Why send young away during church services?
I recently mentioned to a friend something about my church that surprised her: By the time children complete first grade, or are about 6 or 7 years old, they are expected to remain with their parents and worship with them throughout the entire se...
I recently mentioned to a friend something about my church that surprised her: By the time children complete first grade, or are about 6 or 7 years old, they are expected to remain with their parents and worship with them throughout the entire service on Sunday mornings. Younger children are in a separate program for about half of the service.
My friend, who shares my evangelical beliefs, was surprised. That's because in Protestant circles it's common for children and teens to be consistently separated from their parents for most or all of the worship service. Often when they enter the church doors on Sunday morning, the kids go to services or classes with their peers and their parents participate in the main worship service without them.
But the bottom line is that under a variety of similar scenarios, the family does not typically worship together.
This practice has been around for many decades in the Protestant world. My Catholic friends tell me this is not as common in their church life.
The thinking goes that Sunday school or "children's church" makes church more relevant and understandable, and often more entertaining, for children. Here I'm talking about classes or youth groups that replace the main worship service for children and teens, not those activities that supplement it.
Anyway, the belief seems to be that it's more likely kids will stick with church over their lifetime if it's more geared to them when they are young. But the evidence is that this isn't what happens.
Two decades ago, Christian education expert James W. Write showed in his book, "Intergenerational Religious Education" (Religious Education Press), that studies reveal that children who worship regularly with their parents are more likely to consistently worship as adults than children who grow up primarily attending "children's church."
Finally some Protestant churches -- including some mega-churches that seemed to have been on the forefront of the idea of separate "children's church" programs -- are changing. They are recognizing what is the irony of splitting up already fragmented and overstressed families on Sunday morning.
I've seen a young but growing church movement that is looking to change course and bring families together for worship. I've had the privilege of speaking to several churches that are now contemplating how best to do just this. But in the process, I've had church leaders express to me over and over the same problem. Many Protestant parents -- maybe especially evangelicals -- seem to believe that it's the Sunday-school teachers' job, not their job, to teach their children Christian truth.
Surely, this is itself a devastating fallout of splitting families up for worship. Devastating because this job can't be done in the one hour or so a week when the church has our kids. It's ironic to me that some of the very same people who are (rightly) adamant that they should be integrally involved in their child's secular education want to leave his religious education entirely up to the church experts.
But since no one loves or lives with our kids like we parents do, this has to be our job more than anyone else's.
We churchgoing parents of every stripe need to be sitting down with our children on a regular basis and teaching them the doctrines of our faith (not just Bible stories) so that they can absorb more of the lessons they learn in the worship service. We need to be praying with and for them. We need to not just be living out our faith at home, but talking to our children about it. And, perhaps most importantly, letting them see us handle it well when we fail in it.
I've said it to church audiences and I'll say it here: When it comes to a child's religious life, it really does take a parent.
-- Hart hosts the "It Takes a Parent" radio show in Chicago. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .