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What about the children?

Today on Five Live the pre-match build up was about securing the future of football - with stern warnings that if we didn't get childrens football right then there would be no England vs. Estonia in 15 years. Matches will of course still happen, the standard might just be lower... It's a good thing to ask about the future of English Football. Likewise we ought to ask about the future of the church.

The pyromaniacs just started talking about children and church. Including the exciting story of a youth worker teaching church history to teens! Bring that on... But, that's not really my point in posting. We were talking the other night about the place of children in church - and particularly the line between church being free parenting and childcare and parents themselves being responsible for teaching their children the gospel as part of the church.

You should know that I became a Christian when I was 18 having been part of a liberal church sunday school up to the age of 11 and with some involvement in a loosely evangelical youth group. My wife, with whom I was talking about this, became a Christian at the age of three. I accept that this means I've not seem any great example of evangelical youthwork first-hand, but I'm still not convinced that the best youthwork does anything that being part of a congregation with excellent preaching for 18 years wouldn't achieve...

The normal model in the UK seems to be that children are kept out of all or most of the sunday morning meetings of churches to attend a sunday school. It'd probably not fair comment on the quality of that kids teaching, though I'm sure much of it is excellent. That's also supplemented by midweek youth meetings. I remember listening to an Al Mohler interview sometime back that suggested that this really isn't the norm in the US (is that true?).

My concerns with this are:

1. The church meeting is then an adults only thing rather than a multi-generational gathering which would look more like church seems to in the Bible. Didn't Jesus say let the children come to me, rather than let them go out to the church hall?
2. Parents teaching their own children the gospel is delegated. If in the old covenant it was the parents job to raise their children in the gospel shouldn't that be all the more important now? Which isn't to say it doesn't happen - but when did your church last run a course to equip parents to teach the gospel to their children?
3. Youth leaders miss out on preaching - whilst being 'employed' to teach each week. If preaching, and indeed the rest of corporate worship, is of any value surely that's going to strip them of life.
4. When the kids are kept in the preaching tends to disappear only to be replaced by something aimed at five years olds, which implies very low confidence in preaching. I know the counter argument is that the kids need to understand it - but I'm not sure I care if the kids don't get everything in the sermon - hopefully they'll notice the high value of Christ is what is said. And since when did the adults understand everything in the meeting?
5. When the youth work ceases and sunday school kid arrives at university he still expects to find a youth group to belong to and struggles to find his place in a church because up to that point it's all been made entirely consumer friendly rather than being something he belongs to. There are without doubt other reasons why there is a big drop off from church at age 18 but I'd bet on this being part of it.
What's the alternative?

1. Keep the church together on a Sunday morning so that everyone worships together but don't patronise the adults with dumbed down preaching. Talk about Christ and some how make it accessible enough for kids to pick up the gist. I know of one (blogging) pastor who seems to do this well (Ahem - comment please when you read this).
2. Keep the church together on a Sunday so that half the congregation don't have to spend the week preparing for Sunday school (or a stressful Saturday evening). I'm not saying that youth groups are unhelpful or should be scrapped altogether but think of the great gain of the Sunday meeting. And, in those other meetings teach the Bible don't just play games!! I remember talking with my Dad a while back about how it'd be great to have whole families in homegroups and not just the adults - there are some logistical hurdles to get over there but why not?!
3. Keep the church together so that the preaching of the word and it's power to gather young and old together is evident to everyone. Help young people to love the church by being included in it. Why shouldn't a seven year old understand the message of Ephesians or Judges or Genesis? Why shouldn't a teenager add church history to the history they're learning at school? Taking this approach must mean helping parents to teach their children - setting up occasional meetings for this though has got to be less work than the effort required to run several simultaneous age-divided meetings every sunday.

I'm not yet a parent though God-willing I'd like to be one day (the prospect of it scares me a lot) but if I'm going to add the ministry of being a parent to the ministry of being a husband then I really want to teach any children I have about the LORD. At the very least that makes me think I need to get into the word and get them on my heart.
"And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates."
Deuteronomy 6v6-9
The good thing is that God has already secured the future of his church. It will prevail. Jesus wins! What's not so secure, like the future of football, is whether it'll be secure here and how sound, faithful, dynamic and effectively advancing the church will be here in the future...
Those were some of my sketchy thinking, what do you think?


