By George van Popta
Let the children come
Laura Vanderkam wrote in the Wall Street Journal of Friday, December 4th, 2009, about a dilemma she faced one Sunday. After having been cooped up all week with a sick 9-month-old baby, she was desperate to get out of her apartment. She wanted to go to church; however, she did not want to expose other children in the church nursery to her son’s germs. So she decided to bring him into the pew with her and her husband—only to learn that her church had chosen that Sunday for a very solemn Lenten service, full of soft chants and contemplative silences. Her baby made joyful noises at inopportune moments. An usher asked them if they would take him out. Laura’s husband brought him home while she spent the rest of the service in tears.
Do the children belong in the worship service? Yes, they do. As we confess in Lord’s Day 27, “Infants as well as adults belong to God’s covenant and congregation. Through Christ’s blood the redemption from sin and the Holy Spirit, who works faith, are promised to them no less than to adults. Therefore, by baptism, as sign of the covenant, they must be incorporated into the Christian church and distinguished from the children of unbelievers.”
Believing those powerful things we should not, after having baptized our children, bar them from the worship service of the congregation of the Christian church just because of a bit of mewling and crying.
Today, in many churches, the age groups are separated: nursery for the little ones; age-appropriate Sunday school (“Children’s Church”) for the older children; adult services for the mature. Most of our churches offer a baby-sitting service for the infants. Some also offer a kind of craft or teaching class for the prepubescent members of the church.
Some parents are pushing back against the age-specific separation and for intergenerational worship. Ms. Vanderkam mentions Kate Wicker, an Atlanta-area mom of a 4-year-old, 2-year-old and a baby, who brings all three of them with her to Mass on Sundays and sometimes during the week. Ms. Wicker says, “I try to be polite and respectful of other people’s worship experience, but how can we baptize children, welcoming them to the body of Christ, and then say ‘until you’re old enough to not make any noise and sit still you’re not welcome here?’” She has gotten some raised eyebrows and nasty comments, but feels backed up by Pope Benedict XVI who has reminded Roman Catholic parents that Christ “calls the whole Christian family to Sunday Mass.”
We have our issues with the Pope, but here we agree with him (except for the Mass thing)—Christ calls the whole Christian family to the worship services. The babies should be in church again the Sunday after they have been baptized. This would necessitate several changes in how we, as Canadian Reformed people, do church.
The older among us, who have moved beyond the child-rearing stage, would need to cut the young families some slack and not become irritated by a bit of noise as the young parents train their children how to worship. Worship does not flow naturally from the human heart; it needs to be taught. The congregation ought not to think it important to follow, with their eyes, the young father who is taking his unruly toddler out of the auditorium to administer a bit of discipline—which reminds me of a funny though true story: A father in the deep south was taking his misbehavin’ daughter out of the service. As he threw her up over his shoulder, she shouted to the congregation, “Y’all pray for me now, y’hear?”
We would need to rethink our church architecture. Our church buildings should begin incorporating the good and old Presbyterian tradition of the “cry-room.” A cry room is built beside or behind the auditorium and is a place that mom or dad can take a noisy child out of the service. As it will have glass between it and the auditorium, those in the cry room do not feel distantly separated from the worshipping community. With today’s possibilities for public address systems and sound proofing, cry rooms could serve us well. Those in the auditorium would not hear any children’s noise; those in the cry room would hear the sermon, singing, etc.
It is good for children to see their parents worshipping, to hear them sing and recite the Creed and the Lord’s prayer. Mom or dad in the cry room with noisy Johnny can continue the training. During the time mom and dad have a number of small children, they can take turns. Thankfully, we have two worship services every Sunday. And don’t worry, young mom and dad: that stage in your lives will not last forever. In fact, it slips away very quickly.
Ministers need to be sensitive to the fact that a large part of the audience is very young and, for the most part, does not have much of a clue what he is talking about. Without dumbing the service down, he needs to engage the children in his preaching, prayers, and segues between the points of the liturgy. The consistory and the “more mature” in the congregation should not criticize him when he endeavours to engage also the children and “less mature.”
Jesus said, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them.” He did not add, “Except when they make a bit too much noise.”