Children’s Church is the Church

By Rodger Nishioka

one-eared-mickeyIn their book, The Godbearing Life, which has now become a youth ministry standard, Kenda Creasy Dean who teaches at Princeton Theological Seminary and Ron Foster, pastor of a United Methodist congregation, identify one of the most problematic models traditional youth ministry as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse.”  In their description, the congregation and its ministry form the head of Mickey Mouse while youth ministry forms one ear that, like the Mickey Mouse image, is barely attached to the head.  The problem, they say, is that young people grow up with an understanding that youth ministry is only tangentially connected to the life of the whole church if it is connected at all.  They view youth ministry as something that is separate.  This view ends up reinforcing the natural egocentrism of adolescence and while that may suffice for a while, when young people grow up, they find themselves bereft of any understanding of church and the whole church’s ministry and their part in it.  That is when they drift away.  Tragically, we set them up for this by locating their ministry as something apart from the rest of the church.  This analogy is potent as we consider the place of children in the church.

In too many congregations, our children are “dismissed” to go to “children’s church” or something like it either a few minutes into the congregation’s worship or in place of being present in the congregation’s worship at all.  As far as I can tell, this is a 20th century phenomenon.  In reviewing session minutes from Presbyterian congregations in the archives here at Columbia Theological Seminary, this action of sending children out of worship began in the 1950s at the height of the post-war baby boom.  Prior to this, no such thing existed.  Children were in the whole of worship with their families.  But in the years following the second world war with the tremendous influx of newborns, congregations began looking for immediate and cost effective ways to gain more space in the sanctuary to accommodate all these young families and their children and some inventive pastor or church educator thought about sending the children out to make more space for adults and thus, the phenomenon of “dismissing” children from worship was born.  If a generation runs approximately 20 years, then we are into our third generation of this experience and it has become normative for us all.  Indeed, when I have preached in congregations where there is now plenty of room for all ages to worship together, church after church still sends children out of worship because “that’s what we have always done.”  The truth is, that is NOT what we have always done and even more, we are now reaping what we have sown.

We have sown three generations of children leaving or never worshipping with us, and it is no wonder that so many find worship boring and incomprehensible when they come of age and are expected to join us.  Further, when I suggest that children remain with us during the whole of worship, some of the loudest objections come from some young parents who want worship to be a time for them when they do not have to worry about their child’s behavior.  My own sense is that this reflects the current belief among developmental theorists that adolescence is extending well into young adulthood and what else is a true sign of adolescence but the primary focus on one’s own needs over others.  And after all, these parents of young children experienced the pattern of a separate “adult worship” and “children’s worship” when they were young so is not that what church is supposed to be like?

Here is the greatest problem I find in separating our children from us in the worship of God.  In Matthew’s gospel, he relays the story also found in Mark and Luke about Jesus encountering little children.  Parents are bringing their children to Jesus because they want their daughters and sons to meet him, but the disciples turn them away.  Jesus tells the disciples to , “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”  (Matt. 19:14).  Readers of Matthew know that the gospel writer often uses the words “kingdom of heaven”  euphemistically for “God.”  Given the quote from Jesus, he seems to be telling us all that God belongs to children.  This is unique, truly.  I can find no other place in the gospels where God is said to belong to anyone.  It seems that there is something about children that they alone are named as the ones who possess God.  For me, then, the question of children and the church is first and foremost a theological one.  If we are called as the body of Christ to worship God and to glorify God and to enjoy God (as the Westminster divines tell us in the catechism), then does it not make sense that those to whom God is said to belong, our children, should at least be present among us?   In fact, should not our children be leading us in this endeavor for which we were created?

There is no “children’s church” separate from the “church.”  Children’s church IS the church.  Amen.

Rodger Nishioka is the Benton Family Chair in Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA.

27 replies
  1. Liz Perraud
    Liz Perraud says:

    There isn’t another “group” that we would even think of sending out of worship or say “not yet” at the communion table. And yet, “we” feel perfectly justified doing this to our youngest people. And are really good at justifying it.

  2. C. Jeremy Cannada
    C. Jeremy Cannada says:

    This is one of the great things I love about the Amelia Church. We worship together. Our oldest child is 94, and the youngest is still “in the oven.” I would never seek to dismiss anyone in between.

    Well said, doctor !

