Guest Post: Children – and Parents – in Worship

Today the Motley Evangelists Guild presents its first guest post! Or maybe we should call it a double-guest double-post!

Each shares some thoughts on an issue that impacts heavily on current struggles of church growth and hospitality: Children in worship. In the PC(USA) – and I suspect in most other denominations as well – we’re having lots of discussions about appealing to adults in their 20′s-40′s with young children and how to best minister/cater to those families, and we’re discovering that it’s a complex issue with no simple answers because theology and practicality don’t easily line up on this topic.

Our first guest, Marybeth McCandless, is a Presbyterian elder in Elizabethtown, Kentucky and current student at Louisville Seminary. Marybeth has a blog called 1000 Thoughts per Second where she shares thoughts on faith, life, and ministry.

Our second guest, Katie Mulligan, is pastor of New Covenant Presbyterian Church in Mt. Laurel, New Jersey and a student at Drew University. She blogs about her faith community at her site Adventures of Tiny Church.


Marybeth McCandlessFor Presbyterians of the PC(USA) variety, any conversation about children in worship very naturally leads to the Directory of Worship (you can read the ENTIRE Directory of Worship in context here).

For those responsible for planning and leading worship, the framework set out in the Directory of Worship is drawn from scripture and is certainly an ideal. It occurs to me that some of the anti-children-in-adult-worship folks are also some of the biggest proponents of following the Book of Order so this might be helpful information in reframing their perspectives on children in worship. Certainly we live in a day that is different from the ideal worship and ministry settings the Book (and Directory) would lead us toward – however, these ideals are rooted in principles drawn from scripture. If we took W-3.1004 “Children in Worship” seriously, it would radically shift the way we “do” worship. It might even transform the church.

I have many opinions and lots of ideas and strategies – and I’ll write about some of those soon – but I think the following (quoted directly from the Directory of Worship – see the link above) is enough to start a fine conversation. Please jump in (Presbyterian or not!)

W-3.1004 Children in Worship Children bring special gifts to worship and grow in the faith through their regular inclusion and participation in the worship of the congregation. Those responsible for planning and leading the participation of children in worship should consider the children’s level of understanding and ability to respond, and should avoid both excessive formality and condescension. The session should ensure that regular programs of the church do not prevent children’s full participation with the whole congregation in worship, in Word and Sacrament, on the Lord’s Day. (W-3.3201; W-3.5202; W-6.2001; W-6.2006)

W-3.3201 Setting an Order for Worship
In setting an order for worship on the Lord’s Day, the pastor with the concurrence of the session shall provide opportunity for the people from youngest to oldest to participate in a worthy offering of praise to God and for them to hear and to respond to God’s Word. (W-1.4004, 4007; W-3.1004)

W-3.5202 Elements and Order
There should be regular opportunities for worship in each church school class. Such worship may be less formal and more spontaneous than in larger groups. Yet it should include prayer and song that grow out of the consideration of the Word. It may include acts and tokens of self-offering and commitment, which may lead
(1) to requesting Baptism,
(2) to participating in the Lord’s Supper,
(3) to affirming the vows taken at Baptism.
Worship in the church school is not to be a substitute for participation in the worship of the whole congregation on the Lord’s Day. (W-3.1004; W-3.3201; W-6.2001)

W-6.2001 Entering the Community
The Christian community provides nurture for its members through all of life and life’s transitions. The church offers nurture to those entering the community of faith,
a. preparing for Baptism,
b. including them in the life of the community,
c. welcoming them to participate in its worship and to come to the Lord’s Table,
d. assisting them to claim their identity as believers in Jesus Christ,
e. equipping them to live as commissioned disciples in the world.
(W-2.3012; W-2.3013; W-4.2002; W-4.2003)

