It seemed to be a great church. The staff was friendly. The facilities were well kept. However, I wasn’t so sure about the church’s policy regarding children. As the daddy of two little girls, I am all about worshipping with my family. However, I was told that children under the seventh grade are not allowed in the auditorium during worship. Since I wasn’t there for an official Sunday service, I decided to check out the kids facilities. Woah. It looked like an ecclesial Disney World, complete with inflatable jump toys. My two-year old daughter loves inflatable jump toys. But still, the no-kids-allowed policy irked me, because I kind of like being with my kids, believe it or not…even in church.
In some churches I’m aware of, the situation is even worse. Take my friend’s church, for instance. The policy there is the same: no kids allowed. One couple decided that their kids were important enough, and decided to bring them in the auditorium. The kids were well behaved, causing no distraction. In fact, no one would have noticed the kids. No one would have noticed, that is, if the pastor had let it go. But he didn’t. Instead, he publicly humiliated the family, openly addressed their violation of the policy from the platform, and asked the ushers to escort them out of the auditorium to deposit their kids in a nursery.
Over on the other side of town, there is another church, much different. This church is all about kids being in the main service. In fact, they are part of an international movement, founded upon the principle that families should be together for worship. No age-segregated Sunday School. No children’s church. This church is distinctive for it’s “family integration.” Again, however, I had questions about the church’s approach to worship, ministry, and their accommodation to people’s, especially visitor’s, needs.
It seems like we have two pretty different takes on church ministry. On the one hand, Church A has children’s programs to beat the band, just as long as you don’t mind bidding farewell to junior while you worship in the adult service. On the other hand, Church B avoids nursery problems and Sunday School favors, since everyone from ages 0 on up are meeting in the same room, at the same time, for the same purpose. And, of course, there are a myriad of churches in between, many which welcome children in the worship, many which practice the time-honored tradition of age-segregated Sunday School, and many which are simply stumped about where to get qualified nursery workers for all the babies. When it comes to children and church, it seems we have a problem.
How did we get here?
If you stop and think about it for a moment, judging from the perspective of the culture at large, babies seem like kind of a nuisance. Most American parents buy expensive and colorful objects to hold our babies for us—hopping, jumping, swinging, and spinning objects—so we don’t have to hold them. Babysitting is a big business all its own, with moms and dads paying big bucks for a few hours of relief from the exhausting little creatures! Daycare centers are overflowing with kids, since both parents have jobs that provide them with a level of income to pay the bills and satisfy the needs. Whether junior came along by ‘accident’ (an issue all its own) or ‘on purpose’ (another issue all its own), once he’s here, he’s a whole lot of work. And, truth be told, he’s just a bit inconvenient, too. Okay, no one would come right out and say “kids are a nuisance!” but sometimes our actions speak louder than our words…and our actions are saying something.
Migrating now from the culture at large to the Christian subculture, what do we see? Not a whole lot of difference. Why should there be? A burden is a burden. And, as it seems, kids land in the “burden” category sometimes. Ever ready to help, churches have an arsenal of options to help parents with this burden. Nurseries. Cry rooms. Nursery paging systems. Feeding rooms. Playgrounds. Children’s “church.” Youth group. Five-year old’s class. Junior high groove group. Beginning walkers nursery. Already-walking-but-sometimes-falls-down-for-girls-only class. And on and on.
But not all churches offer the smorgasbord of options. Some churches choose to reject the age-segregated approach, and advance a one-big-happy-family approach to church ministry, effectively doing away with the accouterments of child maintenance, which reek of the kid-nuisance pandemic from which our culture seems to suffer.
So, what should we do?
Complex problems defy tidy, simple solutions. Here’s why.
