New Horizons

Teaching Children to Worship

Paul and Judi English

Worship is very important—in fact, the most important thing that we do. The Shorter Catechism says, "Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever." God created us to worship him, and worshiping God is our most important task—our chief end.

Although in a general sense we should worship God in all that we do, it is on the Lord's Day that we gather for formal worship. On that day, the church gathers as the body of Christ to come into his presence and give him the worship that he is due.

God's relationship with man is covenantal. In particular, the covenant that we have with God is not just for us, but, as God told Abraham, it is also for our children. Therefore we teach our children to worship him, even from the youngest age. When we teach our covenant children to worship with us, we are teaching and preparing them for the most important task of their life—and eternity.

American churches in general suffer from a low view of corporate worship. Indicative of this are the "easy outs" we use to keep our children happy during church, such as nursery, children's church, and even high school activities. Nursery can be useful, but it is often overused. Children's church is completely unnecessary. And the scheduling of youth group meetings during Sunday evening worship teaches our young people that worship is only an optional extra.

God is present in corporate worship in a special way. Jesus tells us in Matthew 18:20, "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them." When we keep our children in church, we are bringing them into Christ's presence in a unique way.

Worship is focused not on what we receive, but on what we give. Therefore, when we keep our children in church, we can teach them to worship, regardless of what (we think) they may "get out of it."

The God who is sufficient to call our hearts to worship him is also sufficient to call our children's hearts to worship him. It is not up to us to cajole or bribe them into worship, but rather to discipline them to sit quietly and teach them by example how to worship our Creator and Redeemer.

Holding these convictions, however, isn't always sufficient to achieve the goal of children sitting quietly in church. We kept our first child in church quite easily until he was about seven months old and became verbal and mobile. We finally resorted to using the church nursery. A few months later, a family with seven children visited our church. We were astonished to see them all, down to the one-and-a-half-year-old, sitting quietly and still, even through a fifty-minute sermon. From them we learned to set our expectations for our children and take the initiative in teaching them to sit quietly and attentively.

Having now taught our third child to be still and quiet in church, we have had time to practice the principles of setting our expectations and taking the initiative with our children. Even at eight months, our third son quickly understood from a smack on his leg that he needed to be quiet. (Our second son, who is very strong willed, took much longer to learn to be quiet. But when we finally tightened some boundaries at home that we had been overlooking, he made great progress.)

Regardless of whether you choose to teach your infant to be quiet in church, normally developing children are fully capable of sitting quietly in worship by the age of two. (We have learned that the task is easier if it is done before the child learns to prefer the nursery.)

Expect to remove your child and spank him, at least a few times, while he is learning to be still and quiet. (In our experience, it has been more than "a few.") It is important that children learn to be both reverent toward God and as undistracting as possible for others. They are in church to learn to worship and to participate in the highest calling of their lives.

To be sure, there are the negative aspects of disciplining children to sit quietly in church: don't talk, don't wiggle, don't move around. However, there is also the positive aspect of discipling our children. It is not enough to have quiet, undistracting children in church if they are not also learning to participate and to delight more and more in worshiping their Redeemer.

Teach your children hymns (especially ones that are sung more frequently), the Lord's Prayer, and the doxology, so that even before they can read, they can participate in these things. Children also enjoy hearing the pastor quote verses that they have memorized. If you can, find out the pastor's sermon text and read it together before church. It can also be helpful to have your children take notes (in picture form, before they can read) during the sermon.

Remind them, too, of the spiritual battles we all face in worship—distractions, letting our minds wander, bad attitudes—and how to seek God's help in fighting these battles.

Most importantly, pray with and for your children, that together with you they will increasingly learn and love to worship their Creator and Redeemer.

In summary, we must teach our covenant children to worship with us, not because of tradition or sentiment, but because their chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. We parents must set our expectations accordingly and take the initiative in teaching our children to worship with reverence and love.

Paul and Judi English grew up in the OPC and now worship with their four children at Bible Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Concord, N.C., where Paul is an elder. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 1996.

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