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Watch and Learn: The Power of Observational Learning

There is something so beautiful about seeing a child worship God.  The enthusiasm of their praise, the purity of their worship – it’s enough to make a grown man cry…literally. Many times during the service, I’ve had someone interrupt my own worship to point out a child or family engaged in a precious moment with God.

A friend of mine posted this testimony regarding her own Sunday morning experience:

Received a blessing this morning at worship that also served as a sobering reminder for me. I was singing, praying, and raising my hands in gratitude to the One Who has delivered me from death, and generally not paying much attention to what was going on around me, when the lady sitting behind me grasped my shoulder and told me to look across the aisle.

One of our sweet children, no more than maybe 2 years old was on her mom’s hip, watching me and lifting her hands in praise like I was. It made me weep to see her learning worship from her church family. But it also reminded me to always be aware of how I conduct myself. You never know who is watching.

The idea of older people modeling behavior for younger ones isn’t a new one.  Also known as observational learning, this process helps us to see, internalize, and then act in the ways we have observed.

Developmental psychologists have long known that children learn by imitating adults and older children (Source). It’s one of the ways that we not only transmit knowledge but also culture and yes, faith.

study by an Australian team found that children will imitate adults even if the behavior doesn’t make sense such as opening a box with a stick instead of with their hands.  What the children saw modeled, they imitated in their own everyday life.

A study of teenagers and addiction found that “many parents turn to professionals thinking that when their teen hears about the dangers of drug use from someone else, they will be swayed, but the truth is that usually, it’s the parents’ behavior that have much more impact on a teen’s behavior.”  

watchingWhat our children see modeled, they will imitate, and what they imitate will create their framework for how life is “done.”

So, it begs the question, what behavior are we modeling when we consistently remove the children from the larger congregational worship experience?

Children don’t BELONG in “big” church

I can think of no stronger message that we send to children and youth when we consistently segregate them from corporate worship.  As I’ve stated many times before, I am not against times where youth and children are separate and spending time growing in ways that reach specifically to them, but I am opposed to ministry that exclusively keeps children and youth from interacting with the larger faith community in worship.

 I am convinced that there must be times of corporate worship where children can see adults, more specifically their parents, engaged in worship, growing, and fellowship with the whole congregation if we want them to learn (imitate) what it is to participate in the local body of Christ.

Children don’t have anything to GIVE to the larger church

When our attitude towards kids is to consistently segregate them away from the adults and keep them in their own space together (with a few volunteers), we are telling them that that are unnecessary to the functioning of the church.  That we adults don’t need them to grow in our faith.  That they are a distraction from what we are doing on Sunday morning.

But Christ sends a very different message – He tells us we MUST learn from them. He tells us that that the kingdom of God belongs to them (Mark 10:14), that by welcoming them we welcome Him and the Father (Luke 9:47, 48), that we should become like them (Matt. 18:3). How in the world can we do that if we never get to see them in praise and worship, in prayer and fellowship? How can we imitate them?

Children aren’t old enough (smart enough, mature enough) to UNDERSTAND God and church

Sunday school.  Ever thought about those words? It implies a place where you go to “get taught” about something.  We even call our volunteers “teachers” many times. How about Children’s Church?  Even this sends a message that this is a place for kids, not adults, but kids to “do church.”  But frankly, I have learned more from the kids in Children’s Church than I think they’ve learned from me.  They’ve taught me how to praise with abandon, to pray with great faith, and to love each other.  So many times I’ve thought, “Oh, how I wish the whole church could see this right now!”

Because children DO understand God and His love, often in ways we adults cannot grasp.  We don’t have to “dumb down” theology for them; they get it!  Yes, we do need to communicate it to them in ways they understand but they are definitely “smart enough” to know God and to participate in church.

Our children are imitating our behavior; our worship and our community and our prayers and our fellowship.

Let’s make sure we are modeling what we really want to be modeling.

Let’s make sure what we are teaching them is what we actually want to be teaching them.

As my friend shared, let us always be aware of how we are conducting ourselves. Because they are watching and learning… all the time.

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About this Blog


Refocus Ministry was started by Christina Embree, wife to Pastor Luke, mom to three wonderful kids, and church planter at Plowshares BIC. With years of experience in family ministry and children’s ministry, 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. She recently graduated with a Masters of Arts in Ministry focusing on Family, Youth and Children’s Ministry at Wesley Seminary, she also blogs at and is a contributing blogger at D6 Family,, and Seedbed

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