Nourishing Hearts and Minds

Raising Confessional Children: Kingdom Life in the Divine Service

Before we started our family, my husband and I knew that we wanted our children to participate in church life with us. The church that we were going to at the time had a practice of separating children from adults during the Sunday service, and we weren’t sure that’s what we wanted for our children.

I grew up in a traditional church, where children stay with their parents during the service. My husband grew up in a segregated church where the children leave the sanctuary for a “children’s church” during the Sunday morning service.

Even though age segregation was popular in the circle we ended up in after we got married, we felt strongly that we wanted our whole family to participate in the church service together. Before long, we agreed that we’d simply keep our children in the sanctuary while the others were ushered out for their own Sunday School activities.

Then, of course, we had our first baby, and staying in church with her became awkward. Not because she was of the age to participate in children’s activities – she wasn’t. But simply being with her in the sanctuary was awkward.

Since all of the other children were removed from the room, the echoes of a single baby whose mom wanted to listen to the sermon bounced off of the walls much more loudly than they might in a chapel full of families.

Our firstborn’s first time in church.

There was an unspoken agreement that moms of babies would hang out with them in the scant narthex or downstairs in the nursery. There weren’t even speakers anywhere for moms to listen into the sermon while shushing their babies out elsewhere in the building.

I quickly became very uncomfortable with the setup. Either I had to stay in the sanctuary and endure glares of people not sitting with babies or stand outside of the sanctuary with my child and miss the sermon. In a gathering where the sermon was high point of the service, why should I even bother to go to church?

Plot Twist

Thankfully, my husband saw the light and converted to confessional Lutheranism when our oldest was six months old, so we never had to confront the segregation issue to any significant degree.

Horray! Daddy believes correct theology!

Of course, when we started attending the Divine Service weekly at our Lutheran church, we were able – and encouraged – have our children in the church service with us. And yes, it was a huge learning curve for us as parents, and continues to be a weekly lesson in patience and reverence for our growing brood.

Let’s face it: sitting through church with small children is uncomfortable.

Children are loud and don’t really care much whether they’re belting out a hymn in some incomprehensible babble or screeching during the moment of silence (are my babies the only one who like to be the very loudest during this moment?).

As the mom of small children, my offspring’s cries and squeaks, or less-than-respectful “NOOOOOOO”s used to make me very uncomfortable. I don’t know whether it was my new mom-ness or the training from the heterodox gatherings we once attended, but I used to usher my babies out the door the second someone started to make a noise of any sort. (The church we attend has speakers in the narthex and nursery, so parents can still listen to the service.)

I kept this up nearly every Sunday, until one day another member of our congregation thanked me for having my screechy children in the service. The comment was genuine, not some kind of backhanded comment about my parenting skills.

It was at that moment that I realized that my children are as much a part of the Body of Christ as any of the other members of the congregation, and as such they have as much a place in the Divine Service as anyone else.

After that, my tolerance for squeaking and the random cry has become much higher.

Why Should Children Participate in the Divine Service?

The difference between the Divine Service and services at churches elsewhere is that the high point of the service has nothing to do with what the pastor’s sermon is doing for his people, and everything to do with Christians engaging in kingdom life together.

Because we baptize babies – since we recognize the salvation found in the holy water and word of this blessed Sacrament should be withheld from no one – it’s hard to justify the expulsion of the Church’s youngest members.

When babies become members of the Church, the responsibility of pastors and parents lies in renewing our children’s salvation through the reading of the Word and participation in the Sacrament of the Altar (Communion).

Thus, the Divine Service hardly exists as a means by which we expose our families to good, old-fashioned preaching. Instead, it’s becomes a vital component of our Christian living.

If we deem our children old enough to participate in the waters of Baptism, then assuredly they’re old enough to participate in the liturgy once a week.

Baby #1 getting baptized at 7 months old.
Baby #2 getting baptized at 8 days old.
Baby #3 getting baptized at 5 days old.

Inclusion as members of the Divine Service once weekly isn’t merely some kind of good work that my husband and I do for our kids. We’re not looking for accolades or criticism. It’s simply something that must be done.

And believe me, there are some weeks when the thought of sitting through a hour-long church service with a baby and two toddlers makes me weak in the knees. My kids are not angelic – no matter how many church services they’ve been through.

I’ve been pooped, peed and puked upon while sitting in church. I’ve been stabbed with pencils and head bashed. I’ve missed the main points of the majority of sermons that I’ve sat through in the past three years.

But again, that’s not why we’re in church.

When my family participates in church, however distractedly that may be, we’re participating in an essential part of kingdom living that extends far beyond our local congregation.

