Here I Stand.2

Should Education Time Be the Same Time As the Worship Service?
Or Should Kids Remain in the Service?
(and the related question, Why Are Our Youth Leaving the Church?)

A lot of congregations struggle with, and debate these related questions. Many congregations in the last generation have structured their Sunday mornings so that the education, or “Sunday School” time, took place during the worship service. If there were two morning services, the educational time would generally coincide with the main worship time. In most of these cases, the kids would come into the sanctuary and begin the service with their families. Then, relatively early in the service, they would come forward to hear a “Children’s Message,” after which they would depart the sanctuary and go off to their educational time.

The reasons for adopting this schedule were usually twofold: first, it allowed the parents at least a brief amount of time where they didn’t have to be watching over their children, making sure they weren’t fidgeting or making noise during the service, and where they could listen to the sermon and participate in the service undistracted, and without others seated around them being distracted by kids being, well, kids. The second reason was that with everyone’s busy schedules throughout the week, let alone weekends, having both of these functions overlap served to condense the time the family had to devote to being at the church – it was killing two birds with one stone, as it were. And in the midst of discussions about declining church attendance, especially among young families, this compressed schedule was put forward as a way to be more accommodating to those families, resulting in increased attendance.

Personally, I think there are several problems with this model. Maybe the most obvious problem is that the educational component of congregational life is not reserved only to children – at least it shouldn’t be. Adults should be an important part of Christian Education, too, and this is obviously a problem if the “education hour” on Sundays is the same hour that the adults are in worship.

The second problem is that in shuffling the kids out of the worship service, we’re instilling the attitude in them that “real church” isn’t for children and youth; that they aren’t an important, participatory part of Sunday worship. We’re also eliminating the very important aspect of the children learning the movements and flow of the liturgy just by osmosis – by simply being present and picking up these things passively. This is a very important thing in instilling the faith in our children, as I’ll discuss later.

I understand and respect that some people prefer this compressed model of Sunday morning scheduling. But personally, I think it causes more problems than it does solutions. Even though it’s supposed to increase attendance by young families, the statistics certainly don’t show a huge influx of new attendance by families where the model has been adopted. I recognize the reality that children can be distracting in a worship service; even the best of children are going to have their moments. I’ve struggled with getting my own children to at least behave, if not be attentive, during church services. I’ve been annoyed by other people’s children acting up during a service. As a pastor, I’ve been disappointed when just as I reach The Most Important Phrase in the Sermon on Which Everything Hangs, a child loudly drops his toy truck on the floor and ruins the golden moment. All of those are very real issues. But to congregations – and pastors – who are faced with those realities, I offer this humble suggestion: suck it up. Deal with it; learn to put up with it. The life and worship of the church is for all of us, regardless of age. The incredible significance of our children being around and within worship, and as soon as possible participating in it and even helping to lead it, is too great in the faith development of the child to preclude it by removing them from the sanctuary so they won’t distract us, or ruin the pastor’s golden moment. And as far as the time component – that families won’t be able to complete their Sunday church experience in one hour, I’ll suggest that this is another “suck it up” moment. How long is our children’s weekly football or soccer game? How long is the dance recital, or even the time spent in schlepping our kids to their various practices? If we think that our weekly commitment to worshiping God and our spiritual and faith development doesn’t deserve as much time per week as just *one* of those activities, it’s time we did some serious self-evaluation. I’m not big on laying down guilt, but really, come on.

One of the perennial laments in the church today is that our youth are abandoning the church. To be honest, I’d suggest that this isn’t quite accurate, since in order to abandon something, you have to actually have been part of it to begin with – and we adults seem to have done our level best to keep them from being part of the life of the church in any integrated, multi-generational manner. Yes, we’ve set up youth groups, and we’ve brought on hip youth directors who are supposed to connect with the kids, and we’ve supported all sorts of fun recreational outings for the youth. While these things are good as part of an integrated approach, they can’t be the only aspect of youth being part of a congregation.

A while ago, I attended a presentation by Rodger Nishioka, a Professor of Christian Education at Columbia Theological Seminary. Beyond being merely a great and engaging speaker, he also raised many crucial aspects of good youth ministry, and instilling a sense of belonging as part of the community of faith in youth. Two of the concepts that he emphasizes is “groupness” and the church’s having adopted a model of youth ministry called “the one-eared Mickey Mouse.” Here’s a great video of him giving a presentation on these two concepts:

This video is about an hour and a half long, but it is absolutely worth watching. Really, I promise.

Both of these are important concepts that relate to the issue of children being in, and incorporated within, our worship time – especially the one-eared Mickey Mouse concept. That term is meant to define a bubble diagram that depicts the way many churches develop youth ministry:


In this model, the youth ministry is something with very little, if any, real connection between what the youth of the church are doing, and what the rest of the congregation’s experience of congregational life is. So when the youth eventually “age out” of the youth program, they’re essentially ecclesiastical orphans: they’re no longer part of the youth ministry, and they have no commonality or shared history or experience (this is actually one form of “groupness”) with the established “adult” church life. Is it any surprise, then, that the church is losing its youth? If we’d tried to come up with a plan specifically designed to shed members once they became young adults, we’d have been hard-pressed to have come up with a better plan. We need to eliminate the one-eared Mickey Mouses (Mickey Mice?) in our congregations. And making this change begins by having a Sunday morning church schedule that allows both a designated, age-specific educational time, for *all* ages; as well as a worship service that includes all (at least, almost all) ages – and allowing them all to share in leading worship, even the youngest among us. Have a nursery for kids up to 5 or 6, but certainly age 7, they should be with their families in worship. Yes, from time to time the kids will act up and be ornery. But maybe – just maybe – those ornery kids are being used by God to teach us something about God’s Kingdom, just as much as they’re learning from us.