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Kids Don’t Get Anything Out of Church

And You Don’t Have to Either

I have had the privilege of worshiping and serving in several churches that are truly multigenerational. In each parish, the question of how to balance the desire for orderly and reverent worship with the presence of wiggly and vocal children has been top of mind. This is, of course, a good problem to have. At the same time, it is a problem without obvious answers. The balance between “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me” (Matt. 19:14) and “Let all things be done decently and in order” (1 Cor. 14:40) is one that must be perused with charity, grace, and faithfulness on all sides, and that will look different in each family and each congregation.

There is, however, one argument I’ve heard again and again, which we should dismiss out of hand. It runs like this: small children and babies should go to nursery, instead of to the main service, because “they are too young to get anything out of it.”

The assumption implicit in this statement is that, because babies and very small children do not have the cognitive and linguistic capacity to comprehend Scripture, follow a sermon, interpret hymn texts, or make symbolic connections to the Holy Eucharist, the service is wasted on them. Whether they are in church or in nursery (or at home), the benefit to the child is about the same. Given that, why put everyone (including the poor parents) through the predictable struggle of having a wiggly and noisy child in church?

While this argument is almost always offered in good faith with the interest of parents, children, and other worshipers at its heart, it also suggests a deeper spiritual misunderstanding.

First, is it true that children, even tiny babies, are not receiving something by being in worship, just because they can’t understand what is going on around them? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends reading to children from birth, even though the capacity for language does not develop for many months and isn’t fully developed for years. A two-month-old baby is “getting something” out of hearing her mom read Moo, Baa, La La La while snuggled in the rocking chair before bed, even though she can’t follow the story or recognize the shapes in the pictures.

Reading, speaking, and singing to children from birth promotes language development, nurtures a secure attachment with parents and caregivers, and inculcates an early love of language and literature. Isn’t it at least possible, then, that babies who are exposed to a weekly rhythm of worship are learning to develop a similar spiritual language and spiritual connection? Children and babies in worship are bathed in Holy Scripture and the ancient prayers of the church. Given the rapidity of child development, isn’t it likely that those words, sounds, sights, and smells are sinking into their tiny minds and hearts, shaping their imaginations and spirits?

But even if I am incorrect and children are incapable of engaging worship in a fruitful way until they are much closer to the age of reason, there is still a question that needs to be answered: is worship something that any of us are supposed to get something out of?

I remember being 5 years old and dragging my patent leather-clad feet to church whining to my father: “But church is boring.” I’ve never forgotten his reply: “I know: sometimes I think it’s boring too.” I was dumbfounded. The idea that an adult with the ability to operate a motor vehicle could think church was boring and decide to go anyway was astounding to me. I had naïvely assumed that grownups never did anything they thought was boring, and that if my parents were adamant about weekly church attendance (and they were) it must be because they wanted to go, that there was nothing they would rather be doing. I assumed, in other words, that my parents went to church because they got something out of it.

This is an assumption that all of us, no matter how old we are, are still tempted to hold. It is all over the way we talk about worship. We look for a church where we can be fed. A good sermon is one that is encouraging or uplifting. We want to feel God’s presence and be transformed. The absolute worst thing a worship service can be is boring.

But should this really be the goal? Do we come to church primarily to receive something that can be measured by how we feel afterward? And, if that is the case, what are we supposed to do on the days when we don’t “get anything out of it”? Some days I come to church distracted and disinterested, weighed down by worries and things I need to get done at home. Try as I might, I cannot seem to get into a mental or emotional state in which I can connect with the service. Some days I think church is boring and would rather go to the nursery. Some days, even as a priest, I don’t get anything out of church.

Of course, the moments when a particular chord or verse of a hymn strikes my heart and I feel my soul enlivened are gifts from God. The days when a sermon leaves me convicted of my dependency on God and need for repentance, or in awe of the wonderous gift of God’s love for his creation, carry me in a spiritual high for the rest of the week. Clergy have a responsibility to make worship both beautiful and edifying, and to preach the Word of God carefully and reverently. But even if we do, there will still be those whose minds wander and who are not formed by our careful exegesis. There will still be people in the pews who don’t know anything more than when they arrived, and don’t feel any different when they leave.

Thanks be to God; the measure of worship is not emotional or intellectual status of the worshiper. Worship should not be considered a product for which we are paying with our time and presence, but as a sacrifice which we humbly, meekly, and reverently offer unto God. We are not meant to get something out of the service, but to give ourselves to God, and to let him do the rest. The only “goal” for worship is to bring ourselves — our souls and bodies — regardless of how we feel or how our minds might wander — and to genuinely and sincerely offer them up to God. In doing so we remember in our bodies, even if we do not remember in our heads and hearts, that none of us truly belong to ourselves.

The trouble with looking to “get something out of” worship is that it is fundamentally mis-ordered; it places us, and not God, at the center of our worship. It indicates that we are thinking about worship as a show directed at the audience, and not a sacrifice offered to the glory of the one who calls us to worship in the first place.

Worship works in an economy that is not subject to first-person experience, but to the mysteries of unmerited grace. It shapes our hearts from both the inside out and the outside in. What we receive in worship is not a feeling or experience, but a person: the person of the risen Christ, under all the mysterious forms and in all the mysterious ways that he is manifest to his people. Each soul in the pews, regardless of age, is a child incapable of fully grasping what is going on around us. Each of us is being told a story that we cannot understand, and that nevertheless shapes us: week after week, Sunday after Sunday, year after year.

In a world that is defined by individualism and self-expression, ruled by the tyranny of our thoughts and feelings, bringing children to church, even when they are too young to get anything out of it, is of immeasurable value. It gives them a message they we all need to hold in our hearts and that cannot come anywhere but from the church. The message is this: “Your life is not your own. You belong to a heavenly Father and are the inheritors of a heavenly treasure. The measure of your faith, your life, and your trust in God is not dependent on how you feel or how much you understand, but on his never-ending faithfulness to you. How much or how little you have to offer, it is enough for God to give you back more than you could ask or imagine.”

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