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A few preschool kids are turned around in the pews of a the big church.
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Does Big Church for Kids Hurt More Than It Helps?

Back in 2005, we asked Children’s Ministry Magazine readers where children should worship. Of the 2,032 people who responded, 48 percent said kids definitely belong in the corporate worship setting-“big church”-and the other 52 percent said kids belong in a separate children’s church setting.

Today, in a smaller survey, 56 percent of children’s ministers surveyed said the kids in their church currently worship in a separate children’s church setting, while 44 percent said their kids go to “big church” for worship. This same group said that the majority of parents (90 percent) and their senior pastor (93 percent) agree with their current setup for where children worship. If your church is one of today’s 44 percent that includes kids in big church, are you accomplishing what you hope? Are you operating with intention or just ushering kids in with their parents and keeping your fingers crossed that they’ll stay relatively quiet throughout the service?

None of us aims for such lowly results-but the truth is many of our “big-church solutions” to help kids make it through the service designed for adults actually teach them the art of distraction, mindless self-absorption, church irrelevancy, or worse. If your church believes that children should worship with their families in big church, you may be unwittingly hurting those kids’ faith through the hidden messages big church sends to them. Consider these powerful messages kids are at risk of soaking up every Sunday.

“It’s okay for me to check out of church…I think I’ll do this for the rest of my life.”

Getting kids to sit still and be quiet is more easily accomplished by giving them coloring pages and word puzzles designed to distract them into not being a nuisance. Kids fall into the habit of daydreaming or checking out because they don’t understand the message or traditions, planting the seeds of unhappiness and discontent with church in a child’s heart. When we give them random distractions, we’re giving them an avenue to check out. We’re training kids to turn off their brains and fill worship time with busywork rather than attention and participation. The problem with this is that we’re inadvertently teaching kids to self-distract unless we give them something that has a direct tie to that week’s message. Anything we give kids has to get them more involved-not less-in the service they’re attending.

“I don’t really fit in here.”

In big church, we sometimes view kids as a disruption risk rather than worship participants. Wanting kids to sit still and pay attention isn’t a bad thing. In fact, many children’s ministers tout the virtues of having kids in big church so there’s no abrupt transition from the “fun and games” of children’s church to the seriousness of big church. There’s merit in this.

“Children socially learn when they see others older than them learning, singing, worshipping, praying, and reading scripture,” explains Dr. Tommy Sanders, professor at Dallas Baptist University and director of the masters of arts in Christian education children’s ministry program at DBU.

“Yes, children can learn with other children, but they miss the bigger picture of what church is and does when they are only with their peers,” says Sanders. He rejects the idea that children should become adults before they experience corporate worship with an entire body of believers. “Their vision of church is limited when kids never worship with the entire church.” But when the service clearly makes no accommodations to include children or speak to them, the message is loud and clear: You aren’t included in this. This isn’t for you.

Children fear being excluded, so for impressionable children to sense that they’re excluded in big church is a significant problem. Over time, that sense of not belonging can evolve into the hardened belief that church doesn’t include the child. The seed of discontent is planted: If I’m not part of it, why should I go? The obvious danger here is that kids begin to resent going to big church-and eventually church in general.

“The sermon has nothing to do with me.”

Worship service topics are often at a higher intellectual level than most elementary-age and younger children have the cognitive ability to process. Additionally, because children tend to be visual learners by nature and have short attention spans, they can’t focus on a monologue for more than a few minutes. An adult-focused message isn’t geared for kids, and therefore has no relevance to their lives. “I went to my parents’ service and I was always having to ask my parents to explain what our pastor was saying,” says Jenna Williams, a fourth-grader from Frisco, Texas.

This is a tough issue to overcome, because very few children’s ministers have influence over what the pastor chooses to speak about, and even fewer would lobby to make the weekly sermon developmentally appropriate for kids. It’s just not going to happen. So kids who sit through the sermon and listen usually walk away with a very different message than adults do. They understand clearly that this portion of the adult service applies to them in no way.

“I must not be expected to worship because I can’t see or read the lyrics.”

