The scene is familiar. A toddler lets out a loud wail because mom or dad poked him for being naughty in church. The more they try to quiet him, the louder he wails. Children of other families are turning around to see the fuss. Older saints are looking on in disgust. The preacher seems to have lost the attention of a large share of people around them. Suddenly, an embarrassed mother or father stands up with the crying child and walks out of the sanctuary.
Teaching our children proper behavior in church can be a frustrating task—not only for parents, but even for some preachers! What must we do to teach our children to worship quietly and reverently in church?
I sat aghast in my study while reading an article on the methods many churches use in their worship to make their children “feel welcome and to know they belong and can participate in worship.” In the past it was advised that children should be removed from the worship service altogether. Following this advice, parents were able to worship undistracted in their worship, while their children met in another room of the church and busied themselves in church school hearing stories, coloring pictures, or being involved in crafts. After many years it was found, however, that this only contributed to a loss of church membership, since the children grew up with no conviction of the need to worship.
Now there are new and supposedly improved methods of teaching children to worship.
Some churches are using what they call “pray- grounds.” These are designated areas in the front of church either on the pulpit or in front of it where children are supplied with toys that will keep them occupied while the congregation prays, sings, and listens to the preaching. It makes me wonder what happens when two of the children fight over a toy or one grows tired of playing and decides to wander. It also makes me wonder how many people are actually listening to the preacher over the din of laughter and clanking toys. But then, other methods are suggested that may avoid these problems. “Pew boxes” can be included at the end of each row. These boxes can include coloring books, markers, paper, and a few snacks and drinks that can keep the children busy while sitting by their parent’s side. It is admitted that this too can cause major distractions during the worship service. So, a few other suggestions are made. The preacher should lower the level of his preaching to that of the children so that they can understand him. Or, children ought to be given an active part in the liturgy, such as a special number, helping take collection, reading a passage of Scripture, or other roles.
I am a simple pastor and not a “professional” in children’s ministries, but it does not take much to understand how wrong all these modern methods are. They are rooted in a false understanding of worship and its purpose. When God’s people gather together in the presence of God in His house, it is for the purpose of rendering honor, adoration, humble submission, and devotion to God as the sovereign Creator of heaven and earth. It is to pay homage unto Him, to stand in awe before Him and focus our attention solely on His name and His glory. This is done by means of prayer, songs of praise, and quietly concentrating on the preaching of the Word. God has chosen to bring glory to His name by those whom He has saved by means of worship in His house.
Consider once, the God whom we serve. He is not a man. We may not think of Him to be such a one as ourselves (Ps. 50:21). To whom will we liken God or shall He be equal (Isa. 40:12–28)? Our God is in the heavens and does whatever pleases Him (Ps. 115:3). He is Creator. He governs and directs all things by His Word and power. In His hands He holds life and death, heaven and hell. What type of attitude, then, must we teach our children when we take them into the house of God to worship? That they may play and entertain themselves in the presence of God? “Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear: for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28–29). “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps. 2:11).
What does this require of us and our children in worship? Ecclesiastes 5:1–2 tells us: “Keep thy foot when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil. Be not rash with thy mouth, and let not thine heart be hasty to utter any thing before God: for God is in heaven, and thou upon earth: therefore let thy words be few.” This has been forgotten in modern worship today. Man likes to hear himself rather than sitting quietly and listening to God. The Scriptures make it clear what God deems acceptable worship, yet man thinks he knows better and brings to God all kinds of his own innovations that center in himself. Modern methods of including children in worship are rooted in this false conception of worship. Ministers would do well by starting their worship service with the quote from Habakkuk 2:20, “But the Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” This is what must be taught to our children in order for them to worship God properly. Proper worship of God is not play time but, in the true sense of the word, pray time. It is not a time to indulge in snacks or entertainment. It is a time we set aside, adults and children alike (even the smallest of children), to pay homage unto the great and glorious God of heaven and earth before whom we bow with fear and trembling.
But, so the argument goes, such a concept of God will teach our children to be afraid of Him and hold Him at arm’s length. They will flee from before the face of this God and never learn to embrace Him. It is not difficult to give an answer to this objection: the Bible teaches us to serve God acceptably with reverence and fear. This means keeping silence before Him and listening to Him. If this is true, parents must teach their children that this is the God whom we serve—a God before whom we stand in deep reverence and awe, a God whom we respect and honor in all of life, especially when we bow before Him in worship. This great God is, for the sake of Christ, our Father who loves us dearly. So deep is His love for us that He sent the Son of His love to die in order that we might share in His love. But even children must learn to honor and fear their earthly fathers—how much more their heavenly Father! Yet, given all this, we have not addressed the difficulty of teaching our children how to worship God properly in His house.
