Thursday, February 19, 2009

Children in Church, Not Children's Church

Voddie Baucham recently posted on his blog a couple posts entitled "Nehemiah's Nursery," (Part 1 and Part 2)in which he responds to the argument from Nehemiah 8 that little children should not be in church services. Justin mentioned them to me, so I thought I would post here a little bit about my view on this topic.

Several years ago, I began wrestling with age-integrated vs. age-segregated approaches to discipleship, so I wrote down many pages worth of notes and thoughts. I've continued to learn and grow in this area even since I wrote these thoughts, but my basic conclusions are still the same. Here is a simplified summary of my position. (If you would like more, just contact me and I can give more of these thoughts to you.)

1. Why do you keep your children in the church assembly with you?
We keep our children with us for several reasons. First, although in a NT sense all of life is a response to who God is and what he has done, corporate worship is a high point of our expressions of worship to God.[1] When we meet together before him, he does not exclude children (Matt 19:13-14). Children are fully human beings and as such are fully capable of responding to God’s revelation of himself, even if it is on a simple plane. Second, we believe that the best way to disciple children in congregational worship is for them to be with their families as the families engage with God “in spirit and truth.” This is a powerful means of teaching our children the true significance of going to church. It is not about hanging out with friends or watching puppet shows. It is about meeting with God through the power of the Spirit based on the work of Christ, and edifying other believers spiritually. Third, we believe that keeping our children with us is a great way to instill timeless, trans-generational values in our children. They learn that there is something going on here which is bigger than them, and they have to live up to it. Fourth, we believe that this practice best exemplifies the church as a body which transcends common social barriers. The church should have the answer to the world’s problem of the “generation gap” and social cliques. In fact, we do have the answer, and when old and young meet together at the feet of the Savior, we powerfully demonstrate the reconciliation that Christ accomplishes.

2. Do you really think that they are getting anything out of it?
Yes, we do. This question is motivated by two erroneous tendencies. The first tendency is to forget that corporate worship is first and foremost about what God gets out of it, not what we get. God has clearly said in his Word that he is pleased by the praise of children (Ps 8:2 and Matt 21:15-16; Matt 19:13-14). In fact, he has ordained it as an evidence of his glory to his enemies. Having said this, we do not intend to imply that worshiping God and personal edification are mutually exclusive categories. They are, in fact, profoundly complementary. But the point here is that when we decide whether or not to keep our children with us as we engage with God corporately, we should take seriously the fact that God delights in the presence of “infants and nursing babes.”

The second erroneous tendency is to think of “getting something” out of the church service in purely rationalistic categories. In other words, usually behind this question is the question of whether children can intellectually understand a 45 minute Scriptural exposition. If we realize that this is actually an issue for every person present, of whatever age, depending upon their background, previous exposure, personal interest, etc, then we will be less likely to improperly label this as a “problem” with having children in a church service.

Actually, we believe that every child who is brought to worship God with his family is getting something out of the church service, even at an age when he is apparently unable to follow what is going on. This is so because of the incredible ability that God has put in human beings to learn.[2] For example, would it make any sense to say that adults should never speak English to their newborn babies or converse in English around their babies because babies don’t understand it? After all, language is incredibly complex, and even experts can’t explain it all. Yet we would contend that that is absurd, because we all know that the way babies come to learn English is by interacting with those who speak English. Similarly, the way that children learn about engaging with God is by being with those who are truly engaging with God.

Furthermore, we would contend that children do get more cognitive content than they are often given credit for, especially if the parents are working with them at home. For example, memorizing a simple catechism gives young children a conceptual framework to which they can attach what they hear when they listen to a sermon. They might only get one point from the sermon, but that one point is a point well taken.

In addition to the cognitive content that children receive in the service, they also receive affective content. They will begin to learn the proper posture of the heart in relationship to God - things like reverence and true joy rather than triviality and flippancy. When children are surrounded by adults who are pouring out their hearts to God in song and prayer and who are attentively listening to God’s revealed Word, they will be deeply impacted.