W-6.2006 Resources and Occasions for Nurture
The primary standard and resource for the nurture of the church is the Word of God in Scripture. The central occasion for nurture in the church is the Service for the Lord’s Day, when the Word is proclaimed and the Sacraments are celebrated. All members of the community, from oldest to youngest, are encouraged to be present and to participate. Educational activities should not be scheduled which prevent regular participation in this service. (W-3.1004) An important and continuing context for Christian nurture is the home, where faith is shared through worship, teaching, and example. The church provides other occasions for nurture
a. in the classes of the church school,
b. in other groups and fellowships organized for education and nurture,
c. in groups and associations gathered for service and mission,
d. in committees, boards, and governing bodies,
e. in retreats, camps, and conferences.
The confessional documents of the church provide guidance in nurture. (G-2.0000) Shape and content for study and instruction are provided by the rich resources of the liturgical, cultural, and ethnic heritages of the church. Educational materials developed for various approaches to Christian nurture are appropriate for use as approved by the session. (G-10.0102f)



Katie MulliganToday I got into my fifty-eleventh twitter argument over whether Sunday School should be held during worship or if we should insist that all children be in worship.

Theologically there are a lot of good reasons to keep children with us during worship, and I really have no good argument against them.

-Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 9:14

-Our children will not learn the liturgies and rhythms of the church unless we keep them with us in worship.

-There’s more, but I’m not the best person to describe them all. There are beautiful, lovely, magnificent reasons to keep children in church. A twitter friend has posted her beautiful thoughts on this here atMarginal Theology.

Last week, twenty seconds before I walked up to the pulpit to begin our service, I had to take away one of my children’s shoes because he was beating his brother with them. While sitting in a pew. In the church where his mother preaches. This is not at all an unusual circumstance; balancing motherhood with pastorhood is more complicated than motherhood with church attendance ever was. I am lucky to have a congregation that is somewhat amused and tolerant of our shenanigans, but I’ll go on record as saying that these shenanigans raise my blood pressure to stroke levels. And if you’re getting push back from angry parents who don’t want you to cancel Sunday School during worship, no amount of saying “I understand, but theologically it is correct to have the children in worship” is going to get them on your side.

If you really want children in worship, you’re going to have to earn the parent’s trust that you can do this and still honor the parent’s spiritual journey.

Years ago, when I had my second child, I discovered that the church did not provide maternity leave, nor did they pay into state disability insurance. After a month’s vacation, I returned to work to lead a youth retreat in the mountains, and I brought my baby with me. A dear friend came along to help, but Saturday night during worship the baby was hungry. And as dear as my friend is, she could not nurse the baby for me. And as competent as the rest of the volunteers are, nobody else was prepared to preach. So my friend brought me the baby and I preached while nursing. It was all I could think of to do, but I later was told that students and adults were uncomfortable at my public nursing.

Not long after, I attended a training for youth workers. Mark Yaconelli led a session on contemplative prayer and I showed up with my four month old baby. Sure enough, 5 minutes into our contemplative prayer session, the baby got hungry and started to fuss. An expert by now, I latched the baby onto breast, covered us with a blanket and finished the prayer session. In the quiet of that space the sound of my child lunching filled the room, complete with smacking lips, sucking noises and a cat-like growl he liked to do as he nursed. Mark Yaconelli was kind enough to make a comment afterward to the group of how my baby nursing reminded him of his own and the beauty of children and babies and how I’d done him a favor staying with the baby etc. I don’t know if anyone else in the group agreed with him, but I was grateful for his kindness.

Two years ago at a Christmas Eve service my sons came with me to church. My oldest was willing to read scripture for the first time and did a lovely job. The little guy was bored to distraction by the service and wandered up to the pulpit to lay at my feet while I finished the service.

These memories are precious and part of my regular worship on Sunday mornings. Even my children beating each other with shoes is biblical–in fact the first time I preached at Tiny Church it was on Genesis 25:22 in which Rebekkah realizes that the twins in her womb were destined to strive against each other. Just as I read the words “If it is to be this way, why am I to live?” my oldest got the youngest in a headlock. The youngest screamed and ran under my skirt. Oldest came to stand next to me and beamed out at the congregation, who were merrily laughing at the show. Since I was auditioning for a job, I was less than amused, and with some effort settled the children back into a pew so I could continue preaching.

