It’s Sunday evening. The amber sky over Ephesus was just beginning to fade into the darkness. A few dozen people arrive at the same home, at the same time, as though it was their habit. Hugs, kisses, and smiles are their greetings. One by one they make their way into the modest house.
Everyone crowds into the largest room. Each one finds a place to sit. Some in chairs. Some in laps. Most on the floor. The muffled conversations slowly taper off until the room is silent. All eyes are upfront. One of the bearded elders stands.
In his right hand is a rolled-up piece of paper with twine around it. He announces that a brother had arrived that day. His name is Tychicus. He had something to deliver. It was a new letter for them. And this letter was…from…Paul.
The small church gathering erupted. As if a jar of bees had just been opened, the room buzzed with excitement. But it didn’t last long. They were all too eager. Each person soon held their breath and leaned in to listen. The elder began.
“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints who are at Ephesus and are faithful in Christ Jesus: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ…”
The letter was even better than they could imagine. Every line glowed with grace. Paul told them that they were chosen. Redeemed. Adopted. Secure. It spoke of Christ, Christ, and more Christ! It was inspiring and inspired.
Eventually, the apostle’s words moved from general to specific. Yes, God had a message for everyone – but He also had specific instructions for specific groups in the church. Paul instructed: “Wives, be subject…Husbands, love your wives.” He mentioned “Fathers,” “Slaves,” and even “Masters.” But right in the middle of it all, Paul says the most unexpected thing. The apostle wrote,
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” (Eph 6:1)
Jesus Speaks to Little Children
That verse may not stand out to you like it did to them. But it should. Think about it. Paul assumed (and knew) that the children were sitting in the gathered worship service! He wrote to them directly. There they were. Babies with their mothers. Toddlers next to teens. Girls and boys with moms and dads. The kids weren’t off in a separate room. They weren’t out on the playground. They were sitting right there, hearing the apostle’s word. Better yet, they were hearing God’s word! Am I saying that God speaks to children?! Yes! Yes, I am. But for that to happen, the children need to come near to where His voice can be heard.
Despite how difficult and uneasy it may be, it’s good for children and adults to worship the Lord together. Psalm 148:12-13 says that “Both young men and maidens; Old men and children. Let them praise the name of the LORD…” God is not just the God of adults; He is the God of children too.
God is not just the God of adults; He is the God of children too.
Now, don’t get me wrong: age-graded ministry has a vital place in the local church. I do think that helping young people learn in specialized ways is beneficial. This is where ministries like Sunday School and Word of Life are important for us to have. But let’s not keep the children away from the most important ministry that we have: the gathering of God’s people – where the word is preached, the ordinances celebrated, and Christ is worshiped!
No Child Left Behind
Our kids are all a bit older now (ages 8-15). But we brought most of them into the main service at age four. (We did use the church nurseries for those early years and, boy, did we love our nursery workers!)
Over the years, people have commented about the fact that we have our “family circus” on the front row each week. We’ve had people say, “Wow! They are so well-behaved,” or “I love how they sit there and take notes.” Some even say, “My kids could never do that.” Well, no kid can at first. But most can learn to. It requires something of the kids, but first, it requires something of the parents: a clear plan and a consistent follow-through.
What is reasonable for children in “big church?” While it isn’t exhaustive, here are some of the guidelines that we used. We expect our children to:
- Bring their Bible, offering, and a pencil to the service.
- Sit quietly and look at whoever is speaking/singing.
- Stand and sit with everyone else.
- Sing (if they can read) and mouth/hum along (if they can’t).
- Close their eyes during the prayers.
- “Take notes” on the Children’s Bulletin.
- Find the passage in their Bible and keep it open.
- Remain quiet throughout and not sleep.
- Stay in the service unless it is an absolute emergency.
(I know what some of you are thinking. “This is a long list of expectations for small children.” But let’s be honest: it’s basically what schoolteachers expect of them every day – for a much longer period of time! It does take a little practice and lots of reminders. But all parenting requires that. While there are exceptions to this, in general, unruly children belong to undisciplined parents. So let me throw out this friendly reminder to all the moms and dads reading this: parent is a verb! I’ll stop there before I make someone mad. Haha!)
Our expectations don’t end with the service. When we get home, we talk about church as a family at lunch. We ask if anyone has any questions. Each kid shares something they learned or liked. We recognize (or even reward) good behavior and point out where some need to improve. (We also punish those who blatantly disobey.) When they were smaller, each kid had to give dad their “sermon notes” to see if they had paid attention – now a conversation works.
Jesus said, “Let the children come to Me and do not hinder them; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt 19:14) That starts in big church.