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Kids Ministry is Unbiblical: An Argument for Family Integrated Worship

Christian Living | Theology

Published on September 25, 2023
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One of the topics that people can get really touchy and sensitive about is how to raise kids. Everyone’s got a strong opinion and very few like that opinion to be challenged. And, to an extent, it makes sense that this would be the case. Our kids are the most precious things to us and one of God’s greatest gifts to us in this life. However, it is precisely because they are so precious that we should be trying to think Biblically about how we approach Children’s ministry and child-rearing. To not challenge your starting assumptions or not consider alternate viewpoints would actually be to do yourself a disservice. How then could you be sure that what you’re doing is actually best? There’s a difference between feeling like you’re doing what’s best and actually doing what’s best.

Now, there is a lot of debate in our times about different approaches to the education of children by Christian parents: public school, Christian private schools, or homeschooling? There is also a debate between different models of Children’s Ministry (or perhaps better called Family Ministry) in churches. Should we keep families together and have children in the corporate worship gathering or should we create age-specific ministries for children and teens so that they can get age-specific instruction and then join the corporate worship gathering when they’re adults? I believe that these two issues of education and children’s ministry are interconnected, and what we think about one will inevitably affect how we think about the other.

These discussions, while not definitional about whether or not someone is truly a Christian, are also not unimportant. We’re talking about the building blocks of healthy and strong churches and society when we talk about the family and raising children. Children are the future – that’s a no-brainer. They will grow up to be the next generation of pastors and leaders in the church, as well as lawyers, politicians, artists, teachers, businessmen, etc. in society. 

As that great Princeton Theologian, Charles Hodge, once wrote, 

“The character of the Church and of the state depends on the character of the family. If religion dies out in the family, it cannot elsewhere be maintained.” 

The Reformed preacher, Richard Baxter, also affirmed that 

“The life of religion, and the welfare and glory of both the Church and the State, depend much on family government and duty. If we suffer the neglect of this, we shall undo all.” 

So, these decisions when played out and multiplied over thousands of Christian households can very significantly alter the future of any society.

Thus, while as Christians we should engage graciously with other Christians who hold different convictions to us surrounding these topics, it does not mean that it is a matter of indifference – such as the colour of the church’s carpet (well, even that may not be indifferent since aesthetics matter too and I am a creative after all! lol). These are topics which should be vigorously debated, and I think convictions which should be argued compellingly because future generations are at stake. Also, both sides of these debates claim to have the Bible on their side. So, ultimately, the question will boil down to one of who has the correct interpretation.

Furthermore, while I will repeat again that disagreement on these topics does not mean we must break fellowship with someone or cease to think of them as a brother/sister in the Lord, I do not think that automatically means that we take a postmodern approach as if the answer to these questions were just relativistic and subjective – your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth. No. There is a right and a wrong answer Biblically. Either one of us is wrong, or both are wrong. But simple logic dictates that both cannot be correct at the same time while affirming mutually contradictory positions. And neither is this uncharitable or unloving to disagree and even to disagree strongly with each other. We have to move past our current snowflake culture if we’re actually going to have productive dialogue and debate on these important matters. 

We can disagree passionately and still love graciously. 

So, take that as my disclaimer – because I will be arguing my points firmly here. But I don’t want that firmness to be misconstrued as somehow unloving or uncharitable.

Here are the two main points that I will be arguing:

  1. Kids ministry which takes children away from their parents in the corporate worship gathering is not prescribed in the Bible. Instead, I believe the Biblical vision is a family-integrated model.
  2. Parents, and especially fathers, are appointed by God to ensure that their children receive a distinctly Christian education.

This first article/episode will consider the first point of family ministry in the church, and the second article/episode will tackle the latter one of education.

Family-Integrated Ministry in the Church

We’ll start first with the approach to Family Ministry in the local church because I believe that the other question is vitally connected to this one.

What does the Bible say in Old and New Testaments?