  3. Shawn Coons
    Shawn Coons says:

    My friend, Clyde, is very interested in collecting 1960’s French stamps with pictures of fruit on them, and he attends a weekly gathering of this group. Clyde considers me an important part of his life and has said he wants to show how important I am to him by having me attending his weekly stamp meetings. I went once but they discussed a lot of things that were over my head, conducted parts of the meeting in French, and were interested in things that bored me, and it was obvious the meetings were intended and designed for people like them and not people like me.

    Clyde insists that he and his group value me and want people like me there, but the content and style of their meetings don’t show it at all.

    As a pastor and a parent, I feel 95% of our worship services are pretty unfriendly and unengaging to children. I’d much rather have my children (up to a certain age) in a quality children’s church program that let’s them worship, experience fellowship and learn about God in ways that are appropriate and meaningful to them, then in a traditional worship service that they are encouraged to tolerate.

    Jesus didn’t say “Let the little children come to 11:00 worship” he said “Let them come to me.” And I’m all for settings and programs that let children come to God in ways that are natural for them.

  4. Carol
    Carol says:

    I admire and respect this author to the utmost degree. With all due respect, and in a low whisper, I’d have to say ………………….Wait a minute . . . what is NOT addressed here is the reality of a few critical facts: 1) The participating children dismissed are ages 4-7 only. 2) Many of the dismissed/participating children are ONLY COMING TO WORSHIP. This is the only hour at church some of them attend all week, maybe all month. And you want them to get some christian education at an adult level during a sermon preached on a middle school or high school level? 3) Many of the dismissed/participating children never come to a midweek program if and when it is offered in an age appropriate manner. 4) Parents used to continue and be responsible for their children’s christian education at home. That’s not happening in most homes in America, either. . . . . . . . . .So OF COURSE; fix these other problems and there is absolutely no need for a separate “children’s church” during weekly family worship.

    • Sara
      Sara says:

      Carol, you said much of what I am thinking. My husband and I are both clergy, and our kids are 2, 4, and 5. Honestly, my older 2 are fine during worship (most of the time 😉 ), but my 2-year-old? Not so much. We don’t even have a nursery at our church. I get frustrated when these (seemingly frequent) articles don’t differentiate between 2-year-olds and 12-year-olds. Frankly, I resent the author’s implication that I have not progressed beyond adolescence simply because I prefer not to have my toddlers in church. While I agree with most of the article, not hearing a sermon in almost 6 years because of kids in church gets a little old.

  5. Carol Stewart
    Carol Stewart says:

    Children are adored in the temple I have visited with our Jewish in-laws/friends. The Rabbi honors each person present, including the children in the ceremony, leads them, allows them to move around the people, respectfully encourages them to enjoy, and actually treats them as members of the congregation. It is a friendly setting for all, and everyone seems to have a good time. The older members seem to love this interaction, children and adults get to know each other well, have a healthy respect for each other, and friendships develop and grow.
    Our Christian churches suggest that children go to their peculiar Sunday School classes, some offer “crying room” for babies and new mothers (I was unhappily part of that era), and other isolated areas away from the adults, then the adults (& minister) can be “relieved” of the children. I believe this attitude of separating children from the congregation is responsible for children not returning to the “adults’ church” when those same children become adolescents and adults. Our Christian children were taught to feel less than welcome into their adult congregations.

  6. Jane Hillis
    Jane Hillis says:

    I am a southern Baptist born and bread. However, I am in 100% agreement with your position as stated here. I have grown to believe this position after having worked in youth ministry for over 20 yrs and children’s church as well. I have seen our young adults turning away from thiee Faith in large numbers once they are old enough to make theri own choices. Many are heavily involved in these ministries but it isn’t carrying through with a large number. of course, many youth become committed Christian adults but more and more I am seeing where the opposite is true. Children need to worship with their parents!! Youth need to do the same!! I am so glad to read your position and plan to shre it with my church.
    Jane Hillis

  7. Virginia
    Virginia says:

    I’ve raised a child in home meetings where the discussions and praise and worship were Spirit led and my child flourished! She learned to sit quietly and respect others as well as to participate in meetings by praying and worshipping with all ages of believers and seekers. I learned to parent my child. I’m now raising two children in a traditional church and can vividly see a difference in the younger two, and it’s negative. They don’t have the same knowledge or interest in the things of God. I’m convicted to seek a change for their benefit as well as my own. Adults can be too stuffy, we can take ourselves too seriously . Children bring a sense of reality and encourage us to lighten up! And to take responsibility and train our children.

