As in any family, children can be a joy but they also involve some chores, noise, disturbances. And we still have older people who say "children should be seen and not heard." Others give as their reason to stay away "I come to church to worship and pray; I don't like these brats running around." Is there any way for both children and adults to enjoy coming to the same church gatherings?
First we must see that Jesus turned our usual model right upside down.
"Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will not enter it" (Mark 10:15). That means it is not a question of church goers forcing children to behave like adults. It is we adults who need to change to be childlike. How then could we begin to adopt a childlike model for our services?
Jesus is certainly not suggesting we patronize and talk down to children with baby talk. In the previous chapter we defined ritual as anything that we do again and again, usually without thinking about it. And little children love ritual repetition like a bedtime prayer, or "Ring a ring a roses." They ask for old familiar stories. But they only want these for a few minutes, and very soon they want to do something else. As they get older the previous rituals will seem childish. "Away in a manger" was fine at Christmas, but teenagers are beyond that. They will enjoy a newer rock song about Jesus' coming into our violent world. How often do they have to put up with the story of Jesus as the Good Shepherd?
Children also like to move around. Expecting them to sit through a long service, sermons without illustrations, and interminable prayers, is a sure way to put them off church for the next thirty years. Some of them might eventually come back when they have ceased to be childlike and are bored enough to join in our geriatric activities.
Children love stories. And strangely enough when stories are told in a sermon that is what the adults remember. Which is why instead of sermons Jesus told parables. Heavy theology and the detailed exegesis of Romans and Hebrews and the Book of Revelation has a place, but it should be at a separate time from the main service for those adults who are ready for that.
But that does not mean that children are not keen to learn. Most of a lifetime of learning takes place in the first seven years of our life. Which is why an essential function of Christian education is to give parents the tools to teach their own children. "Kids won't remember if the house was all neat, but they will remember if you read them stories" (Betty Hinman in The National Enquirer). Church libraries should cull their shelves ruthlessly to provide room for the Narnia stories and the mass of good Christian writing now available for bedtime reading. And if there are no qualified Sunday School teachers, there are always some adults and teenagers who would love to read to the children during the sermon.
Dedicated adults will put up with the dated boredom of our services, but the younger generation stay away in droves. That is one reason why children and young people balk at going to church. They expect a few old fogies will talk down to them and refuse to consider anything new. And the competition from Sunday morning television is very severe. It takes a very capable Sunday School teacher to make church going something the children wouldn't want to miss at any price.
Meanwhile every Sunday thousands of heroic Christian parents get their children dressed and drag them to a church service. At least we no longer force young people to wear clothes they would be ashamed to be seen in by their friends. If the children become eager to join us, it is worth the battle. But sooner or later when there is mounting resistance, the family decides to miss a Sunday. When children are old enough they can be left to amuse themselves at home while parents enjoy going out to a service. But the idea of taking the kids to have a barbecue and brief service by a lake soon becomes very appealing. It is only a matter of time before regular church going has lost its appeal. "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored" (Matthew 5:13).
Are there ways to make church going attractive for children and teenagers?
Larger congregations with good facilities can offer separate rooms for baby sitting and toddlers. Parents appreciate the freedom this gives them, but there is a heavy cost for the dedicated workers who miss out on sharing in the main service. Where a morning service goes on for an hour and a half it helps if children can move two or three times rather than having to sit still in a pew. Perhaps buildings could be designed to allow side rooms in which some can go and read or watch a video and then join in the singing and communion when they choose.
If we want children to attend voluntarily it helps if the service is concluded within an hour. That involves confining the notices to the bulletin, avoiding long prayers, cutting some irrelevant verses from the hymns, and reducing the sermon to say fifteen minutes. The need for more intensive Christian education and deeper Bible study would then need to be offered at other times. Another alternative is to have a children's church at the same time as the adult service. And if the teenagers could plan and lead this, with adults only acting as back-up, it might be even better.
Churches that welcome children to share in the bread and the wine offer the feel of a family occasion in which they can take part. Once they know that they are welcome to the family table, and used to what happens there, they may leave church going aside for a time in their teens. But it is easy to welcome them back without embarrassment when they choose to come on special occasions with their family.
In the next chapter we will note the tremendous importance of contemporary music. Children usually enjoy a rich variety of familiar hymns together with songs in the musical style which they prefer. The use of an overhead projector avoids the need to keep shifting from the service book and finding the words in the hymn book. If some older members of the congregation find this offensive, perhaps they could be offered a quieter set service at another time.
We also need to wonder whether the practice of attending church every Sunday is written in stone. Children love special occasions. In the Old Testament much was made of annual worship occasions like the Passover and Day of Atonement. During the Feast of Booths the whole family camped out in the open air. If we made more of our Christian festivals parents might be able to say, "Let's go and celebrate Jesus' birthday on Christmas Eve." "Easter is the most important day of the year." Or even "Today is Mothers Day, and I like my kids to appreciate me!"
If a friend or family member is sick, we could say "Let's go and join in special prayer for your cousin." Congregations that celebrate the birthdays of their children can announce "all children who have a birth day this week come forward" for a prayer of thanksgiving. We remember that "Jesus took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them" (Mark10:16).
Jesus attended synagogue services regularly, as he did the major festivals in Jerusalem. But in the Gospels he said nothing about children attending church every Sunday. One of the few exhortations to gather for services is "Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another" (Hebrews 10:24-25). That is essential, but the encouraging does not have to be in a Sunday service.
Sunday schools were invented less than two centuries ago. And for the Christian education of our children there are many other possibilities.
An annual Daily Vacation Bible School can teach more in a couple of weeks than a whole year of sporadic church attendance. There are some excellent summer camps with plenty of fun activities and explanation of the good news by young people. Well run week-day Bible clubs can be offered as an alternative to attending church..
Parents need not feel that if they cannot drag their children to church they have failed. Guilt on that score has often suggested it is better to give up church going altogether. If we made it possible for children to enjoy some major festivals ever year, and learn the Bible in other creative ways, parents might feel less tempted to give up on church going.
Helping children to enjoy the family of God has its problems, but we should not suggest that "If you don't come every Sunday, you don't belong." Better say "Feel free to come to the family gathering when you can." And it would be good to add "Let us know how we can make your children enjoy the party" (The word is suggested by Tony Campolo's book, The Kingdom of God is a Party). And of course children love a party).
Chapter 9 ......