When our children sit through Divine Service Setting III week after week, they hear the liturgy that harkens back to that which has been spoken by Christians throughout time and space. One day, they’ll pick it up for themselves and start reciting the prayers and litany back at the appropriate places.

We’re not sitting in church with our children to feel warm and fuzzy about ourselves as Christian parents. We’re there because we have the responsibility to raise Christian children.

But we can’t well raise Christian children in the church if they’re physically separated from us during church.

What’s the Problem with So-Called Children’s Church?

For starters, church is church. It’s a place for sinners and saints. It’s a place for adults and children.

We do our children a great disservice when we boot them from the Service that promises renewal of the heart and mind through scripture and communion with God and man around the sacred altar.

We tell our children that they’re not welcome in the midst of believers unless they can bring it upon themselves to will their souls into God’s salvation.

We make church an exclusive, adults-only club. Inaccessible for those who aren’t old enough to participate.

We also inadvertently tell our kids that church is only for those holy enough to understand how to come to salvation on their own. In many churches, self-elected baptism acts as some kind of gatekeeper between those who are worthy to participate in church and those who aren’t.

Worse, younger children who are spiritually mature and who desire to spend time in the service feel pressure to participate in children’s church with their siblings and friends. If they don’t, they’ll miss out on exclusive activities that the other children get to participate in.

Well-intentioned teachers might even pressure children into participating in children’s church, just because they’re of a certain age – spiritual maturity notwithstanding. They might pressure parents into releasing their children to the children’s activities, rather than staying together as a family during the Sunday service.

Then there’s the awkward transition of children who attend children’s church coming back into the service as middle schoolers, high schoolers or even as young adults. The longer we keep children siloed away in their own special activities during the Sunday service, the more awkward the transition becomes.

If we wait until late elementary school to bring our children to the service, then we risk poor behavior and a short attention span that bores easily in the service.

If we wait until middle school, we deal with older children who don’t want to participate in the service and would love the cop out of church-like activities tailored to their preferences.

If we wait until high school or college to reintroduce our children to the service, we risk losing them entirely.

After all, if children don’t have to attend Sunday services all through childhood, why on earth should they do so as adults?

And herein lies the heart of the issues: if we siphon children out of the regular Sunday service and distract them with age-appropriate activities, they never learn to love and appreciate the regular church service for what it is. When they become old enough to participate in the service, they don’t want to, because there aren’t enough arts and crafts or silly dances to worship songs or easy-to-swallow Bible lessons.

I’m certainly not saying there isn’t a place for those pint-sized Bible lessons and coloring pages of the Apostle Paul – there absolutely is. But that place isn’t a classroom in a church where a worship service is happening in the sanctuary down the hall.

What of Those Who Help in Children’s Church?

If we think the issues of children’s church affect merely those children who participate in the alternate services, we miss another critical piece of the puzzle: the volunteers who make children’s church possible.

Sure, some leaders in children’s church might be genuinely passionate about the mission of children’s church.

In some churches, where kids must impel the grace of God to their own souls, leaders might even feel a divine conviction to minister to children in children’s church.

And in churches where the high point of a service is a politically charged hour-long sermon, perhaps more good is truly done for children in children’s church than could be in the sanctuary during the same hour.

But a children’s church can hardly run on the passion of a handful of leaders. In order to succeed, any type of children’s church or Sunday school must run on the backs of dozens or even hundreds of Sunday morning volunteers.

Which brings us to our second problem: children’s church requires a fraction of the church’s adults to miss the Sunday service.

Who’s Leading the Children’s Church?

In my observation, there are two groups of people drafted to serve in children’s church: the parents of said children, and teen volunteers.

Neither parents nor teenagers should miss a Sunday service – especially if it’s a Divine Service – to teach lessons or administer during children’s church. Yes, we are called to serve and minister to children, but there are roughly 167 other hours in the week where we can do so.

Making teenagers leave the service to tend to other people’s children is cold-hearted and demonstrates a church’s lack of caring for the young people in its midst.

No wonder teenagers and young adults are leaving the church in droves.

As important as the little, often unbaptized children are, the teenagers are just as important – even if they’ve already brought salvation upon themselves.

Teenagers who have been baptized and believe belong in the church service, not at the front of classrooms full of elementary students. Teenagers who haven’t been baptized absolutely belong in the service, so that they can learn about the faith and hopefully proclaim it for themselves.

Then there’s the issue of forcing parents to miss church to cater to their offspring in a location other than the sanctuary. Sure, this might not split up families during worship, but it certainly does no good to the parents who must miss services week after week.