  8. Sam
    Sam says:

    An argument I have been over many times, however, maybe it’s just that our adult worship is “boring and incomprehensible” to the present generation in general.
    The fact that those already there are happy with it, is due to the fact that it has been ingrained in them from day one – and that provides a type of church only accessible to those who have grown up within it, or are willing to just put up with it. The argument that kids church or Sunday school did not happen in the past is just as applicable to the model of church you are talking about – that’s not how it was always done. In churches where children’s ministry is done well, the children are not dismissed, but given ownership, attention and a place to belong, instead of having to endure church until they are are old enough to fit the adult mould.
    The world is changing – the Gospel may remain the same – but the Church cannot.

  9. Julia Morden (Rev.)
    Julia Morden (Rev.) says:

    I have banged my head, life and everything else against the wall of God’s churches and God’s creation saying and believing this same thing. I have tried to bring this, live for this, turn the communities I have been part of toward this, and or give them the ways to see that God has given them the tools, the opportunities and the abilities to bring this about and with this growth of spirit, life, hope and everything wonderful by God’s and their hands will be felt and known in their churches…alas…with few exception…and now I watch my children (birth and otherwise) doing the same thing, and finding themselves as they already knew with few exceptions, God’s family continues to separate the family that needs and will grow together, in joy!

  10. Dan Tootle
    Dan Tootle says:

    First of all “Church” is a convention not experienced by those who knew Jesus and his apostles and disciples who spread His gospel after He was crucified. What became known as the “followers of the way” was gathered by “communities” where how to live a fulfilled life in The Kingdom was realized.
    We have lost through the ages the meaning of community in Jesus, with separating our children from our worship services being one more way that loss is realized.
    How can we act as God’s community if at every step we separate from each other over and over again?
    Instead we should embrace togetherness with all of its informality and “messiness” whenever we gather in community in our lives in this Kingdom.

  11. Kent Smith
    Kent Smith says:

    Please check my article on this subject in Presbyterian Outlook, vol 181, no 16 (May 11, 2009), pp 16-17

  12. Kristy Johnson
    Kristy Johnson says:

    I have to disagree with this one on a couple of points. Our church is exploding and simply can’t house that many bodies even with moving to 3 services. Also my kiddos adore the more active worship that they share with their friends and a huge team of adults/ youth. I think our BOOM (kids service) has 1/3 leaders and 2/3 kids. I think if more adults would lead by example in serving it too could have as positive of an impact as sitting with your folks in service. Seems like some are anxious to sit with their kids but not equally excited to serve along side of them. Also, not every kid is the same and speaking on behalf of the ones like me… I learned at an early age to tune out what was over my head anyhow and focused on quiet games or songs I could do in my head to make the time in service to pass more quickly. See you could make me sit silently but you couldn’t make me pay attention, listen or care. Just not how I am wired. I think it would be a neat idea that if people feel deeply the family should always receive the Word as a family with no time as an adult to Worship or listen without your children present why not try attending a service created for them, their intellect and attention span. That’s right…follow them to “children’s church”. Ive loved being a part of their service. Perhaps that’s the hang up. It sounds exclusive. Maybe we should call regular service “institute for higher spiritual learning” and call children’s church ” awesome sauce” or “worship and learning about Christ is Amazing” or just “Good Times with The Father” instead of exclusive, boring children’s church. No one has ever made the rule parents aren’t welcome. Let’s show them some equality that works in their favor instead of to our grown up expectations. I promise if your kid’s service is like ours you’ll leave feeling energized, encouraged and have lots of great conversations about The Word on your way home. Lastly, with as many denominations as there are surely you can see just how different we are in the Body of Christ. There is no way there is one absolute answer on this topic. However, I leave you with this thought… My hubby is a computer science major. He’d love for my daughter to follow his footsteps into this field. That does not mean he should go sign her up for a college course in computer science. It doesn’t even mean that as a fifth grader he should sign her up for a couple hour siminar on computer science. He could show her an age appropriate book or talk on her level on a much smaller scale and cultivate a fifth grade intrest in the topic and maybe even spark a passion for the subject. But, 99.9% of kiddos would still not take kindly to being placed in a class above their heads wither you would sit next to them in that class or not. So grateful The Lord had more patience with me than any grown up and that all types of Worship and opportunities to learn about Him are finally exciting to me.

