September 16, 2009

Kids in Church

by Debra Dean Murphy
Mark 9:30-37
(Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost)

Images of Jesus embracing cherub-faced children have been irresistible throughout the centuries. Sentimental art within the last hundred years or so has given us the “sweet Victorian Nanny Jesus” (Philip Yancey’s memorable description), patting boys and girls on the head, admonishing them, one supposes, to eat all their vegetables and be nice to mummy.

It’s hard to set aside such treacly visuals when we hear Mark say, “Then he took a little child and put it among them, and taking it in his arms . . . “ It’s hard not to wax a little sentimental about Jesus, children, the church, and Christianity itself.

The observant preacher, however, will recognize that this week’s passage from Mark’s gospel is not really about children. It’s about misidentified power; it’s about an upside-down kingdom; it’s about the scandal of the cross and the way of discipleship.

But it is worth reflecting for a moment on how we understand the discipleship of children in the church and what it means to introduce them to the habit and lifelong practice of Christian worship.

Children, as we know, have a great capacity for imaginative engagement with the world around them. They readily enter the world created by a good story (and they usually know a good story from a not-so-good one).

Children need to hear the Bible’s stories in worship—not because they will understand them better there, but because that is where the stories do their formative work, shaping a people week after week, season after season, year after year. When we use the Bible’s stories to impart pious moralisms to children (“be good,” “be helpful,” be nice to your brother”) we minimize Scripture’s real purpose and power, and we fail to communicate to our children that in worship—in the hearing of the Word, the preaching of it, the performance of it through gestures, postures, and holy sign-acts—they (along with us) enter that world and have the hope of being transformed through time—God’s time—by its vision and power.

And since repetition is the key to effective pedagogy, we should regularly communicate to children (and their parents) that they are integral to the whole worshiping body; that their presence is not merely tolerated but happily anticipated. When we “dismiss” children from the worshiping body (for children’s church, say), no matter how well-intentioned our efforts at teaching them about worship may be, we convey to them and to everyone else that dividing the worshiping body is an acceptable norm.

But it is also important that worship not cater to children. Worship that seeks above all else to enact God’s story of redemption and to imagine God’s politics of peace invites and expects the participation of the whole household of faith—young and old, rich and poor, the able and the infirm—with the understanding that, in regard to young children especially, there are privileges reserved for their maturity, mysteries and riches of the worshiping life that reveal themselves as rewards for years of practice and perseverance.

Finally, we engage in the work of introducing children to worship—and overseeing their ongoing participation in it—not in an effort to make them good but that they might know who they are. And we do this with the hope that worship which is attentive to the gospel’s grand story will do its transforming work in their lives (and ours), will feed their imaginations and not their egos, and will help them (and us) learn to order our lives by the gift of God’s time.


Rev Faith Lewis said...

Good post.
Just curious...
The Victorian Nanny illustration is described by Charles Dickens in a book, that was never mentioned by name in Yancey's book. (the jesus i never knew) Do you happen to know where Dickens described that?

Debra Dean Murphy said...


I only know the phrase from Yancey's book which, as you note, doesn't mention where it comes from in Dickens. Sorry.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, though--I appreciate it.


Debbie Gish said...

Thanks Debra:

This is encouraging. As a mother of two and part of an intentional community of 50 (ten of whom are children and more on the way), this is a topic that we are constantly wrestling with. If you write more or have suggested readings or living examples of congregations that do it well, I'd love to hear about it.
debbie gish
Church of the Sojourners
San Francisco

Jeremy McKim said...

Debbie - small world! I believe I met your husband (Dale?) at a gathering in Portland a few years ago. I don't know that we're doing it well but we are seeking to raise children in the Lord - yes it has been difficult since those responsible for their children 'feel jipped' by needing to attend to their children throughout worship. I believe if God has given us children, it is his intent that to grow us as we raise our children. In our flesh we believe that we will grow closer to the Lord if our children are in the other room where we cannot hear or see them. The Lord has given some amazing fruit in our children but it is usually over the context of the long haul. My kids don't complement my sermons but at random times the Holy Spirit's work in them shines through. I guess it all boils down to obedience. What is the Lord showing you to do with children in the community? What does Scripture say? Feel free to shoot me an email if you guys want to discuss any further. (

Debra Dean Murphy said...

Thanks, Debbie. I wrote a piece about this for a Baylor journal a couple years ago--I've pasted a link below.

One pastor I know who thinks a lot about these issues and who has worked hard to introduce her congregation to the idea of children being in worship is Grace Hackney, a United Methodist pastor in North Carolina. (She spoke at the Summer Gathering a few years ago about her church's community garden). I've also pasted a link to her church's website.

All the best to you, Debbie!


Lisa Gantt said...

Only today we gave out our 3rd grade Bibles at worship. I actually had a parent tell me that her son would be returning to my Sunday School class about 1/2 way into my lesson because "he could not sit through worship." I felt like a babysitter. If children were made to feel more a part of worship, perhaps they could better sit through it. AND if parents would guide their children through the readings, hymns, and prayers, they would see more of a connection and be more interested.

Just my thoughts.

Susan Adams said...