To answer this, first of all, we need to face the reality that there is a certain age during which our children can be fussy in church while also being too young to understand where they are much less the idea of worship. It is not improper that a church provides a nursery for these children in order that their parents can sit in the worship of the church. When I was a child, my parents took turns staying home with their children. Other churches reserve the back few rows in church or set up a row or two of chairs in the narthex where the minister can be seen and heard and yet far enough away from the rest of the congregation that if children fuss they will not disturb others in worship. These are innovative ways that deal with this age of children. This is acceptable too, as long as parents are wise enough to recognize that there is also a certain age when their children, though still small, have become old enough to be introduced into the worship of the church.
Teaching our children to worship in church begins in the home. Much emphasis today seems to be placed on individual devotions or study of God’s Word. This is good too, as long as we do not use this practice to replace another very important aspect of the Christian life: family worship. Worship in the home is foundational to teaching our children how to worship in the church. Each day (preferably when we gather together as families around the table to eat) time needs to be set aside to gather our young people and little children (toddlers too) around the Word of God and prayer. During this time, we train our tiny children to pray, but also to sit quietly as the Word of God is read and discussed. When they refuse to sit quietly and listen, they must be properly disciplined. All training takes instruction, example, and discipline. Not only is this true when the family gathers for worship around the Word of God but in general in the home too. The reason some little children are “terrors” in church is oftentimes (I know, not always) because, for lack of discipline, they are terrors in the home. Of course, proper discipline in the home does not always guarantee that a child will never raise a fuss in church, but the child will soon learn that what is true in the home will also be true in church: he will be properly disciplined.
There is more to training our children for worship in the church than simply teaching them to sit quietly during family worship. As they grow, children must see in their parents the joy they find in attending the worship of the church. Parents sing the songs of the church in the home. They positively discuss with each other and their children the great spiritual benefit received through their worship in God’s house. They extol, that is, hold in the highest esteem, the preaching of the gospel as they hear it each Lord’s Day. Parents who constantly criticize the preaching teach their children that Sabbath worship is, at best, a mere formality and, at worst, worthless.
Preparing the hearts of children to worship in the church takes great effort on the part of parents in the home.
There can be no doubt that we need to train our children while they sit in church too. Suggestions can be made, but these may sound mechanical or arbitrary. Again, the example of parents is important. Do my children see me sing out the Psalms with my heart? Do they see me listening attentively to the Word preached? Do they see in me joy in worship? That goes a long way to training them. Yes, at times there will be negative reinforcement. We may need to take them out and scold them soundly or apply a slap to the backside. We do not allow them to play in church. We teach them to sit quietly and reverently. Perhaps, as they grow old enough, they can take notes. When I was in junior high school, my teacher in school required his students to take one sermon report each Sunday. The idea was opposed by a few parents, but I must say that I benefited from the requirement.
The preacher can help too. He does this not by preaching on the level of the children. This would only serve to “dumb-down” the rest of his congregation. But the preacher can specifically say something to the children in his sermon. He can make reference to something that was taught in catechism to help reinforce what he is teaching. In catechism class too, the minister is able to teach the children the importance of worship in God’s house. After all, the minister, elders, and parents are all on the same side when it comes to teaching children to sit in church and worship together with the entire congregation.
Let me end with a word of encouragement. Many visitors to our worship services have made comments to me (and others) of how many children are included in worship and how amazing that they sit quietly in church. They are even more amazed when they know our children do this two times each Lord’s Day! You parents, who presently are struggling with such training, need to know that. It is not an easy task, but you are succeeding! When a minister looks out across his congregation and sees the eyes of young men and women looking back at him with knowledge while he preaches; when he hears the voices of little children singing loudly and cheerfully with the adults; when silence reigns in the church while the Word is proclaimed because God’s saints are more willing to hear than to speak, there is a joy that thrills the heart of a pastor! We do not need all the gimmicks modern worship has to offer for children. Parents and children alike need to be commended that they have discovered the heart of worship: to bow humbly in fellowship with the ever-blessed God of heaven and earth to behold His beauty.