Together with adults, children are part of the church. However, what is the place of children in church? This article gives practical suggestions on how children can be integrated in the church and what should be the role of Sunday school.

Source: APC News, 2004. 7 pages.

Children in Church

Many children died at the hands of Pharaoh. So we don’t really need to be told that the King of Egypt was a hard-hearted, immovable, despicable tyrant. He wasn’t about to give into anyone.

Moses knew this from years of personal experience and had stood in front of Pharaoh many times before to proclaim the word of God but to no avail.

Pharaoh wouldn’t move an inch but he didn’t realise that even in his rebellion he was part of God’s plan for his covenant people.

This particular time Moses and Aaron are coming to the ruler of Egypt with the same words, “Let my people go.” God’s demand was that the Israelite people be allowed to leave Egypt to go and worship him in the desert.

For a moment Pharaoh was prepared to negotiate. God wasn’t. Pharaoh’s demand that the men of Israel left Egypt to worship the Lord without the women and children was not even acknowledged by Moses and Aaron far less by the God they worshipped. Pharaoh must have realised this when the eighth plague of locusts attacked the land.

The plague that hit the first born of Egypt heralded the final release of God’s people from slavery and it is then that we read about the feast of the Passover, the unleavened bread, the hyssop, the blood and the lintels.

The childish question, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ was asked by many of the Israelite offspring that night. It would have been a genuine question as the next generation witnessed the unusual goings on.

The response the parents were to give was “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord” and then they were to go on to explain about the angel of death and God’s mercy to them as a people.

I think that this is an excellent story to give us some biblical insight into what God thinks about children in church.

The first point is that He will not negotiate about their presence or absence. God wouldn’t even acknowledge Pharaoh’s suggestion that the Israelite men worshipped without their families. We can echo this sentiment with a New Testament verse “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” Children should be in church and we should be actively encouraging them to seek Christ.

The second point is that the children were expected to ask questions and personal ones at that. “What does this ceremony mean to you?” The children weren’t asking ‘What’s that scroll?’ or ‘Why is he doing that?’ – rather it was a deeply personal question to their parent – one that demanded an answer.

Which should thirdly make us think about that answer. What would our response be to the question, ‘What does this ceremony – this church service mean to you?’ If we can answer ‘This church service is for the Lord because of what he has done for me,’ and demonstrate that with personal examples of God’s grace and mercy to us ... then we are on the right track with church and our children will be too.

If we can’t in all honesty say that church has any meaning for us then our attitudes will be backing up our beliefs and our children will pick up on these and make them their own. We may think that teaching is only what we say – but it is more often what we do, who we are, what we feel. We are the lesson.

When I think about the children I know they fit into two camps very easily

  1. Children from church families and,
  2. Children from unchurched families.

The difference between the two can be vast and sometimes non­existent. I’d like to discuss these and bring in one or two issues that have come up in our own work with children.

The Inverness congregation has been running a Sunday school at the local Drakies Community centre for the last six years. The children we’ve come in contact with there have been a challenge and a privilege to work with. The learning curve for us has been pretty steep.

I mentioned that there are differences between churched and unchurched children. With unchurched children you have children who are essentially spiritual orphans. What we have in our communities today is an ever increasing number of families who have either rejected the Christian church or who have never had any meaningful contact with it.

We can remain within church buildings waiting for these families to come in or we can, as many do, reach out beyond the confines of the Sunday services to work in areas that we haven’t worked in before. Youth cafes, children’s clubs, community centres, schools – these are all avenues for contact with unchurched youth.

But because the church in its biblical sense is not a building we – the church – are bringing these children into the church through our after school clubs, Sunday school lessons and holiday clubs.

They aren’t in the real sense the church of God until they are saved by him but for all intents and purposes they are taking part in church as they listen to your prayer, sing the chorus, play the soccer game, find out about you and hopefully over time ask you deep and personal questions like, ‘What does all this mean to you? Why do you do this? What makes you feel happy?’

