According to the American Religious Identification Survey (from Trinity College, Hartford, CT) the fastest growing religious affiliation growing in North America is the unaffiliated. Called “the church of the nones” by scholars, these are people who were once affiliated with the Christian faith, but have “opted out” of faith. Although many, perhaps even a majority, were raised in the church, they have turned their backs on their upbringing. The reasons for their departure are myriad, but one of the chief reasons the unchurched give for avoiding “church” is because it is irrelevant and doesn’t speak to them or their needs.

As I attend Sunday morning worship services across the nation, I am struck by how many churches expect elementary-school-age and younger children to attend the adult worship services – even small portions of the worship services. As I watch these young people, it is clear that many are uncomfortable, many are bored, and many families bring “tools” to keep the their children occupied, or else the church provides worship packets as distractions. (Hint: If you provide worship packets, you’re already aware there’s a problem!). On pews across the sanctuary I’ll see coloring pages, Transformer figures, and a variety of other toys. These children do their best to behave, but it is clear the primary training they get from the service is in sitting still and being quiet. These children tend to move from bored to restless to resentful to resistant and ultimately to rebellious so that when they are old enough to abandon church altogether, they do. Also disheartening is the fact that I see many parents, mostly mothers, I might add, who are not able to engage fully in the worship experience because they are constantly distracted by their children’s inquiries, rolling crayons, and many attempts to ensure their children behave appropriately in worship.

When it comes to children and youth, there are primarily two functions of the church’s ministry. First, the church must provide a foundation of knowledge in the faith. This includes the biblical stories, the great biblical themes, and an indoctrination and introduction into the Christian faith. Over the years, the church has done pretty well at this function. Children who have grown up in the church and have attended Sunday school and other Christian education events have, by and large, walked away understanding the basics of Christianity, and the church has brought perhaps even a majority of these children to the waters of baptism or the completion of confirmation.

However, with the rise of postmodernism, we’ve come to understand that knowledge of the faith isn’t enough. Our nation is filled with baptized adults who were well indoctrinated into the faith, but who have since joined the church of the nones. We now know that knowledge must be paired with experience. The church, therefore, is faced with two very real options:

  1. We can expose our children and youth to a model of worship that is relevant, moving, touching, and inspiring to an adult target and hope the children and youth can have a positive experience in worship (good luck with that).
  2. Or we can intentionally provide a worship experience that is relevant, moving, touching, and inspiring to our children and to our youth.

If reaching kids for Christ is your primary purpose for children’s programming, it might be time to launch a full children’s worship service that is scheduled simultaneous to the worship service. The service should begin at the same time as the adult service, so if the late service is scheduled for 11:00, then the children’s worship service should begin at 11:00. Ultimately, you will want to offer children’s worship simultaneously with all adult worship services whenever there is an abundance of children or whenever your service is intended to target young families.

Do not be deceived into believing that children need to be in the adult worship service up until the “children’s time” in order to prepare the children for “big” worship in the future (or to build a relationship with the lead pastor). There is no indication that the future worship services of the church will look anything like the current services – and except in the smallest of churches the lead pastor honestly has no direct influence on these children. This shouldn’t matter anyway, if the point is to help the kids become faithful disciples.

The service should not be seen as a preparation step for “big church” or to teach classic hymnody or liturgy; instead, the service should move, touch, and inspire the children where they are, not where we hope they will be in ten or more years. Music, prayers, and teaching should primarily match their vocabulary and their developmental stages. 

The service should include interactive teaching rather than preaching. Crafts and refreshments and large-muscle activities are probably the order of the day as well.  And, perhaps most importantly, the worship should include an opportunity to “respond” to the working of the Holy Spirit in every service. Typically, I describe an effective children’s worship service as “VBS on steroids.” In other words, the worship service should be fast-paced and include almost everything a regular 4–5 hour VBS would have, but compacted into a one-hour block of time. Indeed, often congregations will simply reuse their old VBS materials. If your church doesn’t have any of these materials, a resourceful volunteer could probably find a local church that’s been saving their old VBS curriculum in some dark closet for the past twenty or so years who would love to donate it to a church that would use it.

On the other hand, if you’re looking for a great kids’ church model, you can’t go wrong by turning to The Big House experience at the Christ United Methodist Church in Myrtle Beach (see TheBigHouse on Facebook). The advantage of The Big House is that at its core, it’s not only a children’s worship curriculum; it’s the church’s main youth programming as well. And let’s be honest, there are few who hold as much potential influence on elementary school kids as junior high and high school kids!

Question: How do you keep children in your church engaged in their worship service? What would you consider changing about it, knowing what you do now? Share your thoughts and ideas in the Comments section below.