Like many churches, ours will start the children’s program back up next month. Last year we started going there just before the holidays, when they were busy preparing for the children’s Christmas pageant. There was a high level of involvement by children and their families, which was exciting to me. But after Christmas somehow that quickly dwindled away.
The pastor (my husband) has asked me to meet with the leaders of the children’s program to talk about doing “children’s church” instead of “Sunday School.” Exactly what the difference is seems to vary from church to church. In some churches, it seems to be merely a matter of timing – Sunday School is before church, children’s church is during church.
In my view, it has to do with the focus. Sunday School typically is lesson-centered, with the goal being to teach the Bible and how it applies to children’s lives. That’s important, but there’s more to church than learning. Adults go to church not just to learn but to worship – which includes learning but is much broader. We worship through song, prayer, hearing the Word read and preached, and giving our tithes and offerings.
I’ve heard and read a good deal about whether children should attend worship together with their parents. One strong argument for all ages worshipping together is that the Bible nowhere speaks of segregating God’s people by age groups. Our society tends to segregate children by age a great deal as it is – school is almost always age-based (except homeschool, of course), and even as the elderly segment of our society grows in numbers, it has less contact than ever before with the youngest segment of our society.
Just as a family benefits from grandparents and grandchildren spending time together, and aunts and uncles and cousins of all ages coming together to work and play, God’s family is strongest when all ages interact and share their unique gifts with one another. I find the idea of all ages worshipping together very appealing, not least because that way children do not have to make a transition from the fun of a children’s program to what may be perceived as a much more boring duty to sit through church. It also helps the adults recognize that the children are just the future of the church, they are part of the church today.
On the other hand, I have rarely attended a church where children and adults alike seemed comfortable with having all ages together. Parents of young children feel embarrassed when their children make noise or don’t sit still. Some children by nature find it easy to sit quietly (I was one of those) but many do not, and it becomes a test of wills between parent and child. I have read comments from parents who say they simply taught their children that they had to sit quietly and it’s a matter of good discipline, as with any other situation with young children. That may be true, but if so there are a lot of parents (including me) who are weak in this area.
The churches where young children in church are not an issue generally are those where a certain level of movement and noise is simply more acceptable. In particular I think of some black congregations I have visited. The large Baptist church I attended for nearly five years (until last fall) has a nursery on Sunday morning but the program for older children is after church (during Community hour when many adult small groups meet). Sometimes a toddler would walk around in the aisle, and people would simply smile. A certain amount of childish chatter was also simply taken for granted.
That same church also has Saturday evening services, and the children’s program is held at the same time. I have sometimes suspected that some parents choose to attend Saturday evening church so that they could leave their rambunctious children at KidZone while they went to worship. (Certainly the Saturday evening crowd in the K/1 class always seemed much harder to control than the Sunday morning group, though the morning program had the advantage of a number of teenage volunteers.)
I’ve had a few conversations with the children’s program director, and he is emphatic about making church a positive experience for children. He grew up in a church where Sunday School was boring (and church no doubt more so), and he wants to make KidZone a very kid-friendly environment. (He didn’t introduce this, as it was that way before he came, he simply has built on what had been started a few years earlier.) There is strong Bible teaching, but it is clearly geared to each age group. There is singing with lots of movement. There is prayer but in short segments. (I have to admit to finding it hard to keep my own mind from wandering during a ten-minute pastor-led prayer.)
I haven’t figured out exactly what I’m going to say at the meeting Sunday. I will talk about the need for children to worship through song and prayer and giving as well as learning Bible stories. I will talk about having them spend some time in the “big church” becoming familiar with the songs and prayers that are part of their parents’ worship. I will talk about having them at least sometimes be present for baptisms and Communion. I will talk about having them gradually participate more in “all-ages” worship as they get older (and suggest ways they can help lead worship even as children, such as by lighting the candles).
Ideally I would like to see a church where children feel welcome throughout the worship service, without them having to sit as still and quietly the whole time as the adults do. (Personally even as an adult I would welcome more opportunities to be active. I have to keep explaining to my husband that if my eyelids start to droop during his sermon it has nothing to do with his preaching; I simply find it difficult to stay alert if I sit passively listening for any length of time, whether in church or in business meetings.)
But I’m not sure how to get to that point, in churches that have traditionally had a Sunday School, and where noise and movement by children are seen as out of place. My 11-year-old sits quietly (most of the time), but he spends the time reading books, not participating in worship most of the time. (Sometimes he does surprise me by asking about something he just heard.) I’d rather lead children in worship using active songs and age-appropriate Bible lessons, than have them sit uncomfortably but quietly, coloring pictures or reading books and tuning out the worship service.