Churches do a lot to make songs accessible to people. They may print lyrics in the bulletin or display them on screens up front. If you’re seven, there’s a good chance you can’t read a lot of the words or don’t know their meaning. Kids (and adults) who are unfamiliar with a tune may stand up, but they don’t participate because they feel awkward. The result is that kids think they aren’t expected to participate in singing praise because they don’t understand worship songs.

“The Bible is hard to understand.”

We may not know the percentage of churches that use difficult-to-understand Bible translations, but it’s safe to say many churches rely on versions that aren’t easy to read-even for adults. Did you know the New International Version has a seventh-grade reading level? Determine the reading level of your church’s Bible of choice.

For kids listening or reading along with parents during big church, the passages they’re exposed to may not make sense. It may sound like a foreign language to their young ears. Even churches that use a common-language translation aren’t likely to tailor their Scripture readings so kids can understand. This big-church obstacle is significant. Kids who don’t feel included in worship also feel like they can’t understand the most important book of their faith. It’s a huge double-whammy.

Faith is just for older people. Someday I’ll love Jesus.”

This message is often the cumulative effect of a variety of signals kids receive during their big-church experience. When kids see that only big people seem to understand and find meaning in the songs, message, and Bible, it’s a logical conclusion for them that faith is only for big people. One day, in the far-off future, they’ll be big too. And, maybe, they’ll believe then.

Solutions For All Sizes

There are some significant obstacles inherent in having children attend a full adult worship service every Sunday. But as Sanders states, there are important benefits of having kids experience at least part of Sunday morning worship. So is it possible to strike a balance between teaching children at their own cognitive level, while at the same time letting them experience worship with a full, unified church body that includes all ages of Christians? Quite simply, yes. Here are some options churches are using to do just that.

Incorporate Kids

One way to make the corporate worship experience relevant to kids’ lives is to include them in the fabric of it. Aylesford United Baptist Church in Aylesford, Nova Scotia (featured in the book Comeback Churches) strategized to involve kids in the larger worship service by including them in the worship band, providing a regular emphasis on children, and holding different family worship services throughout the year. Other churches have kids making announcements, passing offering plates, reading Scriptures, singing in the choir, and more. When kids have regular avenues to participate, they learn that the service applies to them. They see that they are participants, not distractions or disruptions.

Mix It Up

Another solution is to have kids experience corporate worship with their parents for a portion of the service, and then release them to small groups before the main message begins.

“I recommend that children go for the first portion of the multigenerational worship service and then dismiss them to their own age-group experience,” explains Sanders. “This offers the best of both worlds. Children are seen and valued, children can participate in the larger faith community, parents can worship with their children, and age groups receive ‘age-appropriate’ teaching.”

While this seems like a solution ideal for smaller churches, Sanders notes that his own church is fairly large and the system works well. Kyle Zoboroski, a second-grader in Houston, Texas, attends church every week with his parents. He says he loves going off to children’s worship rather than staying for the sermon during big church. “I think I learn more because it’s a story with pictures,” Zoboroski explains, “and they have lots going on.”

The New DO’s

Follow these tips for ensuring kids are experiencing and learning what you want them to-and not something else-during big church.

  • Provide kids with weekly packets that are age-appropriate and have a direct tie with that week’s message.
  • Offer small items that’ll help children listen to the sermon. Work with your pastor in advance to plan for small manipulative items kids can hold and play with that have a bearing on the message. For instance, kids can hold small plastic fish while the pastor talks about the feeding of the 5,000. Then kids can take it home as a reminder of what they learned.
  • Make the sermon relevant by giving age-appropriate examples throughout. A mention of homework, cleaning a room, or playing soccer can perk up a child’s ears.
  • Give kids a simple word list with pictures and definitions of terms they’ll hear during the service. Encourage them to read through the list with their parents before the service starts. Listen for the words during the service.
  • Provide children’s Bibles so kids can look up Scripture references during the service.
  • Provide snacks for younger children in case they need a boost during the service. Older kids love peppermints, and the hidden benefit is that these little treats help keep kids alert.
  • Ramp up your willingness to work with your pastor and families to make the big-church worship experience engaging for kids. Make sure to explain why you’re making the effort.
  • Offer three discussion questions that relate to the week’s message that parents can talk about at home with kids.
  • Eradicate random word searches, coloring pages, and other busywork that’s solely meant to keep kids occupied.
  • Work with your pastor and senior leaders to find ways to include children in all aspects of the service.

