Children and Worship

A Father’s Day Exhortation

Happy Father’s Day!

There is a hunger out there. It is not a hunger for food, money, power; it is a hunger for fathers. This is what Douglas Wilson referred to as “Father Hunger.” Sons and daughters are craving for them. And they do not come neatly packaged. They usually come with imperfections and without an instruction manual.

But this is all right. They usually have a pretty good sense of what is right and wrong, and when they make mistakes they don’t justify themselves, but they seek forgiveness.

Where are these fathers today? They are nowhere to be found. We can find their shell in their homes, but we can’t detect their fatherly souls. This is tragic. And we do want to emphasize the important roles that fathers play in the home. But in order to do so, they must be present.

So to fathers who are present, what we want to do is to encourage you to be servants in the home, lovers of truth, carriers of joy, and examples of repentance and faith. Our children will mirror our worst traits, and this is frightening indeed. But God has not left us hopeless. He has provided Himself as an example of true fatherhood. Even those without a father today know that you have a heavenly father; One who does not leave the orphan or widow, but who cares and proves his perfect fatherhood each day.

Fathers, I urge you to take dominion over your role. You only have one shot at it, but remember that no circumstance is too late or too far gone. Every prodigal is within reach. Every prodigal still would prefer dad’s table to the table of doom. Be encouraged and hopeful.

Fathers, you are what you worship, and your children will worship joyfully the God you worship most joyfully. So worship most joyfully the God of your Father Abraham. Do not idolize your children, but teach them to crush idols. Do not serve mammon, but teach them to use mammon wisely.

This is the charge to fathers in this congregation. It is a noble and mighty charge: to love your children and to conquer their hearts, before others conquer them. Learn early and often that you are a servant of your heavenly father. If you do not serve him alone, you will be another absent father in our culture. May it never be! May God grant you strength and wisdom as you lead your families, and may He lead you to your knees, beautify your words with truth and grace, strengthen your faith with biblical conviction, and renew you daily. Amen.

Prayer: O God, our Father, we have at times failed you. We have viewed ourselves as too mighty. We have repented too little, and suffered for it. May we be fathers that delight in You, our great Father. Do not leave us to our own resources, but be our present help in times of trouble. May our hearts be aligned with yours, even as your heart is aligned with your Son, Jesus Christ, in whose Name we pray. Amen.

Why Ministers Leave

The typical pastor stays in a church for 3.6 years. This does not seem to offer much hope for any long-term vision for a local parish. Planning ahead seems futile from the outset. This discouraging number stems from a variety of issues. Some pastors, fresh out of seminary, attempt to revive a church that has already died a thousand deaths. Their optimism suffers the same amount of deaths within the first twelve months. Other pastors eager to persuade a congregation of his theology immerse with psalmic zeal into the nuances of his dogmatic learning only to find that the congregation does not share the same interest or enthusiasm. In many cases pastoral conflicts ensue among staff ultimately leading to each one doing what is right in their own eyes. And the reasons for the 3.6 number can be multiplied.

In Dr. John Gilmore’s Pastoral Politics: Why Ministers Resign he observes the phenomenon of pastoral departure from various angles. In particular, he wants to offer hope to pastors who have gone through the terrible emotional pain of leaving or being forced to leave a congregation. He observes that “Both undergraduate Christian college and seminary courses should do a better job of proactively addressing the matter of pastoral closure.” Pastors usually leave their congregations under tremendous stress and uncertain about their future. If the numbers are right, “resignation” is a common word to the majority of congregations in this country.

When a pastor resigns he is not only leaving his job, he is leaving his life. The pastorate is not merely the exercising of rhetorical skills, but actually the exercising of life skills. No profession is so immersed in the lives of ordinary people than the pastorate. This past Sunday alone during our congregation’s fellowship time I engaged in over 10 different conversations in the space of 30 minutes. From children to older saints, each conversation was important to me because they were manifestations of what was important to my parishioners. As far as I am aware no profession (and I use that term broadly) is so engaged in the well-being of fellow men than the pastorate. And so when a pastor resigns, he resigns not just from a job, but from his life; the life he knew and invested in heart, mind, soul, and strength.

