Sunday, September 23, 2012

Children In Church

     It seems that often our family is going against the grain.  One of our very first independent decisions we made as newlyweds was to begin attending church.  Then we became Christians, but not just the Sunday kind ... the kind that were living and breathing (not to mention talking about) Jesus day in and day out.  Suddenly (so it seemed to most, though it was actually an issue of much prayer and research), we had decided that God was calling us to be a large family...letting Him choose our number of children.  Finally it was such a natural decision for us to homeschool...but it seemed completely unnatural for many around us.  Each of these decisions have been made with opposition surrounding us, but we forged forward in prayer believing that it was what God was calling us to do.

     For the past year we have been praying about another controversial decision.  You see, our oldest son was about to enter sixth grade.  In our large church this is a pretty big transition time for the youth.  They move from the elementary wing to a completely different area on our church campus.  It's a whole new world of middle school youth groups and events.  And to be honest with you, I was concerned.

     It's not that I don't trust that my church youth group leaders are fully committed to the Lord and to serving our youth.  It's just that, I remember middle school.  I remember that kids were catty.  They were obsessed with boy-girl relationships.  They were mean.  Let's face it, I was one of those kids in middle school.  I realized that a large portion of my child's Sunday morning church experience was going to be "socializing" among this peer group.  And I'm not trying to sound judgemental...please hear my heart...but let's face it, we all know that a large portion of youth group is also geared towards fun and games.  They're kids.  They like to have fun.  I get it, really I do.  It's an outreach tool.  But what I couldn't seem to reconcile with myself, was if it was all worth it.  I knew that there was nothing that even loving, caring youth workers could do about eliminating the negative influences that would undoubtedly be presented to my kids by their peers.

     I'm sure that many of you are already beginning to develop arguments with me as you read.  I know them, because I've argued them with myself.  But what it boiled down to, was that my soul was just not at rest with the decision to send my child to the middle school youth group.  I was not questioning our church's youth group, or even youth group in general...I was merely questioning whether it was the right place for my child.

     These thoughts spilled over to other thoughts and finally emerged into many ... and I do mean many ... conversations with my husband and other trusted Christian friends.  Through much prayer, we have felt God prompting us to consider fully His call to us to disciple our children and what that means for our Sunday morning worship experience.  We are still in prayer over this, but I can tell you that we have made the decision that our children will enter the sanctuary and worship with us (not participating in Sunday morning youth activities) by the time they are in 6th grade.  We feel that by that age, our children should be fully engaged in worship and the study of God's word on Sunday morning and that is best modeled by us, not their peers.  But if I'm honest with myself there is a large part of me that is longing for my entire family to be together as a family, worshiping as a whole unit...

     ...that is precisely why I jumped at the chance to review Children In Church: Nurturing Hearts of Worship by Curt and Sandra Lovelace being published by Raising Real Men
      I was sent an advanced copy of Children In Church and right away I knew that this was the book I was looking for.  Here in my hands I held an encouraging book offering guidance and help for families considering family worship within the church.

     Not only does Curt and Sandra Lovelace speak their convictions using the truth of God's words, and by that I mean that they offer many scriptures that support the idea of including children in worship, they do so with respect to others' ideas.  Here is a quote from their book:

"Now let us quickly say that we are not condemning all church ministries that offer childcare.  What we are saying is that what is meant as a sacrificial provision by the church can often cause parents to allow their primary responsibility for spiritual nurturing of their children to take a back seat.  No program or service can supplant the heart-reaching power of consistent, loving training and instruction given by godly parents."

     The Lovelace's admit whole-heartedly that one should not just take their word for it!  Time and time again, readers are encouraged to seek God's will for themselves...

"Perhaps you aren't sure if God is calling you to come as a family into the corporate worship setting. That would be the very place to begin.  Thoughts and ideas, opinion and feelings are all lovely, but God's call needs to be heard and heeded.  James reminds us that, 'If anyone lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given him.'"

