On Sunday, our morning service began, and the church’s children were not with the adult congregation. That is usual. We hadn’t lost them somewhere in transit. Honest. Instead, they were in Sunday School and Bible Class with their teachers and leaders, taking part in age-appropriate lessons, complete with worship songs, games and crafts (for the youngest ones), all intended to reinforce the main teaching points for the day. After an hour, as the adult offering was being received, the children were reunited with the congregation for the final 25 minutes of corporate worship – the sermon having been delivered – but a vital 25 minutes or so in which the Apostles’ Creed and Lord’s Prayer normally are included. The children, minus those who attend the crèche, worshipped with the adult element of the congregation for about one third of the morning service.
Is that a good thing? Is that helpful to their Christian development and training? Is this the best way to disciple children and young people? It’s what we do. It’s what most churches do. John Piper doesn’t think we should.
In an article entitled ‘The Family: Together in God’s Presence‘, John Piper argues against the separation of children and their parents or guardians in the worship of the Church. He believes that this misses a key opportunity to teach children about the holiness of God and to expose them to the historic riches of the Church’s worship and spirituality. Nor does he believe that there should be a place in the collective worship of the Church for a specific ‘talk’ or ‘sermon’ directed at children. This only serves to introduce a mood of irreverence and chattiness into the joyful solemnity (my phrase, not his) that should characterise collective worship. There are 168 hours available in every week. Surely, for a short space of time on Sundays, the Church can turn away from the trivial and mundane:
we don’t have a children’s sermon as part of our Sunday morning service. It would be fun for the children, but in the long run would weaken the spiritual intensity of our worship. To everything there is a season. And we believe that, for at least one hour a week, we should sustain a maximum intensity of moving reverence
John Piper argues that the worship of the Church, when young and old gather together without age-differentiated learning, is akin to a healing balm for the rushed and harassed nature of modern life, in which the generations are hard-pressed to meet each other and to share in corporate activity. We are all so busy that we have no time to sit alongside one another; to be together. The corporate worship of the Church offers us a chance to sit beside each other, young and old. This is invaluable. Can we do without it? John Piper argues:
Worshiping together counters the contemporary fragmentation of families. Hectic American life leaves little time for significant togetherness. It is hard to overestimate the good influence of families doing valuable things together week in and week out, year in and year out.
It’s hard to resist the force of his pastoral argument, and I don’t intend to try. I find it convincing, albeit with some caveats. But this was the oft-repeated point made by William Still, for 52 years minister of Gilcomston South Church, in Aberdeen. He believed that the impact upon a young child of seeing his or her mother and father with head bowed on a Sunday morning in the presence of a holy and righteous God would make so deep an impression on the young personality that it would likely last for eternity. There is moving power in that argument, and as a young child I have never forgotten the sight of my rugby-playing father making his emotional way from the back of the Salvation Army hall to the mercy-seat at the front in order to repent of his sins and to make peace with God, having been convicted of sin by the Holy Spirit. These moments of human obeisance before an almighty yet merciful God indelibly impress themselves on children:
Children should see how Mom and Dad bow their heads in earnest prayer during the prelude and other non-directed times. They should see how Mom and Dad sing praise to God with joy in their faces, and how they listen hungrily to His Word. They should catch the spirit of their parents meeting the living God.
I remember, too, in that far off Salvation Army childhood, that Sunday School did take place, but that it took place before the start of the morning meeting, early on Sunday morning, and when it was done, the children then took their places with their parents in a form of corporate worship in which little concession was made for the presence of children. And what did we do? We read, or coloured in, whilst subliminally learning the hymnody of our church. We imbibed the holy scriptures. We heard snatches of sermons. And we learned the discipline of Christian worship. In time we believed, and we received Christ as understanding grew. Would this have happened otherwise? Not sure. This is what John Piper says:
Music and words become familiar. The message of the music starts to sink in. The form of the service comes to feel natural. The choir makes a special impression with a kind of music the children may hear at no other time. Even if most of the sermon goes over their heads, experience shows that children hear and remember remarkable things.
It may be a considerable unorthodoxy to suggest that the Sunday School, as good as it is, may also be the enemy of the best. It teaches, but doesn’t incorporate. A generalisation, I know, but is there some truth there? When children ‘leave’ the church on Sundays, after the children’s sermon/talk, and depart the sanctuary for Sunday School, will they come back, as teenagers, having spent most of their childhood without any serious exposure to the worship and ethos of the adult congregation? John Piper again:
We do not believe that children who have been in children’s church for several years between the ages of 6 and 12 will be more inclined or better trained to enjoy worship than if they had spent those years at the side of their parents. In fact, the opposite is probably the case.
I can’t escape the nagging feeling that we are not helping our children as much as we might by offering them a Sunday School. In effect, we may be unchurching many of them at the very moment in life at which we want them to learn from the piety of their parents and from the richness of the Church’s liturgy and worship. And there is always that small and sacrificial cohort of Sunday School and Bible Class teachers and leaders who faithfully, every Sunday, are denied a regular ministry of the word – particularly if there is no evening service – because they have left the church along with the children.
I think that John Piper over-eggs this particular pudding, but only a little. A good, well-delivered children’s sermon or talk serves an important purpose and need not damage the ‘intensity of moving reverence’ within collective worship. God is not averse to laughter or to the enjoyment of collective fun in the presence of his Spirit. But John Piper’s main point surely deserves reflection:
Worship is the most valuable thing a human can do. The cumulative effect of 650 worship services spent with Mom and Dad between the ages of 4 and 17 is incalculable.
Is the Sunday School doing all that we want it to do? Are most of us missing something crucial?
Don’t stone me, but I wonder.
Soli Deo Gloria