The with me of church has required some intentionality, to say the least. We go to church in a weird place - so many people want to attend worship each week that just getting a seat is a major accomplishment. People are routinely turned away in large numbers from our services. Great problem. To make things weirder we’re heavily populated with twenty-something’s. Neither of these weirds are the bad kind of weird, but they definitely make the 40-ish Wilkins with their gaggle of kids look almost like circus freaks as we take up half a row in the worship center, seemingly oblivious to the fact that we’re way over our quota on real estate. But every Sunday we all file in, from youngest to oldest, to glorify the Lord. Together.
Together hasn’t always been easy. I recall long worship services with four elementary-aged children scribbling with crayons, begging for gum, and contorting themselves like miniature yogis in the pew. Just remembering it makes my eye twitch. But over time, with clear participation expectations, creative activities and the right combination of consequences and rewards our kids have grown to see "big church" not as a place they tolerate but as a place they belong. I'd compare it to learning to eat leafy greens or take naps: not fun at first, but valued in the long run.
Know what's fun? Children's church. Our church offers a ridiculously good children’s worship time. I do not say that lightly - one of their most gifted worship leaders is the father of my babies. The leaders who serve there bring excellence to their ministry each week, and children learn deep spiritual truths in ways that are fun, simple, and crystal clear. Our family values children’s church. We see it as a rich and relevant worship environment for a child, as a vibrant supplement for “big church”. But not as a substitute for it.
Because we believe there is no substitute for a child watching his parents model worship. For families, the with me of worship matters. What could be more relevant than teaching a young child an appreciation for and familiarity with the cadence and flow of big church? Only in big church will children see their parents model worship through corporate adoration, contemplation, and proclamation of God’s worth. Only in big church will children witness and partake in the sacraments of communion and baptism. If it is true that “more is caught than taught”, parents should value modeling authentic worship for their children more than any lesson that might be taught by a children’s church leader.
But the with me of worship is not easy. As parents it is tempting to avoid the complaints of boredom, the distracting foot-shuffling, the endless drink requests, the bulletin origami, or even the reproachful stares of our child-free neighbors by sending our kids to children’s church while we attend worship. Everybody wins: the kids get fun teaching, the church gets extra seats for grown-ups, the grown-ups get to worship unhindered. Perfect. But we’ve missed the point. A dear friend and mentor (who also happens to be a children’s minister) once told me she did not like to hear children referred to as “the church of tomorrow.” Children, she wisely noted, are the church of today.
So to ask the shorter members of the church of today to worship elsewhere so that the rest of us might have a more orderly service doesn’t sound like a very good model for church. And it doesn’t sound like Christ, who called little children to himself in the very midst of the grown-up assembly.
I am thankful that my church does not ask parents to substitute children’s church for big church. With the shortage of space they face each week it’s a wonder they don’t. Unlike the innkeeper in the Advent story, they refuse to say "no room" to those whose lack of stature belies their great importance. To parents wondering how to navigate a Sunday with school-aged kids, here is a suggestion: if possible, let your kids attend both children’s church and big church. If not, choose big church for all. Choose the with me of worship. In the long run (and parenting is all about the long run) your family will be richer for it, and no doubt so will your church.
For how-to's on transitioning your kids to big church, go here.