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Finding a Place for Children in the Church

I recently met with a young couple who left a church in the area because they were asked to keep one of their children quiet during the sermon. This isn’t the first story like this that I’ve heard and it won’t be the last. In fact, a few months ago a family member was attending her home church and was told her daughter was being too disruptive during the service and she would need to quiet down or leave. This is especially shocking because this church doesn’t offer a nursery. My sister-in-law and her daughter now drive an hour one-way to a church on Sunday mornings where they are welcomed with open arms.

Regardless of who anyone is and who their kids are, as a parent and a pastor these stories disappoint me.

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve preached through, in my very young career, children crying or babbling, people coughing, cell phones ringing and who knows what else. It comes with the territory and if it bothers you as a preacher then it’s time to find a new job.

But let’s go back to that young couple. A big reason one of their children was in worship with them is because they weren’t feeling the Sunday School program was a formative place for their kids to be.

This is a discussion we’ve been having as City Square Church continues to grow and more families with children become involved. We currently have a family group that meets each week where the adults do a small group study and the kids (ages 1-6) are chaperoned by a couple of child care workers. My tendency has been to want to form some sort of educational “program” for the kids and we’ve been on the lookout for something that might be good as a “one room” curriculum.

However, when I mentioned this to the young couple, they asked “why?” Why do you need to institutionalize it? Why not just let the kids play, create and imagine together? They suggested perhaps offering more than just toys for kids, perhaps different types of art supplies or a snack they make together each week, but not much more.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t teach our kids about or model faith at home, in fact it might be more effective than any felt board or craft related Sunday School lesson.

Then again, maybe Richard Dawkins has a point about not indoctrinating our children, in the first place. Scandalous, I know.

What do you think? How should we teach children about faith? Should religious education be institutional or organic? Imaginative or doctrinal?

Regardless about how we feel about this post can we please all agree that children are always welcome in worship and we’ll only expect them to behave like children? It’s messy but it’s a beautiful thing and I think it’s what the kingdom of God is supposed to look and sound like.

About the author: Rob is the co-founder and current co-pastor of City Square Church, a new and innovative United Methodist faith community in downtown Phoenix. In his years of experience in spiritual formation and creating active and engaged communities, Rob has become an expert at connection and networking. He now uses these experiences, along with technology and social media, to bring others together around creative ideas and events that aim to inspire innovation and bold leadership.

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  • Tinarees

    My friend has a thing called “Godly Play” at her church where the children are told the Bible stories using figurines, etc.  I don’t know how I feel about it since I haven’t really seen it.  All I know is that I hated Sunday School when I was a kid, and what I really wanted was to be in church.  And…even though I am a pastor I refuse to teach SS classes for kids under 13 because the curriculum makes me want to scream. 

  • Candace Lansberry

    All around me I see people who have no clue about any kind of faith…and they are often the offspring of people who decided they wouldn’t “teach” their kids anything, for fear of limiting their choices in the future.  They wanted them to be able to “choose for themselves.”  Well, you can’t choose or make good choices if you aren’t grounded in something.  I agree that much of institutional what we call Christian Education has been lacking, but I think there is a definite place for small group ministry for children, where they can learn to talk about their faith, experience giving through conversation and mission, and learn what it means to follow Jesus.  As you know, I’m not much a fan of flannel boards and crafts, though it works to an extent at VBS and camp!!!  Everything in its place, I guess.  Anyway, I see a need for a place to explore questions of faith at an age- appropriate level, and I think that’s the church.

    • http://www.robrynders.com/ Rob Rynders

      Maybe, but I’m surrounded by folks in my daily work who had perfect attendance in Sunday School and don’t want anything to do with the church anymore. The same thing rang true with college students when I was in Wesley. I got a lot of phone calls and e-mails from pastors and parents preparing me for the greatest United Methodist college student ever. They were president of their UMYF, DCYM and CCYM. They were the second coming of John Wesley, but when I met with them they told me they were so happy to be in college so they didn’t have to go to church anymore. It goes both ways. It would be interested to find any studies done on Sunday School attendance and how that relates to church attendance/membership in adulthood. I also don’t think “but they’ll come back when they have their own kids,” rings true anymore, if it ever was true. Again, just a hypothesis. Would be interesting to see a study on that, as well.

    • http://www.robrynders.com/ Rob Rynders

      This study implies that church attendance as a kid is the most important predictor as church attendance as an adult vs. church attendance as a predictor of a certain set of beliefs. In other words, perhaps it’s not what or how kids or taught, but simply that they show up. Though I’m sure a more specific study could be done to see what educational programs are better at faith formation. However, the study is ten years old and we’ve seen a large increase in “nones” over that time, so it may be that the attendance correlation is shrinking, as well. http://www.barna.org/barna-update/article/5-barna-update/62-adults-who-attended-church-as-children-show-lifelong-effects

  • JA

    If Dawkins is right then infant baptism is wrong….

  • Tomwick

    One thing is for sure, if we don’t fill a child’s mind with the best: love, compassion, beauty, music, the arts, love of God and serving others, than the world will fill it with the opposite…. 

  • http://thunarsdottir.livejournal.com/ Suzanne Jacobson Cherry

    We have a group of children who attend Primera Iglesia even when their parents don’t.   It is a mixed age group, all of whom also attend Sidewalk Ministries on Saturday morning.  I’ve been trying different things with them.  The B.I.G. worked okay as a one-room curriculum, but though the children enjoyed the videos, I don’t believe there was any identification with the characters.  It was almost like a way to make them sit down and shut up for a few minutes before doing coloring pages.   Since I recently discovered a set of Children’s Bibles in the newly cleaned up Sunday School room, I decided to use them.  Combined with an idea I got from a Delia Halverson book on family Bible education, I’m using the Bibles to encourage reading, discussion, and hopefully learning and growth based on whatever lesson the adults are receiving in the sermon that day.  We go over the bulletin, review what we read in the Call to Worship, etc., and then move into reading the scripture, talking about it, and sharing stories.  So far, it seems to be something they are happy to engage in and help each other out with.  I try to allow flexibility and time at the end for free play or creativity.

  • 3331988

    Children are sponges…they understand what we as parents are doing and are about. I was surprised to hear my 2nd grader tell me his preference for president and then lay out his reasons why. They were oddly my same arguments. I never prepped him on that! If we force them to choke down a lecture or a lesson, it will forever be an aversion. But if our space is a welcoming place, they will learn and grow, and fell comfortable asking questions. They will understand the place of faith in our lives. But if its aversive, we will fight them every week to go, and when the aversion is removed, when they leave home, they will not return. And remember, they are sponges, so they will see our hipocracy if we ourselves are not true to our faith, and if the leaders they are around are disconnected in this same way, church, religion, and God to them will be a shallow pace, filled with box checkers, not loving believers.