      They encourage parents to set aside time together to seek the Lord about this decision, giving helpful advice such as taking notes and discussing expectations of the church experience and possible scenarios of what could happen to be prepared for any situation.  They suggest to spend time praying and determining a decision before moving on to the fourth chapter of the book.

     The remainder of the book is spent by giving examples of their own experiences of bringing their two daughters into church each Sunday as well as others' experiences from their churches and missions in the U.S., Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean where they have served.  They give practical advice on how to handle disruptive behavior and an entire chapter is devoted to what to include in a "church bag".  A church bag includes items to help children to sit quietly during the service, but also to engage them in actively listening.  As a child grows, a fabric book is replaced with a notepad and pencil and the child is instructed to illustrate lessons from the sermon and eventually take notes.  Another chapter, walks the reader step by step through a typical church service with children in tow.  Finally, the book ends with a note to church leaders.

     I highly recommend reading Children In Church by Curt and Sandra Lovelace.  Admittedly, the message spoke to my heart, but the book was also very well written with the perfect blend of encouragement and inspiration, entertaining stories, and practical advice.  I want you to know that this conviction of mine to bring my children into church worship with me is no longer so much about being concerned about the negative influence that they may receive from peers.  It is much more about a call from the Omniscient God directed to my husband and me to bring up our children "in the training and instruction of the Lord"(Eph. 6:4).   Consider this quote from the book:

"We knew we could probably do an adequate job of teaching our children about the faith if we kept them at arm's length.  However, to pursue the divine mission of nurturing and training the next generation, we needed to be willing to live out before them, moment by moment, our prayerfully faithful though oft imperfect desire to love and serve the living God."


     Currently, we generally have three of our children in worship service with us.  Our 6th grader (per our decision), 2nd grader (she has asked to come to 'big church' with us), and one-year old (who is going through a separation anxiety phase and I see no point in him being heart-broken over us leaving him when I am content to tend to him myself, even though it means a bit of sacrifice on my part).  In case you are wondering, we did sit down with our oldest and have a long discussion with him about why we wanted him to attend worship services with us instead of participating in Sunday morning youth group.  He admitted some disappointment, but was very understanding and even agreed with our decision.

     A couple of weeks ago, we noticed our one-year-old's quiet reverence and imitation of us during prayer.  My husband snapped this picture of us praying in our church's sanctuary...
     It is a moment and a picture that I will cherish forever.

     You can purchase an advanced review copy of Children In Church: Nurturing Hearts of Worship right now for just $12 with free shipping.  You can read more reviews of this book and A Cry From Egypt by Hope Auer, also published by Raising Real Men, at the Schoolhouse Review blog.

Disclaimer: I have been given the wonderful opportunity to review many homeschool products over the last few years. The only compensation that I receive for my review is the free product. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to participate in review groups and I have enjoyed trying out these products and giving you my honest opinion.
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  1. My oldest and yours seem to be about the same age, and I have had just the same concerns that you have had. I applaud your thoughtful research, discussion, and prayer as you and your husband have made decisions on behalf of your children. I really struggled with letting my girl start participating in the activities with a lot of youth that are perhaps less reverent, less committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ than I would like her friends to be. My husband and I were led via prayer to the opposite decision, and our girl is busy, busy with our church youth program. It is turning out to be a blessing as she sets a good example for some of the other kids and brings home questions about life choices for us to discuss. I won't pretend that it is all sunshine and roses--sometimes she comes home with a bad attitude--but over all I believe we are blessed.

    I appreciated reading this post.

  2. We've always had this conviction about family worship and have never allowed Ben to go to age-segregated worship or Sunday school.

    Should you guys want to try a family integrated Bible study at SECC, Denny Dillman teaches one on Saturday night. That's the class we go to for 2nd hour, if we go to a class at all.

    It's almost all homeschool families.

  3. For most of our church life, there wasn't a separate children's program on Sunday morning except for Sunday school. Even when it was available, our family stayed together for the worship hour. This book sounds interesting--two others that helped me were Edith Schaeffer's "The Hidden Art of Homemaking" (especially the part about how to illustrate a sermon) and Robbie Castleman's "Parenting in the Pew". Thanks for the recommendation. Blessings!