My basic starting position is well summarized by Article 1 of the Declaration of the Complementary Roles of Church and Family:

We affirm that our all-wise God has revealed Himself and His will in a completed revelation—the sixty-six books of the Old and New Testaments—which is fully adequate in both content and clarity for everything pertaining to life (salvation) and godliness (sanctification), including the ordering of the church and the family (Deut. 30:11-14; 1 Cor. 11:1-12; 14:34; Gal. 1:8-9; Eph. 5:22-6:4; 1 Tim. 3:15; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; Heb. 1:1-2; 2 Peter 1:3-4).

We deny/reject that God’s Word is inadequate for church and family life and that we need to adopt the traditions of men from philosophy, psychology, pragmatism, entertainment, corporate business models, or modern marketing techniques.

Thus, my starting presupposition is that Scripture is really sufficient. It is sufficient to make us fully equipped for every good work, including the education and discipleship of our children and including how we should order our worship services in church. Scripture speaks to how we should approach that and we should not replace what God has said in His Word with the vain wisdom of this world.

Considering the Counter-Point

So, for the sake of argument, let us consider the counterpoint – that churches should offer age-segregated ministry programs to teach children and youth in a manner appropriate to their age and stage of development instead of having them in the corporate worship service together with their families. Most advocates of this age-segregated approach to ministry use Biblical texts such as Deuteronomy 6, Proverbs 4, and Psalm 78 as their proof texts.

However, all the “proof-texts” used to support Kids Ministry, when examined in their proper Biblical contexts, are properly directed to parents (and particularly fathers). We will take a closer look at these texts in detail in the next section. But for now, I’ll just note that I have not seen any Biblical text in its right context with direct application to support the invention of a Kid’s Ministry Program that takes children out of the Sunday corporate worship gathering. 

I’d graciously challenge you to find just one Biblical text in its proper context that would legitimately lead to such a practice. A text that, when rightly interpreted, would lead you to say, “OK. We need to obey this Biblical text. And the best way to do that is to create a ministry that takes kids out of the corporate worship service and puts them into age-segregated classrooms to be taught by non-elder volunteers.” I’d contest that text does not exist apart from the apocryphal sources that make up the canon of Christian Kids Ministry books. I jest, of course, but only a little bit.

The Bible’s Normative Pattern

On the contrary, the NT assumes that children are present in the corporate gathering when Paul directly addresses them in his letters which are to be read publicly in the corporate gathering. In Ephesians 6:1, Paul writes, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.” In Colossians 3:20 he writes, “Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.” Notice that in both NT texts, Paul is directly addressing the children. Which means that he is assuming that they are present in the gathered congregation. So, why should we take them out?

We also know that these letters were meant to be read to the gathered congregation because he makes this explicit in Col 4:16, “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” Thus, Paul assumes the presence of children in the corporate worship gathering. As Dr. Voddie Baucham points out, 

“It is fathers–not youth ministers, children’s minister’s, or preschool ministers (none of which find warrant for their existence in the pages of Scripture)–who are charged with this duty of discipling the next generation.” (Baucham, Family Shepherds, 35-46)

Unlike the position of taking kids out of the service, of which there is no biblical basis, here there is a clear NT basis for assuming their presence in the corporate gathering. God saw it important enough that the children would be addressed directly in His Word which was meant to be read aloud to the entire congregation together (e.g. 1 Thess. 5:27). Therefore, this should also inform our preaching for a family-integrated church, where there should be some instruction from time to time geared toward the children in the congregation. There are many churches which do exactly this, where from time to time, the pastor will have a brief word of exhortation for the children who are present, similar to what the Apostle Paul did. This is good and pleasing in the sight of God.