  13. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    I appreciate this overall, but a word in defense of the parents of young children: I don’t think it’s fair to claim that they are the adolescent ones in this equation. It’s more accurate to say that in congregations where exactly NOBODY wants young children in the worship service, it’s the parents who (a) have to do 100% of the work of managing children during church; and (b) get shamed by any other adult who’s bothered by the noise. As long as the ENTIRE CHURCH isn’t welcoming to children, being the parent who’s doing his or her best to keep the kids in worship? Is a job that completely and totally sucks. I was once told, by a man in my church, that taking my infant to the side room wasn’t good enough — he also wanted me to close the door. Well, closing the door would have meant that I couldn’t hear anything and that it quickly would have become 105 degrees in there, but apparently that didn’t matter as much to him as his own precious ears being unbothered. Another time — different church — we went as visitors to an evening event that was billed as a church picnic indoors. We went to that, specifically, because we were told that it was the sort of thing where the kids could make noise and no one would mind. But, SURPRISE! there was a time for personal sharing, and one person went on and on and on for 25 minutes, and my toddler grew antsy as toddlers do, and I and he were both shushed nastily.

    Seriously, don’t start by blaming the parents. After children, they are the ones who are the LEAST well served by churches not welcoming children. Start with the people who take swipes at the folks who are trying their best to raise kids in the church, rather than, say, offering to help.

  14. Kent Smith
    Kent Smith says:

    Blame and defense are not needed. What has happened has happened and recovering from it is just a matter of finding ways of going forward. Beyond my article on the subject my comments are:
    1. It isn’t so much the separation as the difference. If children attend a worship service through their childhood, that is what they will consider the norm and look for as an adult. It doesn’t matter if it is tradition, contemporary or child-oriented with puppets, what they grow up with is “worship.”
    2. Most congregations are not as judgmental as we tend to assume. There are curmudgeons in every congregation. If they don’t have a child to shush they’ll find someone else to go after. The problem is not the child.
    3. The vast majority of a normal congregation will be glad to have children in their worship after they get over the initial shock (I’ve done it and experienced it!)
    4. Education is key. Everyone needs to know the stakes: 3/4 of the children in a church who are not attending worship will be lost to the church when adults. 3/4 of the children in a church who are attending worship will be in worship as adults. Is this not worth some sacrifice on everybody’s part?

  15. Steve Lindsley
    Steve Lindsley says:

    As one of the curators of the October NEXT Children’s blog series, I’ve read both Rodger’s post and the numerous comments. It’s obvious to me that he has hit on something that resonates pretty significantly with churchgoers on all sides of the issue.

    I haven’t spoke with Rodger directly about this but my personal assumption with his “adolescent” comment was that he was simply saying that our instinct in situations like this is to think inwardly about what we get out of worship. In a sense this is not a bad thing – as a pastor I’m glad when 1) members come, and 2) when they want to leave worship with something they didn’t have when the walked in the doors. The key, I think, is our willingness to acknowledge that part of “getting something out of worship” is to help others do the same. “The Word Proclaimed” is not just what comes out of the preacher’s mouth for 20 minutes, but how we live and interact with each other as the body of Christ in worship and beyond. Incidentally, this would not just apply to the young parent who faithfully brings their children to worship, but to other adults and their heartfelt efforts to not simply tolerate a two-year old in worship, but to support that child and their parents.

    I’ll also add that, as a pastor, I am not bothered in the least when a little one makes some noise during my sermon – in fact, I consider it to be them adding their voice! It reminds me that the church is a family and all are welcome to experience the worship of God, from the oldest to the youngest.

  16. Amy
    Amy says:

    As a parent of young children, I think the inference about why we might not like for them to join service assumes the very worst and does so unfairly. If the service is friendly to children, including them is a beautiful idea. Can they eat? Talk out loud? Wander around? Do art or other activities that keep them occupied? Is the dialogue accessible to them? does the music vary so it moves them? Is yes, we would love to join. If not, then for whose good is it to require them to stay? My children have lots of energy, like to move, and love to talk about God. I would hate it if forcing them to sit through services meant that they learned that church is a boring event to be waited out each week. I struggle each week with my kindergartener in church, so we do our best with this, and I wish it were different. So I guess I wonder if the commitment to keep children in worship means really letting them be with Jesus by making worship accessible to them. That would truly serve and include them.

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