We use all manner of criteria to judge churches: Does the preacher “feed” me? Is the music rockin’? Can I “feel the Spirit”? Some might be good criteria; others (most) are pathologically self-centered. But one criterion is often omitted, and yet has good dominical authority: Do the children participate?
The Gospels have much to say about children in the worshipping community. There is, of course, the classic story of eager parents, hushing disciples, and a welcoming Jesus; it is to children “such as these” that God’s kingdom belongs (Mt 19:13–15). Children, says Matthew, are part of the crowds who receive Jesus’ healing and miraculous provision (14:21); children are privileged with divine revelation (11:25); children gather at the Temple and hail Jesus as the Davidic heir—“Hosanna to the Son of David!” (21:15). Their coronating praise is no accident. When the chief priests and scribes express their displeasure, Jesus questions their knowledge of Scripture: “Have you never read, ‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Mt 21:15–16, quoting Ps 8:2 LXX). God is behind the scenes, preparing this moment of juvenile perception and priestly pique. Take heed, pastors and worship leaders—God whispers the secrets to children and passes over us religious professionals. Seminary gives way to Sesame Street. This is God’s delight.
Children perceive, praise, and pass unhindered to the arms of a Jesus who lays hands of blessing on them; these are reasons enough to invite their participation in worship, but Jesus goes still further: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Mt 18:5; Mk 9:37; Lk 9:48). Wait a minute: Our welcome of children is the standard for our welcome of Jesus? How we react to the infant crying during the sermon, to the hyperactive kid in Sunday School, to the rustling feet during Holy Communion, demonstrates our reaction to Jesus? “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me.”
What are some ways, then, that we can welcome children to participate in worship?
Children can sing.
It was true in the Temple and it’s still true today: children love to praise, especially in song. What their joyful noise may lack in ability is more than made up for in authenticity. We do well to find opportunities for children to lead us in song.
Having children sing seems a must on Palm Sunday. In our church, we’ve begun the service with older children reading the “triumphal entry” narrative as a call to worship. Then we send in a crowd of youngsters to sing a “Hosanna” chorus, circling the sanctuary in procession and waving palm branches. Chaos ensues—but was it any less chaotic in the Gospels? Children grant us access to the story.
Children can testify.
We have a regular time of “testimonies and prayer concerns” in our congregation. Nothing so moves the soul as when children offer their praises to God or present heart-breaking requests for prayer. Testimony times may be dangerous opportunities for proud self-congratulation, but they also democratize the worship service such that children, too, can offer a witness to God’s saving power.
Children can read Scripture.
While I admit my preferences for strong, dramatic readings of the Scriptures, there is something precious about a child’s sometimes halting and stumbling rendition. The text may be obscured in that stumbling—and perhaps inviting the congregation to turn to the passage may alleviate this. But the God who humbles himself to speak through human language at all is surely humble enough to be heard in a child’s voice. Out of their mouths God has prepared praise.
Children can recite Scripture.
We recently started a children’s club which focuses on Scripture memorization. A few times a year we invite the children to recite their memory verses in the Sunday worship service. (Last time, we organized the recitations so the different verses were not spoken at random but told the story of God’s work of salvation.) Yes, there is an element of performance here (performance which brought out the kids’ unchurched parents and grandparents to join us in worship!). But having children recite Scripture is also a gentle way to challenge our own Scriptural illiteracy. By their example, we adults are invited to hide God’s Word in our hearts.
Children can usher.
Depending on one’s congregation, there may be numerous opportunities for children to act as greeters, ushers, acolytes, or communion stewards. My elementary-aged daughter has sometimes offered the cup. To hear her say, “The blood of Christ shed for you,” may actually convince us that it’s true. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.
Not long ago, children in church were to be “seen and not heard.” Nowadays, children aren’t even seen—sent off to their own separate service, so the adults can “get their worship on” in peace. I can understand it; it’s much easier for me to focus on God if I don’t have one child on my shoulder and another proclaiming his hunger for all to hear. (In our congregation, for good or ill, the kids are only present for about half of the service.) But there’s a bit more to worship than what we get out of it. Whoever welcomes children welcomes Jesus—and I’d like to have Jesus join us.