  1. I think Sunday School means something different in the USA from the UK.

    Have you come across Voddie Baucham? He is keen on discipleship being mainly the responsibility of the family, and having all age church ser vices. He has a YouTube Channel, and there is a link to an interview with him here.

  2. Here are my thoughts, in no particular order:

    (a) A decent result for England :-)
    (b) I like the idea of keeping the church together on a Sunday morning but how feasible is it really? Given that (say) a five-year old's concentration span is that much shorter than an adult's? I don't think teaching the kids separately means we don't think they can understand Genesis/ Ephesians/ Judges/ whatever, but it does mean we recognise that children develop and think and learn differently to adults - which is surely part of God's created order?
    (c) A question: do we have any models of how the apostolic church taught kids? When did it become "the norm" in (say) British churches to teach kids separately?
    (d) One church I was in had a family service once a month where all ages were taught together. The sermons were simple without being dumbed-down, and had a message for adults without being too complex for kids. However, had they been like that every Sunday I know I wouldn't have been fed as I would have liked.
    (e) at the church Ben and I are currently in (and most of the Free Churches I've been in) the whole church stays together for a children's talk - which fits the model of the whole church being taught together - after which the kids go out for separate classes and the adults stay in for the sermon.

  3. I think it was Piper sharing his Children Desiring God stuff in the lunch break at EMA that got me thinking about this - seems they both do stuff for the kids but also have them in for services, looking for bits they can pick up from his sermons.

    And when you watch the Blazing Centre DVDs you have to be amazed at the way they're taking in heavy stuff! (granted thats teens and class/culture etc may have a lot to do with it).

    Mohler seemed to be talking about the 'taking kids out of the service' kind of sunday schooling as an innovation he was wary of. Seems they still have adult sunday schools, which strikes me as a very good idea!

  4. Very good post, I agree with it all.


  5. You know you're more presbyterian by the day?


    In my churches (EPC) we had sunday school pre- morning service or in the afternoon, which were often broadly evangelistic (cos many non church members in the area still thought it was a Good Thing to send their kids to sunday school). During the church service, there was a crêche for babies, but the rest of us sat in the service. I have notebooks of sermon notes from when I'd just learnt to write (judging by the handwriting). Got all 3 points down though! And while that's petty, I really think it was that assumption that the preaching of the word is for all ages, plus a little from youth fellowship and a little reading, which made me absolutely astonished at the lack of Bible knowledge / theological understanding in my fellow students when I arrived at uni in England - not to boast cos I knew it was nothing I did: I was just immensely grateful for the teaching I'd received, and that noone had tried to dumb it down or provide a kids alternative. I think my parents always talked 'theology' with us naturally too, as if we were capable of grasping it. I don't think anyone told us we should be bored, or unable to take stuff in from the sermon (30-40 minutes exposition). So we weren't, and we did.

    Not saying that's the best model, but I certainly agree with your post!

    I guess on attention spans, I didn't take in the whole sermon when age 5: but I took in possibly more than I would've done in a separate kids thingy. Though yes, we did have sunday school as well, pre-service...

  6. I remember reading on

    "[John] Murray, being a product of Scottish Presbyterianism, was an ardent supporter of the Shorter Catechism and once said this to a group of children:

    'Now everyone of you children should know the Shorter Catechism from the beginning to the end without a mistake by this age. Now that’s without joking at all. At the age of twelve you ought to know the Shorter Catechism from beginning to end without even making a mistake....'"

    It seems we have lower expectations of children today than past generations did.

    My parents did not teach me a catechism, but they did try and do daily Bible readings with me from a young age. I think this has been very beneficial to me.

  7. Yep we do it (as you know). Pretty sure that we're not the ones who do it "well" though!!! People were really nervous about the kids at first - but it works out just fine. It's not just what they hear (though the kids often take in remarkably more than we imagine - I'd love to see your notes R) but what they see.

    They see
    -parents worshipping a living God
    -parents listening to a speaking God
    - parents being together as a body
    And they do these too!