This is not something new in the NT. It is also normative for children to be present with their parents in the corporate gathering of God’s people for worship throughout the OT. There are several OT passages we could cite for this. For example: In Exodus 10:9, Moses refuses to only let the men go out of Egypt to serve the Lord but insists that the children must go too. In Exodus 12:26-27, the Israelites were to instruct their children about the meaning of Passover when they asked and in 13:14 they were to instruct their firstborn son on the meaning of redeeming the firstborn when he asked. In Deuteronomy 31:10-13, concerning instructions about the reading of the Law to the gathered congregation of Israel (which was the OT equivalent of the NT church worship gathering), Moses tells them to assemble the people and clarifies that he means the “men, women, and little ones” so that “they may hear and learn to fear the Lord” and even for the foreigner/non-Israelite that “their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord.” So, it would seem that it was important for God to have whole families, even with their little ones, sit under the proclamation of His Word. 

This continues with Joshua, in Joshua 8:35, as Joshua was reading the words of the Law to the people it specifies that, “There was not a word of all that Moses commanded that Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel, and the women, and the little ones, and the sojourners who lived among them.” In 2 Chronicles 20:13-15, as King Jehoshaphat is leading the assembly of Judah and Jerusalem in the house of the Lord the text says that, “all Judah stood before the Lord, with their little ones, their wives, and their children”. Notice again that the text makes it clear that children are present in the corporate gathering. Finally, when God’s people are moved to repentance after the reading of the Law and realizing how much they had failed to keep it, Ezra 10:1 says that, “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly.”

So, over and over again, we see that the Bible makes it explicitly clear that children were present in the corporate gathering of God’s people for worship and prayer and even for solemn days of repentance. The question then must be asked, why would we remove them from that without explicit instruction to do so in Scripture?

But We’re Not Israel

Now, for the Christian who might say, well, we’re not Jews and that was just for OT Israel. We’re not Israel.

Well, not so fast there Bob. In one sense, we are Israel. We are the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). We’ve been grafted in as wild olive branches (Rom. 11:11-24). Furthermore, don’t forget that OT Israel was to be a model of God’s design for other nations to follow (they were to be a light for the nations according to Isaiah 49:6). Thus, if OT Israel was to be a model for non-Israelite nations to follow, that means that even non-Jews were supposed to follow their example and for us there is a continuing validity of OT laws (this is often referred to as the continuing general equity principle of the Law). 

We don’t just arbitrarily throw out our OT as NT Christians. In fact, Jesus himself said in Matthew 5:19 that if we even relaxed one of the least of the commandments, we’d be called least in the Kingdom. For the commandments from the OT that we no longer observe as Christians, it is either because the NT has told us that they are fulfilled in Christ (such as the sacrificial system) or have been explicitly abrogated (such as dietary laws). Otherwise, we should assume continuity because God has not changed and there’s nothing in the shift from Old to New Covenants that would signal a change or abrogation with respect to the presence of children in the corporate worship gathering.

In fact, Jesus himself says to forbid not the children to come unto him (cf. Mark 10:1, 13; Luke 18:15; Matt. 18:1). So, Jesus is concerned with the children and their ability to come to him in faith and worship. In his earthly ministry he was physically present. Since his ascension and Pentecost, his spiritual presence is with the corporate gathering, especially in Word and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Thus, we should not forbid the children to come unto him and encounter Christ in Word and sacrament. 

Note: I am not advocating for paedo-communion (that is, serving communion to children), but rather arguing that the sacraments of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism are visual parables of the Gospel to observers as Calvin and other Reformers have argued. 

The Lord’s Supper is the symbol we are given to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”. So, why would we hide this proclamation from the children? As they watch their parents and other believers in the congregation partake of the Supper, they are watching an enacted parable of the Lord’s death. The same goes for baptism. As observers look on, they see an enacted parable of a believer being united with Christ in his death and resurrection. These are powerful proclamations of the Gospel which we should not withhold from our children in worship.

Thus, I think it is a pretty clear case from Scripture that children should be in the worship service with their parents. And to those who disagree, I’d simply ask for a Biblical text in its right context that says otherwise.

Pragmatic Arguments

So, now that we’ve taken a look at the Biblical arguments and seen that there are no Biblical texts that support taking children out of the corporate gathering (in fact, just the opposite is true!), let’s now look at some of the pragmatic arguments that are often put forward.