Introducing kids into the service introduces a host of problems. Kids cry. How is that baby’s wailing going to sound with the worship music? Kids have diapers. Diapers get messy. What kind of an effect is that going to have during the middle of a sermon? Most of us don’t have angelic one-year olds who are able to silently and sweetly sit through an entire homily, never fidgeting or crying, but paying rapt attention with open Bible in their lap. If you’ve ever tried it, caring for kids is an attention-arresting task. Which means, quite obviously, that it’s hard to focus one’s attention on the sermon, robbing you of your blessing for the week. And what about the kids themselves? What are they going to learn? Can your pastor preach in such away that the Bible PhD, and the two-year old will understand and apply the Word? If so, he is a remarkable preacher, but he’s also probably pretty rare.
But does taking kids out of the service solve all problems? Apparently not. Is the church contributing to the disintegration of the family by consigning each age group to a separate class? Is it really a good idea to have Johnny learning about Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Suzie learning about Noah’s Ark, and Mommy and Daddy learning about Handling Your Finances God’s Way? What about the nursery problems? We’ve all heard about the tragic accounts of neglectful, or even worse, abusive nursery situations and scandals. Nursery programs introduce a whole plateful of problems. Just ask a pastor, “So how’s your nursery going?” and he will either faint in a sweaty heap, or lunge at you, crazed with rage. (It’s okay; I’m exaggerating.) But let’s step back and look at the whole theology of the thing. Did God intend for His church to be a segmented weekend childcare facility, or a place where families can be nurtured as families?
Are you ready for me to pull out my silver bullet solution and solve the controversy once and for all? Um, no. Not going to happen. Not today, at least. As usual, this article is not a campaign for a particular position, tactic, approach, strategy, or pat answer. It’s a plea to think. And to think hard. Tough issues demand rigorous thinking. But tough issues demand more. They demand biblical thinking.
The answer that you and your church develop, by God’s leading, may differ from what another church and their leadership come up with. In such polarizing issues, we must behave charitably toward those who do things differently. Let’s make sure we have the big issues–things like right doctrine, and the centrality of Scripture–settled. For those who may come to different conclusions than you, it’s fine to dialogue, question, explore, and even charitably disagree, but never to malign. So, as you deal with the issues, keep these points in mind.
- Consider Jesus’ view of kids. Jesus encountered people who wanted to shoo away the kids. Here is how he responded: “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.’ And he laid his hands on them.” Jesus made a point to welcome the children, and declare that they, too, have a part in the kingdom of heaven.
- Consider the early church’s response toward children. If you do a study on children’s ministries in the early church, you’re not going to come up with much. This doesn’t mean that children’s ministry is wrong. It simply means that it’s not in the Bible. However, when you consider the topic of children and the church, you find that children are implicitly accepted as participants in household conversion accounts (Acts 16:33-34; 18:8).
- Consider the church’s radical integration and boundary-smashing power. The church is a supernatural community, crossing cultural boundaries, obliterating racial divisions, and cutting down class distinction (Eph 2:11-22; Gal. 3:28). The church is a place where the poor man can stand next to the rich man, and both can worship, rejoicing in their equality before God. It is a place where all races should be able to join together, without fear of ostracism or prejudice. (Is it too much to ask, then, for children to participate in the church–even the local, visible manifestation of the church universal, meeting on a Sunday morning at 10:30?) To disallow any segment of the church seems problematic.
- Consider the others-serving, grace-saturated context of the church. As a church, your goal is not to pander to every consumer appetite and satisfy every member’s felt need. However, the church should be a place where accommodation is made, if needed (Eph. 5:21; Philippians 2:3-5). What does this look like? If a family wants to worship together as a family, babies included, let ’em do it. However, if a couple prefers to put their baby in the care of a qualified nursery work, perhaps you should provide for that, too. Some churches may pressure families to have their kids ‘pew-trained’ by age 1. Maybe that doesn’t work for the visitor who comes. Maybe she’s a single mom, grappling with life’s challenges, and on the verge of giving up. Maybe she just wants to hear the preaching. But if the church has no means of helping her care for her three young kids, how might that change her visit? A grace-saturated context means taking people where they are–nursery-loving or nursery-hating–and accepting them in the same way we were accepted by Christ (Romans 15:7).