Covenant Worship: Part Three
Part Three: Responses
Do these contemporary objections to covenant worship provide sufficient warrant for abandoning the practice? While all of the objections listed serve as helpful warnings against allowing inappropriate abuses of covenant worship, in this final post I conclude that none of them provide sufficient reason for abandoning the practice. The traditional arguments for covenant worship are sound, and reformed churches especially must resist the temptation to yield to contemporary American pressures and remove our children from worship.
Interacting with the first group of objections, the claim that covenant worship is not beneficial, and possibly even harmful for the child, does not stand up under scrutiny. First, the scriptural texts used to support the “non-comprehension” objection cannot bear the weight placed upon them. As was made clear earlier, there are several places in the Old Testament where God commands that children be included in the corporate gatherings of God’s people. Thus, using Neh 8:3 to prove the opposite amounts to using the historical description of a single gathering to overturn the ordinary rule of law. Neither does Paul’s command in 1 Cor 14:26 provide an argument against covenant worship. Paul’s concern in this command is not for the individual worshipper, but for the conduct of the service as a whole. Paul’s desire is that the corporate gathering of God’s people only include things that serve build up the body as a whole.
Second, the non-comprehension objection assumes that rational comprehension is the determinative factor for whether or not a child belongs in corporate worship. Not only is this criteria unbiblical, but the implications of adopting such an approach are problematic. If rational comprehension is how the church should determine who is eligible for corporate worship, then to be consistent the church ought also to remove and provide separate services for elderly people who struggle to keep up with the sermon, those with Alzheimer’s or other mental handicaps, and down syndrome teens. Pushed to the extreme, this criteria would lead to the exclusion of new and immature Christians not familiar enough with the Bible to understand the content of the sermon. Instead of rational comprehension, the Bible indicates that covenant membership is the appropriate criteria for determining attendance at public worship. All who are in covenant relationship with God, including the infants and small children of believers, have the privilege and right to gather corporately with His people. If corporate worship is a foretaste of heaven, where all of God’s covenant people from every tribe tongue and nation will worship together, how can the church justify regularly excluding some of His covenant people now?
As a third response to the non-comprehension objection, there is good reason to challenge the assumption explicit in it that children get little or nothing out of the service. The fact is that our children often get much more out of worship then we might have expected. Even if they do not understand everything (true of most adults as well) they still learn. As Bishop William Willimon says: “Be suspicious when someone says, ‘My child doesn’t get anything out of worship’”(“Let the Children Come”). At the very least, as Joel Beeke has observed, “Children …learn how to worship by watching others worship”(Children in the Church, 5). Children learn by example, so even for an infant who does not understand what is happening there is still value for them to stay in the service and begin to learn from their parents the joy and practice of praising the Lord.
The objection that keeping children in worship will lead to them hating worship also fails as an argument against covenant worship. In fact, this objection is more of a reason for covenant worship then against it. If the goal is to teach our children to love the worship of God, it is nonsensical to think that the best way to reach that goal is by removing them from the worship of God. Karl Hubenthal puts it this way: “It is commonly objected that by keeping the children in the service, they learn to hate the worship service. We reply by asking if you think you can teach your child to love the service by keeping them out. You cannot teach your children to appreciate the worship of God without disciplining them to witness and participate in it anymore than you can teach them to like spinach by giving them ice cream” (Children and Worship, 4).
Learning to love the worship of God is not something that happens overnight, it is something that takes time, happens by degrees, and requires patience and wisdom on the part of the parents. It is simply naïve to think that a child who has been kept out of corporate worship for years is going to appreciate the worship of God more than a child who never left.
This consideration is also relevant for engaging the second group of objections, which are concerned about the negative effect of covenant worship on other worshippers. The objection that noisy children distract other worshippers does not justify the abandonment of the covenant worship model. The desire to experience meaningful personal worship is certainly commendable, but the primary goal of worship is God’s glory, not our personal benefit. It is God who calls us to worship, and so it is He who gets to decide who ought to be included. Reformed churches have been correct to recognize that children, as legitimate members of the covenant community, are included in this call. Those who wish to remove the children from worship because they are irritated by their presence need to seriously consider Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples for preventing children from being brought to him (Mk 10:13-14). Parents and congregations must also remember that the difficult season of training young children to worship does not last forever, and promises great rewards. Hubenthal states: “But the work that is used in teaching little children to love the ordinances of Christ is well worth the effort. Even if it means that the parent misses most of the sermon himself, he can hardly have spent his time better if he makes his children sit quietly and listen” (Children and Worship, 4).
Finally, what about the objection that covenant worship hinders church growth and evangelistic efforts because families today expect churches to have children’s ministries? This objection has several serious defects. First, it assumes that church programs are more important than the Spirit of God in bringing families into the church. Second, in clear contradiction to Scripture, it views the God ordained means of preaching the gospel as less important for growing Christ’s church than children’s ministries. Third, this objection uses the same rationale which began the mega-church movement: give the people what they are looking for, and they will come. Can a church of Jesus Christ ever adopt such a rationale? Not if it wants to remain a biblically faithful church. Moreover, there is good reason to think that removing children from the worship may actually hinder church growth and evangelism in the most costly way: at the expense of our children themselves. Children’s programs may attract a few more visitors, but in the long run churches may find more of their own children leaving the church for good. Willimon reflects on this reality: United Methodism has a problem, as do a number of denominations, in retaining our young. I saw a study a few years ago that proved to me that those churches that remove their children from worship on Sunday (taking them off to ‘children’s church’) have a difficult time of retaining their children in their church as the children grow up. Those churches that lovingly find a way to keep their children with them on Sunday tend to keep their children throughout their lives” (“Let the Children Come”).
Churches that institute “children’s church” need to face squarely the reality that they are removing their children during their most formative years from the most central act of the Christian life. Should this be done simply to attract a few more visitors? To use an expression that the apostle Paul was fond of, “May it never be!”
Every church faces the question of what to do with their children during corporate worship. Reformed churches have historically answered this question by stressing the importance of keeping our covenant children in worship with us whenever possible. These posts have outlined the historic rationale for this position, reviewed some contemporary arguments against it, and concluded that reformed churches should continue the important practice of covenant worship and resist the contemporary pressures to abandon it. Jesus rebuked those, including his disciples, who would keep little children from coming to him. As children of the covenant, children of believers have a right to come to Christ as he is present today through His Word and sacraments in public worship. Because God’s covenantal promises are “For you and for your children…” churches and parents have good reason to believe that God will use His ordained means of preaching the Word to bring their little ones to faith in Jesus Christ.