But why describe these children as spiritual orphans? Many that we have worked with at Drakies come from homes where a bible isn’t present, prayer is a complete novelty, church is in conflict with the bed sheets, the gym or the next game of golf.

The families we come in contact with are on the whole pleasant, decent families but God is not real to them. All have good homes, a car or maybe two, some go on foreign holidays – but few have any personal interaction with their Creator. Sunday school is still seen as being okay for the kids so they don’t stop them coming. However, they don’t always actively encourage them to come either.

In our situation at the club the children who come regularly come of their own free will. When you work with unchurched kids you soon learn that you can never afford boredom – children will vote with their feet.

Even if your lesson has been fantastic, the visual aids inspired and the activities enthralling – if football is on next weekend you’ll probably find that more than one child who was there last week isn’t there the next.

Sometimes we need to do things differently, sometimes we need to react to problems, sometimes we just need to be there – a consistent witness, a friend, someone who loves God and is their friend – wherever they go, whatever happens. ‘Children’s work’ is crying out for people – Men and women of all ages – to witness to the wonderful person of Jesus Christ. Sharing our life experiences, being people they can depend on, trust in and laugh with.

Working with unchurched kids, with any kids, means a lot of hard work and thinking and rethinking. Trying to get something new again and again and again. Sometimes, ironically, the new discovery can be that children like routine, and the familiar and that the bible story you think has been done far too many times before is one that they’ve not really heard that often.

One of the things that we’ve noticed with the ‘unchurched’ kids however is how once you get to know them you can discover that you’re not the first or the only Christian in their lives.

Two girls at the club have Christian grandparents, one has a Church of Scotland minister for an uncle, one girl’s father used to go to church, one girl’s granny teaches her the 23rd Psalm whenever she goes to visit her. Several of the children have had a strong Christian as a primary school teacher. The stories mount up until you realise that God has been working here already and that you are just one cog in a big wheel that is under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

So the spiritual orphans have not been left fatherless. God, their heavenly father loves them and cares for them. They have contact with Christians that we do not know or never hear of. There are prayers of godly grandparents – perhaps no longer with us – but who when alive clung to the promise that the Lord would bless their children and their children’s children.

Some of the children in our after school clubs and Sunday schools will not have anyone praying for them – that is what we are there for. Even the ones who grow up and move away – and they will – we can keep them at the back of our minds, at the forefront of our prayers. God’s word never returns empty. Our responsibility therefore is to give them the word of God. Let the bible do its work. Be the personal visual aid that they are missing in their lives. Show them Jesus and pray.

At this point I want to refer to one other thought that I’ve had when I’ve heard about the Christian links to some of the children in the Drakies club. We must tackle the problem of a lost generation – the generation who today are parents, paying mortgages, joining golf clubs, climbing corporate ladders and sending their kids to Sunday school.

If you took a poll of people in Inverness who had quote, unquote, a godly granny – the proportion might be the same as the number of Americans that you will find with Irish grandfathers. We are in our outreach Sunday schools in Inverness caring for a high proportion of children whose grandparents or great-grandparents attended church regularly. It is frightening and humbling to realise that any Christian or church going family is just one generation away from an unchurched, godless upbringing.

But God has always had a care for the unchurched. It is not a word that features in the bible but they are there all the same. We read about them in Exodus right in the middle of one of God’s most famous discourses to his covenant people.

In the Ten Commandments God gives his people direct instructions concerning the stranger that they are in contact with. He is to observe the Sabbath too. In Deuteronomy 31:12­-13 it goes further. Strangers are to hear the word of God along with the people of God so that they can listen and learn to fear God and follow his law. A further reason is given for why this is necessary. ‘Their children who do not know this law must hear it and learn to fear the Lord your God.’

So unchurched children are specifically mentioned in scripture – but this – we must note – is in connection with their families.