Kids ministry has generally been more of a pragmatic argument (distraction-free services, etc) instead of a consistently biblical one. Personally, I think the distraction-free service argument is a particularly weak one. Firstly, most parents tend to think their kids are more of a distraction than they actually are. Yes, we hear baby Tommy squeaming around and cooing and flatly, we think it’s down right cute and those who think otherwise need to go read Psalm 127 slowly. Secondly, a kid fussing every now and then is simply the sound of family, and what is the church called in Scripture? The family of God. So, it’s actually quite appropriate to have kids in church because church is family. Lastly, a lot of times, for the kids who really don’t do well in service, usually it’s because their family has not been doing family worship together during the week at home – this is why Sunday feels so foreign to them. 

The solution then is to fix the problem at home and help the fathers in particular to lead their households in daily family worship. A lot more could be said on that topic, but that might need to wait for a future article/podcast. The books Family Shepherds by Voddie Baucham and Family Worship by Donald Whitney are good resources on that. It’s not as difficult as some might think. At its most basic level – simply sing a song, read a passage and pray together. I’ve personally seen how this regular practice in the home can greatly help kids adjust to Sunday worship better. Not saying perfectly or easily, but everything worth doing comes with work.

However, even practically speaking, Kids ministry (as a ministry that God’s Word has not given the church the charge to do) is something which also devours massive time and resources which could be allocated instead to ministries which God has given the church to do – such as equipping men to lead their homes in family worship and discipleship. Everything we do has an associated trade off. The fact is that most Kids Ministries in churches consume massive amounts of time, resources, volunteer hours, and planning to execute well. Then there’s also the fact that a lot of times the volunteers themselves are missing out on church by volunteering in Kids Ministry. Typically the lack of equipping of men to lead their families has been a major area of lack and weakness in churches, yet it should be a core focus since we all should agree that the family is the fundamental unit of healthy churches and societies. So, what better strategy than for churches to spend their resources there?

If a church is killing it at equipping and exhorting all the men in their church to lead their families at home in family worship, and the church has a bunch of extra resources it doesn’t know what to do with, then fine, one might argue why not create some extra ministries for the kiddos. However, that church has never existed, and even if it did, because they were killing it at getting the fathers to lead their families well, there would be no need for Kids Ministry.

Professionalism

The truth is that the age-segregated model supports the growing problem of “professionalism” – that a paid specialist needs to do the work instead of equipping the saints to do the work of ministry in their homes. Thus, it can end up perpetuating the problems at home rather than helping. However, without a Kids Ministry during service, churches and families are given a big motivation to get family worship together because they don’t have the “fall-back” of bringing their kids to “the professionals” to do it. 

If little Jonny won’t sit still while Pastor Bob preaches, then Jonny’s dad will need to proactively seek to help equip him to do so through regular family worship, Bible reading, discipline and instruction at home. Perhaps consider bringing some colouring books or teaching him how to write notes (if he’s old enough) or making a game of asking him questions on the ride home about the sermon. Jonny’s dad must model to him that sitting under the preaching of the Word is an important and regular part of their lives and help him understand in a way that is appropriate to his age and as only his parents can do as those who know him most. However, if the local church is more than willing to help fathers who may already be given to passivity or passing the buck an easy way out, you better believe that our sinful dispositions will be tempted to take it. 

Now, of course, this doesn’t mean that a family integrated church automatically has amazing dads leading their families. It takes a lot of work! No one said this is easy. The question is not over what’s easier. But, such churches have a lot more practical motivation to equip men to lead their homes when 20 little Jonnys are distracting Pastor Bob from his 3rd point and made everyone miss the punchline of that sermon illustration he spent 4 hours perfecting last night.

