Children’s Church, the Entertainment Culture, and the Story of God
Each Sunday morning, churches throughout the U.S. engage in a simple ritual. After a few songs and prayers, the children of the congregation are ushered out of the auditorium, accompanied with “Jesus loves the little children,” to their own gathering for the remainder of the church’s worship. As I understand it, this practice serves two functions: the kids have a worship experience “at their level,” and the adults receive a moment’s respite for undisturbed worship—usually the Sermon, and often the Lord’s Supper. The reasoning behind this is that it seems far better for our kids to “get something out of worship” than sitting in pews drawing or expending their vast amounts of energy distracting their parents and those around them. If the church’s worship is intended to be formative of Christian character and worldview, however, I wonder what messages the church’s institution of a separate, more entertaining worship gives kids.
My hesitation regarding “children’s church” are three-fold: 1) What does it teach our kids about the essence of the church’s corporate worship, vis-à-vis entertainment; 2) What does it communicate about our commitment to corporate worship; and, 3) What impact does it have on preparing our children for corporate worship? I think these hesitations offer grounds for reflection on children’s church.
We live in an entertainment-saturated culture. The “story” offered by the commercial world of television offers a distorted vision of reality that competes with the Christian narrative and its claims on our lives. In the entertainment narrative, the end goal of human life has become happiness—peculiarly defined as “being entertained.” Love, joy, sin, evil, and even suffering are being displaced by distractions under the guise of entertainment. In this entertainment story, pain, grief, sorrow, and the general “unpleasant” things in life are obstacles either solved by technology or papered over by distractions rather than overcome, appropriated, or even learned from. The goals and meanings of human life are radically re-defined toward self-fulfillment and instant gratification.
Churches around the nation have of course been dealing with the entertainment-ization of worship for many years. But in many ways, the common liturgy of the church can serve as a bulwark against the story that life is a series of distractions followed by an anti-climactic death. What a gift the church has been given in the liturgy she has received. Where else in the world may one sit quietly, meditate and reflect, be led in prayer, listen to a brief lecture (better: sermon!), participate in the communal covenant meal, and sing songs with others? The traditional liturgy of the church—even the “three songs and a prayer” liturgy of my tradition—resists and offers a powerful alternative to the idea of the story of life-as-entertainment. If we let it.
At just this moment we send our children out. And we often do it precisely for the reason of entertaining them (how often have we argued over making our worship more entertaining because we’re “losing our young people”). In my own estimation, as a widowed single father, kids are insightful and very quick learners. And they’ll learn a lot quicker from what we do than what we say. If we’re sending our kids out of the corporate worship so they won’t be bored (and distracting) during the sermon, they’ll pick up very quickly that we don’t expect this discipline from them. Whether intentionally or not, we are reinforcing the idea of the entertainment culture around us. We are essentially telling them that the greatest sin to be overcome is not moral fault or lack of self-discipline or whatever, but boredom.
In addition to the entertainment problem, there is the question of the church’s corporate identity. Each member of Christ’s body has a place. For many churches, the only time that the body of Christ is together at one time is in her Sunday morning worship. Here, Christians are exposed to human life in all of its varying states, from joy to grief, from hope to fear. Here we are able to corporately sing praises as well as corporately lament.
I have recently passed the 13th anniversary of my wife’s death. She died on Friday, June 16, 2000. When Sunday came, a big part of me wanted to stay home, but I believed—and still believe—that the body of Christ needed my experience, that my story was an important part of my congregation’s story. Our kids need to understand the importance of the church gathering up all of her various stories and offering them to God, together, in her corporate worship. What message does it send when we send them out from us?
Finally, how does removing kids from our worship impact their formation for corporate worship? I can remember hearing my folks say “shh, we’re praying,” and bowing their heads in worship. More recently, it has been a great joy to hear my 18 month old nephew yell “amen” at the end of prayers in worship, echoing his father’s (my brother’s) booming voice. These of course are anecdotal, but education research has consistently shown that people learn through imitation—that we copy the actions of people we respect. If our worship services are overflowing with Scripture and song and prayer, we may take heart from knowing that our kids are listening (whether they seem to be or not). In fact they are probably “getting more out of it” than we are.
Ultimately, churches should think deeply about the messages we’re sending to kids—kids who are struggling with all of the life experiences of adults—in the construction of our corporate worship and in our treatment of them. If we continue children’s church, as I suspect most of us will, we ought to reflect on ways in which that time together can bring our kids into God’s story and prepare them for the time when they re-join their family for corporate worship. Maybe we can pursue that discussion in a later blog.
We must also find ways to resist the deeply distracting and trivializing entertainment culture, trusting that kids will understand that what they receive at church is of inestimably more worth than what they get from Sesame Street. In the final analysis, we’ll only keep our kids if we help them to see that there is something worth being a part of, something much deeper than the entertainment culture. We must help them to see the great meaning of the church’s worship rather than allowing it to become just another distraction in a world of distractions.
Todd Hall is the Director of the Library at Austin Graduate School of Theology. He also teaches courses at AGST and serves as Associate Editor of Christian Studies. He is a deacon at Holland St. Church of Christ in San Marcos, TX. He is most proud of being a dad to a beautiful 13 year old girl, Madison. Todd has a B.A. from the Institute of Christian Studies, a Masters in Theological Studies from AGST, a Masters of Library Science from the University of North Texas, and he hopes to complete his PhD in Education from Texas State in 2014-15.