Listen to these figures. If a child is the first member of their family to become a Christian other members of their family are between 5 and 10% more likely to become Christians than they were before the child’s conversion, with a mother this percentage goes up to somewhere between 20 and 30% with a father this percentage increases a staggering amount to somewhere between 80 and 90%.

Not that the Holy spirit is bound by statistics but God has chosen families as the focal point for evangelism and he designed it so that parents would bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Children’s work is right and valuable. We are commanded by the Lord in John 21:15 to “Feed my lambs,” “Suffer the little children to come to me,” – we should use every opportunity to do this. But the fact is that parents are the primary influence on a child. Disciplines like church attendance, bible reading and prayer are built up by regular, daily, personal, parental example. A love of God is nurtured within a loving family – a family that loves God and each other.

We can have meaningful relationships on a personal and spiritual level with these unchurched children – but if we can also interact with their parents and bring them under the influence of God’s word – think about how many more bases we would cover. God performs his purposes in whatever way he chooses. However he has from the beginning of time chosen families as the venue for teaching children about himself. Holiday clubs are great. We should do more of them and do them for everybody. Perhaps parents need holiday clubs too?

Then we have the children who belong to church families. These children can belong to a family of two believing parents, one believing parent or in some situations none. These children have many blessings that unchurched children do not have ... they are familiar with bible stories, they may attend church on a regular basis, they will have access to a bible. However, they are just as much unbelievers as unchurched children are until they are saved. Believing parents must definitely expect conversion. These children are children of the covenant – but we cannot presume or assume conversion until evidence and profession of faith is presented.

The tragic thing is that children who sit in pews and attend services can be spiritual orphans of a different kind if the word of God is not discussed, cherished or remembered at home. If church is just an event, if it does not generate worship within the family – then these children may attend church but have no real understanding of it. They are unchurched in a different sense.

When we think about children as part of our church services and gatherings I think we need to think back to God’s treatment of Pharaoh’s suggestion. God insists that children must be there – they must attend worship. There is no mention in scripture of ‘children’s church’ or ‘Sunday school’. Children are taught in the family and they are part of the worship – not separate. If there is any distinction made it is between a weaned and an unweaned child.

For the record I believe that children were traditionally weaned in bible times at about three years old. So listen to what this verse of scripture says, Isaiah 28:9 “Whom shall he teach knowledge and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? Them that are weaned from the milk and drawn from the breasts. For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little and there a little.”

Listening to God’s word, attending church, prayer, being part of the family of God – all of it – in its fullest sense – is all for children. It takes time to teach them – big and important jobs often do. It’s difficult – believe it or not even some single people can see that. I respect the sacrifice and effort of parents in bringing up children. I can only imagine what it must be like to have several wrigglers in the pew beside you.

Parents have to make judgement calls as they have to in every area of their lives – what is the best for the child, what is the best for our family, but also what is the best for the church and more importantly what does God tell me to do. I feel that in reading scripture we see children and adults worshipping God together. I believe that this is what God is telling us to do, to try to do. It involves sacrifice on the part of parents, it should involve sacrifice and effort on the part of all the believers.

If parents find that it is too difficult for them to do, the church, as a community of believers should help them. It is too easy to sit in judgement – staring daggers at a squirming child; tutting at the noise we think is a sign of indiscipline – instead of encouraging parents in taking what is often a sacrifice on their part. Perhaps there may be opportunities for those of us who are single or without children to ask parents how we can help integrate their children into church?

If your friend takes her toddler or school age child to the morning service she may not be getting the opportunity to listen to the teaching. Perhaps you can offer to baby sit one evening to let her out to the Sunday evening service or the prayer meeting? If this doesn’t suit – offer to look after the child for an afternoon to give her the opportunity to listen to the sermon tape, attend a bible study or read a book. For the very young children who need a crèche or an occasional Sunday school lesson – consider volunteering for the crèche. If not as a baby minder – then as someone who helps clear up afterwards.