Baucham comments that, 

“For too long heads of household have been led to believe that bringing their children to church and dropping them off to be discipled by the professionals is the extent of their parental duties when it comes to their children’s spiritual development. That’s why spiritual passivity has become such an epidemic.” (Family Shepherds, 76)

If family worship is not happening in the home, and the parents are encouraged to come to church and drop their kids off with the professionals, then the kids are inherently being told that their parents are no longer the principle spiritual leaders in their lives. And so, their thinking is shaped in this direction such that their spiritual development happens completely independent of their parent’s direct input and knowledge. Even in the best of cases where a Kids Ministry tries to engage parents with what is covered, it implicitly reinforces that it is the Kids Ministry workers and not the parents who are the primary spiritual leaders since they are the ones doing the teaching and discipling.

As Voddie Baucham rightly points out,

“Of course, setting fathers aside is never the intent of this build-up in professional staff. Even a church with a half-dozen full-time staff working with children and youth… will profess to exist in ‘support’ of families. Read the websites–these churches all claim to believe that ‘parents are the ‘primary’ disciplers’ of children, and that the professionals exist only to ‘come alongside’ mom and dad. However, a quick glance at the schedules, curricula, and structures reveals the truth.” (Family Shepherds, 69)

Sadly, I’ve seen this observation hold true even in churches that aspire to partner with parents through Kids Ministry programs.

Dividing the Church

Furthermore, age-segregated churches functionally create different congregations with their own sub-cultures. It also leads to kids who are used to having services tailored to them, so they grow up expecting the church to be tailored to them, perpetuating the consumer mentality. 

Thus, when they grow up, having been accustomed to having “church” tailored to them and always being entertaining and fun, they either look for a church that does the same or leave the church altogether. The truth is, the children have never belonged to the same church as their parents, and have often been a part of something which had a very different philosophy of ministry – centered on making it fun, engaging, light hearted and activity oriented. None of those things should mark the corporate gathering as the primary driving philosophy of ministry. When we come to worship the Sovereign Lord in the corporate gathering it is weighty, sober, convicting, and glorious – a far stretch from the cartoon illustrations of Noah in a boat full of happy animals. So, children, when they have grown out of Kids Ministry, are actually being set up to be bored and disinterested in a “serious” worship service that is focused not on the desires of men, but on the glory of God and trembling at His Word. These kids when grown up are prepped to look for either a seeker-sensitive church that has an entertaining comedian for a preacher, or to leave the world of second-class stand-up comedy for the real deal in the world.

Perhaps a very significant reason why I don’t think that Kids Ministry during the Sunday worship service is a good idea nor Biblical is that I believe that children should go to church with their parents and Kids ministry is not church. Why is that? Well, the three distinctive Reformed marks of true churches are not present in Kids Ministry programs: the authoritative proclamation of the Word by a qualified elder, the administration of the sacraments, and church discipline. None of these are carried out in Kids ministry, and thus it cannot properly be considered “church”. So, children who come on a Sunday and go to Kids Ministry are not going to church, they’re doing something else.

Perhaps one of the reasons why children from Evangelical churches who have done the whole Kids Ministry thing leave the church when they become adults is because, in truth, they never went to church in their lives. They went to Kids Ministry, then went to youth group, but those aren’t church. So, when they became “old enough”, they just kept on being consistent and didn’t go to church.

Historical Argument

Lastly, age-segregated kids ministry (especially during corporate worship) is a relatively novel and modern invention and there is no Biblical pattern that would inform such a practice. It is more so a product of innovation within the Evangelical movement that is fairly recent. You don’t find anything ike our modern Kids Ministry programs throughout almost 2000 years of church history. So, you have to ask, what were Christians doing for all that time if Kids Ministry is really so essential? Are we really smarter than 2000 years worth of godly men and women? Were none of them able to come up with the idea when they mined the pages of Scripture? Or is it more likely that they never would have thought to do such because Scripture does not command such.

While there are arguments for times of age-appropriate instruction by men such as Calvin, this is why the Reformed tradition has done evening services for instruction or age-specific Sunday school outside of corporate worship times. Let me be clear here. I am not against Sunday School or other times of age-specific instruction outside of the corporate worship gathering. I think there can be a place for such times of age-appropriate instruction before or after the worship gathering, or even on another day of the week. 