There is no doubt the ecclesiastical charlatans and wolves are out there, and to hell with them! But when the local pastor who sees his unique calling to shepherd and care for his flock resigns he loses more than just a salary, but in many ways his spirit.

Jonathan Edwards understood this. In his farewell sermon he prepared his congregants by saying that it was a matter of vast importance how a people treat their ministers, and in some ways the future of that minister is in the hands of how the sheep treat their shepherd, or as Edwards puts it, “how they receive and entertain a faithful minister of Christ.” Parishioners need to be aware that the implications of Hebrews 13:17 weighs heavily each day to the local minister.

As I stated in a homily delivered at a recent ordination service, no profession undergoes the ups and downs of life so quickly than that of a pastor. He may be rejoicing in the heavenly places on Sunday as he leads his congregation in adoration only to be confronted with a parishioner eager to seek a divorce after 20 years of marriage on Monday morning.

With that in mind, the 3.6 year average seems almost justifiable. But there is hope. And the hope lies not in some pastoral technique or on superb leadership skills, but in the Spirit of God through his intervening grace. The Third Person of the Trinity is the sustainer of the body through the Pentecostal fire poured in the church’s infancy and continued into the church’s maturity. It is by grace that those numbers are not lower and it is by grace that those numbers will increase and no longer reflect the evangelical scene.

May congregations learn to nourish their pastors in love and may pastors nourish their people in every spiritual blessing. And may pastors look with hope to the future of their parishes in the 20-30 years ahead and see the ministry of Word and Sacrament, and care bear much fruit in the lives of their people, their children, and their children’s children.

One Additional Thought on Paedocommunion

Children belong at the table. I have argued for a decade that children of the covenant are recipients of all the covenant benefits. One significant benefit is the means of grace we call the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Baptism opens the ecclesiastical doors to the Lord’s Table.

I have for so long agreed with those simple statements that the more I interact with Reformation-minded Christians on this issue, the stranger and stranger it becomes. Yes, there are those confessional issues at hand, and there is the most famous Pauline passage in I Corinthians 11:17-34 that is used as an argument for opposing paedocommunion, but if the Reformed paedobaptist is open to considering the Bible afresh without his preconceived notions of what Paul meant, or allowing the text to take precedence over our cherished confessions, then I believe there is an opportunity to re-consider this important matter. As Tim Gallant observes, “no tradition and no confession may be treated as irreformable.”

I do not wish here to elaborate on the many exegetical issues involved. Some books like Tim Gallant’s Feed my Lambs and Strawbridge’s The Case for Covenant Communion do a fine job elaborating on the more technical discussions surrounding the issue at hand. My desire is to add just one theological point about the inclusion of children in the Psalter.

The Paedocommunionist position argues that children are to be not only included in the worship of the saints, but also that they are to be participants in the worship of the saints. And part of this participation means eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table with the body. To be in the body means to partake of the body. The Paedocommunion position is the natural consequence of paedobaptism. In fact, many come to paedocommunion by considering the logical necessities of paedobaptism.

The Psalter makes a fine case for the inclusion of little children in the ecclesiastical community of the Old Testament. Those of us who wish to apply a covenantal hermeneutic consistently conclude that they are to be also included in the New Covenant promises. If the New Covenant is more glorious and greater, then the NC continues to show favor to children of believers, and not take away that favor. Assuming that to be the case (and certainly this is a limited discussion among paedobaptists), then it is safe to conclude that the Psalter establishes a model of inclusion and not exclusion.

One text that is often overlooked in this discussion is Psalm 148. Psalm 148 is a doxological description of the celestial and earthly praise. God designs creation to display His excellencies and glory. But this glory can only be complete if children are in the picture. Children are also part of this great choir. Children, then, are involved participants in this cosmic refrain of praise. Creation is also involved and is sacramentally nourished by the hands of God. Far from an uninterested and uninvolved God, our God is deeply invested in the affairs of creation and so He sustains them with every good thing.

But at the heart of this chorus are old men and children (na`ar). Man plays a pivotal role in this worship scene. He is the homo adorans (worshiping being). 

