I can remember a myriad of ways I conspired to entertain myself during Sunday service as a kid. It wasn’t that I disliked the service, but I was easily bored and always looking for ways to keep my mind busy.
My top choice was to figure out a way to sit by a friend so we could play a stealthy game of hangman to speed along the minutes of the sermon. A close second was paging through the hymnal and using a trick my Grandpa Evan taught me: adding the phrase “in the bathtub” to the end of each song title (a trick I’ve refrained from passing on to my kids).
During the singing time, I kept myself engaged by figuring out the harmony part to each song we sang. I was a constant toe-tapper, pen-clicker, and full of fidgets, doodles, and distractions.
My children, from teenaged to grade school, aren’t too different from how I was. On a Sunday morning, our row has its fair share of whispers and wiggles. It’s tempting to think that those behaviors are an indicator that our child is tuned out, not listening, and that they would probably be better off in a class with their peers. If our kids’ inability to sit exactly like an adult is a sign they’re not getting anything out of the service, then we’ll quickly draw the conclusion that the corporate gathering of believers is not a place for children.
But it is. It certainly is.
The single most important thing churches can do to shape kids and teens and grow them up into the Lord is to invite them into our weekly gathering of worship. That’s it. Nothing fancy or impressive.
Here are three vital ways our children and teens are discipled through our corporate gathering:
1. The Preaching of God’s Word
Our kids are discipled through the clear, serious, unashamed, preaching of God’s word by a man of God who really believes it and lives like he believes it.
This is probably the hardest part of the corporate gathering to acclimate our children to. It’s hard for some adults to sit through a sermon, especially if they don’t understand Christian terminology or themes, so of course it won’t be automatically easy for kids and teens. But this is how we learn fastest and best: by immersion. The point isn’t to pitch the sermon at the level of a third-grader, but rather, as parents, to prepare our third-graders to engage at their level with content that will partly go over their heads.
We can help them by making sure they have their Bibles, notebooks, and pens or crayons, so that they can participate in a physical way, that is, in a way that allows them to use their bodies. We can translate the sermon for them by making the abstract concepts concrete. We do it in the car on the way home. We do it over lunch. We do it whenever the questions arise.
We must not belittle the power of God’s Word or our children’s ability to understand the truth. There will be weeks when it seems evident that they got absolutely nothing out of the sermon. Then, there will be weeks when they shock you with the poignancy of their understanding. And even those ways of measuring fall short because people (including children) are changed in ways they can’t articulate when they sit under the faithful preaching of God’s Word.
2. The Singing of God’s People
Our kids are also discipled through the joyful, truthful, sorrowful, full-throated singing of God’s people to God and to each other.
Our children’s faith may very well rise or fall on the robustness of the singing of God’s people in the corporate gathering. If the people in your church are self-forgetful worshipers, with faces full of awe for God, whose minds and emotions are all centered on the glory of God and the saving work of Christ, children notice because the entire atmosphere changes. They also notice if people are distracted, not singing, unengaged, self-conscious, or cynical judges.
Corporate singing is something that the world has no category for apart from entertainment or the national anthem at a ballgame. It is a powerful, unique part of being God’s church. It is how our hearts are stirred to feel what we know and know what we feel about God. It is also how we exhort, encourage, remind, and admonish one another with the truth (Colossians 3:16).
So, make sure your children know the songs you sing on Sunday so that they can participate. Make sure you’re the kind of parent—the kind of Christian—who sings without self-consciousness (or at least determines to ignore its nagging presence). And pray that they would be, too.
3. The Sharing of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism
Finally, our kids are discipled through the sharing of the Lord’s Supper and the baptism of believers into Christ.
One of the most important things that happens during the corporate gathering is that the people of God put boundaries around who is a part of the community and who isn’t. This happens through the Lord’s Supper and baptism.
Many young children are curious as to why they may not partake of the Lord’s Supper, especially when it looks to them like mom and dad and everyone else is having snack-time. This is a wonderful opportunity to explain the gospel (most likely on the way home), to tell them that Christ’s body was broken and His blood was shed for sinners like them.
When our children get to hear the testimony of believers and watch the concrete, physical drama of baptism, it gives them a sense of what obedience to God looks like; it requires actual physical steps. It also shows that there is a distinction between those who have been baptized and those who haven’t—those who do take communion and those who don’t. It is an opportunity for kids to evaluate whether or not they believe and receive Christ and whether or not they are part of God’s people.
God often gives us the unmatched privilege of inviting and welcoming them into that community on the basis of their faith in Christ’s saving work.
Who could have known the distracted girl turning sacred hymn titles into an occasion for giggling inappropriately was simultaneously absorbing so much truth, so much goodness? Who could have guessed that the faithful gathering of God’s people to hear the Word, sing together, take communion, and baptize could form and shape a child who seemed so uninterested, even bored?
God knew. The faithful, gathered people of God turning their hearts to know God and love each other weekly is powerful. We cannot estimate how folding our children into that simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary event may chisel away at a hard heart or be the steady drip of grace that softens the soul. But we can, with expectant faith and hope, bring them to that fountain week after week and ask God to do more than we dared to think.