Both Seen and Heard: Why children belong in worship

I recently worshiped in a small church in southern France. Though I didn't understand a word of the service (I don't speak French), I knew I was with the family of God. I wrote in my journal: "Children are running across the pulpit area eager to join their families...Potential worshipers, young and old, greet each other with the traditional kiss on the cheek. A group of young people in the balcony search for a melody on their strings, winds, and horn. Suddenly, from somewhere in the front row, a gentleman stands and says words I take to mean "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we are gathered here in worship—Amen." The service begins.

In this small French church, as in many other parts of the world, the family of God had gathered. People of all ages were present, mingling with each other and eager to be part of the service.

A Family Affair

And so it should be. Worship is an event for the entire family of God—including children. Both the Old and New Testaments suggest that children are to be active participants in the worship event. No nurseries. No children's church.

I am not implying that churches should eliminate special worship ministries for children. Such ministries have great value, combining the act of worship with the nurture of emerging faith in children.-But even churches who adopt such programs usually recognize the value of involving children in the sanctuary worship along with adults.

My wife was raised in a small rural congregation. They never had a nursery—they still don't. Nursing infants, rambunctious toddlers, and other curious children occupy seats in the sanctuary. And it's not just a matter of money or resources. Even if they had the financial resources and personnel for a special worship program for children, this congregation wants children in the sanctuary. They are family. They belong at God's table with the rest of his children.

Including Children in Worship

In her recent publication Sharing Faith with Children, (see review p. 45) Sara Covin Juengst suggests how children can be an integral part of the worship service. The subtitle of the book ("Rethinking the Children's Sermon") might lead you to think that she addresses only the issue of a children's message. But the book actually deals with a multitude of ways in which children can be incorporated in the worship service.

Juengst also digs into the personal, social, 1 moral, and faith needs of children. She reminds us ' that children are visual (rather than verbal), tend to be egocentric (rather than communal), and affective (rather than conceptual). Actually, anyone who has watched adults during a children's message quickly recognizes that adults have these same characteristics! Emphasizing visual, sensory, and emotive aspects of worship meets the needs of all worshipers, regardless of age.

Let's think for a moment about the nature of worship, and how children can be involved in this inter-generational activity.

Worship is a gathering of all God's people.

The Christian church is rightly concerned about inclusiveness—for women, for minorities, for persons with disabilities. We recognize the challenge of inclusive worship for people who are not represented in worship to the degree they should be.

Does that not hold for children as well? By inclusion, I do not merely mean being present in the sanctuary, tucked neatly and quietly under mother's controlling arm. Children of all ages should be visible. They should be seen and heard. Their presence should be felt.

That can happen in a variety of ways. Children can join a small group of singers who lead the congregational singing. They can play their instruments alongside the more experienced players. Children should not be "showcased" any more than adults should be the focus of worship. But they can and should be active participants in worship.

Worship is a conversation between God and God's people.

God speaks; people respond. But does God speak only to the adults? Are adults the only ones invited to respond?

In addition to using the widely accepted "children's message" (see "Will All the Children Please Come Forward?" pp. 24-25), pastors can incorporate conversation with children in various parts of the service. One pastor occasionally invites a few fourth-and fifth-graders to join him in the pulpit at various points in the service. He briefly explains, for example, what the salutation is and then invites the children to stand with him as he pronounces it to the congregation.

Worship is an act of confession and reconciliation.

We are a broken people. Our relationship with God and others needs repair. Because children also must learn the need for—and the art of—reconciliation, they should participate in corporate acts of confession and reconciliation.

One way a congregation might emphasize this aspect of worship is by asking worshipers, children and adults, to write on a piece of paper specific acts or events for which they seek forgiveness. The congregation then files past the communion table, depositing these pieces of paper. In this way children and adults together participate in an act symbolizing God's forgiveness and grace.

Worship is celebration.

The church celebrates God's grace and greatness in many ways. Frequently these celebrations focus on the sacraments. One of my former college professors believed that the Protestant church has never developed the ability to engage in "festival." He wanted to see a parade.

What might such a parade look like? Perhaps following the baptism of an infant, the congregation could parade around the neighborhood. Led by heralding trumpets strung with banners, the pastor and family could march out of the church with the children and the rest of the congregation in parade, announcing to the community that another child has received the covenant promise.

That might sound a little extreme, but we must celebrate. We must learn to party in the presence of God, the way the father partied when his prodigal son returned in repentance and hope.

Worship is giving and receiving.

The offering is the place in worship where giving is most clearly represented. Receiving is represented by the final blessing. Why not provide a special way for the children to bring their offerings to the Lord? As the offering plates are passed to the adults, invite the children to gather at a certain spot (perhaps the baptismal font) to lay their gifts before the Lord.

Later in the service, as the blessing is pronounced, the pastor could draw the children around him while he blesses the congregation, just as our Lord drew the children into the circle of the disciples.

Guidelines for Worshiping with Children

The list of ways in which children can be incorporated into worship could go on and on. For example, children can be involved in the celebration of the Lord's Supper or the administration of baptism. Keep in mind the following guidelines:

• Children respond to visual cues more quickly than verbal ones. Use bright vivid colors and other visuals to represent various aspects of worship.

• Children naturally have a sense of wonder and awe. They can respond to God's majesty and mystery almost better than adults.

• Children tend to be egocentric in the sense that they think the world revolves around them. They must see and sense that they are an integral part of the worship event.

• Children are active. Worship should involve the entire bodyókneeling, lifting hands, using sign language or motions to songs and moving around in response to various aspects of the service.

• Children want models or mentors. Children learn through imitating adults. Even if much of the worship service is beyond their cognitive grasp, they will adopt the routine because the important adults in their lives are behaving in this manner. John Westerhoff III says, "If our children are to have faith, they must worship with us." ■


Barber, Lucie. The Religious Education of Preschool Children. Birmingham, AB: Religious Education Press, 1981.

Berryman, Jerome. Godly Play. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991.

Cavalletti, Sofia. The Religious Potential of the Child. New York: Paulist Press, 1983.

Westerhoff III, John. Bringing Up Children in the Christian Faith. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984.

White, James. Intergenerational Religious Education. Birmingham, AB: Religious Education Press, 1988.

Robert C. DeVries ( is professor emeritus of church education and direction at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 36 © June 1995, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.