We can then conclude that the Psalmist engages all sorts of people in the responsibility of praise. And if children are called to praise (Psalm 8:2-3), then they are called to be nourished as participants in that praise. In the Bible everyone who praises eats at some time. I am arguing that those who praise eat very early. When? At the moment they can eat and drink at their earthly father’s table, they should be able to eat at their heavenly father’s table. Simple in my estimation.

Children in Worship

Two fellow pastors have contributed to this important discussion. Pastor Rob Hadding writes:

One would be hard pressed to find examples in the Bible of where parents are instructed to exclude children from worship or the feasts. In fact, there are many places where the Bible explicitly instructs the people of God on how to include them. But, and this is the root of the matter, it is not our practice in American Evangelical culture to look to the Bible to see how we ought to be doing things. Rather, we look to the culture, asking the world for its wisdom. Where is our biblical theology of children? Where is our biblical theology of family? Where is our biblical theology of worship?

Pastor Toby Sumpter also touches on this in his piece, and concludes:

All I mean is that God designed worship to include other people and especially other little people, children. Real worship includes those people next to us, in the row behind us, and in front of us. It’s certainly true that without discipline or teaching, they can become distractions, but the fact that they are there, needing attention, smiling, waving, drawing pictures, and doing their own best to worship is glorious and nothing to be regretted or despised. And you, parents, if you are holding their hands and lifting your hearts to the Lord, then your worship is accepted. You are received, loved, rejoiced over by your Father in Heaven. You are worshiping, really worshiping.

It is time that we restore our little children to worship! They have been exiled long enough!

{For a more extended article on this topic, see Pastor Randy Booth’s Little Children and the Worship of God}

The Saints of Providence Church in 2012


Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist

A post by Melinda Penner in 2005 reminded me of the great responsibility pastors have to project and express a biblical view of life and the world. According to a 2005 study:

Most religious youth couldn’t coherently express their beliefs and how it is different from other faiths. Their view of God is “something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist” who solves their problems. And the most troubling finding is that religious teens don’t believe there are theological objective truths; effectively they are pluralists.

What is the cause of such naivete? The Church has certainly failed to educate their youth when their youth were only little babes (Psalm 22:9). Undoubtedly there is a parental blame in the picture. Parents need to equip early on. They need to fulfill their duties (Ephesians 6). At the same time, what is the modern Church offering their youth? Pizza parties? Pep talks about modern movie trivia?

The Church is losing her youth, though her youth may still be attending the Church. It won’t be long before they become Church corpses–offering little to nothing to the life and sanctification of the Church body–or completely abandon the pews and run to Richard Dawkins for nurture.

Liturgy and Child Rearing

Books on child-rearing are a dime a dozen. In fact, my own bookshelf at home has an entirely dedicated section to books on parenting. These books cover quite an eclectic set of topics. Of course, the books I have generally come from a more Reformational perspective. But being Reformed today is code word for being cool; so, that does not say much. There are books on child-rearing coming out exhorting parents to spank and some to spank little to none at all.

I have even heard parents boast that they rarely spank their children. They say that they have found more creative ways to discipline than spanking. This is almost equivalent to saying that even though the Bible says “do not spare the rod,” I have found a more effective way of disciplining my children (certainly wisdom dictates at what age spanking is no longer necessary; here I am addressing little ones). Others blast parents who spank for any reason on facebook because “any spanking leads to abuse,” they argue. One writer implied that spanking is the equivalent of what a judge did recently to his daughter. I beg to differ. As I have always quoted, “An abuse of something is not an argument against its proper use.”

Some also blame Christianity or fundamentalism (the famous undefined word used by the media) as culprits of this child-abuse culture. Never mind the extreme abuse of non-church goers and atheistic minded parents that certainly exceed the abuse in Christian communities. But why would the media report on the overwhelming care of godly parents who spank their kids? Why would the media concern herself with faithful parents who love, encourage, but also discipline? Why would the media care about parents who act like God acts?

Not every act deserves a rod or a glue-stick (for we modern disciplinarians). Though I argue that spanking is the fundamental method of discipline in the Bible, some acts of disobedience demand a conversation or a sharp rebuke. At times a mere look will communicate what the parent intends. This is all a large part of wisdom. But what does this all have to do with liturgy?