  4. I too appreciate the thought you have put into considering the spiritual health of your children.

    As a youth ministry leader, I would like to offer some food for thought: As parents we often become overly protective of our children - and rightfully so at times. Your points on the environment within youth ministries is a painful reality. But three points I'd like to voice for consideration:

    1. Children's ministries allow for youth to connect with God on a youth level. The communication methods used in most children's churches are tailored so that kids can meet with God at their own development level. What seems like foolish games for us, actually has a method behind it for learning retention and psychological well-being. Putting a child into an adult setting can often become great family time, but highly ritualistic for the child and can lead to a sense of spirituality without full understanding because the "language" used to explain the theology shared is not the "language" children speak (as it is tailored to a more mature adult audience).

    2. There is power in multiple perspectives and techniques. You know what your children need on a certain level, but as parents, we are not perfect either. Sometimes we need to allow our children to be exposed to other Christian viewpoints. Not to woo them away from the Truth, but help balance them in light of our own spiritual misunderstanding, strongholds, and shortcomings.

    3. No church ministry is perfect. Segregation does not help progress within a learning environment, but stifles it. If you are finding the problems you mentioned going on in your local church - I would suggest you engage, not segregate your children. Be the voice of reason. Become involved. Lend your voice of wisdom from God to help other leaders focus the children. The more leadership for children, the better, and most children's church leaders would be thrilled to find someone who is not just a parent who wishes to engage the well-being of their own kids, but also the well-being of others children whose parents are not discerning the same issues you are.
    The Enemy divides! The Lord multiplies! Believe me, it will be more than worth it.

  5. To Unknown,

    First, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to read my article and to post your thoughts on the matter. I would also like to say that every point that you brought up are not new thoughts to us. We prayed for nearly a year about our decision to let our children participate in the middle school youth group on Sunday mornings. We fully considered every argument in order to decide what we felt was best for our family.

    Now, I'd like to respond to your comments. You hinted at first that we were being "overly protective" (Presumably by not allowing our children to participate in the middle school youth program). Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty sure that "overly protective" by definition means that one is protective of someone or something when there really is no danger or threat. However, in your very next sentence you admit, "Your points on the environment within youth ministries is a painful reality." That's just it. Having not grown up within the church myself and having not volunteered with the middle school youth program, I was very concerned that I was being overly protective. So I sought out counsel from many Christian friends, both of whom had grown up in youth group and those who have and currently volunteer there. I went looking for someone to tell me that my concerns weren't warranted. I couldn't find one. Every person, even those volunteering there and those with their children in the program confirmed that I had reason to be concerned. So I concluded that I wasn't, in fact being "overly protective"...I was simply being protective, which is my job as a parent to do.

    As to your point that "Children's ministries allow for youth to connect with God on a youth level"... I think that it is presumptuous to assume that a youth leader (who sees my child only 1-2 hours a week) or a program director (who doesn't even know my child) knows better than I, his mother and primary teacher, how my child learns. Each of my children thrive with different learning styles and personalities and I am very aware of each of them. My husband and I believe that we, the parents, are mandated by Scripture to disciple our children. We don't just drag our kids into church kicking and screaming and expect them to "be quiet and listen". We look for ways to engage them before, during, and after the service. The book I reviewed, Children in Church, is very helpful in offering practical ways for the parents to help their children become engaged during the sermon including preparing their hearts for worship, helping them to draw (when they are very young)and take notes during the sermon, and discussing it as a family afterwards. Also, discipling our children doesn't just happen on Sunday happens daily as we have family worship, devotionals, and prayer we discuss spiritual matters as we go about our day and study God's word within our school curricula...

