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Topical Tuesday: Why are there no children in church?

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Posted by James Oakley, 24 Oct 2017

James Oakley responds to recently published statistics on low church attendance among under-16s.

Premier Christian Radio just posted a question on Facebook:

A quarter of Church of England services do not have a single child in the congregation, increasing fears of a gradual ‘extinction’.

An average-sized Anglican church has only three children attending each week, while those with the smallest congregations, which comprise a quarter of the total number, have no under-16s at all in their pews, the church’s figures show.

What can the church do to reach more young families?

How can we save the church from extinction?

Those are good questions. By God’s grace, we have 30 children in our church on an average Sunday, up from an average of 1-2 ten years ago. I don’t think we’ve arrived at where we need to be, by any means, but after travelling some way I’ve had lots of opportunity to think about attitudes to children that help, and attitudes that hinder.

I would like to outline the three reasons why I believe many churches have so few children. Ironically, the questions Premier are asking could be part of the problem.

The Unwanted Noisy Distraction
With children comes noise, mess, chaos, distraction. Many churches like their Sunday worship to be dignified, ordered, seemly events. They don’t want their service to be a pantomime.

At one level, there’s nothing wrong with that. Clearly, our services shouldn’t be undignified. Church is worship of the Living God, and should not be a pantomime in any form. However, apart from pantomime, children below a certain age hardly ever go to the theatre. That’s because those who attend theatre do not want the noise and distraction of children. While that may be fine for a theatre, it’s not fine for a church. The church is, or should be, an all-age family, with all that goes with that.

Others would say that children should come but they must learn to behave. Really? “Learn how to behave before we can go to church.” Are you sure? What gospel are we subconsciously teaching? In case you genuinely didn’t know, the Christian good news is that none of us know how to behave in God’s world, never mind his church, but God came in the person of Jesus to rescue us back into his family. This kindness is entirely undeserved; we do not qualify by changing our behaviour before or after we receive God’s new life.

It is true that, when adults come with the right attitude, and when other children worship constructively, other children will learn how to behave in church. Culture is infectious. But at the same time, new families will come, maybe without a church background. They need to be made welcome. Enthusiastically welcome. One of my predecessors in Kemsing used to say that the only word he never wanted to hear in the church here was “Shush!”.

I often speak to parents with young, pre-school aged, children. They are nervous about bringing their children lest they be noisy. I like to explain that if they bring children to church, and if those children should be noisy, they would be exercising a valuable ministry. The ministry of helping others feel at ease. If they had not been there, someone else’s child would have been the noisiest child that day, and they may not have returned. But, because they and their children were there, at least one other family left with the impression that it’s OK for them to come as a family.

The Future of the Church
It’s not uncommon to hear that children are important because they are the future of the church.

That’s been said so often that the reply has now also become proverbial: They are not the future of the church; they are the present church.

This is so important, that it warrants unpacking a little. Our covenant theology says that, from birth, children are full members of the body of Christ. This is why the old covenant Jews circumcised their infants, and it’s why we baptise them.

If we say that we need children in church because they are the future, we want them because of something they give to us (our security for the next generation), not because we love and want them as people - also beautifully made in God’s image, fallen, and those Christ died to redeem.

If we have that attitude, we put up with children for today, but we do not truly welcome and include them as part of the body of Christ. At its worst, when combined with the first attitude, children are tolerated for today because we know we need them for tomorrow. They can tell the difference between being loved and valued, and being used. So they won’t want to come to a church that manipulates things to make children artificially welcome.

Now look at the questions Premier were asking, quoted at the top of this post. See how dangerous they could be, couched in the way they are? We mustn’t want children as a means to an end, to make our “Statistics for Mission” form look good.

How I Want My Church

Here’s the third: “When I grew up in church, there were all ages present. I’d like to be in a church like that now.”

This comes through in lots of ways. Maybe there are a number of local traditions and customs that (as a broad brush) interest the older generation, but not so the younger generation. The younger families naturally choose to go to the events that they want to be part of, which may not include some of those customs. But then the older generation wistfully wishes that they could have more children at the things that suit them.

I’m not arguing for a consumerist attitude to church, where different groups pick and choose. Worshipping together matters. But note the attitude behind that wistfulness: “If we could have children at such and such an event, it would complete the picture postcard ideal I have in my mind. That was a beautiful thing we just did; to improve it, it just needed half a dozen smartly dressed and well-behaved children sitting in the front row.”

This is now related to the second reason. The children are wanted, because of what they can contribute to my experience of church, not because we want and love the children themselves.

Jesus and Children
Jesus loved children.

Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.

Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.’ When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.  (Matthew 19:13-15)

Therefore his church must love them. Not tolerate them, but love them. Not want them because they add something I want, but because we love them, and want them to know and love the Lord Jesus too.

When a church learns to love children, and to bring the gospel to them, they’ll come. Because the real Jesus is good news, and is attractive like nothing else is.

This post originally appeared on James’s own website and is reproduced with permission.

James Oakley is vicar of Kemsing with Woodlands churches in Kent.

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