Liturgy is grounded in acts. Every act leads to something else. In liturgy, skipping to a meal before being cleansed (washing of hands) is improper. The liturgy shapes us. Specifically, the Lord’s Day liturgy has a way of forming us into obedient children of the Most High God. Liturgy forms us into gospelizers as parents and children. Liturgy is order and decency (I Cor. 14:40). This is one reason structure is so crucial to the Church, and more to the point this is one reason structure is so significant to the life of the home. A home that lacks structure is a home that lacks a consistent liturgy.

Worship establishes patterns of behavior. First, we are cleansed, then we are taught, and then we are commissioned. This is a synopsis of a covenant renewal model. When you apply this pattern to child-rearing you realize it is a sober method of disciplining. First, children need to understand that they have sinned against God (Psalm 51) and against one another. Children need to confess and be cleansed. Children’s ability to understand sin is far greater than we can imagine. Part of this cleansing process is the presupposition that all sin is communal. No sin affects only self.  Children are born and baptized for the sake of incorporation: The first into a biological family; the other to a biblical, cosmic family.

Secondly, the task of parenting then follows in teaching. This is didactic parenting. All parents are home-schoolers in one way or another. I am assuming here the role of nurturing and building up as part of the instruction. The instruction needs to be age appropriate and biblically saturated, even if the verse is not quoted verbatim. Teaching needs to be done calmly and with great patience. The impatience of our children often reveals our impatience.

Finally, the parenting liturgy concludes with commission. The father/mother, after having cleansed the child, instructed the child, the parent sends this child out to go and sin no more. This commission stems from the previous steps. Commissioning is the call to be reconciled to the world beginning with our households.

Parenting is always liturgical. A make-up-as-you-go liturgy will cause certain effects on the liturgy of the home. I argue that every child needs structure. This is not a never-adjusting structure, but a foundational structure. Within this structure there is liberty. Parents know it and our children do as well. Liturgy is nothing more than the structure of life.

Vacation and Worship

As summer heats upon us, many of us will be vacationing all over the country. As a pastor, I am constantly troubled by how many people treat vacation as not only a break from work, but also a break from Church. To some, if vacation happens to involve a Sunday then their priority will be on a Church-free Sunday rather than gathering with God’s people.

Hebrews does not treat this subject lightly. The author forbids the non-assembling of ourselves. It calls us to not forsake the gathering. The angels and archangels engage in heavenly worship day and night and we are called to join in this duty of worship each time we are gathered together on the Lord’s Day.

Vacation is no substitute for worship. In fact, missing the Lord’s Day gathering on vacation for any trivial reason is to mock the tearing of the veil, which gave us access to the heavenly throne of grace.

With that in view, here are a few things I recommend for those going on vacation this summer:

First, avoid falling for the trap that a few good Christians gathered constitute the Church on Sunday. You may enjoy Christian fellowship, be challenged by an exhortation, but this does not constitute heavenly worship. It may be simply a Bible study, but worship is not a Bible study; it is the very entrance of God’s people into the heavenly places through the work of the Spirit.

Second, before going on vacation google churches near the area. If you are not able to find a church that resembles yours, look to explore a bit outside your tradition. Learn to love the universal church. Find an evangelical congregation that loves the Bible.

Third, avoid making Sunday morning plans. Let your family-especially those who are not Christians– know that you treasure Sunday mornings and that you desire to teach your children to love this day also. It may not be beneficial to theologize about these issues with other family members (since, it may lead to unnecessary arguing), but at the very least offer them one or two reasons.

Finally, when visiting other churches, teach your children (and yourself) not to be overly critical about the preaching, singing, or any other feature of the service. Use this time to teach the little ones about the beauty of the universal church.

The Lord’s Day is a day of rest. It is the feast God has prepared for you. Under normal circumstances, there is no other place for you to be.

Little Children in Worship

I have been reading several parenting books in these last few months. Lately I have been working through Robbie Castleman’s delightful Parenting in the Pew (review to come). On a section dealing with how children belong, she quotes Stanley Hauerwas’s Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (p. 37), where he writes:

In many of our modern, sophisticated congregations, children are often viewed as distractions. We tolerate children only to the extent they promise to become “adults” like us. Adult members sometimes complain that they cannot pay attention to the sermon, they cannot listen to the beautiful music, when fidgety children are beside them in the pews. “Send them away,” many adults say. Create “Children’s Church” so these distracting children can be removed in order that we adults can pay attention…Interestingly, Jesus put a child in the center of his disciples, “in the midst of them,” in order to help them pay attention…The child was a last ditch-effort by God to help the disciples pay attention to the odd nature of God’s kingdom. Few acts of Jesus are more radical, countercultural, than his blessing of children.