However, the church is essential – regardless of what the politicians of 2020-2021 said. The church must gather, and children are a part of the church. Gathering means actually being together at once in an embodied way, despite what ZOOM’s stock prices may argue. When children are ported off to another room, even in the same building, it cannot be said in any meaningful way that they are gathered together with the rest of the body. What you have are separate gatherings and thus, a fragmented church. This should also be obvious since the primary metaphor in Scripture for the church is the household of God or family of God. There are children in families. That baby fussing, the toddler pointing at the lady’s weird hat, and little girls colouring purple elephants and blue dogs, as all sit under the Word being faithfully proclaimed should simply be the normal sound of the family gathering.

The Regulative Principle of Worship

I think the root of many of our differences comes down to whether or not we take a consistently Regulative or Normative Principle approach to church life and practice. I think that the Regulative Principle of Worship (as reflected in the WCF and 1689 LBC) is the more Biblical position. Chapter 22.1 of the 1689 states,

“The light of nature demonstrates that there is a God who has lordship and sovereignty over all. He is just and good and does good to everyone. Therefore, he should be feared, loved, praised, called on, trusted in, and served—with all the heart and all the soul and all the strength.  But the acceptable way to worship the true God is instituted by him, and it is delimited by his own revealed will. Thus, he may not be worshipped according to human imagination or inventions or the suggestions of Satan, nor through any visible representations, nor in any other way that is not prescribed in the Holy Scriptures.””

(Jeremiah 10:7; Mark 12:33. Deuteronomy 12:32. Exodus 20:4–6)

We have clear Scriptural examples of God judging the offering of things which were not explicitly prescribed (e.g. Nadab & Abihu in Leviticus 10). So, do we take the approach of allowing God’s Word to regulate how the church should be run and worship, or do we take the approach of presuming that we can add to it what is not expressly forbidden? I’d argue that if we do the latter, we seem to be running closer to Nadab and Abihu.

As Article XIII of the Declaration of the Complementary Roles of Church and Family sums it up:

We affirm that there is a clear and consistent biblical pattern of worship and discipleship for the people of God that is age-integrated; and we believe that this pattern should be embraced and practiced (Ex. 12:21-27; Deut. 16:9-14; 32:46; Josh. 8:34-35; 2 Chron. 20:13; Ezra 10:1; Neh. 8:2; 12:43; Joel 2:15-16; Acts 20:7-12; 1 Cor. 4:16-17; 11:1-2, 16; 12:12-26; Eph. 6:1-4; Phil. 3:17; 1 Tim. 2:1-14; 3:15; 2 Tim. 1:13; 3:15-17).

We deny/reject that there is any clear, positive, and scriptural pattern or positive institution for creating distinct, age-segregated cultures in the church through age-segregated worship and systematic and comprehensive age-segregated discipleship.

For further info, you can find the full text of “A Declaration of the Complementary Roles of Church and Family” at Church and Family Life Ministries. It is a good summary of affirmations and denials about the importance and distinctions of the family-integrated and age-integrated models.

Now, I have to qualify as well that just because a particular church may not be committed to a family integrated model of ministry, does not mean that they are apostate or unfaithful in all areas, even though I do believe that the family integrated model is the biblical one. We must be able to rightly categorize the priority of different doctrines – you can refer to my article/episode on theological triage for more on that. But in short, there are first-level doctrines which are vital to the Gospel that would put you in or out of the Kingdom, and there are second and third-level doctrines which true believers can disagree on, but may mean they may not be able to fellowship in the same church (while they still hold each other with brotherly affection and respect). This issue is in the latter category. So, while it is important for families to have conviction on this issue and it has big implications on a local church fellowship, it is not an issue to treat people who disagree with you as if they are heretics. Also, it is an issue that we should be willing to have charitable yet passionate debate over just because of its importance.

The second issue we’ll be looking at in this series is similar and connected because it relates to how we view a biblical model of Family Ministry. That is the issue of how do we educate our children. Is public school a legitimate option for Christian parents or should we only advocate for Christian education? That will be the topic of the next article/episode.

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