At the beginning of this year we made a change to our Sunday mornings at Trinity Church York. We stopped holding our children’s teaching groups during the main Sunday service, and moved them beforehand. Once they’re over we have a 15 minute break before all ages join together for our service of worship. There is a creche for children of any age who aren’t coping with staying for a whole service, but we encourage parents to keep children who are able to with them through the service: prayers, sermon, Lord’s Supper and all.
This was done partly because it means we have the time and resources to teach our children the basics of the faith through their childhoods rather better than we were doing before. That is a really important priority for the church in our increasingly secular age. But I’m convinced that there is another, even more compelling reason why this was a good move. It’s this: the main Sunday service should be the whole church worshipping God together every week, and this includes the children.
To see why this is, we need to start by thinking about how worship is central to how God works in us, his people.
- While God works in all sorts of ways in us according to his wisdom, he has promised particularly to work in us when the church gathers to worship him. This is what Jesus meant when he said that he would be with us whenever two or three are gathered in his name (Matthew 18:20). Of course he is always with us, by the Spirit; but he is especially present to bless us when the church (which means God’s ‘assembly’) assembles.
- More specifically, it is through the word of God, when it is read or preached, and the sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), that God has particularly promised to work in us.
- We don’t really understand how the Holy Spirit does this – but he has promised that he will.
- When we understand this, it completely changes how we think about worshipping God. It’s not something we do primarily because we enjoy it or because we learn something (though both are often true). It’s something we do because God calls us to – and he does so both because that is what glorifies him, and because he wants to (and has promised he will) use it to bless us as we meet with him and glorify him.
- Worshipping God is therefore at the centre of the Christian life. It is the most important thing we do; when we gather before God as his people to have him shape us into his likeness as we listen, pray, sing, eat and drink.
Now the point is that none of this is limited to adults! It is the whole church which is called together to worship God. God is most glorified when it is the whole church worshipping him, children included (Psalm 8:1-2). God works in children by the same means of grace by which he works in adults. A service is the covenant assembly of the saints, all of it; and as such the whole family of God is to be present in it and it is the principal means by which the Holy Spirit brings the whole family of God to maturity.
This is why children are present with God’s worshipping people all through the Bible. Moses told Pharoah they couldn’t worship God without the children (Ex 10:7-11). Later he assumed that they would always be present for the passover meal (12:26-27). When he commanded the reading of the law to the people the children’s presence was especially important (Deut 31:10-13). The renewal of the covenant under Ezra included all the children who could understand (Nehemiah 8:1-3). Jesus said children must be allowed to come to him because to them belongs the kingdom of heaven; indeed, the adults are to become like the children, not the other way round (Matt 18:1-5; 19:13-15). Paul assumed that children would be present in the church as his (long!) letters were read, and addressed them directly (Ephesians 6:1-4; Col 3:20).
The whole experience of the worship of God’s covenant people is one which is designed by God to teach and train us to orient our lives around him. Children need this as much as adults do. How God uses worship to do this is more complex and subtle than we can fully know; but aspects of it include
- Worship teaches us that the world does not revolve around us; we are to revolve our lives around God.
- Worship is an act of putting ourselves fully at the service of God, giving him the glory not ourselves
- God’s word is a life-giving word, calling us to die to ourselves and live for him (as shown and sealed by baptism)
- God wants us to share Christ’s risen life, as one with him (as shown and sealed by the Lord’s Supper)
- This encounter with God – from Call to Worship to final Blessing – is the centre and high point of our week from which the rest of our Christian life flows
- We live our lives in response to God’s gracious and loving call to forgive and remake us in Christ
- God is holy, awesome and majestic; and he is kind, gracious and compassionate
This list could be extended. The point is that the service is not just about a transfer of information from pulpit to brain, which children can safely omit because they’re not that academically capable yet. Rather, it is the central focus of a Christian life, because it is both the central duty and the central joy for which all of us were created by God; it is the thing more than anything else for which we were made, and the thing which God uses to teach and train us to love him and serve him with our whole lives. As such it should be the core part of every Christian child’s upbringing, just as it should be the core part of every Christian adult’s life. It is very odd to remove children from the central act of a life of serving God in order to teach them in a room next door that their lives should be about serving God.
Focusing particularly on the sermon, which (along with the prayers of intercession) is what our children until recently used to miss, we need to see that even a sermon is not simply a lesson. It is part of worship. To sit attentively under the word of God in the context of God’s covenant has a profoundly different dynamic from being taught something in school. We hear a sermon as reverent recipients of God’s grace, and the way we hear it is not (or should not be) with the same critical attitude in which we might listen to a lesson at school. Or indeed a Sunday School class! Ironically, to take our children out of a sermon to put them into Sunday School is to put them into a more didactic, and less worshipful situation. One could even argue that Sunday School carries a higher expectation of ability to learn than the sermon does; for a child who might learn next to nothing from a Sunday school class, because his mental abilities are not yet up to it, could still learn from the form and attitude and experience of a sermon something of what true Christian submission to and trust in Christ means. As he sees his parents and the rest of the church listening humbly, and absorbs the atmosphere of the covenant people of God listening to the words of God under the work of the Spirit, he will be learning in powerful, even though unarticulated, ways what Christian discipleship is like. Yes, that will take years, but then so does the rest of a child’s formation and growth into full humanity.
Beyond this, we have to admit that we don’t know how God works through his word and sacraments in the assembly of the saints; but we do have his promise that he does. It is a bold move indeed to think that, in the case of our children, we can improve on what God has promised.