    I think these are invaluable lessons. The downside is that it makes it harder for people to come into - either Christians who are used to something else, or unbelievers who are used to nothing.

    But overall we feel it's worth it. After all, the Sunday morning meeting is the one meeting in the week when we're all together in the same place - it just feels wrong to then be split up doing all manner of different things.

    We even find families talking about the teaching over Sunday lunch....

    Oh, and James, we binned the Children's Talk as a result (such a relief to me!). Thought this was a bit strange anyway, as it rather implied what the kids were about to learn in Sunday School was not up to the job.

  8. FWIW at Christ Church Deeside there has never been a Sunday school. Children under six are able to go out during the sermon, but this is optional (and a very recent concession primarily for the sake of unconverted families). There is teaching & a craft activity organised for them with appropriate content. Children who stay in have a sheet prepared for them related to the Heidelberg Catechism and/or the sermon.

    The whole church family, with the exception of 1-2 people on a six week rota, stay in to benefit from the whole service every week.

    Its not perfect, there are things we could do better, there is work to be done to serve, equip, and encourage parents to teach their own children throughout the week etc etc. But I prefer this to anything else that I have experienced so far in church life.

  9. i started thinking about this when i went to japan. just because they had such a tiny building everyone had to meet together. we sang the occassional kids song. it was encouraging to see the kids worshipping God. they did seem quite bored in the sermon but they were well behaved. it meant all the sunday school leaders didn't miss out on any of the teaching and the teaching wasn't dumbed down for the kids. the kids came an hour early for their 'sunday school' club, but because they only had one room, all the kids, ranging from ages 3-16 met together. the teenagers were not grumpy and reluctant about joining in the silly kids songs but helped the younger ones to learn them. we had kids songs and games followed by a simple talk based on that weeks memory verse. the kids would then spend 5 minutes in pairs trying to memorise the verse and then would get up to shout it out loud to the rest of the group. this was followed by a testimony time where kids as young as six would eagerly run up to the front to tell the other kids about what God had done in their life that week. after this the kids would break into smaller groups closer to their age where they would discuss with a leader what they were learning about God and what had happened since last week. mid-week there was also a kids prayer meeting which was always focused on evangelism. the kids would name all the children they could think of that they wanted to bring along to sunday school and then prayed for them.

    i'm not saying it's the perfect model but i loved it so much!

  10. I am going to sound a dissenting voice here. I was kept in my hour and a half Brethren service as a child, and as a result hated church and dreaded Sundays. I don't believe I learned or picked up anything from it, and my parents would say, I think, that they wouldn't do the same again.
    Long services for children who are generally active can be torture. I'd rather see them have simpler teaching (which by no means needs to be woolly and inaccurate) in a way they enjoy so their feelings towards church are positive. There are plenty of ways to express the family nature of the church which don't involve everyone sitting in the same room for an hour and a half every week. In my humble opinion. ;)

  11. Mo, I always appreciate your dissenting voice here :)

    Maybe simpler shorter services are required if the whole body is going to be together regularly/weekly.

    The corporate meetings certainly shouldn't be the only way the life of the church is expressed but a 'best case' example of the whole congregation gathered around the word and singing and praying together must communicate something positive in content and experience about the church and the gospel.

  12. Dave, these are great points and I agree with them whole-heartedly. And I am glad to see a bunch of other people in agreement! We seem to be in a minority and it is hard to hold our nerve.

    1) it is right and biblical
    2) my (admittedly limited) anecdotal experience suggests it turns out better prepared young disciples.

  13. My anecdotes say that almost no-one is even asking the question...

  14. Adrian, didn't you say that you preached on "hypostatic union" a few weeks ago? You must have bright kids :-)
    Seriously, I would be interested in seeing models of genuine "all-age" services which both feed the adults and don't leave kids bored out of their skulls.

  15. Dave,
    The anecdotes I have are from churches already doing it. But like you I have never heard of a church that has Sunday School concurrent with a worship service or sermon questioning whether they are doing the right thing. Frankly, it would cause a riot in most churches, I think!

    The reasons for that are perhaps worth exploring.

