The least

I have been struck recently by the different ways that children are viewed in the life of the church. This past Sunday, I was late getting my crew to our weekly worship service and so we entered after the singing had already begun. I have more babies than arms now and I was unprepared for Aaron’s decision to rush the stage, and physically unable to stop him from doing so. And so there he stood, at the front of the congregation, arms wrapped tightly around his Daddy’s legs. A friend who was serving as an usher hurried up front for me and peeled him away from his dad, and carried him back to where I stood holding Elijah. The moment his feet touched the floor he was off again, and this time another friend who was running sound grabbed him for me.

Doug could not have cared less, and in fact motioned to me that it was okay for him to be there. Doug has always felt strongly that children should be heard and seen during the church’s weekly offering, but as I noticed heads turning and looking back at me, I sensed that not everyone shared his enthusiasm for that particular demonstration. So I passed Elijah off to Lauren and carried my boy out of the auditorium and back to the nursery where his cousin and Auntie warmly welcomed him.

As our congregation grows and as more babies are added to our number (the Haub’s have been especially faithful in this particular method of church growth), the challenge to care for them and their needs has grown as well: How do we incorporate them fully into our church’s life? How do we call forth not only parents who disciple but also a community who shares this sober calling? How do we value them, not for the sake of what they can contribute but simply as a result of who they are?

I think I have decided that the set-up crew and the nursery workers share a similar place in church life: highly necessary and typically undervalued. There is prestige, for example, in leading a small group or preaching or leading worship. I can say that in our context, the only members of our preaching or worship-leading teams that set foot in the nursery to volunteer are those who are parents of a kid who is there. And there is language around serving children on Sundays that speaks of that act of service as “missing out” on the worship, or even as being something that certain people should be freed from doing.

In church-planting, there can also be an emphasis on connecting with families, and the children that may be reached through a bible club or youth program can often be seen as the means to that end. I can think of a few examples where effectively ministering to a group of children was not deemed “successful” unless their parents started attending church. In other words, kids are not a worthy enough pursuit in and of themselves.

Obviously as a mother of three small ones, my perspective bends much more toward the gift these kids are to the body, and the ways we are called to be faithful to them and how we may be missing out on how God would use them to bless us corporately. But I am guilty as well of being “the preacher who needs to be freed from nursery duty”, married to “the worship leader who needs to be freed from nursery duty.” Even our use of that word, “duty”, reveals much. We don’t say: “I’m on preaching duty today.” Or “I’m on small-group leading duty this week.” It’s the word used to describe washing the dishes or cleaning the bathroom or walking the dog.

I remember in my exegetical class on the book of Matthew at Fuller hearing Dr. Beaton describe the scandal of Jesus’ repeated emphasis on the centrality of the weakest and least valuable ones within his kingdom. And we all nod and smile when we hear those words in scripture. But do those words describe the value we place on children? Do we really embrace that kind of ethos where the least are great? Do our worship services honestly reflect that theology?

When we were in Portland over Christmas, I learned that one of the elders at our former church, a gifted preacher and teacher and lawyer by profession, had committed his leadership and gifts to leading the church’s Sunday School. One of the brightest minds of the congregation, and one of the most trusted leaders, had decided that the most important thing he could do for the sake of the body was to feed the littlest sheep. I caught myself even having the reaction: what? really? is that honestly the best place for his gifts? And as I considered his choice, I realized how powerfully he was modeling to me the kind of leadership that Jesus was calling forth in his disciples as he talked to them about a kingdom that is not of this world.


  1. As someone who is employed by a mission who reaches and disciples children, I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts! I wish that there were more who shared your perspective. Also, I came to Christ through a youth ministry (I’m from an unbelieving home). We cannot ignore following Christ’s example of valuing kids. They are part of the body, too.

  2. Another great post. Thanks for causing me to stop and think about the way we think and talk about ministry in the church. Steve.

  3. I have always been a proponent of kids being part of worship also. We faced many of the same problems when Doug, Jeremy and Sarah were little, but we searched for churches that valued children and made space for them during the worship service. That generally did not include them staying for the entire service, which probably exceeds their attention spans and ability to keep quiet during prayer and sermon times that take awhile, but it does include them participating in the life of the church and being as much a part of the congregation as anyone else, at least for a part of the worship service.

    Your post brought to mind the story of Martha and Mary – you know the one where Martha is doing all of the work preparing dinner, keeping up with the housework, etc, and she gets irritated with Mary for sitting at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. If you read that passage right, you get the sense that Jesus values both Mary’s hunger for knowledge and Martha’s dedication to taking care of business. The people that are dedicated to taking care of the little ones are the Martha’s of the church, and often undervalued and discounted as you say. They also miss out on the teachings and corporate prayers and singing of the worship service. And there is not much that can be done. Martha was doing work that needed doing, and so are the childcare folks. We just need to respect their service and offer our thanks to them. We certainly can hope that they don’t feel the same sort of resentment that Martha felt, and we need to find ways for them to be able to participate in corporate worship at least some of the time, which means someone else has to “miss out” on worship.

  4. I agree completely – but I think one of the hardest thing is getting the young single people on board (20s) with the call and importance/place of children in the church. Because I find that unless you are a real “kid-fan” you tend not to get it unless you have some of your own.
    It’s just like in the Fuller community I lived in – it was funny whenever we would have someone new move in you would hear the married couples say “oh, great, it’s another pair of singles” or the single people say “great, it’s a couple with a little baby” – we’re all have such a different idea of what the “body” or “community” looks like and somehow haven’t figured out how to combined that.

