Children in Church

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:4)

Over at, Steven Hunter, a self-proclaimed “Christian (restorationist), family man, minister, and academic,” attempts to encourage parents to keep their children “in church” (the worship service). In his article “To You Who Bring Small Children to Church,” Hunter identifies some decent sociological reasons parents should keep their children “in church.” However, he misses the opportunity to teach parents WHY and HOW to keep their children “in church.” He also concludes: “If you don’t hear crying, the church is dying.” More on that misguided axiom shortly.

Exasperated Parents

Yes, children “act up” during the Divine Service or a prayer office. The fussing and commotion easily distract other worshipers within a three-pew radius, at least. Then add the outbursts, the squawks, the munching on Cheerios, the dropped toys clattering on the floor, and the wailing and gnashing of impatient little baby teeth. Yes, it can get distracting for worshipers and pastors. And it certainly becomes exasperating for parents.

Mom (and sometimes Dad) is tempted to remove little Johnny or Susie from the service altogether–walk the walk of shame down the center aisle and camp out in the narthex. To be sure, if Johnny is fussing at the top of his lungs and distracting fellow worshipers, by all means exit the sanctuary until he quiets down. That’s a wonderful service of love for fellow worshipers.

But bring Johnny back into the sanctuary! After all, you don’t want him to miss out on all the good “Jesus stuff” happening in the Divine Service, right? And you don’t want him to get the idea that all he has to do is cry and fuss, and then he’ll get “out of church.”

Hunter seeks to encourage young parents through sociological considerations. Mom (and sometimes Dad), he exhorts, when you take your young one out of church, remember “the little elderly woman” and “the older man.” They are encouraged by your and your child’s presence in the worship service. According to Hunter, the elderly woman is encouraged by the presence of young parents and children “in church,” because, “To see young parents and their small children brighten her day, and she may have just received bad news this week about her health, but seeing the vitality of young ones removes – if but for a moment – her fears.”

Hunter also encourages young parents to consider the grouchy “older man” who notices the young family not missing any gathering: “You give him hope that maybe the church isn’t doomed after all, because there are still young parents who love God enough to bring their restless children to worship.”

Also, according to Hunter, couples unable to have children may be comforted and encouraged to keep trying to have children, or they may talk with young parents about the joys of children.

Such sociological considerations are certainly fine First Article matters, and they do keep us attuned to our life together in the Body of Christ. But do they really help parents bring up their children in the training and instruction of the Lord? Hunter’s message is merely: “Parents, keep your children in church, because other people will like it (or need it) and, by the way, the church will survive too.” That’s quite a burden to put on young, already-exasperated parents!

Let the Little Children Come to JESUS!

Instead of burdening exasperated parents with the likes and dislikes of other people, or with the survival of the church, why not just call them to live in their vocation? Our Lord gives parents the vocation of bringing their children to Him. Jesus wants the children to come to Him, and He wants their parents to bring them. So parents, bring your children to church (the Divine Service) in order that they may meet Jesus.

This challenge is not only for parents; it’s also for other worshipers and for pastors. Here are some practical helps.

Helps for Parents

  • Bring your children to church (after all, they can’t get there by themselves). Bring them from their youngest days all the way through their teen years. If you bring them to church as regularly as you teach them to brush their teeth or say “Please” and “Thank you,” it will become a God-pleasing habit for the rest of their lives (just as, hopefully, teeth-brushing and good manners will).
  • Teach your children that “going to church” is where they get to be with Jesus. Children think in literal, concrete terms. “Going to church” is only about a building. Being “with Jesus” is more specific, more concrete, and more relational.
  • Sit up front. Children learn by observation. Let them see what’s happening at and around the altar. They’ll observe and appreciate how sacred things are done. When children sit in the back pews, they can only see the backs of people’s heads or, when the congregation is standing, people’s backsides (not the prettiest sight, to be sure!).
  • Teach your children the repeating portions of the liturgy.  Encourage them to learn and repeat the Kyrie, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and other repeating responses. Teach these things at home, and encourage them to join in during the Divine Service.
  • Model reverent participation for your children. Children learn by observing their parents. If parents display reverent behavior during the Divine Service, their children will, over time, absorb that behavior, then mimic it, and then make it their own.
  • Be patient! Parents, it may seem as though you “get nothing” out of the Divine Service. But hold on to God’s promises more than your undivided attention. God is rich in His grace! He still gives you His Word, in words and song, and His Body and Blood. What you do hear and receive is still edifying.

