“To some extent the presence of children in the worship of the first Christians was a matter of necessity. But Paul’s acceptance of children of the church as ‘belonging to God’ or ‘holy’ suggest were not only there because they had to be. They were there because they belonged there.” – W. E. Strange, Children in the Life of the Early Church
Once when I picked my daughter up from an after-school choir practice, she came skipping out, quite happy, and when she got in the car she said, “Mom, these are my people. This is where I belong.” This was in contrast to the previous day when I had picked her up from a different club and her attitude was one more of resignation than exuberance and her words were, “I just don’t fit in there.”
We all have a sense of when we “fit” somewhere and when we don’t. For instance, if you’ve been on Facebook for the last few weeks, you may have seen the meme of Lucy (of I Love Lucy fame) dancing with some ladies on a television set, woefully out of step, and obviously not “fitting in” captioned with the words ‘Me at Zumba.’ Seriously, it’s like the story of my personal Zumba experience. I left my one and only Zumba class saying, “Yup, nope… I don’t belong there.”
But there are other places where within mere moments of being there, I just know, this is right, this is where I belong. It’s not awkward. I don’t feel unwelcome. It’s not strange or unnatural.
It’s just where I belong.
I’m sure you have figured out where this whole thing is going. I mean, if the observation made by Dr. Strange in the quote above is accurate, children in the early church weren’t just there out of consequence but because there was a recognition of belonging. They weren’t just there because the church met in their home, but because they were a needed and necessary part of the body.
Dr. Strange goes on to point out that in the letters of Paul, he speaks directly to children (Eph. 6:1-4, Col. 3:20). This is, as he says, remarkable meaning something we should remark on. Why?
Because these letters were being read aloud in the corporate assembly of the church.
The church in a region would gather together and hear these words being read aloud to them and learning together the words of God. And guess who Paul assumed would be there? The children. And guess who he felt was worthy of being taught specifically in the midst of the larger corporate gathering? Children.
Throughout all of the epistles we see children mentioned, often in regards to their instruction and upbringing at home under the loving discipleship and discipline of their parents.
But what we don’t see is their omission.
They were (and are) an integral part of the church. And while a thorough review of church history will reveal a strong emphasis on the raising of children in the home and the passing on of faith from the parents, there is never a dismissal of children from the larger church body and wider community.
If you don’t “fit” somewhere, chances are you won’t go back or stay when you can leave.
If you don’t feel like you belong, it just makes sense that you will look for a place where you do.
And if you don’t feel like a part of something, it’s easy to disengage and withdraw even if you are physically present.
I think we can all acknowledge that for the most part “big church” or our regular church assemblies aren’t places where children feel like they “fit.” Even churches that are transitioning to more intergenerational approaches can find it difficult to create that feel through programming and atmosphere.
I think perhaps that’s because fundamentally, there’s a cultural expectation that kids won’t be there because for many years they haven’t.
Whenever you try on something new, it’s uncomfortable at first, for everyone. But I truly think if our approach changes, over time programming and atmosphere won’t matter nearly as much as simply conveying the expectation that, of course, children will be there. Like Paul’s approach, the assumption will be that they are there, they are listening, and they belong.
And the kids will know it.
And that’s not to say, there shouldn’t be times of age-appropriate ministry, because I think there should be. And that’s not to say that the main focus of discipleship shouldn’t be the home, because Scripture is clear that it should be. But, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us or an unexpected distraction when children do join us for corporate worship. In fact, it should be welcome and expected. They should just…belong.
Just like my sweet girl intuitively knew that those choir friends were “her people” our church children will know that we are theirs. In their heart, they will know that they are “supposed” to be there; that they belong. And eventually, it won’t be a surprise or distraction to us adults when they are. Because we too will know that they belong there.
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About the author
Christina Embree is wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and family minister at Nicholasville UMC. She is passionate about seeing churches partnering with families to encourage faith formation at home and equipping parents to disciple their kids in the faith. Currently studying Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at www.refocusministry.org and is a contributing blogger at ChildrensMinistryBlog.com, Seedbed, and D6 Family.