  5. I can relate. Though caring for only two small children, one of them escaped my grasp at our Ash Wednesday service last week. She too, ended up in the front of the Sanctuary with her dad greeting the church. “Hi, Dad!”, she said. Thankfully, I noticed mostly grins and understanding as I walked her to the back. I am thankful for those who have been willing to serve in our church nursery. We have also been blessed with a growing number of babies and cries and coos are welcomed in our worship. What a blessing! However, I must admit, I have been missing out on some of the worship experience because I sometimes become distracted trying to keep it all together.

  6. I long for the day when we can understand that worshiping and hearing the word of God is not a college lecture that must be attended to silently and in rows. It’s not for adults only. I long for the day when it can be a multi-generational affair where the children can be children, and the adults can enjoy them, and each other and God all at the same time and in the same space. We have such a small box in which we place the ideas of worship and Sunday mornings. I wonder what it might look like if we opened it up a little to let everyone in together …

  7. When we started having babies, we were at a church that we now know was unique — the leaders’ modeling of a real heart for selflessness led others to share their time and lives in ways that were definitely an irresistable aroma. Young mothers were RARELY asked to serve in the nursery. The volunteer sheet was full of elderly women and middle-aged women and teenagers who wanted to give us all a break and love on our children. You know there’s nothing like that. Children were welcome in all services, and once our hands got really full (5 babies in 4.5 years), people in the pews around us would catch our eye and put their hands out and ask to hold our baby twins, or offer coloring supplies to our toddlers, or just help, or just smile.

    When we moved, we realized that although our new church was full of loving well-intentioned believers, the pervasive attitude was one of serving the worship “experience”. Young mothers were the ONLY ones serving in the nursery, and they were usually lined up sitting against the walls in an exhausted stupor while the children played. Whoever had gotten the most sleep the night before tried to encourage the others, but conversations often descended into cynicism and complaining. The focus on the “service” was because, I believe, the congregation felt that they were trying to reach unbelievers who might be there any given morning. We understood, but my husband and I didn’t really see that in all the “one anothers” in the new testament.

    Maybe because our children came so quickly and closely, we learned very quickly that our “meeting together” had to be about encouraging and serving others, and not about focusing on “getting something out of the service.” We really don’t want our kids to be shuttled off and entertained, or like you said, a “duty” to be dealt with so the smart big people can follow the order in the bulletin with no snags. If we all want to be “real” and “authentic” in our worship, well, it doesn’t get any more authentic than children. : )

  8. Thanks, all, for the wonderful responses here. It’s a challenge, isn’t it? To really understand God’s heart for all of his children (young and old!) and imagine how our life together can reflect that well..

  9. Sarah,

    I totally relate to how you describe being distracted on Sundays. That is the word that sums it up for me too. There was a spell last year when I just dreaded Sunday mornings. It was my most stressful time of the week! And oh how I am learning that my spirituality is my whole life and not a set of rituals and routines that have become largely obsolete with three little ones 🙂 Not that there won’t be days of silence and fasting and retreat again…I know they will come only too soon. But for now, it is that other very earthy spirituality of diapers and play.

  10. We have sung at a nearby church several times, and I’m surprised each time at how they value our children. They only see our children maybe twice a year at their church, but they remember their names, and at least twenty people greet Max and Echo by name and at their level. Not only that, but beginning at age one, in the various nurseries, there is a worship time and a bible lesson. I spoke with the young woman who led the two year old class for three years before she moved to CA; her main hesitation in moving was to make sure her class had great leadership once she was gone. I learned so much from her earnestness and passion that two year olds could fully begin to grasp the message of Jesus, and that no age is too young to begin training disciples.

    Truthfully, I was ashamed of my own previous views of nursery and children’s church (a place for the kids to be entertained or worse, babysat, while the grown-ups go to church). Since coming into relationship with this other church, I have sought ways to emulate their passions and behaviors at home, and begin to look more closely at how our home church is eqipping the little ones…

    On a more personal note, we totally relate to Doug being comfortable with his child at his side as he leads worship. We love it when our children join us when we’re helping out, whether that’s making someone food or leading worship. We also relate to your observations that somehow they are not welcome when we’re up front–that there is, in fact, no place for young ones, which implies that there is a separation between those up front in worship and those in the congregation. This is upsetting to me on so many levels….

    That said, one of the greatest ways our pastor has ministered to us since we had children was holding Max while we did sound checks, letting Echo touch his glasses and be entertained by his voice while we tuned up the worship band, and last week, by getting down on his level and answering Max’s latest theological question, “Why can’t we visit God’s apartment?” There is great ministry to our children in personal ways…

  11. Hi,

    I just wanted to offer that I read a great book on the subject – a book that takes seriously the inclusion and participation of children in all aspect of church life; “Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood,” by Joyce Ann Mercer. She starts by considering a theology of childhood and builds from there. I think it would be a great resource that if taken seriously could contribute to our church’s transformation toward greater love, welcome and participatory inclusion of children.

  12. As a children’s minister, I value my nursery and children’s worship leaders. They never get enough recognition and thank you’s.
    Our church is small but we do have a faithful list of volunteers for the nursery and children’s worship.
    Our children participate in the regular worship service during the music portion then leave for their own worship … more kid-friendly that allows for more movement and interaction on their learning levels.
    I like to offer a nursery for those parents who need time to enjoy worship without worrying about their little ones and having to occupy them while that is taking their own minds and hearts away from hearing the message. It’s also good for the preschoolers to learn and hear lessons on their levels from someone different from the parents … it branches them out away from the primary care-givers and gives them additional role models.

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