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Too Few Children in the Pew

22 September, 2009

josh2I recently was out of town a couple of weekends ago and was unable to attend my home church, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. The only conservative church in the area and a near cousin of NAPARC churches was a Lutheran-Missouri Synod congregation. The message was mediocre compared to Escondido, but at least the pastor promulgated the gospel with ebullience. For the most part, I did not have many problems with the church. My son, Jackson (2.6 years old), and I were the only ones from my family attending that morning. We walked into this very small church, and I was immediately struck by how few children were in the congregation in comparison with Escondido OPC. Jackson was sitting next to me like he always does on Lord’s Day mornings, but right before the pastor began to preach, some very nice lady, with a festive smile, came and asked Jackson if he wanted to go to Sunday School. Before I could say, “I would rather that he sit with me and hear the gospel,” the woman was walking away with his little hand in hers. Because I did not want to cause a big scene, I withheld my tongue. Looking back on it, I should have followed the woman outside and explained to her my position.  Aside from the woman neglecting to ask me if it were okay to escort my son to a room I had never seen before, with my ignorance of exactly what will take place in this class, I have a huge problem with children (not just mine) leaving the collective assembly of the saints. Now the woman and most churches certainly have good intentions—that I certainly do not deny—but this relatively new phenomenon of segregating the church population during the general proclamation of law and gospel is not the biblical or historical standard.

Biblically, there is not a specific, New Testament passage that I could point to for an explicit example of children participating in the general gathering of the elect. I think that Paul definitely assumes it in Ephesians, when he addresses the children, admonishing them to honor and obey their parents. We find Jesus also instructing the disciples to refrain from barring children to come to him. The Old Testament practice never excludes but always includes children in religious observances on the Sabbath. Indeed, children received the sign of covenant membership in their circumcision—a marking that pictured their inclusion in the community. Perhaps this novel practice of fragmenting the church is a symptom of the overall ignorance of and/or apathy to the relationship between the Old and New Testament assemblies.  One could go one step further and argue that the disjunction of the Old and New Testaments and the undue emphasis on the New Testament might be one cause of this age-based segregation. As far as I can see, the entire Bible advocates that all of the believers, both young and old, should gather together for general worship: to pray, partake of the sacraments, and to hear the gospel.

Historically, Sunday School is a modern invention. Simply because it is modern does not make it bad, but I do think that it should give us pause and make us cautious. According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, a British minister, Robert Raikes (1735-1811) successfully implemented a Sunday School program in 1780. Although there were earlier instances of Sunday Schools, Raikes was the first to make it nationally recognized in England. At that time, Sunday School generally did not take the place of the general gathering of the church community. By the early nineteenth century, Sunday School was a common practice in America. Today, it sometimes manifests itself as Children’s Church. In the Pentecostal churches in which I was nurtured, I rarely went to services with the adults. This frequent separation basically created two, distinct churches—a kids’ church and an adult church. The only thing that made them common was the building; at times, even the buildings were separated. I do not want to read too much into or misconstrue the architecture, but I do find it worth noting. It would be nice if church segregation stopped there, but it has not. Nowadays there are youth groups, college groups, young-marrieds, and seniors ad infinitum.

This division does more harm than good. It teaches children that they are not a vital part of the congregation, which in some churches is sadly true. However, my sense is that most churches value their children. The everyday church’s impulse to provide a place where children will connect with the church and stay with the church for many years to come is noble. But if ministers and parents want their children to connect deeply with the church, then they should stop allowing their children to be sent away during the most important part of the Christian life—the collective worship of the Triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I am glad that I gather in a church where all the parents are looking for a way to keep their children in the service and where a cooing baby is a blessing. In this environment, my children will grow up feeling important and my guess is that they will stay in the church much longer than they would if they went to Sunday School in lieu of assembling with the whole community. Besides, the gospel is for children too, and there should never be too few in pew.


  1. 22 September, 2009 2:36 am

    Hey Josh! What a coincidence. I was just doing a search for Rev. Keele’s sermons. He is a wonderful minister. I miss worshiping with the Escondido brethren.

    Thankfully, we have been able to keep our girls in the worship service where we have been worshiping.

    Stay faithful dear friend.


