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Should children stay in Sunday worship?

 

The never-ending debate continues

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During Lent, a new pastor asked the Christian education committee to keep the children in the sanctuary on Easter morning rather than leaving after the children’s time for church school. After the pastor explained how beneficial it was for children to see adults worshiping and hear the Easter hymns and prayers, the committee agreed. But when Easter came, a Sunday school teacher led the children out of the sanctuary for their own separate time.

When the pastor asked after the service why the children didn’t stay, he was told, “Because there were some parents who wouldn’t come to worship if they had to sit with their children in the pew.”

Should children stay in worship? What value is there for them and for the adults? Is it better to have church school during worship so that adults can worship in peace and quiet, and parents don’t have to worry about children squirming in the pews? Is keeping children in the worshiping hour a deterrent to church growth?

“There is quite a bit of conversation around this in the PC(USA) these days,” said Stephanie Fritz, associate coordinator for Christian formation at the Presbyterian Mission Agency, adding that “all ages should be part of the worshiping body, including children.”

“Small churches, especially, have the unique opportunity to create intergenerational community,” she said.

Not all share Fritz’s view. Some say that children can benefit from their own time of instruction. Here, Presbyterians Today explores the children-in-worship debate.

— Donna Frischknecht Jackson


When my daughter was little — not that long ago — church for her was going to the nursery, then to Sunday school held during worship. She learned things in an age-appropriate way, and I got to enjoy the message. Too often I think this conversation is more about the aspirations of adults than what kids want. What 4-year-old wants to sit still for 45 minutes? The children at our church do join the congregation for Communion, Easter and Christmas Eve. — Nancy Jennings, session member, Fort Street Presbyterian Church, Detroit

I would love children to stay in the sanctuary for worship. But I find it helpful for the parents to have them go out partway through. The parents are way more worried about the rustling and fidgeting than the rest of us. We try to involve the kids, lighting the candles, ringing the bells, reading Scripture (if they can), children’s sermon, playing rhythm instruments on peppier songs. I think if they are not part of the worship, it makes it harder for them to fully be a part of the church. In small churches, this is less of a danger. In larger churches, the youth ministries, and even the children’s ministries, take on a life of their own, and they are not connected to the whole church. Then we lose them when they go away to college or whatever. So, we compromise. We keep them in the service as long as we can and involve them as much as we can, but then we have them someplace else for the “adult” sermon. — Rev. Dr. Stephen Kliewer, First Presbyterian Church, Lostine, Oregon

I like the idea of kids being in worship. What the congregation needs to learn, though, is not to give kids the stink-eye for being kids. That old-school way of thinking has to change for it to work. My congregation has learned to accept all kinds of kid noises — mostly — and even to accept that breast-feeding on demand is the new norm. Once that shift happens in a church, the doors for younger families fling wide open. — Rev. Kerra English, Ashland Presbyterian Church, Ashland, Virginia

My advice would be to talk with and take advice primarily from your church parents rather than from your session or the pastor. Listen to them, be open-minded and ask them to be so as well, ask them to try things, and then listen to them again. Parents with children who really can’t sit still will have a miserable hour, and for many families the Sunday morning battles will begin. I understand all the reasons for wanting children to be in church from a young age, but we don’t make our children come and sit with us at work every week so that they will want a job someday — we give them school to prepare them.  Personally, I think the biggest problem is that churches treat Sunday school/children’s church as games, crafts and play rather than as the real educational preparation it is meant to be for a life of faith. — Rev. Kirianne Weaver Riehl, First Presbyterian Church, Ithaca, New York

To be perfectly honest, having kids stay in the sanctuary for the entire service is why we stopped coming to church. Having the kids stay rather than leave after the first half of worship to go to Sunday school meant I got no break. All I could focus on is them being quiet, providing entertainment, coloring books, puzzles and notebooks so they wouldn’t disturb others. I know, poor me. Plus, there’s the consideration when the little ones do tune in, there is such a literal translation the kids will take completely out of context that they simply don’t have the maturity or knowledge to understand the actual message much of the time. Just my perspective. — Barbara Spindler, former elder and Sunday school teacher at Presbyterian Church of Los Gatos, Los Gatos, California

I was surprised that the greatest resistance to keeping kids in worship the whole time has actually been from parents — not the 80-year-olds. While in theory worshiping together as a family sounds nice for some, parents express that they enjoy not having to be a parent in worship. As a parent of restless kids myself, I get that. So, space with volunteers and tables with coloring pages is something I’m looking at … but taking out pews is its own battle. As for having church school not during worship but before or after, some families didn’t want that model, and went to churches where they are only at church an hour. So, church school during worship was a response to a demand. It wasn’t like church leaders said, “Wouldn’t it be great to provide everything in an hour?” You can argue that churches shouldn’t adapt to a consumer model as long as you know and are OK that you will lose a good number of families. Some churches have shortened services to 45 minutes with a 45-minute education before or after. That’s intriguing. — Rev. Matt Gough, First Presbyterian Church of Corvallis, Corvallis, Oregon

I think either option is acceptable. The key is in preparation. If children are expected to stay in service that is geared towards adults, they will not enjoy nor benefit from the service. If the service has a part or parts that are aimed at children and families, then they will hopefully enjoy the service. The same goes for taking children out of service. There must be an appropriate and engaging activity planned for them. Our kids leave halfway through service; they are excited to go because we have a wonderful Christian education program that runs during the second half of service. — Sarah Martin-Fanone, member of Fenton First Presbyterian Church, Fenton, Michigan

We are a small church in a very small town that was on the verge of closing 10 years ago. Yesterday we had 33 people in church and 13 of them were kids. We started something new this year. We begin worship with a “Praise Party.” The kids dance and sing in the front of the church during the prelude (sometimes piano; sometimes CDs). It’s chaotic, but lots of fun. Then right after, we sit down and have the children’s time. Sunday school takes place before church. Then there’s a fellowship time that leads directly into the Praise Party. The kids also spontaneously help with the offering, ring the bell, and all come out to help greet after worship (something my grandkids started!). The older congregants love it. We’re adding new members and I think the way kids are included in worship is part of the reason. — Rev. Charity Potter, half-time solo pastor, Unity Parish, which includes Wakefield Presbyterian Church and John Huss Presbyterian Church, Thurston, Nebraska


Learn more

For more information about children in worship, go to pcusa.org/media/uploads/worship/docs/children_in_worship.pdf

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