Some people might tell me that all this is a sign that I should not be preaching–that my obligation is to the spiritual education of these children who clearly need my guidance. To those people I say, “Please feel free to pay my rent and then we can talk.” To Tiny Church, my ability to juggle these children and preaching seemed to make them think I would be a good pastor for them. I’m still there and we are doing well enough, so I suppose they are right. Again, I am grateful for their kindness.

But I long for the time when I could lose myself in worship. I long for the days when I could sing a hymn through without my children trying to slaughter each other over my lap. I miss the days when I could actually listen to someone’s sermon the whole way through with no interruptions. I love the days in church when I can actually preach a sermon the whole way through without having to stop and discipline my unruly, beautiful children. And those days only come when my children are not in church with me.

I want to go on record, on behalf of parents who dare not say it, that there is nothing worshipful about attending church service with my children. Attending church with my children makes me long for empty nest syndrome. Attending church with my children makes me think I am not Christian anymore. Just getting ready for church with my children, attending to the fifty-eleven arguments from them about why they should be able to stay home instead of go to church is exhausting.

People tell me this is what spouses are for. But I don’t have one of those, and even when I did, church wasn’t his thing. People tell me that all we need is training for the congregation members to know how to help me with the children in church. Or that we can adapt worship so that children are involved and enjoying worship. Or that they should just be capable of this. Or that–well, what I’m saying is everyone has a way of telling me that my desire to be in church without my children is theologically incorrect and will lead to their spiritual malnourishment. People tell me how much they love having children in the church. People tell me so many things–but what they don’t say is, “Children come sit with me and leave your poor, tired, wretched, exhausted mother to rest in the arms of Jesus a bit.”

Ultimately I am told that if I do not have my children in worship both their faith and the future of the church are at risk.

I concede that this may be true. I was not a product of a church upbringing. My family did not belong to a church, nor did we attend regularly. I came in the door through the youth group at age 13, quite by accident. I never would have come through the front door, nor would worship have been the place to start with me. I was like a cat hiding under a bed, and it took 10 years to fully involve me in the life of the church. 15 years after that I am still learning the rhythms of the church–it is true that my upbringing had little to do with my faith or my church membership. And still here I am.

I offer two scriptures, since my theology and faith appear to be suspect in this matter. Although several years of arguments over same gender love have led me to the belief that there’s a scripture to back everything. Which leads me to be grateful that there are different churches with different ways of doing things. Which leads me to a healthy suspicion of anyone who tries to say that this or that is the theologically correct way of doing things. But if you asked me, here are the scriptures (ripped from context) I would offer in defense of at least providing the option for children to go to Sunday School during worship.

Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

While there are many purposes to worship, at least one of them is to provide rest to weary souls. And this includes weary parents. If the sound of my children’s laughter brings rest to your weary soul, please forgive me if the sound of their little voices saying “Mom, why do I have to be in church? I hate this.” does not soothe my soul.

Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’

So now, lookit. I know Jesus was talking about dishes and cooking and wymen’s work of all kinds. I know he doesn’t say, “Martha, go teach Sunday School while sister Mary worships.” But I am saying nonetheless that raising children, raising them in the church, teaching them the rhythms and liturgies of our churches, that is a substantial part of our work as church members. It’s as proper to do all that as it is to clean the house and cook a good dinner for the Lord. But sometimes–at least some of the times–we are allowed to set that aside and bask in the Spirit, to soak up the teachings of the Son, to commune with the Creator whose child we also are. And Jesus promised that this would not be taken away from us.

When you say, “All children should be in worship. I understand how you feel, but this is theologically correct.” When you say that, you are saying to parents like me that a significant part of our spiritual life is over, kaput, dead, buried. And if you don’t understand why we grieve that, then it’s probably better that we go from your church.


Please give both of these wonderful guests some blog love and share your thoughts in the comments area of their sites.

Marybeth: 1000 Thoughts per Second

Katie: Adventures of Tiny Church