Let The Children Come To Me (Oh Wait, They’re In Children’s Church?)

Josh Kerr —  November 5, 2013

Photo Mar 02, 5 54 52 PM

(This is part of our Children in Worship series.)

In the past week or so, there have been a few things circulating in church internet circles that caught my eye. They speak to one of the challenges I see in many congregations, and possibly to some scary trends in the mainline as well.

The first post is from Columbia Theological Seminary professor Dr. Rodger Nishioka, who is one of the most well-respected names in Christian Education in the PC(USA). In his article “Children’s Church is the Church” which you can read here, he discusses the trend since the 1950’s of separating youth and particularly children from corporate worship. His research of session minutes reveals that the rationale for shipping kids off to “children’s church” was primarily to free up space in sanctuaries crowded by the baby boom. This is certainly the norm in the churches I’ve been a part of throughout my life. I have fond memories of “children’s worship” which amounted to an extension of Sunday School time.

Nishioka offers a brief and biblical critique of this “children’s church” model, and concludes by stating “There is no “children’s church” separate from the “church.” Children’s church IS the church. Amen.” Amen indeed, Rodger.

The next post is from Ellie Hall, a staff writer at Buzzfeed.com. Through pictures and GIFs, she tells the story of a really cool interaction between Pope Francis and a little boy who made it on stage. I won’t give a play-by-play, but needless to say Pope Francis handles it really well and reinforces the pope-crush many of us protestants have on him.

The last post is from ELCA pastor David Hansen which you can read here. Inspired by the pope’s interaction with the little boy, Pastor David takes the same spirit as Dr. Nishioka, but adds his practical pastoral experience into the mix stating, “The Pope seemed to have grasped an important truth: If you have a gathering of families, there will be children. And those children will behave like…well…children.” He then shares how his congregation makes it clear that children are welcome and expected in worship. I encourage you to check out his material!

All three of these posts made me think about how these trends in worship influence our congregations and denomination as a whole. By Dr. Nishioka’s count, we are already three generations into this practice of sending our children away for worship. In doing so, we teach them that worship is not for them, it is for adults. They do not learn the prayers, songs, and creeds that are major parts of our worshiping tradition. They learn that arts and crafts and singing “children’s songs,” constitute worship (These things can be a part of corporate worship, no?).  Is it any wonder that later, when they are expected to remain in worship, that they find it boring, even intolerable? How can we expect our children to remain in the church as adults if we are sending them away during worship as children?

Now I write this acknowledging some hypocrisy on my part. My two year old spends worship time in the nursery. I have leadership responsibilities in worship and my wife (recovering from cancer treatment) does not yet have the energy to attend to him throughout the service. This, however, is something I wish to change, especially because my internship church is welcoming to children. Making a transition like this will not be easy for us. My son will be loud and wander around and fuss from time to time, but I suspect the congregation can handle this as they have with so many other kids before.

As a congregation, making a transition from a “children’s church” model to a complete worshiping community would not be easy. There will be frustrated kids, frustrated parents, frustrated others around those kids and parents, and frustrated worship leaders. Yet if all are committed to this task, a task I think is a worthy one, it can happen. What would it mean for our children to truly join us in Word and Sacrament?  Surely the Kingdom of God has babies fussing, moms breastfeeding, and toddlers rolling around on the floor.

Please join the conversation! What are the norms in your congregation? What steps would you take to open up worship?

(This is part of our Children in Worship series.)

Josh Kerr

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Josh is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Perry, OK and completed his seminary studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is a father, husband, and hater of cliches.