Children in Church
Training young children to participate in worship is a challenge. Most of the church no longer makes the attempt. I understand the reasons. Toddlers especially seem to be a different category of person! Parents are wearied by their constant movement and leave frustrated, having heard little, and feeling like they have been to a wrestling match rather than to a worship service.
One difficult aspect of this conversation is that we often want a set of solutions so that our children will sit quietly in worship. If this is our goal, and we do not first seriously reflect upon what a child is, then setting him in front of screens to pacify him or spanking him to scare him are equally viable solutions. Determine whether your child is more complacent when pacified or terrified, and follow that path. Each of these requires mechanical responses, not careful reflection.
Yet, this is our age, and our age is the problem. We want solutions before we understand the situation. Before we can wisely train our children, we must first understand who they are, or better, what they are created to be. They are created to be worshippers of God and followers of Jesus Christ. Sin has greatly muddled this, to be sure, but we must begin here – children are not problems to be fixed, interferences to be controlled. They are image-bearers of God.
God’s image in them requires development. Even without sin, children would not come from the womb singing “Holy, Holy, Holy.” They would still fidget until they learn self-control, let you know when they are hungry, and not be able to follow long discourses and appreciate any form of liturgy until their understanding is developed. Again, sin has greatly complicated this, but it has also complicated matters for us as parents. We are impatient, expect too much too early, and do not, as a rule, take seriously that children participating in worship requires training of the whole person.
To that end, I urge you to remove screens from the lives of babies, toddlers, and very young children, meaning most electronic entertainment. I recently saw an internet advertisement for a cute little tool that enables the parent to place a smart phone over the changing table: divert the child while his diaper is being changed. Voila! No more squirming and no more need to “help” the child learn to be still. But as is typical in our age, few question the impact of our mediums of technology upon the emotional, physical, and spiritual development of children, upon their souls, upon their ability to listen and to think, and therefore upon the future of society. Of course, few seriously question the impact upon adults, and technocrats never disclose these impacts. Honesty might cut down on sales.
But what is wrong with pacifying toddlers and young children? This has a direct bearing upon the subject before us and my original presupposition. If children are constantly pacified, there is virtually no chance they will learn to sit reasonably still and quiet during a worship service – unless it looks and feels like their entertainment forms – which most church leaders have recognized and changed their services accordingly. Church should feel and look like entertainment – not the pulpit but the drum set, the stage, and the screen. Our worship services today thus reflect our distracted souls, and this is particularly devastating for children. It sows lifelong spiritual infancy.
But what are we to do? We cannot constantly be with them, train them from dawn to dusk, and talk to them constantly. Translation: we cannot parent all the time. We are too tired, too busy with our own lives and schedules, and need a little time for ourselves. Yet, the Lord calls us to parent, to nurture, and to bring up his children, and this will require most of your daylight hours during their early years, especially for the mother. If children are to be a heritage from the Lord, it is not simply by bringing them into the world. Any unbeliever can do this. If they are to be straight arrows and polished pillars in the house of the Lord, Christian parents must shoulder their God-given responsibilities and be on their faces. “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5); “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). This is the Lord’s way. Read Genesis 18:19, Deuteronomy 6:6-9, and Ephesians 6:4. This is God’s wisdom for raising parents so they can raise children under his blessing and power.
At the heart of these three passages is talking, training, and teaching – not watching, entertaining, and pacifying. And do we not think that the merciful Lord who gave us these guidelines understands that children must grow into this? That it will be challenging for us? That we have no intrinsic strength or resolution for this hard work and high calling? Of course he does. But he is the speaking God, whose word endures forever. His word is living and powerful. His word is also the way young souls are shaped, for his word is living and powerful (Heb. 4:12). For their development, salvation, and lifelong joy in him, they need his word.
Begin early. Make praise their earliest environment. Read the Bible to them passionately. Let them hear you calling upon the Lord as a way of life. Use God’s word and live God’s word. Plow up their hard hearts when the soil is tenderer – not sinless – with God’s word. As they grow into active toddlers, continue the practice. Insist firmly and lovingly that they listen at set times. Ask them little questions. Explain in little words the reason you do these things – because you love the Lord. Because he is real, and his word is our life. Discipline not in frustration but in the light of his word. Bring God’s word into everything, for it is the “way of life” (Prov. 6:23).
Because God’s path is a way and a walk, there are no automatic solutions to training children. Since the Lord does not give us these kinds of solutions to any of our problems and struggles, we should be highly suspect of those claiming to have discovered them. His paradigm is different: sowing and reaping. We sow today for fruit tomorrow. We struggle today for future righteousness. Screens and even spankings are not to be trusted as substitutes for the very real work required “bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Sowing is hard work; waiting is harder work. “But in due season, we shall reap a harvest if we do not faint” (Gal. 6:9).
Parents, believe God’s promises! “Whatever is not of faith, is sin,” and this includes the way we parent, the way we model and encourage and discipline around listening. Controlling children is not the solution. We must engage with them, with their souls, their heart, and this is something we struggle to do. It requires time. What makes this particular child tick? Where is sin manifesting itself in his heart early? What is God’s solution? Pills? Threats? Terror? Domestic boot camp? God’s way is the way of listening, early training in hearing parents’ voices teaching them his way, applied to their heart by listening parents, and disciplined unto more hearing, and therefore, eventually, doing God’s word with humility and joy.
We must early and consistently teach our children that life with God is listening to him and praising him. Worship in your home daily, even if for a few minutes. Train them – step by step, two, five, ten minutes, etc. – to praise and listen. Sing hymns they love. Smile (sincerely) while you sing. Set apart time for God – to praise, pray, and listen to his word. Read them favorite Bible stories and bring God’s glory, grace, and power into them – they are favorites for good reason. If they refuse to sit still, if they scream and yell when it is time for family worship, more physical discipline is appropriate – and they need to feel it – not brutal but intentional, with loving words, more listening, and then back to worship. Training, step by step, patience, joy not exasperation. They may be three or six before they sit quietly. Do not envy other parents or think they know something you do not. We must learn from one another, to be sure, but each child is different. God has a different battle to fight in each child’s soul. Do not be angry at your child or make your embarrassment or impatience the “point” of your discipline. Your child will know this. Worship is not a spanking session/s; it is a joyful extension of your home worship. God will honor your faith, persistence, and patience – as he has been patient with us – with our daydreaming, squirming, critical spirit when we should receive the manna he sends, even if we would prefer someone else to deliver the food.
One practical word – parents tend to want to sit in the back for easy and quick regress. This is understandable and at some stages of training advisable. Churches that have crying rooms should be used for training, but I suggest that sitting near the front may be better. Do not be embarrassed to use side doors to exit. The congregation will be patient. We have all been there. Jesus loved to have the children around him when he was teaching, and so must we when listening to his word. Older parents who have finished their training should give regular encouragement and support, not complaints, about parents in the thick of training. We are training together our future, so that one generation may praise him to the next. They may have to carry us in to worship one day, and we will bless the Lord for his faithfulness, our last smile before we gaze in wonder and love upon our beautiful Savior.