Helps for Worshipers

  • Be patient! Yes, children – even unhappy, screaming children – are a delight to our Lord. He has died for them and baptized them, and He wants them to come to Him in the Divine Service. And understand, with compassion, that sometimes children need to be removed temporarily in order to settle down. (Besides that, our Lord gives a big, burly angel to protect each of these little ones. See Matthew 18:10.)
  • Encourage young parents. Instead of giving a look of impatience, offer a consoling, compassionate demeanor. Tell young parents that, yes, you want their children in the Divine Service, because, after all, it’s the place where they get to hear and receive Jesus Himself.
  • Offer to help young parents. Sit with them in their pew. Assist them in holding the hymnal for their children. Let the children sit on your lap. And encourage the children to participate in the Divine Service.

Helps for Pastors

  • Use the liturgy! Children learn by repetition, because “repetition is the mother of learning.” Children become more accustomed to being “in church” when they recognize and learn to repeat the same things from Sunday to Sunday.
  • Use Sunday School to teach the liturgy. Teach the regular (“ordinary”) portions of the liturgy, perhaps in Sunday School openings. Take “field trips” to the sanctuary to point out artwork and symbols in the sanctuary, and what they mean. Children love to learn by what they see.
  • Encourage parents to sit up front. Explain to parents the reasons given above.
  • Encourage children to say/sing parts of the liturgy they know. Tell children that you enjoy hearing them join in, even if it’s on parts that are assigned to the “Presider” (pastor).

WHO Keeps the Church from Dying?

Hunter claims, “If you don’t hear crying, the church is dying.” Many a pastor, I’m sure, has heard a similar claim: “The youth are the future of the church.” (Now, there’s a fine way to view people in the Church between the ages of 19 and 90+! It’s also quite idolatrous.) However, the survival of the Church, or individual congregations, does not depend on children (or adults, for that matter). The Church’s survival, and the survival of individual congregations, depends solely on Jesus.

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus responds to Peter’s confession of Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (16:16). He says, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Our Lord builds His Church, not on the presence of children in worship, but on the confession of Him as “the Christ,” the Savior from sin and death. Also, our Lord promises that not even the gates of hell can, or will, prevail against His Church.

Congregations may grow or shrink. (Whatever happened to the congregations in Philippi, Ephesus, or the seven congregations in Revelation?) Numbers of children (and adults) “in church” may wax or wane. But one thing is certain: JESUS builds and preserves His Church. Not even the absence, or presence, of boisterous children can prevail against it.

So, parents, yes, bring your children to church and keep them “in church”–except for the occasional boisterous outburst. But bring them back in, so that they don’t miss Jesus. But, parents, by all means, bring them to Jesus and teach them how to receive His gifts.

About Pastor Randy Asburry

Pr. Randy Asburry serves as Senior Pastor of Hope Lutheran Church, St. Louis, MO. In addition to earning his MA in Classics (Greek and Latin) from Washington University, St. Louis (1992), he also earned his STM in Systematic Theology from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1998), writing on Luther’s view of faith in the Catechisms. He has written for Good News magazine and Concordia Publishing House, served on subcommittees for Lutheran Service Book, and has been a regular guest on Issues, Etc. He serves as regular fill-in host for KFUO's "Thy Strong Word" Bible study program, and now produces the podcast called Sacred Meditations.


Children in Church — 26 Comments

  1. In my adult life I have followed many vocations in the Church, husband, father, chorister, choir director(not my gift), church council member, elder and now pastor. In all of them one of the biggest frustrations has been those church members who see children as a nuisance and express the desire that all children go to the nursery. In my last church as a layman, we even had an elder take this position. Yes unruly children can be a distraction, and yes many young parents do not do a good job of keeping their kids in line.