Dear Debra,
Thanks for once again giving us something to chew on. At Englewood, we have been seeking to have our children with us in the service in more meaningful ways, but it is not easy. The terrible acoustics in our auditorium mean that we can all hear every little noise (including adult noises!) so a whimpering child or a crying baby makes listening hard. Currently we have kids older than 4 with us for most of the service, sending them out only for the sermon time. This is working fairly well. Today they came bounding back in joyfully just as we prepared for the Lord's Supper.

Mary Bowling has also been working with our school-age kids to teach them a hymn every few months, complete with 2-part harmonies and we look forward to hearing them sing. We did have one of those bulletin funny moments a year or so ago. It looked like this:
Special Music: The Children's Choir
Sermon title "The Road to Hell"

Thanks for raising such an important discussion.

Scott Bader-Saye said...

Hi Debra,

Thanks for your reflections. For several years we wrestled with this question in our small house church community. For our first year or so, the few children in the community were always with us in worship. But as the number of children grew they became proportionally more significant (sometimes we'd have 10 kids and 10 adults in worship). This became a problem during reflection on the word and prayer time because those were communal acts for us - the "sermon" was a conversation about the scriptures and the prayer time was corporate and shared by all. In order for the parents to be able to participate, we needed someone to be watching and teaching the children during sermon and prayers. It seems much easier to imagine children staying in worship in a service that involves less participation - but this communal involvement was a really important part of who we were. All this is to say that over the years of working this out in practice (as opposed to my years of theorizing about it at Duke), the best model for forming both children and their parents through worship has become a more complicated issue and one that I can imagine answering in a number of faithful ways (including making seasonal changes to our practice). Thanks again for your thoughts - I'm always interested in hearing about the practice of other communities.


Gavin said...

I commend to you all a recent book entitled "Helping Our Children Grow In Faith: How the Church Can Nurture the Spiritual Development of Kids " by Robert J. Keeley. I a pastor, not a children's minister, but reading this helped me see how the whole church can participate in the formation of our children. The author is both a professor and a children's minister, making for a good blending of theory and practice.

Here is a link to the book at amazon:

Debra Dean Murphy said...

Thanks, everyone, for the good questions and for the insights from the "real world" practice of all of this. I agree that the whole topic of kids in worship is complicated, and there's certainly no one-size-fits-all approach; it's necessarily ad hoc and context-specific.

I do think, though, that if we start from the premise that incorporating children early and regularly into the worshiping life is the norm, then whenever and however we need to deviate from that, we at least know that we're somehow acting outside of what is ultimately desirable for the whole worshiping body--but necessary nonetheless for important, practical reasons.

The problem is when we start with a theology that says kids must necessarily be trained to worship outside of worship. I know churches who operate with this idea--and have no sense of irony about it.

Debbie Gish said...

Scott, Jeremy, Debra & others:

I appreciated Scott's comment that there can be many different faithful ways to live this out and that there can be seasonal changes to how we approach children in worship. We meet in a large living room and there is now at least one of our longtime elderly members who is no longer able to participate in much of the service largely because of the kid mayhem.

Currently our kids participate in the breaking of the bread (we bookend our service with the bread at the beginning and the cup at the end - so they share the bread but not the cup), a shared meal (with the expectation that it's a social time not a play time and adults are encouraged to sit and share a conversation with the a kid), some singing and then a sharing time we call "affirmation time" which is a time we share how we have seen God at work in our kids (we have an adult one later on). The kids then go out of the service. We are continually experimenting with ways to do "sunday school" which is currently after school during the week.

I often create a false dichotomy by framing the issue as either ignoring children or catering everything to them. I need to remember that they, like we, are part(an important part) of something larger than themselves. That we, together with them, are part of the people of God and the work of God - concretely locally as well as part of a long history that came before us and an ongoing story. This calls us to patience and creativity as I think of including them and helps me frame my call and nurture of them to be considerate and caring as they participate with others.

I love the way Debra talks about the "story" vs the moral lessons the gospel is often reduced to for children. Telling and living that story well, individually and as a body, with and for our kids, is a life goal in and of itself. I so often fear turning Jesus into the sweet Victorian nanny, that I shy away from trying to tell the story well altogether. I found great comfort in Debra's line "there are privileges reserved for their maturity, mysteries and riches of the worshiping life that reveal themselves as rewards for years of practice and perseverance." This is a long story, one we're telling and one we are living with our kids. Hopefully our only shot at telling it well isn't on Sunday morning (or evening in our case).

As I admittedly was longing for my 21 month old to be "dismissed" last night during our service, I chuckled at myself as I thought of this article and the conversation here. :)

Jeremy - thanks for the greetings and encouragement. We met our second daughter's birthmother at that trip to Portland.

Gavin said...

I have visited Debbie's church and seen their affirmation of children first-hand. In one moment, they eclipsed the myriad of programs I've seen in churches I've served it. It was beautiful. I know those children are being formed by a story and a life, not a set of "moral principles."

Keeley address the very issue of watering down the Bible to a big morality tale. More compelling than asking "What would Jesus do?" is hearing what Jesus actually did. We make a mistake, Keeley says, when we equate faith development with moral development. Worship ought to be that space where stories are told and retold, and for more than their (if any) moral teaching. Perhaps we have been raising little Gnostics!