On the Family Pew: Children in Corporate Worship

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Almost all Christian parents put great value on the development of our children. We make personal sacrifices and put in many hours of hard work in order to provide what we believe is best for them. Our desire is for our children to be educated so that they might succeed and do well in life as servants of God and neighbor. Likewise, when it comes to the spiritual development and nurture of our children, we seek that which is best for them. We want them to know God: who he is and what he has done in history. We want them to understand why he created the universe and why we exist in it. We want them to know God’s Word and hide it in their hearts. We want them to understand the meaning and significance of their covenant baptism. And above all, we want them to know and love the sweetness of the gospel. But how do we ensure that such an educational goal will be met? If you were to make a list of the most important things for the spiritual development and nurture of your children, what would be number one? What would be number two? Many of us might think immediately of things such as Sunday school programs, youth groups, Christian schools, or home school curriculum written by Christians. While a case can be made that such things can be beneficial in the life of a covenant child, Scripture gives us a different answer about what is most important, one that is simple and not complicated. In fact, it is downright ordinary and unglamorous. To ensure the spiritual development and nurture of our children, the Bible gives us two non-negotiable essentials: the public means of grace at the local church (i.e. Word and Sacrament) and discipleship in the home.

This post will be on the first of those two, the public means of grace.

THE PUBLIC MEANS OF GRACE

The corporate worship service may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about the most important key to the spiritual health of our children. After all, it may seem to be a struggle to keep them attentive (or even awake!) in the worship service and even harder to help them see the joy and necessity of worship. But, like everything in our theology, we must begin with God’s revelation, not our own reasoning. The Scriptures show us that God has called us to the worship service because he has claimed us as his own and made us his own peculiar, worshiping society. This was done by virtue of the covenant he made with us, first through Abraham and later fulfilled in Christ.

God once assembled his people to Mount Sinai (Ex 19-20), but now he has assembled them to “Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb 12.18-24). Thus, we are called to “offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe” (Heb 12.28). The church is a people called out of the world to worship their covenant-making and keeping God. The very word for church, ekklesia in the Greek, essentially means “called out” and describes the relocation involved in our salvation.

In public worship, our children are brought with us as we are summoned by God to receive his good gifts and bring him praise and honor. He calls us together in order to speak to us and feed us in Word and sacrament. We respond to him in prayer, song and giving. Over time, our children begin to see what is different about them: they are part of a covenant community upon whom God has laid claim. They are part of a worshiping people who are in the world, but not of the world. And nowhere is their other-worldliness more noticeable than the corporate worship service.

The spiritual effects of growing up as a member of this worshiping covenant community are incalculable. From their earliest years, our children are brought with us into the holy presence of God with his assembled people. They see their parents humbling themselves in submission and service to the Lord. They learn to sing the Psalms and hymns of saints who have gone before us. They learn to confess their sins to God and rest in his pardon. They hear a message that cannot they cannot receive anywhere else in the world. They recognize that this weekly event is unlike anything else they experience in the culture in which they live.

But above all, they come under God’s ordained means of spiritual nourishment and the way in which faith is birthed and sustained. Our forefathers understood the Bible’s clarity on this. Heidelberg Catechism question 65 asks: “Since then we are made partakers of Christ and all his benefits by faith only, from where comes this faith?” A: “The Holy Spirit works it in our hearts by the preaching of the gospel, and confirms it by the use of the holy sacraments.” Paul calls the gospel “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1.16). It is only through the gospel that a person can come to faith, for “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom 10.17).

But the Holy Spirit not only brings a sinner to conversion and justification through the preached gospel, he also does his life-long work of sanctification through the preached Word in connection with the worship service. This is what we see throughout redemptive history. In the old covenant, God revealed his will to his people through the Law and the Messianic gospel-promise by priests and prophets who explained God’s Word. This was done primarily in the corporate worship service related to the Tabernacle (and later the Temple) and the synagogue.

With the coming of Christ and the new covenant, God continues to sanctify his people through the preached Word. Just before he went to the cross, Jesus prayed in his high-priestly prayer, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (Jn 17.17). It is for this reason that Christ gave to his church the offices of the Word: apostles, prophets and evangelists (which were temporary and extraordinary offices), and pastor-teachers (ordinary offices). Why did he give them? Paul tells us in Ephesians 4:

to equip the saints, for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ (Eph 4:12-15)

This growth from spiritual infancy to maturity takes place primarily by means of the weekly corporate worship service, that place where God’s covenant people gather together to continue steadfastly in “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship…the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). It is essentially God’s ordained lifeline for the church, which includes our children. It is the primary means of their spiritual growth.

This is not to say, however, that brining our children to worship will be free from all obstacles and distractions. Like everything in the nurture and development of our children, it requires a lot of work and effort. At times, we will be tired, maybe even frustrated. As parents, we probably feel the weight of the challenges of covenantal worship. In the next post, I will address some of the most common concerns that I, as a pastor, have heard from parents in regard to the corporate worship service. I hope to encourage all of at Christ URC to suffer the little children to come to Jesus.