Children and the Church

13People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

–Mark 10:13-16


We usually don’t begin our pastor blogs with such a lengthy Bible quote, but this is the only place we see Jesus directly interacting with children (other than raising from the dead or healing them). So as we consider this week the role of children in our worship, we naturally should look to what our Master had to say about it.


First of all, notice that people were bringing their children to him so he could touch or interact with them. This is such a beautiful image, one we applaud whenever we see families with children enter either our Traditional worship or the Family Worship. When people see knowing Jesus as a priority in their own lives, what greater gift could they offer their children than to bring them to Jesus?


But it seems that right away when the parents were bringing in their little kids to meet Jesus, they were already getting what in theological language we term, “stink eye.” “The disciples spoke sternly to them,” Mark reports. And I smile as I wonder just who it was that the disciples spoke sternly to. Was it the parents, or the kids? And why would they be stern?


Perhaps they thought Jesus was too lofty to be bothered by the likes of little kids. There is a proper way to approach the Lord, they might have thought and said, and these children are just too disruptive. See how they wiggle and giggle! That’s fine elsewhere, but not here in the Master’s presence!


But Jesus didn’t let the disciples get away with it, not at all. The Bible says he was indignant. Perhaps indignant in the same way that his disciples were over the children. But Jesus was indignant, not with the “disruptive” kids, but with his disciples who tried to turn them and their parents away from Jesus. He told the disciples to knock off the judgment, adding, much to their chagrin, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”


So what is it about kids in all their messy, loud and admittedly at times annoying glory that has to do with the kingdom of God? Perhaps several things, but primarily their openness to feel what they feel and react as they react. They are blank slates, and they don’t hide behind the masks of propriety that we sometimes wear. If they’re excited to be in God’s presence, they’re gonna show it. If being silly, maybe dancing a bit comes to their mind, that’s what they’re gonna do. And because they are blank slates, our reaction to their enthusiasm will imprint on them their lifelong attitudes toward God and church, for better or for worse.


Children receive the kingdom of God openly, unabashedly, and without hiding who they are. And far from condemning their behavior, Jesus celebrated them and said that “whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”


Jesus rejoiced in the frolicking of children. He hoped that his disciples would be as joyful in his presence as those children were. But I wonder if in the 2000+ years since he was on earth that we’ve forgotten that. Or maybe we’re a little afraid of it. After all, kids being kids upsets us. If kids can’t behave in church, how will they be when they grow up? We don’t know the answer to that, but one thing we think is clear is that if they are rejected or condemned in church for being who they are, when they are old enough to decide for themselves, you likely won’t see them coming around for another round of criticism.


Believe it or not, the notion that in order for worship to be proper, it must be received with reverence and passivity, is a practice that is not the norm worldwide. Since the days of the early church, worship has been seen as being exuberant, with spontaneous shouts even from adults at times. The idea that we must teach our kids to be quiet recipients of the worship experience, instead of active participants, not only goes against their innate natures – it goes against what worship is all about.


As pastors, we know the uncomfortableness that some in the church have felt over little kids “acting up” during the service, particularly at the Family Worship service (which is after all purposefully designed to give the kids a safe space to be kids). We recognize that letting them play, giggle and such during worship is not everyone’s cup of tea. But if we’re going to follow our Master’s command, we need to think twice before we speak sternly to their parents or to them. Jesus saw no need for that and was in fact really upset with them for doing it. Rather than judgment, perhaps the Christlike approach might be to take them in our arms, lay our hands gently on them, and bless them. Oh, and maybe even engage them in play. Because we guarantee, the happier kids are to come to church, the more likely they’ll be to come back. And isn’t that what we all want for them? And for us?


So next time you see kiddos at the Traditional service talking during the service or running around the pews, why not simply smile and rejoice that God is in this place? And if you see children at the Family Worship jumping on the bean bags, why not join in with them, showing them that being in God’s presence can be exciting and fun? What a wonderful model that would be. Remember, we sow what we reap. If we want kids to want to come to church, when they’re kids and later on when they’re adults, we might consider welcoming their enthusiasm instead of dampening it. We don’t have to be quiet to be in God’s presence. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” Psalm 98:4 says. Jesus loved to play with children, and so should we.