By Carrie Brown McWhorter
Correspondent, The Alabama Baptist
At what age should children attend worship with their parents?
Decades ago, the answer would have been simple. In most Alabama Baptist churches, everyone from babies to senior adults would have attended the Sunday morning service, the Sunday evening service and the Wednesday night service together.
That changed in the latter half of the 20th century, as churches began to focus outreach efforts on young families, and children’s ministry beyond the traditional Sunday School program began to take shape. In many churches, that included taking children out of the worship service for “children’s church,” a child-friendly alternative to all or a portion of the traditional service, a program common in churches of all sizes today.
A child-focused worship time has benefits for both children and their parents, according to Ashley Milner, assistant professor of education at the University of Mobile.
“For most children ages 3–6, their attention span is only about 15–20 minutes,” Milner said. “Realistically after that they’re not going to hear what’s being said, and they may not be able to sit still, which can be very frustrating to their parents.”
That is not to say that children should not attend worship at all.
“From a professional standpoint and from the standpoint of a parent, I prefer a blended approach that allows children to be exposed to worship as a family, as well as to the structure of worship at an early age,” Milner said. “In a blended program, children come into the service with their families and share in the singing, prayers and offering. But during the sermon, children receive instruction on their level, often relative to the topic of the sermon that day, to make it relevant to them.”
A blended approach is how many Alabama Baptist churches, including Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church, Hueytown, approach ministering to children during the worship hour.
Nancy Glover, minister to children at Pleasant Ridge Baptist, said children ages 4 through 3rd grade worship with their families until the sermon begins. At that point, they are dismissed to “Jesus and Me” or “Kids in Him,” programs that further their worship experience on an age-appropriate level, Glover said.
As a retired educator, Glover recognizes that attention spans have gotten shorter and says today’s children expect a faster pace than previous generations.
“We cannot keep things the same as they used to be,” Glover said. “We have got to get their attention and change activities often. That’s the way their brains are developing now.”
Though many parents would love for older children to be included in the children’s worship program, Glover said that by 4th grade, most children can read well enough to follow along in their Bible, pay attention to the sermon and jot down questions to ask their parents later.
Start to finish
“They need to be in church and have that experience,” she said.
The experience of worship also is foundational to advocates of including young children in the worship time from start to finish. Robbie Castleman, author of “Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship,” agrees that teaching a child to worship is challenging.
“Worship can be one of the times when we parents would like to pay attention to something other than our children. Kids can be distracting, aggravating and embarrassing in church,” Castleman writes. “It’s hard to pay attention to God and children at the same time.”
Teaching children to worship is more than simply teaching them to be quiet during a sermon, Castleman argues. When parents worship with their children, they get to experience worship through their children’s eyes.
For Castleman, the mother of two boys, memories of worshipping with her children are precious. “I was with them when they first understood a gospel illustration. I answered their questions about a five-syllable word used in a sermon. I sat next to Robert and Scott the first time they held the sacred symbols of Christ’s body and blood in their hands. I paid attention. These moments of grace and worship are remembered. And treasured.”
Castleman’s illustration highlights an important principle — the Church and parents are partners in raising children, said Daniel Edmonds, director of the office of Sunday School & discipleship at the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.
“Churches need to underscore the importance of the role of the parent in Bible teaching and worship,” Edmonds said. “One of the finer biblical truths (Deut. 6 and beyond) is that passing on the faith is the responsibility of the parent.”
At First Baptist Church, Huntsville, children join their parents for the entire worship service beginning at age four. Joy Moore, minister of preschool at First, Huntsville, said it takes effort on the part of staff members and volunteers to make children feel welcome in the service and to allow them to take part.
To help parents better prepare for their role in helping children worship, Moore holds a worship skills class for parents and their children each year prior to the 4-year-olds’ transition to the worship service. Nancy Akins, minister of preschool and children at Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, holds a similar class each year for the first graders who will join their parents for the full worship hour.
“Children are active and are active learners, so we talk to them and their parents about worship,” Akins said. “We talk about how we worship in different ways, including when we pray, when we listen and when we sing. Worship is a lot of movement, but it’s also being still.”
Akins said she has heard people talk about worship with young children as “adventure worship,” but she calls it a “holy adventure.”
Coming together as family
“Many aspects of life both in and out of church are age-segmented. Worship is the place we can come together as a family,” Akins said.
Ultimately, the long-term spiritual development of each child should be the focus of children’s ministry programs. Family worship is one important element, which is why Edmonds suggests churches with children’s church programs set aside a few Sundays each year for children to worship with their parents.
“It puts some strain on staff to conduct worship in a ‘child-friendly’ manner, but it is important in the faith development of a child,” Edmonds said. “It will positively impact the child’s view of their parents as faith leaders, the pastor as their pastor and of themselves as part of the church.”
“Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship” by Robbie Castleman
“Teaching Kids Authentic Worship: How to Keep Them Close to God for Life” by Kathleen Chapman
“Helping Our Children Grow in Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids” by Robert J. Keeley
“Opening Your Child’s Spiritual Windows: Ideas to Nurture Your Child’s Relationship with God” by Cheri Fuller
“Christian Worship: Its Theology and Practice, Third Edition (Chapter 13: Children in Worship)” by Randall Bradley and Franklin M. Segler
“Worship for Life: Kids Curriculum”
(All available at LifeWay Stores and LifeWay.com)
Related article: https://thealabamabaptist.org/churches-need-to…-with-grace-care