Some time ago I promised to write on some practical considerations for joyfully integrating children into the formal parts of our church gathering. Today, I finally make good on that promise!
As is to be expected in such a discussion, this is not authoritative teaching, but rather an attempt to apply our biblical principles to the practical situation before us. At our church we do not have any seperate child-focused teaching ministries during our service, but even if we did, these matters are still worthy of consideration for every parent. Whether our children are in all, or a portion of the formal gathering time, surely we would want to be intentional about it, and not just treat them as an inconvenience to worship?
A note for people I attend church with: This is not a passive-aggressive attempt at addressing any issue with any particular children! We can be very self-conscious about our own kids behaviours, and our own shortcomings in parenting, but this is not targeted at any body, nor as a result of a specific event. No matter which week I publish this, it will inevitably be after some child has done something weird at church, or made too much noise, etc. No particular family or child is my inspiration. In fact, part of my inspiration is to improve my own thought and practice in this area, and writing it all down really helps think it all through.
As I planned out what topics I was going to cover, it became apparent that this can't fit all into one article, so I think we need to break it down into a series. Perhaps at the end it can be compiled into a booklet for easy reference!
The first thing to Consider is the Goal. What are we aiming for with our Children in Church?
This may seem self evident, but we need to take a step back and look at what success, faithfulness and flourishing look like before we can map out a path to get there. You need to know your destination before you ask for directions.
The flagging parent, who's just barely mustering up the courage to bring their kids to church this week, probably has only this hope: that my kids are quiet enough, and stay still long enough that they are not a distraction to others, and I'm not ashamed to be their parent. This is a good goal to have! But I would like to suggest that this is not the whole picture, this is merely part of a larger and more wholistic goal that every parent should have.
If we zoom out even further than children in church, and just think for a moment about our goal as parents, I think it is safe to say that most Christian parents are trying to "bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord" (Eph 6:4 KJV). Even if we are not currently doing this, most Christian parents would have this an ideal. We hope that our kids leave our care knowing Jesus, solid in their faith, a well-rounded, educated adult who is ready serve God wherever they go.
That's a safe bet right?
Coming to the church context, that means we're working toward an adult that leaves our care regularly gathering with other beleivers, who loves and worships the LORD, who confesses and repents their sin, who sings heartily, who hears the preached Word and does what it God says, who serves their local church with joy, and who values all of the above (not a comprehensive list, but you get the idea).
So if that is the end goal, lets work back. We need to take the child that enters our care as an infant (or perhaps older if we have step-kids, foster kids, etc), and see the long term training and shaping that needs to happen to get to the goal. Children arrive wild and unruly with nothing, not even clothes on their back. We even need to put the food directly in their mouths because they are so helpless, but then they grow and develop along the way, learning new skills and language, and categories, and social cues and all the rest. Almost everything is learned, while some genetic predispositions will guide things like character traits, parents play the greatest role in leading that learning process.
At times parents fan the flame of something good that our children are pursuing, or we douse the fire of sin that springs up at every turn. We are guiding, leading, teaching, instructing, showing, demonstrating, testing, disciplining, praising, prompting and pushing our kids toward maturity in Christ and in life.
At least we should be. Bad parents think that is someone else's job, and so they're perpetually sending their kids off for someone else to shape in the image of who-knows-what. While there is good reason to employ others to assist with the development of our children, the primary responsibility rests with the parents. If we are not involved with the nurture and education of our kids, can we really say we've done our job? More on responsibility next time.
When it comes to church, in order to reach the goal of creating faithful disciples, it makes sense to me that we need to map out how we are going to get from infant who can't even speak, to adult who calls on the name of the LORD in the gathered assembly. The most direct route that leads to fruitful faithfulness is an ideal path. Some of it will be an organic development, but alot of it needs to be intentional.
If we can reach the goal 8 years early, lets say when a child is 9, then is that worth pursuing? If I take a road-building contract that is estimated to take 6 months, and it only needs 4 months to get it done, should I drag it out, or aim to finish as soon as I can? While we may aim to complete our goal by the times the kids fly the nest, if they can be growing, faithful disciples engaged with the body of Christ from a much younger age, then isn't that better?
We ought not hinder Children from coming to Christ, so the sooner we can on-board them to the regular life patterns of the church (that are drawn from Christ's teaching) then all the better!
But here's the thing; it is hard to train people in something we ourselves are not. If I want my kids to learn piano, I find a piano teacher. Footy needs a footy coach. In order for our children to learn and grow to participate with the body in gathered worship, then we need to be good worshipers ourselves. You may need to grow in your own understanding of why we do what we do at church so that you are equipped to lead your children in gathered worship.
To conclude, our goal with children in church may include things like being quiet, sitting still or listening, but that is not the end in itself. What we're really aiming for is children who are disciples engaged in the church gathering with the rest of the body. It will take time to move from no engagement, to full participation (often years). However, we should start as early as possible to move children this way. But, don't stress if you have let it slide, start today! You will never reach the goal if you only bemoan what has been lost without pursuing what could be.
Set the goal before your eyes to help you move through the ups and downs of the present moment. It will be hard some weeks, and an absolute joy in others, but don't hold back from faithfully pursuing a fruitful future for your family.