An increasing number of churches offer separate worship services for children, but that may not be what is best for either the children or the church, many children's ministry professionals agree.
The faith formation of children is greatly enhanced by not separating them for children's church but by letting them remain with adults, said Diane Smith, children's ministry strategist for the Baptist General Association of Virginia.
Her advice to the congregations who call her about starting a children's church is simple—“Don't do it.”
“Cutting-edge churches … are equipping the parents to be the faith-formers for their children,” Smith said.
And children's church typically begins at what is developmentally the worst possible time, said one children's minister forced by the congregation's pastor to hold a separate worship service for children.
“The age where you pull them out of worship is really the age where they are really modeling [behavior after] their parents,” he said. “There's a time in the life of a child, around 5 or 6, when they are really looking for those models, and it's just at that time that we're separating them.
“Also, if you don't have them in the bigger church, it takes them longer to transition into worship. At age 4 or 5, it may take them a year to adjust. At later ages, they may never adjust, because they're always looking for something just for them.”
The minister—who feared he would be fired if identified—insisted the concept of a separate children's worship service in itself does not trouble him.
“I don't mind having another worship experience for children, but not at the time when families have the opportunity to worship together,” he said. “Sunday night or Wednesday night—I'm OK with that, but we need to keep families together for Sunday morning worship.
Still, more churches are moving toward a separate worship service for children on Sunday morning, said Diane Lane, preschool and children's ministry specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
When they call for advice, she starts with a question: “Why are you thinking about doing this?”
“Sometimes, I hear, ‘We need to separate the children because sometimes we talk about adult issues,' but I question what we need to talk about that children don't need to be involved in,” she said. “And then some people say children need visual things to help them in worship. But my response to them is to give them a blank sheet of paper and a box of crayons, and oftentimes children will draw something that has to do with what the pastor is talking about.
“Really, what I suggest for churches considering children's church is to include the children in worship, but most of them have already made up their minds.”
Involving children in worship also is Smith's counsel. She advocates letting children be greeters in the foyer with their parents, as well as reading Scripture as a part of the service. While younger children might not have necessary reading skills, she said they enjoy seeing older children taking part and thinking of the day when they will be old enough.
Children's songs as calls to worship also help them feel included. She noted a few churches have brought in rocking chairs for children who still enjoyed being held in their mother's lap.
Lane said she did not know of any children's ministers who advocated a separate worship service for children, but many have them because of the wishes of either the pastor or parents.
But since so many churches still continue with plans for a children's church, Lane offers tips for those churches.
“They need to get a think-tank together of parents, workers and a staff liaison to talk about what's going to happen before they do anything else,” she suggested.
“A set of constant elements [must be] present weekly, or it just becomes a play time.”
Each week, children need Bible study, singing, an offering and application of the lesson.
Another constant should be the adults involved, Lane said. “Many churches have teams who come in sporadically on a rotation basis, and those adults are not comfortable and don't really know what's going to happen. The children then act up because they are more comfortable than the adults are,” she said.
She also recommends a set curriculum and said LifeWay Christian Resources' “Worship KidStyle” is the best she has seen.
Age limitation is vital, she stressed.
“When you get multi-ages of children in a room, it is hard to teach them to respect one another, and the older children will probably pick on the younger ones,” Lane said, specifically discouraging participation by children older than second grade.
“At some point, children are going to need to be included in the body of worship,” she said. “If they are in a separate worship service, are they going to see people walk the aisle, see people baptized? Are they going to witness the rituals of the faith?”
Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas has had success with preparing children for worship. Five-year-olds spend nine months learning how to understand and take part in worship. The program, designed by Tommy Sanders, now director of the master's degree program in Christian education for children's ministry at Dallas Baptist University, runs concurrent with the school year.
The children attend the first part of the worship service with their parents and then adjourn to another room, where they learn and discuss a different aspect of worship each month. Topics include prayer, the role of the ministers, the offering, baptism and the Lord's Supper.
“It's not children's worship,” said Sanders, who developed the program while on staff at Park Cities. “It's an educational format.”
The result has been positive.
“Children are getting more out of worship, and parents don't feel their children are being dumped into the service for an hour all at once. This way, they get a taste of it each week and at the same time are being taught about what worship iis,” he said, noting the end design is to prepare children to worship with their families.
“There are appropriate times for children's worship, but in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, you see children worshipping with their families,” Sanders said.
One reason Sanders believes it is important to have children with their parents in worship is to increase their relationship.
Once, he noted, children grew up alongside their parents, who taught them everything—household skills like sewing and cooking, how to care for animals. They taught them spiritual lessons as well.
“I don't want to say that children's worship is right or wrong. Every situation is different,” Sanders said. “For our church, the real question was, ‘What's best for the child long term?' Parents are a child's primary teacher, so who better to equip to teach and lead in worship than parents?”