    When they were younger, my children would sometimes get out of line, and would have to be corrected. Today my grandchildren sometimes do the same, but they learn how to behave by being in church; and in the process they learn from the example of their parents how important the service is.

    Thank you for your article, I pray that it will be used to guide people in how to work with children in church.

  2. David Hartung :
    one of the biggest frustrations has been those church members who see children as a nuisance and express the desire that all children go to the nursery.

    How about those who express the desire that young families with children would just stay away?

  3. Yes, children “act up” during the Divine Service or a prayer office. The fussing and commotion easily distract other worshipers within a three-pew radius, at least. Then add the outbursts, the squawks, the munching on Cheerios, the dropped toys clattering on the floor, and the wailing and gnashing of impatient little baby teeth. Yes, it can get distracting for worshipers and pastors. And it certainly becomes exasperating for parents.

    @Jais H. Tinglund #2
    How about those who express the desire that young families with children would just stay away?

    In our first congregation, where all our three were baptized, there were no children in church. “Till now”. (–Pr. Fiene)
    We were in church regularly and the babies with us. If anyone had said children shouldn’t be there, they didn’t tell us. And at the end of our seven years’ stay in that town there were several pews of parents with babies/small children.

    What there was not: Cheerios and toys. Contrary to adult perception (those adults who can’t move w/o a sipper cup of Starbucks of their own!) a child past the bottle stage will not starve in an hour.
    And a two year old who wants to call attention to himself can be taken out; with the right kind of attention to him, he won’t repeat the experiment too often.

    But the best thing is to sit where small children can see what’s going on up front, and expect any child who can read to follow the service.

    [P.S. That congregation didn’t have a nursery, before or after we came there.]

  4. Use Sunday School to teach the liturgy. Teach the regular (“ordinary”) portions of the liturgy, perhaps in Sunday School openings. Take “field trips” to the sanctuary to point out artwork and symbols in the sanctuary, and what they mean. Children love to learn by what they see.

    Amen and Alleluia!!!

  5. Rev. Hartung and Rev. Tinglund,

    I couldn’t agree more. Also, I don’t believe that Sunday School should replace the worship service for children. Don’t get me wrong, a good Sunday School class is a wonderful thing and is a great resource to augment the Divine Service. However, children are quite capable of learning in the Divine Service as well. My 10 year old daughter’s face lights up every time “This is the Feast” begins – she loves to sing it and follow the liturgy. In fact, it’s quite amusing when she “preps” my LSB before every service by identifying the correct introit page and marking the hymns.

    Pardon me, perhaps I became a little too prideful 🙂

  6. Thinking that children are a nuisance, and even expressing such sentiments, is certainly misguided and contrary to Jesus and His Word! Removing them from the Divine Service (can you say nurseries and “children’s church”?) is certainly not far behind that.

    What can be done? Certainly pray for hard hearts to be softened by God’s Word, and also keep teaching them.

  7. “Children’s Church” is the whole Church, and it is the Divine Service. It’s the Church that is the Body of Christ, the children of the Bride (I’m re-reading “Bestman, Bride, Wedding”…), of *every* earthly, chronological age.

    The whole concept of “children’s church”–taking the kids (even up to middle school age, I’ve seen) *out* of the gathered Body after a legalistic “kids’ sermon” (isn’t always legalistic, but these seem to tend that way–and then listen to the “adult” sermon….!)–this makes my blood boil. I love hearing pastors that do “children’s church” at their congregations preach on “unless you are converted and become as a little child…” with the complete absence of little children, because he has sent them *away*.

  8. Believe it or not, Pastor Asburry, I marveled at how quiet and well-behaved the children were during your Advent service last night.

  9. @Randy #5

    Pardon me, perhaps I became a little too prideful 🙂

    Not from where I sit. If bragging on your kids, grand-kids and now great grand-kid is prideful, then I am in big time trouble! 🙂

  10. I firmly believe that children get tremendous benefit out of the Divine Service. My kids’ ages range from 13 to 9, and they all know and eagerly sing the liturgy and hymns and say the creed, Lord’s Prayer, etc.

