As a mum, there are certain people I love to visit with my kids. These are the people who put away their breakables, pull out a puzzle or a few matchbox cars, and open a new jar of creamy peanut butter. These are people who make a point of giving hugs to my kids and showing them where the bathroom is – just in case. These are the people my kids love to visit, too. In their homes, my children feel welcome.
At church, too, my kids (ages seven, seven and nine) have had the privilege of being welcome in worship. And as their mum, I’m thankful for every congregation who makes an effort to affirm that children’s lisping praises are precious to God, their concerns are welcome in his ear and their souls are often numbered in his kingdom (Ps. 8:2, Matt. 19:13-14).
I make no claim that the following suggestions are an exhaustive list of how to welcome children in local church worship. They are simply four things that have been a blessing to my family. These things also have the advantage of being both simple and applicable across church cultures. They don’t require staff or planning meetings or funds. They simply require us, like our Saviour, to pay attention to the young bodies and souls in our midst.
Greet children by name
Welcoming children to worship begins at the door to the church building. Here, after being apart for sometimes a whole week, the people of God rejoice to see one another again face to face. And because we are commanded to greet ‘all the brothers’ (1 Thess. 5:26), we include children.
I have two sons who look similar. They’re close in age, almost the same height, and usually sport matching haircuts. It’s sometimes difficult for people to tell them apart. My boys are patient with church members who call them by the wrong name but those who make the effort to know their names – to know them as distinct individuals – are the reason they run to the church door on Sunday mornings with smiles on their faces.
Equally important are people who make sure my children know their names. Children are usually at a disadvantage when it comes to introductions; it’s not always clear what polite form of address is available to them in a particular context. So they’re put at ease by someone willing to make it clear from the beginning: ‘Hi! I’m Mrs Hill. What’s your name?’
When believers know and are known by the children who worship alongside them every week, they communicate that children are valuable – yes, even essential (1 Cor. 12:22) – to our corporate life. With a handshake and smile, they tell my kids they are welcome.
Use the same Bible version every week
As an adult, I understand. The NASB may be a more faithful rendering of that text. The ESV is easier to read aloud for this passage. The NKJV sounds fresher here. The NIV sounds more familiar. So some churches use this version one week, that version another.
But for children new to the printed page, hearing one thing with their ears while looking at a sentence that says something else is baffling. Even the transposition of two phrases or the substitution of a single word can quickly confuse beginning or developing readers trying hard to follow along in their own Bible.
When my church consistently uses a single version of the Bible, it makes it easier for my kids to read it, to memorise it and to meditate on it.
On a recent Sunday, as an elder read aloud the Scripture text from the pulpit, my children leaned over their Bibles. Suddenly, my son poked me in the arm. ‘Mommy!’ he stage-whispered, ‘We know this one! That’s my memory verse!’ In that moment, the Scripture reading became an opportunity for his engagement, for him to mouth along the words he already knew as he eagerly underlined them with a dimpled finger.
Sing from a hymnal or distribute printed words
Most kids love to sing. Of all the elements of corporate worship, singing is probably the easiest for them to participate in, the most obvious way for them to contribute meaningfully and the best opportunity for them to feel a part of the congregation.
But putting lyrics on a screen can defeat little ones before they even open their mouths. For one thing, my kids are often too short to see the screen around the 6’4” high student standing in front of them. For another, my early readers need to physically run their fingers under the words in order to keep their place. Having printed copies of the psalms or hymns has helped my children learn the songs by heart and become confident in singing the praises God himself has ordained (Matt. 21:14–16).
Specifically mention children in prayer and preaching
Maybe, like me, you recall times in your own childhood when the voice from the pulpit came to your ears like the sound of a grown-up in the Peanuts cartoon: ‘Wah Wah Wah.’ Whether through sinful lethargy, the devices of the evil one, or plain human weakness, children often have trouble connecting prayer and preaching to their lives.
This is why it’s important to pray for them. When the elders of my church pray publicly in worship for children – specifically mentioning their labours in the home and at school, asking for healing from their physical illnesses and especially pleading for their salvation – my kids see they are welcome before the throne and encouraged to find help there. Further, public prayer makes the concerns of children the concerns of the whole congregation, uniting all of us to carry their burdens to the Lord.
And in preaching, too, pastors can address children plainly. I’ve seen the eyes of my kids suddenly widen mid-sermon as they hear: ‘Kids, here’s how you can apply this verse.’
Specifically mentioning children in the sermon reminds them that the commands of Scripture are commands for them. What’s more, speaking directly to kids from the pulpit assures them that the offer of the gospel is an offer for them. I am so thankful for every pastor who tenderly says, ‘Children, here is your great hope! Look to Jesus, the only Saviour of sinners!’
I could not ask for a better welcome for my children.