In a recent online debate over the Federal Vision, the question was posed: What was the problem in the Reformed Faith that Federal Visionists sought to resolve? Peter Leithart responded that it was high time that the Reformed church fully acknowledge the covenant status of her children (read: paedocommunion). Whether or not he identified a real solution to a genuine problem, Leithart's post, entitled "For the Children," leaned heavily on a deep theme in contemporary American Protestantism, a sentiment succinctly expressed by Norville Barnes from the Coen brother's screwball comedy, Hudsucker Proxy: "You know, for kids!"
About twenty years ago, many sociologists and pollsters were predicting that baby boomers had left mainline churches for good. However, those number crunchers proved wrong, and now they are changing their tune. Boomers have become "boomerangs," and they are returning to church in large numbers. Why is that? You know, for kids!
Children are motivating a lot of decisions for church goers today. Graying boomers themselves may be squishy in their commitment to absolute values, but neither do they want a purely relativistic environment for their children. Their search for some moral rootedness for their children has led them on a pilgrimage back to church, which suddenly becomes an important feature of their lives. A recent Gallup survey indicated that nine out of ten Americans say they want religious training for their kids. Another survey found that boomers are nearly three times more likely to return to church if they have children.
The priority of children has prompted arguments for leaving church as well as for rediscovering church. In a recent article in the liberal Presbyterian Outlook, a minister warned against leaving the mainline Presbyterian Church for trite reasons, and he suggested that the conservatives who were concerned about human sexuality resembled ancient Donatists with their quick-trigger exoduses. But he withdrew from making this a universal principle by conceding that some may be leaving for legitimate reasons. "A couple may want to find a more suitable church for their children." These folk, he reasoned, should not be forced to stay put. So homosexual clergy is trivial, but a well-oiled youth program is valid. You know, for kids!
Look up any manual for church growth and you are sure to discover that a key for success is a quality youth and children's program. Well-documented pressures on the contemporary family are making parents all too eager to outsource the covenant nurture of their kids: the growing divorce rate, working mothers, single parent families, blended families, yadda, yadda, yadda. Train an army of workers to provide the highest quality youth ministry possible, and watch your attendance explode. Build the better youth program and they will come.
And therein also lies the rationale for children's church. Let's excuse our little tykes from the most boring aspect of worship. Thankfully, this is rarely seen in Orthodox Presbyterian circles, though regrettably it has caught on in other former bastions of Reformed orthodoxy, like the once robust Christian Reformed Church. Ultimately, the offense in the concept of children's church lies less in presuming our young kids need it than in the arrogance of adults presuming that they don't. Henry Coray once observed when he was Cornelius Van Til's pastor how the famed theologian would sit in church spell-bound, ready to receive the word of God with the eagerness of a child.
Paedocommunion aside, perhaps Leithart may have a point when he wonders whether Reformed parents really believe that the means of grace are effectual. The means of grace are, you know, for kids. They are given for those who come with the childlikeness that our Lord commended. Perhaps our churches could do worse than to borrow from another contemporary salesman and promote their services for "children of all ages."