  2. 22 September, 2009 1:58 pm

    Josh, thanks for the post. This is an excellent observation and a well-thought demonstration of your opinion on the matter. I heartily, and readily agree with you. I do hope that we can see more integration of the local church back unto itself. It is bad enough there is such division and sectarianism within the church as a whole, do we have to replicate it with the segregation of our children in our own local bodies as well?

    I hope not…

    • 22 September, 2009 5:51 pm


      Thanks for the kind words. I am glad that this post resonates with you, and I hope that you are doing whatever you can in your congregation to move the church to think differently about her children.


      • 22 September, 2009 11:50 pm

        Thanks Joshua,

        Unfortunately, when I’ve met with congregations in the past, this idea is seldom met with joy and excitement. When you challenge this idea, it’s often met with the statement, “Well the older children are in the service, the little ones need special attention, they don’t quite understand yet anyway.” This pragmatic practice is hard to break in any congregation.

        Fortunately, where I meet now, there is no worry, the children are in the entire meeting. We even take a break in the middle of our time together and let the children choose songs from oldest to youngest, and we all sing them together.

  3. 22 September, 2009 5:47 pm


    I miss you, too.

  4. 24 September, 2009 4:46 pm

    In our congregation we have many children that come to Lord’s Day service without their parents. We are pleased to have an opportunity to minister to them, but many of them are unable to sit still and do not have anyone to discipline them. For this reason, we have children’s church. My daughter just turned two and she does not come to the service yet, but I plan to include her as soon as I can keep her still for an hour. The problem I have now is she has come to think of church as play time because she loves the nursery toys and kids. Making the transition from play time to worship time is going to be hard. Did you ever use a nursery? At what age does a child sit through an entire sermon in your congregation?

    This issue has been near to my heart and I included some of these questions when interviewing Jim Elliff and Steve Burchett on Children’s Ministry:

    • 24 September, 2009 6:50 pm


      I am glad to hear that you have many children in your Lord’s Day worship. I find that extremely commendable. Where are their parents?

      The questions that you are asking fall into a neglected category called wisdom, so I am a little hesitant to give a hard and fast rule. In a situation where the parents are not involved, it seems to me that the elders would have to generate ideas on how to include those children in the collective worship of God. The solution should not be: let them play, color, or leave the assembly of all the saints. The elders have every right within God’s word to discipline children appropriately. I suppose that it really depends on how disruptive they are being. I would like to think that every churchgoer would be o.k. with a little noise and mild disruption (Jackson rarely sits completely still)–so long as everyone could hear the pastor. That should not be a problem in a day when virtually every church has some kind of sound system.

      Jackson has been sitting through the whole service (45-60 minutes) for about a year now. There were many times when I had to take him outside in the foyer and discipline him, but we always ended it with a hug and then went back to sit in the pew. When he was younger I put him in the nursery, because I did not sense that he understood what I expected. My daughter, who just turned one, goes to the nursery during the sermon. In a few months, my wife and I will keep her with us.

      I think a lot of children that go to church think that it is play time, which is one reason I do not like nurseries. Parents usually use them as a matter of convenience instead of necessity. Although you must exercise your own judgment (nobody knows your child better than you), I would encourage you to be persistent, communicating to your daughter that she goes to church to worship–not to play. Do not give in, because the moment that you do, she will learn what she needs to do in order to get her way. In my opinion, it is more worth it to have to miss a few services because your child is being difficult than to relent and let her play. Also, if feasible, practice sitting (maybe reading) with your child throughout the week for longer than 20 minutes.

      The moment my daughter has a better grasp of “be quiet” and “be still,” she will sit in the service with us. When she does not listen, my wife or I will take her out, correct her, and then bring her back into the service. We definitely will not bring her to the nursery to play. But I really want to stress that every child is different, and each parent must be wise.

      Best wishes and thanks for reading,

  5. 24 September, 2009 11:05 pm

    Excellent post. Unfortunately, one of the barriers to having covenant children included in covenant worship is often the desire for an annoyance-free environment. I do not have children, and before I went to a Reformed church, I never sat with loud and distracting children in a service. At first, this was very unsettling. “Don’t they have a nursery or children’s church?” I questioned. After almost two years in a Reformed church, I barely notice the noise of the children, or if I do, I am thankful that they are allowed to be children and make noise, without being shipped-off like second-class church members.

  6. 2 October, 2009 3:04 am

    I woulda followed that lady and given her a kind Christian third degree.


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