Children in Church: Should We Ban Them or Bless Them?

Children in Church: Should We Ban Them or Bless Them?

Last Sunday, I was standing behind the communion altar saying the liturgy, most of which was cobbled together from the United Methodist hymnal and Anglican sources. As I was saying, “Now gathered at this table, O Lord of all Creation and remembering Christ crucified and risen, who was, and is and is to come,” a little Chinese girl about 18 months old broke free from her mother and suddenly appeared in the center aisle about 20 feet from the altar. She had a white bow in her hair and was wearing a cute little blue dress that flared out, revealing baggy underpants that were stuffed with Pampers. Her eyes were bright and wide; her face, legs and arms rosy and chubby; and she held a finger to her mouth. Then she started to waddle down front, one finger in her mouth and the other arm reaching toward me. “… We offer to you our gifts of bread and wine and ourselves as living sacrifices …” She continued to advance.

I was prepared to receive her. I would continue with the liturgy (I knew it by heart), and I inched out from behind the altar. I would take her in my arms, and she and I would finish the liturgy together.

But before I got to “And make us your new creation, the Body of Christ given for the world you have made,” the mother had moved to reclaim the lost lamb, crouching low and duck-stepping toward the girl like she was blocking the view in a movie theatre.

Children can be a problem any time of day or night — in liturgical language this reads: “At all times and in all places, always and everywhere … .”

Put them in a church service, and it is no different. They’re noisy. They’re clumsy. They cry and fuss. They don’t understand a lick of what is going on. They’re bored. They need to be entertained. And they always grab the cookies and donuts during Fellowship Hour before the adults can get to them.

What, then, do we do with children in church? It’s a problem, especially for parents who spend more time struggling with Junior than worshiping God.

Some people suggest that children are not a problem; they’re simply a responsibility or an opportunity to educate. Their behavior, these souls opine, is childish, petulant, fearful, excitable, mean-spirited, ego-centric and selfish because, well, they’re children! What they do is age appropriate. They are immature. These are the behaviors you expect from immature people, especially little people.

Exactly. And that’s why anyone who exhibits these behaviours is a problem — be they children or adults! And some parents haven’t a clue as to what to do with their animated little problems. Perhaps they hope that if they drag them to the church service, the Lord will somehow straighten them out — as though morning worship is a sort of boot camp for babies.

Children and church. This is highly controversial. Who knew? Having children in church requires a ton of work and equal amounts of commitment. Think of the hours of prep time for Sunday school alone! To pull this off, you have to have a curriculum. You have to have supplies. You have to have teachers! Then you have to decide when to have the class. Sometimes, you have to decide when to bring them back into the sanctuary.

Many churches don’t want kids under 10 to be in the sanctuary — ever. The Holy of Holies is a kid-free zone. Didn’t see kids playing around in the tabernacle, did you?

Other parents say, “Why not? Jesus said, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me.’” But we know that if they come unto us, we will indeed suffer for reasons mentioned at the top.

To mitigate the problem of children being present in worship, many congregations have Children’s Church. This is like the kids’ table at home when you have company over. “Hey kids, you sit over there away from us adults and eat with your own kind. And be quiet!”

One problem with Children’s Church is repatriation, or “The Return.” When are the kids coming back to the service — if ever?

  • Not while pastor is preaching.
  • Not while Mrs. Jameson is singing her solo.
  • Not during Holy Communion.
  • Not while the choir is singing.

How about the offering? Maybe no one will notice them then!

Another problem: Should children be allowed to take communion? (You see? Kids just seem to be one problem after another for the church!)

I began to think about children in church after reading a great article by Lisa Brown, Director of Children’s Ministry and Communications at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. In her essay, “Feral church children: Kids need time to ‘just be’ at church,” she writes, “At church, kids will form relationships with caring adults who … have no expectations of achievement. We aren’t looking at a kid to determine their academic, athletic or artistic ability. We aren’t evaluating them. We welcome them as a child of God. We are always glad to see them, no matter what is going on in their life. At church, kids will learn an alternate life narrative to that which is glorified in mainstream culture. … [They learn] that happiness and self-worth can be measured by metrics other than material and financial success. … At church, kids won’t just learn about God in a book, they will experience God in relationships and in community.”

Children are not just children. They are children of God. Could there be a more appropriate place for children than the sacred precincts of the sanctuary and other nooks and crannies of the church?

This Sunday, I hope I see little Chung-mei again. Maybe she’ll do a runner, and make it to the altar and grab a piece of bread. That’s what she was after last Sunday. She was hungry.

So, my pastor friends, embrace the chaos, the noise and laughter. Take a deep breath and smile. This is life! This is community! This is family! This is heaven! It’s all very cool.

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Timothy Merrill

TIMOTHY MERRILL is an ordained minister and has served churches in Oregon, Minnesota and Colorado. His doctoral work at Princeton Theological Seminary focused on the apocalyptic nature of the preaching of the First Crusade in 1096 A.D. His work has been published in the academic press including the Patristica and Byzantine Review and the Westminster Theological Journal. His book, Learning to Fall: A Guide for the Spiritually Clumsy (Chalice Press) appeared in 1998.

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