A Life-Long Impact

Establishing worship as a lifelong, joyful habit within kids is every children’s minister’s dream. And making kids’ big-church experiences healthy and positive is key to developing an attitude of worship that’ll nourish kids’ souls and give them a faith that starts now-and lasts when they’re big.

Debbie Vallejo a children’s minister for 15 years, lives in Frisco, Texas. Jennifer Hooks is the managing editor for Children’s Ministry Magazine.

Want more articles for children’s ministry leaders? Check these out.

3 thoughts on “Does Big Church for Kids Hurt More Than It Helps?

  1. I think this article makes really good points and it’s a really hard line between catering to children and including them in what you are doing. It’s much like the line of making things easy to understand for the lost or new believers, yet not preaching enough depth of Scripture each week. Our church doesn’t design the service with children in mind and leaves it up to the parents whether or not their kids stay for the sermon (4 yrs and up all come to the music portion then 4 yrs to 3rd grade can go to children’s church during the sermon.)
    I don’t feel like you need to tailor the service to children, but train and give parents tools to help them with their children during worship. For example: if you think your child doesn’t know or understand the song explain it to them while you sing. Go over the order of service with your child before the service starts (which would also allow a time to explain songs or even read the scriptures ahead of time.) It’s OK if your child isn’t worshipping (especially if they aren’t saved) or worshipping just like you (my son DOES NOT like to sing and refuses to do so in church. It seems to me that he’s tuned out, but when he gets home he’s humming the songs we were singing and it gives us another chance to talk about them.) It’s OK not to expect them to sit perfectly still (IMO-they aren’t coming to worship to learn how to sit still, they practice that 8 hours a day at school. They are there to experience what it’s like to gather as a church family, to learn from God’s word, and to join in corporate worship) and some kids need something in their hands to focus (that would be Ethan.) Don’t be frustrated if you feel they aren’t paying attention. You may be surprised if you ask them questions about the sermon and music on the way home and they can answer every one (just because they are drawing or using their pens as rocket ships doesn’t mean they are tuned out.) My kids get so excited when they hear a Family Quest (our church’s Wednesday night family Bible study program) verse or a verse we read during devotions in the sermon. For that to happen, it means parents have to be pouring God’s word into them at home. Ask the pastor ahead of time what his sermon title and scripture are so you can be reading and talking about it with your kids during the week. I have done this a lot with my pastor and it actually encouraged him to try and at least put out the scripture on the Facebook page during the week so even the adults can come prepared.
    Above all, remember, God’s word will not return void. If they hear it, He’ll use it. Lord willing, they won’t hear that concept or theology just that one time, so if they don’t “get it” after one sermon (how many adults do???), it’s OK. You’re building foundation. You can continue to follow up at home. Because we homeschool, our kids get the Bible on their level in school, Family Quest, and Sunday School, so I think it’s good for them to hear it on another level once a week. Do they always enjoy it? No. Do they hate me for it, time will tell. But, testimonies take time and change rarely happens overnight (I have to remind myself of that often.) It’s worth trying, even if it’s just once a month for awhile! And the church staff needs to make it known that it’s OK to be explaining things to your children as it’s happening. For most, they can do this quietly and without disturbing others, but there seems to be such a “no talking in church” feeling that some don’t feel that freedom. But, at least for me and my kids, if I don’t address it and answer their questions right then, we’ll both forget and the teaching moment is gone.

  2. This is a bad article. It is very, very good for kids to go to church with their parents and not go to something else during the church service. They learn why the service is the way it is and learn to worship as a family and with the whole congregation. They learn more than that though. They learn how to conduct themselves during a church service and learn that there are times to be quiet. Please, please do not send kids to something else during the service, that does more harm than good.

    • Christine Yount Jones

      Thank you for your insights. In our research in the last 25 years, we’ve found that it’s a 50/50 split for people who feel passionate about both sides of this issue.

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