Lord of the Flies Church
A number of years ago I led worship at a “family-integrated” service. What I took from this experience was that “family-integrated” meant let the kids run absolutely wild, while the adults pretended not to see the wrestling match over in the corner. No really…there was a “Cowboys and Indians” game being played during the service. Having grown up in churches where you had Sunday School before church, and then everyone but little babies went to the main service, this breed of “family-integration” was new for me. That species of “family-integration,” in other words, was something I would not have wanted to align myself with.
However, later on, when I was helping to start a church, we made the decision to encourage families to keep their children with them during the service. A decision that could very well be termed “family-integration.” I’m grateful to now minister in a church where the normal arrangement is for the whole family to pile into a row to sing, hear the Word, and take the Lord’s Supper together. Some may call it “family-integrated.”
The question arose recently amongst my Social Media circle as to what my views were on keeping children in the worship service. My flinch is, “Of course keep them in the service.” Now, bear in mind, what I am envisioning when I think of children participating in the service is not the Lord of the Flies church I mentioned at the beginning.
What I am envisioning is something more akin to my childhood memories: being told to sit still, perhaps coloring, or once older jotting down notes or doodles of what I heard the pastor preaching. It seems odd that a Christian family would set out to raise their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, only to send mixed signals to their children that they aren’t yet old enough to worship the Lord. So first, a defense of keeping your kiddos with you in a worship service. Second, some practical suggestions.
Bring the Kids Along
We have quite the number of OT precedents for the worship of God being a family affair. In Deuteronomy 31:12, Moses gave directions for frequent readings of the law:
“Gather the people together, men, and women, and children, and thy stranger that is within thy gates, that they may hear, and that they may learn, and fear the LORD your God, and observe to do all the words of this law.”
This text implies not only a reading but also an accompanying explanation of what was read, i.e. a sermon. Ezra seems to be following this precedent when he reads the Torah to the people in Nehemiah 8:2 (see also Ezra 10:1 where children are specifically included in one of these gatherings):
“And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month.”
Jehoshaphat also called together an assembly of the people Judah, and children are reckoned as being in that multitude (2 Chr. 20:13). Joel prophesying of the coming “day of the Lord” calls for a solemn assembly:
“Gather the people, sanctify the congregation, assemble the elders, gather the children, and those that suck the breasts: let the bridegroom go forth of his chamber, and the bride out of her closet (Joel 2:16).”
On the day of Pentecost, Peter preached to a great multitude of foreign born Jews, and one of the primary OT texts he used was from that same section from Joel. Peter proclaims that Joel was prophesying about that day, the day of Pentecost (Cf. Acts 2:16-21). Peter assures them that the OT promises are for them and their children (Acts 2:38-39).
A final NT place to look for family inclusion is at the Ephesian church’s “send-off” for the Apostle Paul; note who was there. It was not only the elders in attendance, but their wives and children. This special prayer service was attended by families (Acts 21:5).
This is good Scriptural precedent for thinking of our corporate worship as being a gathering for all the saints, both young and old. Further, much of the modern discomfort with having children sit through a worship service is largely because we have adopted an unscriptural view of child-rearing.
Self-discovery has become the goal of parenting, and this inherently leads to expecting that children should be entertained, happy, and comfortable at all times. Another contributing factor is our culture’s stigma of children as inconvenient. This thinking has crept into church circles, and we whisk the kids off to be entertained by childish songs, told Bible stories where Christ is extracted from them and in His place is some moralistic duty, and where the children are taught they deserve to have a “good time.” Rather than teaching our children to grow to maturity, we have accommodated their immaturity.
Both Old and New Testaments make it quite plain that the worship of God and discipleship of the nations is to be done in the context of family life. So, it seems odd to exclude our children from coming to join with their brothers and sisters in Christ––of all ages––simply because we are worried they might cause a ruckus. What is more likely, is that we’re concerned they’ll embarrass us.