And here is another, perhaps radical, suggestion for how we can help. Do you go through the church doors to discover that the thirty people who have arrived before you have already filled up the back seats? Well consider adopting what is a simple but practical solution to the problem of wriggly little boys and girls – reserve the back rows of the church for them and their parents.

Fill up the church from the second row to the front – I know that nobody wants to sit on the front row – it’s totally against our highland nature. But think about this – you might find that you will hear the sermon better if you are closer to the preacher. Parents will hear the sermon better if they feel more relaxed. It’s easier to take a child out to the toilet if you’re near the back. If you’ve had to blow three noses, change two nappies, a suit of clothes and your own shirt between your front door and the car – you’re going to be late for church – that’s all there is to it.

Wouldn’t it be nice if you knew that even though you are going to be late you’re not going to have to trail your brood down the aisle to the front of the church? Instead all you’re going to have to do is nip into the back. Simple. So reserve the back rows for the young families or for adults and the elderly that need extra physical help. It’s the decent thing to do.

But I know that if you have a three-year old wriggler it is often easier for everyone concerned to let the child go to a separate Sunday school. And certainly once a child is five or six years old they are generally better able to sit still and listen. But I still think we do young children an injustice if we don’t begin early to encourage them to listen to the preaching of the word. You expect a three year old to learn morals, obedience and values. You expect a three year old to listen. You expect a three year old to show love. You expect a three year old to show pleasure and wonder. Aren’t these important parts of worship?

To be honest I sometimes suspect that children may actually be better at worshipping their creator than many adults. Jesus himself witnessed this – yet we neglect to include our youngest in church, with us, because of their inability to control spontaneous movement of their bodies as well as their voices. When we neglect to include them we neglect the church. I believe children included in the full worship of God would teach us as adults so much. We would remember what enthusiasm was. We would rediscover awe. When you preach a sermon to a child you don’t need to worry about whether they’ve heard the story before – they can have heard it a hundred times before and they’ll still love it.

Maybe with children in church we would rediscover the actual skill of listening? Does that sound strange? Listening to truth is just as much about appreciation as it is about sitting still and being ‘good’. When was the last time you as an adult laughed out loud with joy when you saw something yellow? When was the last time you gasped at a bible story? Children do both regularly and naturally. Adults have to work at it. Children in church are vital to the life of the church.

I’m certainly not advocating that there should be no specific, unique contribution for children. Sunday school is a wonderful opportunity for teaching children, socialising children with their own age group within the church, rewarding children for their work and contribution to the church family.

But the very best Sunday school material is not geared towards a 20/30 minute slot while adults are listening to the sermon. So if you want to achieve the best from Sunday school you must allow Sunday school teachers the time to accomplish this. A good teaching slot is at least 40 minutes to an hour – perhaps more. Within this framework you can have time for children to socialise, learn scripture, listen to stories, have fun. Within this framework you allow teachers to teach and reinforce lessons with craft, visual aids, activities.

But let’s get back to some biblical reasons about why children should be in church, as part of the congregation. Let’s read Joshua 8:35, “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded which Joshua read not before the congregation of Israel with the women and the little ones and the strangers.” Now read Psalm 78:1 “I will utter dark sayings of old ... we will not hide them from the children ...That they might set their hope in God.”

These verses give important instructions to us about including children in the worship of God, in church. With the correct teaching and guidance children from Christian families should be brought up within the complete church from an early age. We cannot expect them to attend a children’s club from age 3-12 and then amazingly integrate them into church. Could it be that this very practice over the last fifty or so years is one reason that we can now talk about a lost generation and children who have lost their spiritual heritage?

It certainly accounts for a decline in church attendance I believe – but I think it is the spiritual famine, the neglect of God’s word that we have witnessed in family life that is the real problem. Our families, localities and our nation have rejected Christ. But there is no longer even a tradition of being under the preaching of God’s word. Whatever way you look at it – that is an opportunity lost.