  16. What should a church do who is running out of space in it's main meeting? Send out the kids or another option...

    What should a church do who is running out of sunday school kids space? Extend the building or another option...

  17. Dave, you have opened up a really important and interesting subject. This is worthy of some further thinking I'm sure. Can we look forward to some more posts?

    And James - yes, I did preach on hypostatic union to the kids - but didn't precisely call it that. I did it by preaching three mini sermons on my feet without a lectern, and interspersing the small talks (each about 10 mins) with a song or kids song which captured what I was trying to say - e.g. "Who is this man?" from EMU music when I spoke about Jesus' full humanity.

    None of the kids cried. Which must count for something???!!

  18. Erm. Maybe...
    Like I say, I'm still trying to work things out..

  19. Whilst I share some of your concerns (missing preaching is a pain, especially if I'm leading the topic in housegroup) I think there are a number of good reasons for splitting the kids.

    1. We left our last church because Rebekah didn't like the services to such an extent she cried when we drove near the church.

    2. I know a number of people at A&B who didn't go to the all age services and didn't enjoy them.

    3. We make the 11-14's go into the service once a month and they don't enjoy it. Without the youth teaching for that age, there are a number of kids we wouldn't have reached as they would not have been invited to come along.

    4. Prepping for sunday club has been a great opportunity for growth for many of the sunday club leaders, causing them to engage with the bible in a way they wouldn't otherwise be able to.

    5. I'm all in favour of more meetings, but practically I don't think the take up would be very high, given previous attempts and conversations.

    Good questions to ask, but I don't know if there are any absolute right answers - only contingent answers.

  20. The fact that many of the epistles address children directly (and the epistles were intended to be read out to the gathered church) seems to underline the general point here.

    However, I take Mo's (I think it was Mo's, though Dave agreed) general point that our sun AM meetings don't have to (and can't) exhaust all that the NT tells us church should be and do. I know of one church currently trying to get the youth group to attend the mid-week monthly church prayer meeting in an effort to broaden their understanding of their own involvement in church life and to better reflect the NT.

    Mo, as a fellow 'ex-brethren boy' I know where you're coming from. I wonder if the problem is with children being made to stay in 'bad' church services (I still get bored in a brethren am meeting!)?

    I reckon it can be quite damaging to give children the impression that the 'business' of church is an adult-only affair. So does keeping them out of church membership until they reach adulthood. Both practices might be connected to the way we have sometimes capitulated to a modernistic understanding of faith.

  21. In my church we get about 25 unchurched kids coming to the morning service every week. they go out to Sunday School classes during the sermon, because:

    a) most of them have behaviour issues, too many e-numbers and sugar in their system, and have a tendency to distract people in the service

    b) they respond better to being in small groups with someone addressing them directly, rather than sitting in on the sermon and being bored.

    These are kids who don't get discipline at home, so when they come to church we can't expect them to sit quietly through a sermon.
    It's better for 5 of us to miss the sermon every other week to teach them, than the whole church be distracted by them, so nobody listen to the preaching.

  22. Hi,

    There seems too much navel gazing here. The perfect service is not attainable. Kids - in or out? Collection - cash or envelope? Chewing gum - back of the chair or underneath?
    My own experience of UK churches, Baptist and now Pioneer, is the kids always leave before the main service. But it ain't written in stone.
    My own 9-year-old daughter would rather do extra maths tuition than sit through a weekly 'adult' service. To claim sending kids to the church hall for their own service opposes Jesus' command to bring the children to Him, is too severe a judgement. My daughter has come to know Jesus through dedicated Sunday school staff. The latter rotate so they don't vegetate - spiritually.
    In my church, spikey-haired teens sit beside gray-haired pensioners. Sometimes 8 and 9 year-olds stay in, sometimes they don't. Let's be flexible and let the Holy Spirit blow where He blows.
    And always carry an extra bag of jelly babies.



  23. James, I don't think we've met, so I hope my replying to your post isn't taken the wrong way. I have a feeling that your arguments against the discussion in this post aren't entirely fair though.

