Let the Little Children Come
When people visit our church for the first time, one of the things they often are most surprised to find is that we allow young children to stay in the main worship service. For the most part, churchgoers today are used to having children separated from the adults to attend children’s church while the adults have their own “big church.” The first thing most parents must figure out when they arrive at a church is where to drop off their children with the church’s child care workers or children’s programs. Parents return a few hours later to retrieve their children, who are now holding a nice handout and a picture or craft they have completed (or the child care worker has completed for them), demonstrating that they were properly cared for and instructed while the parents were away.
When people arrive at our church for the first time, this is not what happens. Initially, they may experience a sense of confusion as they look around for the child drop-off location only to discover that there isn’t one. Instead they are warmly greeted by someone who invites them to bring their children into the worship service. They are handed a children’s bulletin that complements the main worship bulletin and helps children follow along with the elements of the worship service and understand the sermon theme. Parents also learn there is a family room for worship training that offers a live video stream of the service, a cry room for those who would prefer a sound barrier between them and the congregation, and a nursery for very young children. But we always stress that children of all ages and abilities are always welcome in the service.
Does It Really Work?
Over the years I have received many questions and comments about our church’s practice of including children in worship: “Doesn’t including children in worship turn people away from the church?” “Pastor, Sunday morning is the only ‘me time’ I get during the week, and now you want me to keep my kids with me the entire time?” “Won’t my children be a distraction to those around me?” “If I have my children with me, I won’t be able to focus on worship.” “My children won’t be able to understand what’s going on anyway, so wouldn’t it be better for them to have an age-appropriate activity and Bible lesson while we’re in worship?” Some weeks these arguments sound more convincing to me than other weeks, usually in direct proportion to how well my own children have been doing in worship. As the father of young children, I appreciate the struggle of having our children with us throughout the Sunday morning service. Perhaps it is more accurate to say that my wife understands it and I am sympathetic to it, since I am up front leading the service and she is in the pew with the children. Nevertheless, we remain committed to the practice. Why?
Every time I find myself pulled toward providing an alternative for children during worship, I am reminded of the examples of worship that we find in Scripture. My most recent reevaluation of our church’s practice came while I was teaching the book of Nehemiah. Once again I was confronted with the reality that some families would rather join a church with robust children’s programs than one committed to having children in worship, and I was questioning whether we should really continue to swim against the current of our culture on this issue. Then I was reminded of the biblical pattern for worship described in passages such as Nehemiah 8:2–3, when the people were gathered to hear Ezra read the book of the law of Moses. The assembly included not only men and women, but “all who were able to understand.” Similarly, in Nehemiah 10:28, not only were the leaders gathered to renew the covenant with God, but also “the rest of the people . . . all who have separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand.” In Nehemiah 12:43, at the dedication of the wall, not only did the priests and Levites participate in the celebration, but “the women and children also rejoiced.” In each of these key celebrations of worship for God’s people, not only were the leaders and the adults present in the assembly, but the children as well.
Some arguing that young children should not be in worship because they don’t understand what’s going on may point out that Nehemiah 8 describes the children in attendance as those “who were able to understand” what was being done and said. But at what age does a child understand what is being done and said? For that matter, when do any of us truly understand what is being done and said? I believe it is much earlier than we often suppose. It is certainly earlier than eighteen years of age, or even twelve, assuming there are no cognitive disabilities. One of the greatest blessings I have experienced as a pastor is hearing from the children of our congregation about things they are learning through the worship service. Most recently, I heard one preschooler reciting the words of institution of the Lord’s Supper. I also regularly hear the children of our church singing worship songs, repeating different parts of the liturgy, and asking perceptive questions about what they are seeing and hearing in the service. These young children are learning things they would not learn unless they were in the worship service. So, when does a child “understand?” I believe a strong case can be made for inviting children to worship at younger ages.
The demographics of the assembly in Nehemiah 8 likely are the same as the assembly in Deuteronomy 31:12: “men, women and children . . . so they can listen and learn to fear the Lord your God, and follow carefully all the words of this law.” Both assemblies are called for the purpose of the reading of the law, and both gather around the time of the Feast of Booths. Deuteronomy 31 gives instruction for how the reading should be done in such a context. Children there are identified as “little ones” (ESV), making a strong case that those who “understand” in Nehemiah 8 are younger children rather than older ones. But whatever one might conclude about this passage, the biblical pattern of including children in worship is well established in Scripture.
The inclusion of children in the worship assembly of God’s people is repeated throughout the Old and New Testaments. Besides Deuteronomy and Nehemiah, Exodus 12 indicates that children participated in one of the most important feasts in the religious of God’s people, the Passover. The fourth commandment, given in Exodus 20:8–11, required not only parents but children to “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” including participation in public worship. Joshua 8:35 marks another important event in redemptive history: The covenant with God was renewed under the leadership of Joshua, and “there was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel, including the women and children, and the foreigners who lived among them.” 2 Chronicles 20:13 and Joel 2:16 indicate congregations called to assemble together that included not only men and women, but children too.
This pattern continues in the New Testament. In the gospels, Jesus rebuked those who prevented children from coming to him: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:13–15; Mark 10:13–16; Luke 18:15–17). In Acts 2:39, Peter’s sermon at Pentecost indicates that children are included in God’s covenant community: “The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.” And the apostle Paul, in his letters to the churches at Ephesus and Colossae, directly addresses children, indicating that he expects them to be present in the public worship assembly (Ephesians 6:1–3; Colossians 3:20).
The pattern in Scripture is clear. How to apply the pattern to our local congregations needs further exploration. Some of us may need to reevaluate how we are training up our children to be worshipers of God. The Bible instructs us to raise our children in the “training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4; see also Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19; Psalm 78:4; Proverbs 22:6). How we can train our children in worship while excluding them from that activity is a paradox for which the modern church may need to give an account one day.
I understand that keeping children in worship has its challenges. It may mean that you do not get to have your designated “me time” this week. But worship is not about being alone; it’s about being with God’s people of all ages, gathered together to give God glory. It may mean that you will miss certain parts of the service or sermon because you are helping your children to engage in a meaningful way. But that is part of our calling as parents: to train our children to be worshipers of God. How will they learn to worship if they are never present in worship? Having children in worship may mean that they will sometimes make noise and distract those around them. But most people who understand why children should be in worship do not find them to be a distraction and are glad to have them there. I remember one Sunday morning after the service someone attending our church said, “You know, I haven’t always been excited about having children in worship with the adults, but then I heard the children singing and saying the creed, and my heart just melted.” You see, having children in worship can be a blessing to those who understand why we are there. There is no sweeter sound than that of little voices learning the truths of the gospel, reciting the historic creeds of the Christian faith, praying the Lord’s Prayer, and singing songs of praise to God. Personally, I have experienced no greater joy as a pastor and as a father than hearing these things from my own children. These are truths and experiences that they will carry with them for the rest of their life. They are learning to worship God in a way that they simply could not learn if they were not in worship.
Perhaps you think it is simply not possible for your church to begin including children in worship, or you believe your congregation is not quite ready for this type of commitment. Let me encourage you to try it just a couple of times—perhaps for a special occasion such as a baptism or confirmation, or possibly during the Advent or Easter season. You could have children lead the congregation in a song they’ve practiced or recite a Scripture passage they’ve learned. If having them stay through the entire service doesn’t seem possible, perhaps they can stay for the singing and some other elements of worship but be excused before the sermon. I believe your congregation will be blessed by their presence in the service, and your children will learn important lessons that will bear fruit for the rest of their lives. Remember the words of Jesus: “Let the little children come.”