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Kids in Church: What Do You Expect Is Going to Happen?

Kids in Church

A wise person once shared with my husband that “Frustration is the difference between expectation and reality.”  He went on to say, “If you are frustrated, you will need to either change your expectation or you will need to change your reality.”  As we continue to have conversations about kids in church and including all generations in corporate worship, I think it might be wise for us to do consider this idea.

In the past, the church has chosen to “change the reality.”  When children and youth were seen as distracting or having specialized needs that couldn’t be met in a corporate worship setting, the church changed the reality.

We removed them from the space, put them in their own spaces, and separated the generations from one another as much as possible.

To be clear, there is a lot of good that comes out of age-sensitive ministry. In fact, an approach that completely overlooks the unique needs of each age would be a bad idea. However, time has revealed to us some unintended consequences of the age segregation model adopted in the mid-20th century. And it’s not just in the church; our whole culture bought into the idea that separating generations is a good idea…but we were wrong.

Researchers have found that among the unforeseen results of age segregation are things like “negative stereotypes and people feeling isolated from each other” and “features of antisocial behavior and to socialization for competitiveness and aggressiveness.” (source).

In the church, Dr. Kara Powell shares that “A lot of kids aren’t going to both youth group and church on Sundays; they’re just going to youth group. As a result, graduates are telling us that they don’t know how to find a church. After years at the kids’ table, they know what youth group is, but they don’t know what church is.” (source).

Changing our reality doesn’t seem to have worked. In fact, it seems to have really hurt us in the long run. We are losing generations.

So what if instead of that, we changed our expectations?

We’ve grown up in an era where generations were segregated and separated from one another and we expect church to be a place that is tailored to meet our needs. We expect that we would have a certain experience at church and we expect others to have a similar one. We go to church for certain expected reasons (to worship, to hear a sermon, to grow in our faith, to get re-charged, to be with our friends). And those expectations often fail to be met when we put the generations in one room together.

If we were to change our expectations about kids in church, what would that look like?  What expectations could we have instead?

Kids in Church: Expect the church to be more than Sunday morning

When we look at the church of the New Testament, we find a group of people who are doing life together. They aren’t meeting once a week to have their needs met; they are invested in one another all week long, meeting one another’s needs throughout that time so that there’s not a one shot fix on Sunday morning.

What if our expectation was that there are times for both worship together, all generations, and discipleship apart, meeting the specific developmental needs of each generation?  What if our expectation was both/and not either/or?

Kids in Church: Expect children to be children

There is no way a five-year-old is going to come to church to “get something” out of the sermon.  And because of that, it’s easy to say that kids don’t get anything out of church. But we are putting adult expectations on non-adults.

What if we adjusted those expectations so that children could be children?  They will “get something” out of church, but it likely won’t be the same things adults will (For more on that, click here).

Expect the church to be family

Sociologists have said “in contemporary Western societies, which are marked by widespread institutional, spatial, and cultural age segregation, only the family surviv(es) as an age-integrated institution.” (source)  But the church, as seen in Scripture, is to be like a family; one body with many parts, but one body nonetheless.

If we expect our church to be like family then we would expect to hear the littles crying, the bigs talking, the older sharing and the younger learning. We would expect to be together.

I can’t help but wonder if we shifted our expectations to ones like these, would our Sunday mornings (and Wednesday nights and Friday afternoons) begin to look and feel different to us?

Would we begin to see church as something more than a once-a-week re-charge and more of a communal way of living where we do life together?

And would our children and youth and our seniors and elderly all know that they have a place at our family table?

And, perhaps, would we be a little less frustrated when we hear a child cry in service, laugh during a sermon, wiggle and squirm at the doxology, run up to the altar for communion or dance during the worship service?

Perhaps when it comes to kids in church, it’s time to change our expectations.

This article about kids in church originally appeared here.

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Christina is wife of Pastor Luke and mom to Hannah, Naomi, and Caleb. She has been serving in ministry since 2010, first as a director of children's ministry and now as a family minister near Lexington, KY.