Kids don’t belong everywhere. They’re not an orchestra’s target audience and the tense whispers of snooker commentators suggest that toddlers wouldn’t be welcome at tournament finals. But what about church services?
It depends on the church, obviously. Put logistics (space, demographics, timeslot) and theology (how important to God is communion or the sermon or music or Sunday School?) on two axes of a graph and you get a matrix of approaches, including churches that provide age-targeted programmes for children and those that include kids in the whole thing Sunday service.
Since my time as pastor of West Baptist, I’ve become a huge fan of all-age church, where everyone is all in together, and all engaged (this is not the kind where the kids are in the room but expected to be quiet and do colouring-in). I inherited this system and was a sceptic at first, but now I reckon it’s fantastic. Here are my top ten reasons churches should consider going all-age:
- The mum from our local school who said to me on her first, brave visit, with tears in her eyes, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to have my babies with me in church.’
- The ten-year-old who asked me for a pastoral appointment (this is cool just by itself!). She wanted to talk about how to apply my sermon on conflict resolution in Matthew 18 to a tricky friendship she had at school. Kids can handle sermons.
- The best thing about it, for me as a pastor, was how everyone in the church was committed to the idea that Sunday morning services weren’t just ‘for’ them; that there had to be some give and take, and making space for people ‘not like me.’ Adults put up with silly action songs. Kids put up with boring talky bits. Classical music lovers put up with drums. Extraverts put up with silence. All recognising that someone else is really enjoying that bit – and I reckon that this kind of unselfish attitude then becomes worship in itself.
- Of course, we aim not to provoke too much ‘putting up with’, and everyone involved at West works hard to craft creative, interactive, multisensory hour-long services that help everyone connect with God at some point, from the toddlers to the nonagenarians. On a good day, it’s the best time you’ll have all week, full of stuff to make you laugh, help you think and fuel you for the week.
- Everyone gets to contribute, not just consume. At West, every kid and teenager has a job on Sundays, something tangible to say ‘we need you here.’ When she was five, Claudia told me that her favourite part of Sunday church was being on the Offering Team (the perennially chaotic horde of pre-schoolers who take bags around the chairs to collect people’s donations). Jacob started curating (crafting and leading) services when he was twelve, and the average age of the technology team is pretty low.
- Did you see the Auckland family who advertised for grandparents? I said at the time on the Kiwi Families facebook page that maybe they should consider joining a church! The more time everyone spends together, worshipping, learning, chuckling, in the presence of the same Spirit, rather than split up in their own demographic corners, the stronger the relationships are across the generations. I’ve seen plenty of kids gain extra grandparents – people who know when they have a piano exam or a birthday, and ask about the science fair or school camp when they see them on Sunday.
- I’m a better preacher and communicator for having kids in church. There’s nothing like explaining the incarnation and ascension of Jesus to pre-schoolers for making sure that all the adults get it too! For more detail on all-age church from a pastor’s perspective, see my post on the Kiwi-Made Preaching website.
- The church doesn’t need to set aside a bunch of people to lead kids’ programmes, and these people don’t need to miss out on the main service.
- When you’re all in together, there’s no big, wide door out of the church at age 12, 14, or whenever the kids’ programmes run out and young people are expected to (but often don’t) join the adult congregation.
- The all-age approach communicates a special kind of welcome. The church newsletter/welcome sheet at West says ‘We especially love having kids involved in the whole service on Sundays, in all their wriggling, noisy glory, so please don’t worry if you or anyone with you makes a bit of a racket – we’re glad to have you with us!’ When parents know that kids are meant to be there, that church is a kid-space as well as an adult-space, everyone relaxes a bit.
I loved being the pastor of an all-age congregation. Now I’m on the other side of the… pew… I have a new appreciation of this kind of church life. I want my own baby, SBJ, to be welcome wherever we connect with God and other people following Jesus, and I want that welcome to be obvious to all of us on Sunday. I don’t want to feel like I have to take him out if he’s being a normal baby, and I don’t want to have to leave myself! I want him to grow up knowing that he’s part of a broad, deep community of people who love him and want him to know Jesus.
Now, of course I know that there are lots of great ways of nurturing everyone in churches, and we don’t all have to do it the same way. You might be part of a fabulous kids’ programme – great! What do you think would be different if you were all in together?
What are your experiences of kids-and-church? What do you appreciate most about the approaches you’ve seen in action? What do you want most for your kids?
And if anyone wants further info on how all-age church runs at West, feel free to leave a message below.