3. Don’t you think children would get more out of church if they had teaching geared toward their capabilities?
First, as I have already said above, children usually have much greater capabilities than we give them credit for. But, secondly, the answer to this question depends on a great number of factors. If children are being faithfully taught at home, then in the long run I do not believe that they will get more out of church by having specialized teaching all the time. I believe that by being taught at home they will develop character which goes far beyond merely knowing facts. Specialized teaching can impart more bare data than non-specialized teaching. But this does not mean discipleship is taking place.[3] I believe it is more important for children to learn a little bit that is applied in everyday life than it is for them to learn a great deal of truth which is never acted upon.[4]

If, on the other hand, children have little or no training in the home, such as when they have unbelieving parents, it might be advantageous to give them specialized attention and teaching with as much on-going discipleship as possible. Again, in these scenarios, a judicious use of age-segregated teaching could be profitable.

4. Don’t you think that having to watch the children keeps parents from being fully involved in corporate worship?
Having children with their parents can be either a hindrance or a help to the parents’ worship. It will be a hindrance if the children are not trained to worship God. Conversely, the very process of training children to worship God will be a help to the parents’ own worship. As Seneca said, “docendo discitur” – “one learns by teaching”.[5]

5. Do you think that children always have to be with their parents in church or at church functions?
No, we do not. There is room within biblical revelation for varying approaches to how a church structures its discipleship. Churches which stress family discipleship yet practice an age-segregated class of some kind in a judicious manner are not in sin. My contention is that age-segregation as a systematic, thorough-going approach to ministry is defective because it incorporates some less than biblical ideology current in our society.

On the other hand, I see no biblical reason why children may not always be with their parents in church. The fact is, parents are responsible before God for their children, and there are a variety of factors that may prompt parents to want to keep their children with them. I recognize that some parents have insisted on keeping their children with them in church for wrong reasons. If there is a sin problem in the parents behind the whole thing, then we should deal with the sin problem in the parents. But we must not attack that which is not a sin, namely, keeping their children with them in church. Actually, I am deeply grateful for parents who are diligent about their God-given responsibility.

[1] For a similar perspective, see John and Noel Piper, “The Family: Together in God’s Presence,” available either in print or online from Desiring God Ministries (

[2] G. K. Chesterton was profoundly correct when he wrote, “It would be too high and hopeful a compliment to say that the world is becoming absolutely babyish. For its chief weak-mindedness is an inability to appreciate the intelligence of babies.” “The Terror of a Toy,” in Brave New Family, ed. Alvaro de Silva (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 175.

[3] Study in this regard the Scriptural conception of “knowledge” and “wisdom.” In the Bible, knowledge is not usually the bare possession of facts in the mind. It is the ability to understand these facts in their proper God-oriented relationships and to be able to live in accordance with this truth. This is why “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7).

[4] This is an extremely important point. We have a tendency today to be rationalistic in our idea of disciplemaking, but the Scriptures are more sapiential. That is, Christianity and Christian doctrine is more than a set of propositions (although it is certainly not less than propositional). It is the way and the life as much as it is the truth. The goal of the Spirit’s work through the Scriptures is not merely to impart information, but rather to impart transformation. We are to embody a theological practice, a God-loving life.

[5] See Parenting in the Pew, expanded edition by Robbie Castleman (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002) for some creative ideas on training children to worship. In some ways Mrs. Castleman’s understanding is deficient; nevertheless, I appreciate the thought she has given to helping children truly engage with God.


Ace said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I strongly support your position and appreciate the way you described it. So one related question on this note is, by way of logical extension, should we have a nursery? Understanding there are some logistical needs having a nursery meets, and not coming at the topic with a predetermined attitude, I thought I'd throw out the question. :)

Jason Parker said...

Thanks for asking, Justin. In fact, I think I will pull this out of the comments section and put up a post on it.