy a boundless and endless life hereafter.

St. John Chrysosotom

What wonderful words of instruction he offers us! It is as though there is nothing new under the sun. Elsewhere he writes,

In children we have a great charge committed to us. Let us bestow great care upon them, and do everything that the Evil One may not rob us of them. 

St. John Chrysostom

Still more church fathers were clear in that children needed to be instructed in the fear and admonition of the Lord from the earliest ages that we might not keep this most wonderful gift from them. In doing so, they would grow in the Lord.

The primary lesson for life must be implanted in the soul from the earliest age. The primary lesson for children is to know the eternal God, the One who gives everlasting life.

St. Clement of Alexandria

Young men must distinguish between helpful and injurious knowledge, keeping clearly in mind the Christian’s purpose in life. So, like the athlete or the musician, they must bend every energy to one task, the winning of the heavenly crown.

St. Basil the Great

“Rear your children in the Lord…Teach them from infancy the Word of God.”

The Apostolic Constitutions

But none I think left quite as scathing a rebuke as our dear Luther, who notes the shamefulness of so many Christians who neglect the great gift of instruction offered to them.

The deplorable, miserable conditions which I recently observed when visiting the parishes have constrained and pressed me to put this catechism of Christian doctrine into this brief, plain, and simple form. How pitiable, so help me God, were the things I saw: the common man, especially in the villages, knows practically nothing of Christian doctrine, and many of the pastors are almost entirely incompetent and unable to teach. Yet all the people are supposed to be Christians, have been baptized, and receive the Holy Sacrament even though they do not know the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed, or the Ten Commandments and live like poor animals of the barnyard and pigpen. What these people have mastered, however, is the fine art of tearing all Christian liberty to shreds.

Martin Luther

Clearly, children need to be taught the faith. They need to know its doctrines and practices, its history and community, from the youngest ages, from infancy. To neglect such instruction, or worse, to exclude children from such a life, is shameful, deplorable. The life of the Christian is from baptism to death. Thus, children must be with a community of believers, seeing how we live the faith together. They need to see that faith lived out at home in strong marriages and family devotions. They need the patterns of worship, the Divine Service, that we have been practicing for centuries upon centuries, shown to them. They need to be a part of worship, for the Divine Service is as much for them as it is for anyone else. The answer is clear: children have always been present in worship. Scripture and the church fathers have admonished congregants and parents to include children in the instruction of the Lord. So what makes us think that we can improve upon it or them by removing them? We can’t. But what does it look like to have children in the Service, and why does it matter what the Service looks like? In the next two installments, we will discuss what the liturgy is, its uses, and why children benefit so much not only from being present in the Divine Service but from this particular style of instruction.

Works Cited

Edersheim, Alfred. Sketches of Jewish Social Life in the Days of Christ. United Kingdom, Religious tract society, 1876. pp. 98, 108-10.

Luther, Martin. “Introduction.” The Small Catechism. St Louis: Concordia Publishing House. 2019.

Miller and McGinnis. The Child in the BibleUnited Kingdom, Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008. pp. 38-42, 62.

Reu, Johann Michael. Catechetics: Or, Theory and Practise of Religious Instruction. United States, Wartburg Publishing House, 1918. pp. 54-56.

St. John Chrysostom. Homilies on Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. N.p., p. 182, 470.

One thought on “Children’s Church Part 2 – Let the Little Children Come

  1. Karen K Werner

    You are spot on with this article. We must return to, “One Nation Under God.” Get back to the family unit. Put God first in all aspects of life especially in our churches and schools. I have always said, these kids are not my kids, they are God’s kids entrusted to me to raise in His kingdom. I prayed frequently when the kids were young, that I would not screw this assignment up. I knew I would be accountable to God if I did not do my job with his kids. I think people forget that truth.

    Liked by 1 person

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