Personally, I’m a woman who’s blessed to have a new child every 16-20 months. I adore my children, but they also drain me to the very core of my soul.

I have a hard enough time minding my children each week while my husband gets to participate in Bible study, even if I do understand the rationale behind my nursery duties.

If I had to do that during the Sunday service week after week, year after year, simply because my loving marriage and healthy physiology bless me with children, I’d lose my mind, and I dare say that my faith would be imperiled.

Is the Church Even for Young and New Parents?

Parents need to be in church if they want to raise godly children during the remainder of the week.

During a proper church service, we confess our sins, receive absolution, participate in the Sacrament and hear the Gospel.

Even during a heterodox service, we should at least hear a little bit of Bible reading, which is certainly better than nothing.

I’m baffled by churches that claim to be pro-life, but deny young/new parents the benefits of kingdom life within the sanctuary walls.

If a church is going to stand on the soap box of tiny humans’ rights to life – as well it should – it had better not ostracize the couples or single moms who bring those tiny humans into existence.

I am passionate about young parents’ rights to worship. I’m also passionate about their rights to worship alongside their children.

Yes, minding children during church does make Sunday mornings more challenging, but little kids are only little for so long. And as they get older, they’re able to participate in the service alongside us, and one day they’re not so much of a burden as they once were.

When my family goes to church, our younger children learn from our oldest daughter how to behave in the church – not that she’s always a shining example of proper church behavior.

But in general, she knows when to color, when to stand, and how to remain reverent around the Communion table. She’s three, by the way. Our one-year-old son has come around much more quickly than our daughter did, and I’m convinced it’s because he has someone to model during the service.

Where do We Go From Here?

In my experience, proper churches – those who practice the Divine Service and observe the Sacraments – don’t have children’s church during the Divine Service. This is a mercy for parents (like my husband and me) who have a hard enough time dragging offspring out of bed on Sunday morning and getting to church on time. We’re welcome in the service, frazzled faces and bed-headed children and all.

Again, in my experience, children’s church tends to be a problem in low churches that have all kinds of hodge-podge doctrinal statements and shy away from the Divine Service with accusations that it’s “too catholic”. I can’t comment on how these churches operate, and I’m not even going to make a suggestion.

All I can say is that if you’re a parent in a church that has children’s church and are uncomfortable with how that works, talk to your church leaders.

If it continues to be a problem, consider looking for a church that upholds traditional Christianity and welcomes children within its midst.

For those of us parents – under any confessional banner – who struggle with the “why” of bringing our children to church every Sunday, keep fighting the good fight.

We’re not promised that parenting is going to be easy. And we’re definitely not promised that parenting our children through shout-whispers inside sanctuary walls is going to be easy.

This is our usual Sunday morning setup.

But bringing our children to the Divine Service isn’t about what’s going to be easy this Sunday, next Sunday or even some random Sunday two months from now. It’s about our children’s spiritual well-being both now and in the future.

Washing our children’s souls in the Word and bringing them to the altar to participate in the Sacraments of baptism and communion each Sunday (obviously participating in baptism once and communion repeatedly), bestows upon them eternal blessings beyond measure.

Practically, getting our children into the practice of weekly church participation sets a tone for Sunday mornings.

Instead of the cultural view of Sunday morning as a time for sleeping in, stuffed French toast and soccer practice, our children can view this morning as a time for a worship and renewal.

This is a practice that could have lifelong benefits, this side of heaven.

Kingdom life isn’t something that’s reserved for us and our children after we close our eyes in death.

God’s kingdom comes to us once we are renewed in the sacred waters of Baptism, and it comes to us especially on Sunday mornings when we participate in the Divine Service.

It’s important to express this reality to our children, both in the words that we speak and in the 6 AM alarm clock we set for Sunday mornings. It’s important to worship together as a family as often as possible.

And it’s worth every Sunday afternoon feeling totally spent from minding the kids during a service we’re not sure they got anything from. Press on toward glory, and our children will follow suit.

Children belong at the altar, not cloistered away in a classroom.
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Gabrielle Rystedt
Gabrielle Rystedt
Gabrielle Rystedt is a writer by day and a writer by night (because writers never sleep), who spends time balancing client orders, a couple of books and her blog at Raising Rystedts. She’s a business school grad who’s dabbled in management, both at the project and company level. She loves coffee and crafting, and enjoys settling down with a good book. Though as mom to three kiddos in three years, she realistically spends most of her time reheating her coffee and typing away like a crazy person on a laptop keyboard while surrounded by (clean) cloth diapers and cheddar bunnies.

What are your thoughts?