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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

The Case for Children's Worship Services

April 18th, 2024 | 8 min read

By Robin Jean Harris

Years ago, I visited an Anglican church while visiting some friends out of town. I had just started working  as the children’s director at the Anglican church I attended back home, so in addition to attending worship with the adults that Sunday morning, I spent some time following the children around to see what I could see. The children at this particular church had the traditional classrooms with the tables and chairs, circle time rug, dress-up, etc.

But they also had a children’s chapel. This children’s chapel was no cobbled-together affair. It was not some unused corner of the church adorned with art prints of googly-eyed biblical patriarchs. Though small (seating six or eight adults and maybe fifteen children comfortably), the chapel walls were covered in wood paneling, interrupted only by gothic style windows. Several simple wooden benches provided seating in the nave, a section that seemed largely for adult helpers. The children’s place was in the small chancel, the section at the front of the chapel normally reserved for clergy and choir.

I followed a dozen four and five year olds to their normal spot in the chancel. Every item and piece of furniture in the chapel was made of wood and other natural materials, beautifully made and on a scale designed to fit and delight a child. I don’t remember much about the lesson the children received: it may have been well or poorly done. The children were characteristically wiggly for preschoolers, although the quiet reverence of the space and their habitual attendance meant that they were calmer than average. I found myself deeply moved at the intention of it all, the great care, the emotional and intellectual energy invested in creating a space for the littlest congregants to meet with their God.

Most churches think of children’s ministry as something that is primarily for the parents, a kind of spiritual day-care, allowing weary parents a few minutes to catch their breath and tend to their own spiritual life undistracted. In reaction to this way of thinking, other churches insist that the children remain in the service with their families. They welcome into the auditory landscape of the service the inevitable burbles and occasional bellow. They encourage the kids to follow along as best they can, to learn the shape and rhythms of their denomination’s worship service from a young age. But these are not the only possibilities.

I would like to make the case that it is fitting and appropriate to offer a dedicated children’s worship time during the sermon, and that we should not let the fact that children’s worship times are often done badly obscure the valuable opportunity they present.

It goes without saying that if you have to choose, it is much better to have your children learn “by osmosis” in the service than to waste their time with shallow, flashy entertainment somewhere else in the building. Children who have been trained in churchy entertainment for 18 years are unlikely to mature into men and women who value a normal “boring” worship service. Churches that rely on kitschy curriculum, high adrenaline videos and games, and the “cool factor” do their children an enormous disservice by instilling entertainment as a value over reverence, patience, and the beauty of Scripture and right worship. But it doesn’t follow that an entertainment-oriented kids time is the only alternative to having children in the service the whole time. Many churches do not have the resources or skills to provide a beautiful dedicated chapel for children like I described above. But you still can make a child-scale worship space somewhere in your building. I believe that children who participate in a worship time that is skillfully pitched at them can and will make the transition to adult worship as they come of age. I’ve experienced it myself, and I’ve seen it in other children. In fact, I would suggest that children might not receive the message that the faith is “for them” when they are asked to be in the worship service for the entire length of the service.

Children can gain a lot by being in the main church service. Just as toddlers learn to speak as their parents speak good English to them (and learn less effectively when their parents use “baby-talk”), children can learn the physical rhythms, words, and meaning of the church service.

However, in many churches, while the adults are absorbing the Word of God through the sermon, the children are absorbing little more than the puffs and goldfish their parents stuff in their mouth as they hope to avoid incident. Older children might try to draw or color words or ideas they caught from the sermon. This is what children do during the sermon, because they are not picking up on and absorbing anything. For children, the sermon can represent a substantial academic exercise. Even the ten minute homily of mainline churches are too much for a toddler, but the frequent 30-45 minute sermons of many reformed churches are a complete break in a child’s ability to follow the rhythm of the worship service.

When God gave instructions for the Tabernacle in the wilderness, there were two significant defining features: 1) the Tabernacle was to be beautiful, fitted out with the silver and gold and other fine materials that the Israelites had brought with them out of Egypt. 2) The Tabernacle was fitted to the particular situation and stage of growth of his people. The plans Yahweh gave Moses were not for a Temple, nor for a synagogue or Church. The wilderness Tabernacle was crafted to be a point of intersection between God and the wandering Israelites. The Temple was for God, but its effectiveness as a worship space for God depended on it being also for God’s people. It was to be beautiful and portable.

