Years ago I had a woman approach me after a Sunday morning service and ask, "Don't these young people know that we have a place for their children?" I replied, "Yes, they do. That place is right here worshipping with their parents." I was't being snarky. Nevertheless, this comment is symptomatic of what I see as a huge problem in the 21st Century Church. We are silo-ing ourselves to death! Many churches today operate on what I like to call a "silo mentality" of ministry. You come into church and are immediately placed in a group with other people just like you, where everything is custom designed for your little niche. Our favorite group to separate out is the children. Of course, every church should have an exciting children's program with an active Sunday school and an inviting nursery. But we should always strive to make worship a family event.
It drives me nuts when I see churches that have Sunday school for children and teens during the worship service. The rationale is that we need to have something interesting for the young people while their parents are taking a break from them and worshipping God. The problem we run into when we do this is that we teach children and teens that corporate worship is not for them. And then we are shocked when they stop going to church after graduating from high school. But why should we be surprised? We've spent their entire lives telling them that grown up church is not for them, so they are simply doing as they have been taught.
But true worship must be intergenerational. That means that on Sunday mornings, we should be able to hear a baby crying and a hearing aid screeching at the same time. All human beings, and especially children, learn through imitation. Our children will learn how to worship and praise God by watching us. It is also through corporate worship that they learn what it means to be a part of a community of believers. We cannot expect our children to have good oral hygiene as adults if we don't develop good brushing habits in them at a young age, and the same can be said for worship. If we want to teach them well, we need to start them young.
Now I'm not saying that we need to get rid of our nurseries. Infants and toddlers can get fussy, and it is always good to have a nursery available for tired parents and cranky babies. A church nursery should be an option, but never a requirement. If a church will not let your children worship with you, no matter what age they are, you need to find a different church.
All of that being said, it is also important to note that a church service is not Romper Room. Just as I've seen churches that ban children from worship, I've seen others that simply allow the kids to roam free during the service, making noise and being disruptive. While this may seem "welcoming," it is not helpful. So, some tips regarding public worship for parents with children:
Whitney Houston once sang that children are our future, but I was never really a fan of that song. I believe that children are our present. So the next time you see that family come into church with all of those little kids, don't roll your eyes. Instead, thank God that his church is for all generations at all times. And then take a minute and learn the kids' names. Introduce yourself. Talk to them. Encourage them. Let them know that you are happy to see them. For the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.