A Call for All-age Worship
I can read your mind. The objections that fill the air at the title of this piece probably are not new to me. Let me guess at a few.
Children won’t get anything out of the church’s main worship service.
Children are distracting.
They need an age-appropriate setting.
We need them to be somewhere else.
This is my time (usually uttered by tired parents).
Ultimately, the responses boil down to one point—the greatest barrier to bringing the whole church together for worship is children. It used to be that children were to be seen and not heard. Now, apparently, they are to be neither seen nor heard.
A big part of the problem is this: the church building has become one of the most age-segregated spaces in our culture today. It’s the type of segregation you won’t see, for instance, at a professional baseball game where families observe and participate together . . . for three hours!
We decry the fragmentation of the family in our society, yet arrange for and encourage families to separate during worship, one of the most bonding and transformational times in the family’s spiritual life together.
I’ll admit implementing all-age worship services that include children requires some ingenuity. Quite frankly, that is not too much to ask of a church and a people who pride themselves on resourcefulness and creativity. The church needs to understand that all-age worship is vital to its future. All-age worship that includes children is important for the health of families and congregations. It is biblically and theologically sound.
At this point you may be imagining children running wild, loud noises and screaming, and Cheerios floating in the Communion juice. But I am not endorsing anarchy. Neither am I proposing a return to the harsh, restrictive, adult-centered service that may loom large in the memories of many who were raised in some more traditional intergenerational worship settings.
I am proposing we include children in order to bring the whole household of God together, the very young to the very old, to participate together in worship. We can afford to be more flexible, and we can help children learn about worship behavior. We need to do this for the sake of our worship, our church, our families, and our children.
The primary focus and occupation of the church is worship. The congregation at worship is arguably the central event in the life of the church. It is about God and for God. We are transformed by it but not because we seek it on our terms (i.e., my style, my space, my meditation, my enjoyment, my comfort, my catharsis). It is not about me! Having our children among us helps us keep that in mind.
Children have spiritual capital. They are created in the image of God and are divinely endowed with spiritual characteristics. Because of this, they have potential for spiritual influence in the church. Jesus on more than one occasion called attention to the spiritual attributes of children and what we can learn from them.
Consider his comments embedded in the following passages:
• Mark 10:15: “Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
• Matthew 21:16: “From the lips of children and infants you, Lord, have called forth your praise.”
• Matthew 19:14: “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
We remember the “do not hinder them” part, but have we recognized the significance of “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”?
It is not only for the children’s good that I suggest including them in worship today. It’s for our good and the good of our worship. We need what children have and what they bring with them. This includes awe, innocence, spontaneity, vitality, transparency, inquisitiveness, unembarrassed joy, unencumbered faith, and absolute trust in a heavenly Father who loves them. We often lose these kinds of things as adults, and that hinders our worship.
Those who gather to worship should be participants, not passive observers. Much about worship calls for action and response. Rather than hinder these, we might explore how to use a variety of worship behaviors and responses for the purpose of raising our hearts to God. When children are included and invited to be fully involved, they can practice and facilitate participation.
There are examples in the Old Testament of God’s calling his people to assemble. In these commands he placed obvious emphasis on including children and even infants. He called them to prayer, to confession, and to the reading of the Law. In every case, children were specifically mentioned (see Joshua 8:34, 35; 2 Chronicles 20:13; Deuteronomy 31:11-13; and Ezra 10:1). God apparently considered children to be an integral and important part of the community. Indeed, it is implied that the community is incomplete without them.
Furthermore, it is a fact of human development that we cannot mature if we only spend time with people who are just like us. While that is true of children, I am actually thinking of adults in this regard. We will mature as a people, as a community, when we make room for the less comfortable relationships and situations. We should not shy away from this type of fellowship work in our worship.
I believe this kind of effort is part of being holy people. Holiness is unselfish. It sacrifices, accommodates, and looks to the needs of others. It does not need to have its own way. Holiness models, teaches, and guides with loving patience. This is the church.
We charge parents with the challenging job of raising children who will be faithful. Yet we give them precious little opportunity to do this in the congregational setting, especially in worship. The expectation is that all of this work must take place outside the life of the congregation. Being spiritual mentors to your children is a challenging role that needs the support of a safe and affirming fellowship. Rather than always arranging for parents to outsource the spiritual care of their children to those who are trained, we must also encourage and support them in their role within the context of the church together. This includes worship.
What’s more, families face the time and energy demands of their individual obligations, such as jobs, school, and extracurricular activities. These are not generally uniting factors in their lives. Family time has decreased significantly in the past three decades while weekly work hours have significantly increased. As we consider these challenges, we would do well to try to provide opportunities for families to gather rather than divide.
Research shows that we underestimate children’s ability to worship and to encounter God. Conventional wisdom declares they need to be entertained with a dumbed-down version of all that is holy. We are so committed to an essentialist, cognitive model of “what they get out of it,” that we fail to see what they absorb and what they experience. We don’t look for that because we are looking for them to articulate something for which they have, as yet, little or no vocabulary or proficiency.
But if we take time to listen, we will hear that children have heard and noticed and experienced. And often they have encountered God and worshipped. They take in the sights, sounds, and smells of worship. They also see the expressions, postures, and participation of those who worship. These are people they know, people who know them, in a place where they should know they belong.
Making It Happen
Including children in worship requires time to prepare the congregation, the parents, and the children. It takes creativity, patience, and persistence. All-age worship is not a reproducible program complete with DVDs, PowerPoint, and study guides. There is no one template. Churches must gather information and ideas and then create their own unique approach that fits their congregation. No space remains here to explore all of the challenges and options for including children in worship, but there are a growing number of resources that can help.
Worshipping with children is being done. Churches are welcoming their children back into their worship services. It is countercultural, I know, but I believe we must seriously consider it.
Verna Weber is associate professor of educational and family ministries at Cincinnati (Ohio) Christian University.
All-Age Worship: How and Why
Ivy Beckwith, Postmodern Children’s Ministry: Ministry to Children in the 21st Century Church, specifically chapter 8, “Children in Worship” (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).
Carolyn C. Brown, You Can Preach to the Kids Too! Designing Sermons for Adults and Children (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1997).
Robbie Castleman, Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
Howard Vanderwell, The Church of All Ages: Generations Worshipping Together (Herndon: Alban Institute, 2007).