Bear with me for an extended analogy. Your family is invited to a dinner with a Senator. It is a formal affair, but the Senator has assured you that your children are welcome, and that the staff will do everything they can to help your children participate. It is an honor for your children to join you at the dinner, and you help them into their best clothes. At the table, their legs swing from the large chairs. Their hands struggle to handle the heavy silverware. They must be served all their food by the adults out of large serving dishes, and they must pretend to like it. When they squirm in their large seats or call out to a friend they are shushed. Even if there is a considerable effort by the adults to be kind to the children, to help them participate, all the trappings, items, and proceedings communicate to them that they must grow up before they can belong.

Imagine instead, your children walking into a dedicated children’s dining room. At the center is a small wooden table draped with a white linen tablecloth, a small vase with flowers, and beautiful child-size chairs. Each plate is set with a small china plate and child-size shining silverware. Several adults sit with them, their knees practically up at their chins. They are there to serve the children their meal, but also to show them how, because everything is sized down to a child scale, they can serve themselves and each other. Messes and spills are expected, but the children are taught how to handle them themselves. They are served beautifully prepared food—no baby food, but no steak either. It’s food perfectly suited to them.

I believe that this is what a dedicated children’s worship time can look like, and what it should be: a meal with the Lord himself, served by adults who have been walking with him for years. Done correctly over time, such an experience cannot but make a lasting impact.

What is said and done in a good children’s worship time is scaled down, not dumbed down. Children don’t need canned baby food, but their food should be suitable for baby teeth. Paul’s rebuke to the Hebrews that they still needed milk instead of solid food implies that his teaching could “scale down”, and that such scaling was appropriate for new Christians. If we scale down for new Christians, why would we not scale down for children? After all, to borrow Demetri Martin’s joke, children are just “people for a little while.” All children are simply your church’s congregants at a certain point in time.

Some will say, “let them have milk in Sunday school, but during the service let them at least be at the table, even if they can’t eat the meat.” But how much better would it be to redeem the time during the sermon? How much better to lay out for them a feast that encourages the full agreement and engagement of their hearts, minds, and souls? The pearl of great price is direct access to and intersection with God himself, and that is something that can be cultivated in the present, and grow over their lives. It’s not necessary to give them a promissory note for a future engagement with the Lord.

I can imagine some arguing that if you send children to a different room on a Sunday morning, that they are no longer “in church.” This is certainly the signal given by those churches where parents check their children straight into an entirely different wing or building so they can have a parallel service. But this is not the only option. I believe children can and should be present in the service for the Lord’s Supper, for baptisms, and for as much of the liturgy and singing as makes sense given the particular shape of that service. But having a dedicated children’s worship time during the sermon provides an opportunity to feed the hearts and minds of children who are already not “eating” the adult words of the sermon. If children are in a different room during the sermon, but are being fed, are worshiping with their minds and spirits, there is no reason to consider that they are no longer “in church.”

Paul says, “ can any one in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified.” Admittedly, when the congregation says “Amen” after a prayer or sermon, there is no guarantee that they fully understood or followed every word. And of course children should not be underestimated: many are able to follow and receive some benefit from the sermon at a young age. But there is a point of diminishing returns. Virtually no young child can say “Amen” after the sermon, giving their hearty assent in spirit and mind. In this way, the children are outsiders who are unable to be welcomed into the fullness of worship, because the adult speech is unintelligible to them. The solution is not to lower the conceptual level of the sermon to the level of a five year old. And although the heart behind the short children’s message delivered in the sanctuary is good, it is a rare pastor who can deliver an effective children’s sermon, let alone one who can preach to children and adults at the same time. Instead, churches would do well to craft a dedicated worship space for children in another room, where they too can say “Amen” to the words spoken.

I hope we have all had the experience of getting down to a child’s level and addressing them eye to eye. It’s immediately obvious in the way they relate to you that it means something–it is not just that you have become visible and legible to them; the child can see that they are visible and legible to you. Instead of requiring that they grow up before you will bother speaking to them, getting on their level honors the child as they are in that moment. A good children’s worship time is the worship equivalent of looking a child in the eye.

The argument against separate children’s worship is coming from a deep regard for children, and I strongly resonate with that. But I want to propose that an unintended effect of this logic is the very thing they want to avoid: the communication to children that they are not welcome in God’s presence as children. When Jesus blessed the little children, the Gospels do not tell us that he preached the kind of sermon that he would have preached to the crowds. They do tell us that he took the children in his arms, placed his hand on their heads, and blessed them. These are all actions suited to the needs and understanding of children. There is a time for children to be part of the crowd, and a time for children to be in the presence of the Lord, to hear his words, to receive his blessing as children.

Robin Jean Harris

Robin Jean Harris is a North Carolina-based writer with a background in children's ministry and music education. Her writing can be found at Theopolis and Ad Fontes, as well as at her Substack,