Shall Children Listen to Sermons?

I’ve been pastoring in Vancouver for roughly twelve years now, preaching close to 1000 sermons, to over 50 nationalities, with people of various backgrounds and theological understanding in the pews. And 100s of children (ages 0-13) have been present.

We are a Presbyterian church and, as such, believe children belong to the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:14). For us, there really is no question whether children belong in the worship service (Eph. 6:1). It would make more sense for me to cut off my right leg than it would for me to tell my children to leave the worship service (see 1 Cor. 12).

As a preacher and a father of four young children, few things have given me more delight in this world than singing with my children in the worship service and looking at them when I’m preaching knowing that they are hearing and listening to the preached word of God.

As Presbyterians, besides the fact that we believe worship is a privilege for God’s people, regardless of age, sex, race, class, etc., we also believe there is a unique God-ordained power in the preached Word that transforms the people of God (2 Cor. 3:18). The preached Word has a unique power to “make alive” and “build up,” such that willfully removing ourselves from such a blessing is to remove us from the primary means God has ordained for our salvation (Rom. 10:14ff.).

Naturally, when I came across an article offering reasons why one church “let the little ones go from the worship service,” I was rather disappointed.

The author (Pastor Paul Carter) “believe[s] in the transforming power of the preached Word of God,” but his church sends those under the age of 10 to Sunday School where, I assume, adults teach and thus also miss out on the preached Word. The implication is that this transforming power is better reserved for those over the age of 10.

According to his experience, having “little ones in the service works against the smooth operation of that process” because “every fussing toddler is surrounded by a 20 person circle of distraction” and “of course, no one is listening to the sermon.” Children are “distraction factories,” and so need to be removed for the common good!

As a pastor, I would say that much of my own efforts in sermon preparation are geared towards making the sermon simple enough for both children and adults to understand. Having pastored in a church that allows all ages to worship in the sanctuary, I have found that having children in the worship service has helped my preaching rather than hindered it.

Pastor Carter seems to portray his adults as being the unruly ones. He says, when children are allowed in for a couple of services a year, “dads are scowling, ladies nearby are making faces they believe to be entertaining.” Should not the teaching of the Word of God to these adults over the course of the year keep them from such behavior? Would not keeping the children in the service train them to better adapt to listening for a sustained period of time. I mean, perhaps they are so unruly because they don’t actually have any training?

There is also the pneumatological factor that we cannot understate. The work of the Spirit is mysterious, sovereign, and powerful (Luke 1:39-44). The Spirit works especially in connection with the Word of God. Whatever weaknesses are present in the listeners who are 7, 17, or 70, we trust that the Spirit helps us in our weaknesses. The Spirit works especially in connection with the preached Word, which is to say that removing children from the preached Word is removing them from the time God is most powerfully working in their lives.

“Matthew [my 8 year old], God is going to speak to us now, so I need you to leave so I can listen.” Sounds odd, doesn’t it?

But What Does The Bible Have To Say?

In his article, Pastor Carter quotes Nehemiah 8:2-3 (a three-hour message, at least) to prove that men and women understood what was said. This citation is overly selective. The Old Testament furnishes us with many examples of children being present in various gathered assemblies.

Joel 2:15-16, “Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber.”

Or, consider Deuteronomy 31:10–13, where Moses commands Israel to assemble, including “men, women, and little ones.” Same thing in Deuteronomy 29:1-11 or Joshua 8:34-35 or Ezra 10:1 or Nehemiah 12:43 or Joshua 4:5-7. There is also the clear case of 2 Chronicles 20:13ff. If a fussing child can ruin God’s salvation in worship among his gathered people then we are in big trouble.

Paul writes letters intended to be read in the churches, which assume the presence of children (Eph. 6:1-4; Col. 3:20). Clearly children were present during Christ’s teaching ministry (Matt. 18:1-5; 19:13-15).

The Real Problem

I suspect many pastors overvalue the role of the intellect when it comes to preaching. In Pastor Carter’s article, for example, he speaks about creating a context for adults where they can learn: “[Mom] appreciates an hour and a place where she can sit uninterrupted with her Bible open and a highlighter in her hand listening to the Word of the Lord.”

But that’s not what a worship service is primarily about. It is about God’s people gathering together to praise God according to their abilities in the power of the Spirit. Preaching is a means of grace and God does things with preaching even when we don’t fully understand or have the perfect context for hearing every word. Infants, as well as senile people, and the mentally challenged, are all welcome in the worship service (for its entirety) because God’s Word is just that, and the Herald (the preacher) proclaims God’s rule and victory to all people.

Oddly, I would think that if anyone should insist on children remaining in church it would be Baptists. Why? Because the Word of God is the primary means for the conversion of sinners (Romans 10:14ff.). Thus it makes little sense to kick non-Christians (i.e., non-baptized persons) out of the place where they are most likely to be converted.

Conclusion

From my own experience, reverent worship can take place with children present during the whole service. I see it every week, by God’s grace. I count it a great privilege to be able to look at not only my own children, but all of the children in the congregation and preach God’s word to their never-dying souls in the hopeful expectation that God’s word, through the powerful working of the Spirit, will accomplish things that go far beyond my ability to comprehend.

Finally, without having a warrant in the Word of God for removing children from the worship service, I think pastors make a mistake when they implement such a practice. The Scriptures paint quite the opposite picture regarding the place of children in worship than what many churches practices. As such, I hope and pray that all churches that send children away from the sermon will re-think their custom in light of the biblical evidence.

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