    You wrote

    'There seems too much navel gazing here. The perfect service is not attainable. Kids - in or out? Collection - cash or envelope? Chewing gum - back of the chair or underneath?'

    I'm not convinced this is navel-gazing. Isn't it an attempt to think harder and try to reform our practices by God's word? Of course there's no perfect formula, but that doesn't mean there aren't better ones than the ones we have now. You seem to be criticising the very act of thinking about such issues, perhaps I've misread you though?

    'My own experience of UK churches, Baptist and now Pioneer, is the kids always leave before the main service. But it ain't written in stone.
    ...To claim sending kids to the church hall for their own service opposes Jesus' command to bring the children to Him, is too severe a judgement.'

    My experience is similar to yours with regard to children. I've never been to a church that regularly keeps everyone together(except for when I was a kid and in a brethren church, which I've commented on above).

    There's no command to keep children in the church service, and I'm not sure anyone has argued that. What we do see in the bible is the tremendous importance of children and a picture of the church that includes them. Obviously there are different ways that can be expressed, but surely it can't be wrong to consider the possibility that our current models have disadvantages and potential 'hidden messages' that conflict with this inclusiveness. Considering this possibility isn't navel-gazing.

    'Let's be flexible and let the Holy Spirit blow where He blows'

    Amen. But it strikes me that failing to consider where our services may be better shaped by the Spirit's word is the inflexible thing to do. It's almost saying "Holy Spirit, don't try to show me how the bible applies in a way that conflicts my current church sunday school practices." I for one wouldn't want to mute the Spirit in such a way, but go on probing his word and asking for his help to imagine better ways of doing and being church.

    'And always carry an extra bag of jelly babies.'

    Amen and amen to that! :)

  24. Thankyou Dave this was a very interesting read, this is something that has run through my head before. I am not really going to say my opinions but just explain how the Church I am currently going to in Dallas (Technically Baptist but very reformed lead by Matt Chandler) does things.

    If they are 15 or over then they do not have any alternatives to the main service.
    There are the various age groups for those under 15 but the principles seem to be the same.

    (a) They try to teach theological truths about God how ever young they just make it accessible to that age. They do not seem to dumb down or present anything that could later be seen as a lie to the kids but some how get across the same theological truths that we are learning in church.

    (b) They give parents "homework" sheets and encourage the parents role in the spiritual growth of the child, Matt often talks about how he goes about showing his Kids God in the world around them.

    (c) The Village is very small group orientated (required to be in one to be a member) and so they reflect this in the kids church too in having them build relationships and encourage deeper community in small groups within this setting.

    I do not know what is the correct way to do things but I see it working better than most of my other experiences.And there is also the fact that this is a church of almost 5000 running 6 services so I am not sure how that affects the model of teaching kids, though the leaders always get to go a service too to receive their teaching.

  25. Hi Pete,

    I enjoyed your contribution and no offence taken. No, we haven’t met and no, I don’t owe you a fiver.
    I came to this blog from a debate with some Catholic friends (my background) who were engaged in a pedantic religious discussion on whether to use Latin in services or if the priest should face the people or the altar; then I came across this blog and that phrase about sending kids to a hall being against Jesus’ command to bring the little children to Him; and as I’d eaten too many jelly babies yesterday, I exploded in a fit of righteous anger - so apologies to y’all on this blog.
    Of course worship is organic and we need to regularly examine how we go about it, especially when children are concerned. Some very good points have been made.
    I suppose as an ex-tabloid hack (not thinking too much) and a committed Wimberian, (spiritual action man) I prefer to just get on ‘doin’ the stuff.’
    As a penance - this is very hard for a Scotsman - I offer England my best wishes in the rugby on Saturday. Weeks ago, my pastor at Riverside church, Taunton, scheduled a major prayer meeting for this Saturday, round about kick-off time! He obviously has more faith in the Holy Spirit than the England rugby squad.



  26. James, thanks for your graciousness - an example to us all.

    I think you should keep your inclination to get on and do things - after all, coming to understand the way the bible applies doesn't happen in a vacuum/ivory tower, but in the context of striving for daily obedience as the people of God. Reflecting on and trying to be precise with the scriptures is not somehow separate from getting on with life and service.


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