  6. You also said, " the "language" used to explain the theology shared (in church services) is not the "language" children speak". Unfortunately, this is partially true...but also a serious problem. At what age do you think a person should be able to comprehend a sermon spoken from a typical bible-preaching pulpit? If not by middle school, then by high school?? Surely by the time they are an adult and in college? By the time they are married? Then why is it that "youth" of our church continue to segregate themselves from the majority of the congregation well into adulthood...with high school groups, college age ministries, even "young married" ministries. These ministries aren't just stopping with an after church social or in-home bible study...they are tailor making entire worship services "speaking in their worship style and language". I agree with you that "Segregation does not help progress within a learning environment, but stifles it"! I agree with you that "The Enemy divides! The Lord multiplies!" which is precisely why I do not believe in the age segregation that takes place within the church. My 11 year old has accepted Jesus as His Lord and Savior. The same Holy Spirit that resides within me resides in him. I think he is perfectly able to comprehend preaching from the Word of God. And when he comes to something he is having trouble understanding, thankfully his father and I are right there next to him to explain it.

    You also said, "There is power in multiple perspectives and techniques. You know what your children need on a certain level, but as parents, we are not perfect either. Sometimes we need to allow our children to be exposed to other Christian viewpoints..." Oh, I will definitely agree with you that I am not perfect (in parenting and otherwise!) and I'm afraid, my children are the ones who know that the best! Once again, just because my children aren't participating in church youth group on Sundays doesn't mean that they are not being "exposed to other Christian (or non-Christian) viewpoints". We openly discuss what other people think and believe with our children and ask them what they think. When we made the decision not to participate in middle school youth, we sat down with our son and explained to him why. We gave examples of our concerns, we didn't try to shield him from it, but explained it fully. He understood and agreed with our decision. We participate in a variety of activities with other families (church related and non-church related) including Bible Bowl (a youth program complete with games and candy rewards), homeschool co-ops and field trips, and sports/extra-curricular activities. We are close friends with several families (all with different 'Christian viewpoints') whom we see on a nearly weekly basis. We consider them not only friends, but mentors for ourselves and our children.

    Finally, I appreciate the encouragement to volunteer within our church's youth program. And I will say, that we very nearly did. My husband and I prayed specifically about this. We both felt that the only way we would allow our kids to participate in the youth group would be if we were volunteering. We felt that would only be responsible since God gave us, the parents, the responsibility of teaching our children about Him (Deuteronomy 6:7). One day we will stand before him and I don't think "Well, I sent him to Sunday School...I don't really know what was going on there, but that's not my fault," is going to fly. However, instead of convicting us to serve and participate there, my husband and I both felt a strong conviction to 'step it up' in discipling our own children and for us, that included Sunday morning...

  7. We also felt a conviction and a burden to share this with others. Neither of us feel that youth ministry is "wrong". We know families that are doing a fine job of discipling their kids and still participate in all youth groups. But we know so many more who are not discipling their kids and I think this is largely due to the fact that church body is rather silent on the matter. Instead of telling parents to step it up and live out and teach their children about their faith, instead of encouraging dads to man up and lead their families spiritually in the manner of family devotions and worship within the home, the church body is often saying, "Don't worry about it...we got it handled. Just send them to youth group on Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights." But that is not enough and it is not Scriptural.

    I want to be clear. Even though we choose not to participate in the middle school and up youth program, that does not mean that we don't find value in it. I know that many parents simply won't teach their children about God. And if they won't, someone definitely should. But I do often wish that youth leaders would recognize that the parents should be the first to disciple their children (both because Scripture mandates it and because it makes since-parents are with them more and know them and love them intimately). I wish that youth leaders would invest as much time into equipping parents to do what Scripture tells them and working with parents as they do in trying to reach kids "in their own language". Parents are the ones who truly know the language of their child's heart. We are the ones who are best fit to reach them when we are fully leaning on God and walking in His way, that's why God gave them to us!

    As a youth leader I beg you, stop telling parents, "Back off, I got this!" Please instead encourage parents to step up and do what God designed them to do. If we can get parents to step up, I believe my concerns about church youth group will no longer be valid. It doesn't matter how many loving youth group leaders a church has, there will still be severe issues of sin that is prevalent among our teenagers and preteens today. But if the church can get the fathers to "turn their hearts back to their children" then we will see a real change and growth in our children.




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