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A Historical Study of the Place of Children in the Worship Service

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Posted by Robin Barfield, 2 Aug 2018

Robin Barfield surveys the historical evidence for the place of children in the worship service, in light of claims that taking children out of the service for separate instruction is a modern innovation.

Much heat has been produced in Evangelicalism recently with the claim that to remove children during the corporate gathering is a modern novelty. This article argues three things: firstly, that the place of children in the worship service throughout church history has never been as uniform as is often claimed; secondly, that there has always been a tension between the comprehensibility of preaching and a child’s developmental understanding; and thirdly, that there is a parallel with a child’s exclusion from the Lord’s Supper which is critical to current debate.

It is common practice in churches in the UK and the US to remove children from the worship service: this may be for the whole time or just for the preaching of the word; this may be only those under 11, although it is commonly up to the late teens. Yet what historical precedent is there for this? Some say that it is a modern novelty which is dangerous and divisive. Often this argument comes from those whose theology is highly covenantal in nature, particularly those who would be part of the Family Integrationist Movement (FIM), a loose collection of strongly Reformed churches who hold that there must be no age or gender specific meetings amongst them. For those holding to this view, the historical situation is a key contention in their argument.

One of the most sustained cases comes from Scott T. Brown who is director of the National Center for Family Integrated Churches and elder at Hope Baptist Church in Wake Forest, North Carolina. He writes, “For over two hundred years, the soil in which the weed of age segregation grew was incrementally prepared with the lofty deposits of platonic philosophy, the loamy organics of rationalism, the ethereal waters of evolutionism, and the breathable but allergenic air of pragmatism. These diverse elements, which created a context for this weed, took time to accumulate, but by the end of the twentieth century, they had produced a new plant that had never been seen before—systematic, age segregated youth ministry. The fact is that systematic, age segregated youth ministry is undeniably non-Christian in its origin.”

There are others who do not make such extreme claims as Brown, allowing for some separate age ministries to take place, yet argue to keep all together for the preaching of the word. So John Witvliet writes, “For the past several decades, many North American congregations have pursued generationally segregated approaches to worship and church life.” The arguments are noticeably similar: specific age-related ministries (of which removing children from the church service is part) is new and the result of worldly thinking and secular ideas.

However it is not just the strongly Reformed who are making these arguments, but also those from post-modern and emergent churches. So Allen and Ross write, “Throughout much of Christian history, the whole body of Christ—that is, all the generations—met together for ministry and worship as well as most other gatherings; intergenerationality was the norm.” In fact, they too place the change very firmly in the near past, “some faith communities began to offer ‘children’s church’ options in the late 1960s and early 1970s.” Both of these groups make their arguments using sweeping generalities with little reference to sources. Where there are direct references, none are to primary sources but to further secondary sources which make similar assertions, without reference to any primary sources. Even those authors who write with less of a polemic purpose tend to limit themselves to general statements.

In fact, in most of these books and articles the narrative is the same: children were included in public worship until the rise, and particularly the decline, of the Sunday School movement, where increasing segregation of children into ages and from adults began. Doug Phillips sums it up well, “It was a modern innovation meant to accommodate evolutionary thinking.”

This essay will seek to respond to these arguments by investigating the role of children in the Sunday gathering of the church through church history, paying particular attention to the preaching of the word. First, we will consider whether the presence of children in the worship service is as uniform as is so often claimed; secondly, we will consider how children were understood through church history; and thirdly, we will examine the covenantal connection between preaching and the Lord’s Supper in regard to children.

You can read the rest of this article in Churchman 132-2, available to purchase as a single issue, or by subscribing

Scott T. Brown, A Weed in the Church: How a Culture of Age Segregation is Destroying the Younger Generation, Fragmenting the Family, and Dividing the Church (Wake Forest, NC: National Center for Family Integrated Churches, 2011), 114. He makes similar arguments elsewhere: Scott T. Brown, “My Top Four Favourite Family Integrated Pastors,” 15 December 2015, https://ncfic.org/
resources/view/my-top-four-favorite-family-integrated-church-pastors.
John D. Witvliet, foreword to The Nursery of the Holy Spirit: Welcoming Children in Worship, by Daniel R. Hyde (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), ix.
Holly Catterton Allen and Christine Lawson Ross, Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), 17.
Kara Powell, “Is the Era of Age Segregation Over?” Leadership 30 (2009): 43–48;
Vicky Goplin et al., eds., Across the Generations: Incorporating All Ages in Ministry: The Why and How (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 2001).

Robin Barfield is Associate Minister for Children & Families at Christ Church, Wharton

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