The Din of the Saints
Now for some practicals. The challenge of bringing your children into the worship service is an especially poignant challenge for those of us with wee ones. Toddlers are naturally more squirmy, want to explore, and fuss when their desires are thwarted by a parents strong arms holding them on the lap. So, how do you teach them to listen, participate, and grow in understanding what’s happening? Well, quite simply, they won’t learn if they aren’t present. Once you commit to wrangling the kiddos during the service, you need to remember a few things.
The noise your kids make is always more noticeable to you than for everyone else. You’re focused on them after all, and you probably won’t notice the crying baby on the other side of the sanctuary. I had this revelation one Sunday when the plague had descended upon our home and only I went to church. I imagined that if my kiddos had been there, in our usual spot, and I could be in two places at once, I would just hear the “din” of the service. Their noises are my responsibility, but their noises are just a portion of the joyful noise of a gathered body.
My wife and I work to teach our children to use a “church voice”, not fuss, and sit reasonably still. But all with the goal of teaching them to love and enjoy God and His people.
Make a point of practicing for church throughout the week. Teaching your family the songs your church sings, while encouraging your children to sit still in the safety of the living room is a great way to help the whole family look forward to worshipping together on the Lord’s Day. When you have family prayer or Bible time, don’t belabor it by expositing the entire 9th chapter of Romans for your four-year-old. But make it long enough to be a training ground for the littles to learn the discipline of self-controlled sitting.
Further, my wife and I work to make sure to rehearse with our children why we go to church. We remind them on Saturday night, “Why do we go to church?” They respond, “To worship God.” If their answer is, “To not wiggle or fuss, and by no means embarrass mom and dad,” our emphasis has gone cattywampus. We do teach them not to wiggle or fuss, but we want to emphasis what they can and should do, not what they shouldn’t.
What they should do is sing loud, say hearty amens, learn the creeds we recite, listen to the Bible, and get excited when the bread and wine is coming down our row. Throughout the service, I ask my two year old boy questions about what’s happening in the service. I remind him what to say and when. I ask him where the pastor is and what the bread and wine remind us of. At the end of each song I tell him, “Say amen.” He has mastered the art of loudly offering his amen with all the other saints. During the songs I help him clap the beat of the song so he is learning the rhythm of the songs, even if he doesn’t know all (or any) of the words.
If they grievously misbehave, I’ll swiftly take them to the restroom (or at our church there is a discipline room available), and give them a discipline. We strive, however, to make sure that church doesn’t become “the place where we get a ton of spankings.”
There are of course plenty of other practical odds and ends:
- Make sure you get your kids to bed early on Saturday, so they have a good night of rest before church on Sunday.
- Give ’em a good breakfast so their rumbly tummies aren’t a cause of stumbling. Perhaps have minimal snacks if they do grow too restless…
- Don’t bring the toy box to church. For infants and toddlers a small toy may be appropriate to help them stay occupied, but this is something you want to grow them out of as soon as you can.
- Our 5 year old brings pencils and paper and is only allowed to use them during the sermon, and she is supposed to try to draw something which the preacher is talking about. Our 2 year old sits on my lap, and I doodle for him on a blank page, or let him look at a Bible story book.
You Wrangle the Toddlers. God Wrangles You!
Finally, I think we have this misconception that unless you can hang on every word of the sermon, or hit every note of every song, that somehow the worship service will do you no good. Thus, we’re tempted to remove the seeming distraction of wrangling our small children. I like to jest that while I’m wrangling my toddlers, God is wrangling me.
I view every “hush”, every reminder not to wiggle, every distraction that comes with having wee ones in the worship service as a part of my worship to God. Now this doesn’t mean we should justify noisy, misbehaving kids. Again…no Lord of the Flies church please! However, my deepest desire for my children is to trust, love, and obey Christ. I want them to be mindful of their union to Christ’s body, the whole congregation of saints. My children are brothers and sisters in Christ, and I want to worship our Lord and Savior with them. They must see how precious and of utmost importance Christ is to me, and how better than in “going up to Zion” each Lord’s Day with them. So, offer up to the Lord the offering of the family rodeo in your row, and trust that God is working in you and in your children a reward of inestimable worth.