How we integrate children into church is vitally important however. In our Sunday club at Drakies children vote with their feet. In church children vote in other ways – switching off is the easiest. Thankfully you can generally tell when a child has switched off – but it won’t take them long to learn how to hide it – that’s a skill that adults are adept at. We have to do our utmost to stop our children learning this skill.

Leadership and those who are taking worship must be aware of the children. I don’t mean that the eldership should attend lessons in how to speak in a patronising tone, (that’s as off putting for children as it is for adults.) There’s no need to go out and find ten games to play in the aisles in between singings. A simple, gospel message and basic bible teaching – that is all you really need. If you do public speaking – follow the rules every other public speaker does outside the church. We are not exempt from good practice. Make sure we are teaching something that a child can listen to, understand and apply to their lives. If you do this, rest assured, all of your congregation will understand.

Remember that children can be excluded from church in other ways other than putting them in a different room. Let’s make it our mission this year that children are catered for within the church, taught within the church, cherished within the church. “Suffer the little children to come unto me.”

The apostle John said that he had no greater joy than to hear that his children were following the Lord. What a great joy it will be for us as families, believers, denominations, when we witness the conversion of the next generation.

Children and adults are the church of today and tomorrow. Jesus said to Peter, Feed my lambs, Shepherd my sheep. These were instructions to the same man – a man who would be a leader of the early church, an apostle. Christ was leaving instructions about the care of His church, His people. Peter accepted the responsibility of the sheep and the lambs together. Children and adults, together.

Perhaps you think that a good Sunday school is a better option for children and that it gives those who need it and want it peace and quiet. I value peace and quiet as much as the next person. I value good Sunday schools. But we are in church to worship God. Worship is not something for us – it is something we give to God. The preaching of the word is an important part of worship – it should inspire us to praising the name of God.

We should focus on the worship of God as something that we share. If our actions even subtly give the message that preaching is not for children, that the worship of God can be divided up into parts suitable for some and not for others, then we are on dangerous ground.

In conclusion I would like to go over a little some of our responsibilities towards the children in our church.

  1. We are to give counsel and advice to children. David advised Solomon, “Show thyself a man and walk in God’s ways. Obey him.” (1 Kings 2:2-3).
  2. We are to pray for the children. David prayed for Solomon. Abraham for Ishmael. Job for his children.
  3. We are to instruct them while also taking heed to our own spiritual lives. (Deuteronomy 4:9) – “take heed to thyself and teach thy sons and thy sons son”.
  4. We are to talk about God’s law as a natural part of family life – as we walk along the road, at the table, anytime, anywhere.

We are to teach children to

  1. Heed God’s word and not forget it.
  2. Praise God’s name.
  3. Listen to wise instruction.
  4. Flee Sin.
  5. Follow Righteousness.

I appreciate you reading this, and I appreciate that there will be some, if not quite a few, who disagree with some of the things that I have said. You are certainly showing great patience to let a single woman put across what she thinks about bringing up children in church when I have no experience of bringing up my own.

All I can say is that what I have written has been in the light of what I have seen in scripture and my interpretation of it. As well as that I’ve seen friends and children from Christian families leave the church in droves. Some of them went to church services from day one. Many did go to a separate Sunday school. Both ways can exclude children. Ideally the preaching of the word, the gospel, the good news, should be something cherished and shared together. I really hope that this starts us all thinking about how we can do this – about how we can do our best for God and for the church and for our children.

Let’s start by telling the next generation what church means to us, what Jesus means to us. All the children in the church should be given these blessings, these teachings, God’s wisdom, and access to the wonderful knowledge that God forgives sinners through his Son Jesus Christ. We are the church of God in our families, in our communities, wherever we go. Lets pray to God that our children will be too and that we will not stop or hinder them in any way.

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