    A while ago I did something I was a bit unsure about – I took them all to a service at the neighbourhood mega church. My purpose was to let them see a non-liturgical style of worship service and point out the differences and highlight the significance of our liturgy.

    Of course the service began with a praise band doing about a six song set. After that came about a 45 minute message by the pastor that contained a number of ‘life lessons’, with one or two passing references to Jesus.

    Anyway, to my surprise, the kids’ reaction: “boring”. They complained that they did not get to participate. They couldn’t sing any of the praise songs. They didn’t get to sing the kyrie or the Sanctus (the ‘holy holy’ as my youngest calls it). Where were the prayers of the church? The Lord’s Prayer? Why didn’t the pastor talk about Jesus?

    This experience gave me a renewed appreciation not only for the blessing we have in our Lutheran liturgical tradition, which constantly points us to Christ, but also firmly convinced me of the importance of bringing children to the Divine Service from a young age, even if they act up from time to time. With their parents setting the example, they will hear the Word and come to want Jesus at the centre of their worship, no matter how good somebody else’s praise band might be.

  11. Randy, it may get lost in the shuffle, but your imagery of guardian angels as big and burly is no small, unimportant point in this outstanding article.

    Thank you for this far-reaching corrective and exhortative piece on church, children, worship, and, yes, angels.

  12. Something that frustrates me as a parent is the misuse of the cry room by other parents. My children only go out of church if they are being loud and disruptive out of respect for those around us and then we go back in when we are able. If we go to the cry room, it is to practice church without disturbing everyone else, not to play with loud electronic toys with flashing lights. Letting a baby crawl around the cry room because he is too young to effectively be taught to sit still for an hour is reasonable. Letting a 7 year old sit in the cry room and play with loud, obnoxious toys is not.

    I allow my children to have quiet snacks and activities during the sermon, like coloring pages, because it keeps them in church and they do hear at least some of the sermon and ask questions about it later. You can allow a snack or small toy without having cheerios all over the floor and toys strew about. If you don’t practice sitting in church for increasing periods of time as the child ages, they will not be able to do it when they are older and they will think it is boring.

    The repetition of the liturgy is wonderful for children. My daughter easily vegan singing portions of it at a very young age without special practice just from listening in church. Even my one year old, is interested in the liturgical parts of the service.

  13. And then there was the cry room where there never were children or parents of younger children, but only middle-aged ladies sitting around chatting – who were deeply offended when somebody put up a sign saying that the cry room was reserved for young children and their parents …

  14. @Jais Tinglund #15

    Rev. Tinglund, Perhaps it’s appropriate that only belligerent middle-aged ladies occupied the “cry room.” After all, the “cry room” is for those that crave attention and are prone to tantrums………………. 🙂

  15. I was just curious if you shared this article with Mr. Steven Hunter. Perhaps he would take some positive things away from this article to think about and chew on.

  16. Great article, great comments!

    The best use for a “cry room”, in my opinion, is to convert it into something else. Its very existence encourages people to remove themselves from the assembly. In my experience, the narthex works perfectly for BRIEFLY removing a noisy child.

  17. And with the best use for a “cry room” being brought up I cannot help but come to think of another friend who told me about being absolutely shocked, as she was being shown around her husband’s new church, and, having until recently resided in an area where political correctness and the nanny state were both running rampantly, being told: “And if your children don’t behave in church, this is where you take them and spank them.”

  18. A cry room is very helpful when caring for infants who may need to be fed or rocked during a service or for keeping a young toddler who is too young to be expected to sit through the entire service safely contained while still allowing the mother to see and hear the service. Cry rooms are for babies, not for older children who are simply misbehaving. You can’t really care for an infant very comfortably in the narthex…

  19. Loved this article. I especially agree with the section about sitting close to the front so children can see what is going on. My kids are all long grown, but I still prefer the front so *I* can pay better attention 🙂

  20. Thanks so much
    real practical help for learning the litergy for kids to participate.

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