Training Little Ones Through New Eyes…

This is a topic dear to me. I have one daughter and another child on the way. My theological community places a great emphasis on children and their participation in the community. We do not place them in a special category, they are already–by virtue of God’s grace (Psalm 22:9) and by being born in a Christian home (I Corinthians 7:14)–in the only category that exists in the church, the righteous ones. In the assembly there is wisdom to be imparted and the mysteries of the gospel are revealed each week as we eat and drink and commune with one another and our children.

In light of this, our children need to treated with a new perspective; they need to be viewed with new eyes. Biblically, the gathering community is elevated to the heavens to the presence of her Lord when they meet together (Eph. 2:6). Christ summons us–by His Spirit– into His presence so we may feast with Him at His table and in the Holy of Holies. Worship is heavenly and our children need to be trained from the earliest days to see worship as heavenly. They need to be active participants in this heavenly worship. They need to see models of this at home, so they may partake of this joy at church.

Training little ones is no easy task. It requires a theological commitment that is a minority view in our own day. It is looked down upon in most evangelical churches (and sadly, in most reformed churches). Circumstances dictate much of our practices, yet, no circumstance should take away the necessity of training little ones in the home. This can be done in several ways. There are three common practices in our household that embody what I have been arguing. These are significant and necessary features, but by no means essential in every detail.

First, prayer needs to be modeled at home. Every meal is prefaced with: “Child (name), let us pray to God and give thanks to Him.” Children must understand that the life of faith is a life of thankfulness. God in His rich mercy poured out all blessings on us. He has given us His Spirit and His Son for our benefit and for our salvation. Children who are catechized in this context of thankfulness grow up to be appreciative of all God’s good gifts.

Second, singing needs to be central as the background of any covenant home. I am not speaking of random music or even music that purports to be Christian; rather, I am speaking of music that is uplifting, whether dance-like or meditative music. Classical music is to be preferred above many styles, but it should not be the sole choice of the Christian home. Children need to be exposed to a diversity of music. In my opinion, the best music for covenant children available is the music of Jamies Soles. This is Christian music that is not afraid of the hard or the obscure passages. Jamie’s music actually reflects the words of Paul that all Scripture is given for our instruction, and we may add, our singing.

Finally, family worship is indispensable. Whether five or ten minutes a day, every family needs to do it. If it is unattractive at first, keep pressing on. Family worship, like church worship, is a maturing process. No congregation sings Psalm 45 (in the Cantus Christi) successfully the first time. In our congregation, it took at least three tries before we mastered this divine psalm. In the same manner, worship is hard. Parents can seek many models available. In our home, we follow the similar pattern of Sunday morning worship. In fact, we keep our Sunday bulletins and use them throughout the week (see an example here). We begin with a salutation (Daddy: Jesus Christ is Risen! Mommy and Children: Jesus Christ is Risen Indeed!) and then kneel for confession (see an example of a confession in the bulletin). We all rise after kneeling and hear a word of assurance from God’s word that our sins are forgiven in Jesus’ name (see Romans 5:1). Typically that is followed by a reading from the Scriptures. The passage will most likely be the text for the coming Sunday sermon (our bulletin provides the reading for the following week). The reading is followed by a hearty, “This is the Word of the Lord! Thanks be to God!” Then, I choose a hymn or a psalm (one advantage of the Cantus Christi is that it includes about 100 of the 150 psalms). Usually–as the father–I will lead our family in a prayer for our needs and the needs of others. We always begin by exalting God for Who He is and what He has done. At this point, my 18 month-old knows that when daddy says amen it is time for the doxology. We raise our hands together as a sign of adoration and conclude with praise to the Father, Son, and Spirit. All this takes approximately 5-7 minutes. It is not overwhelming, but incredibly rich in substance.

You begin to train your little ones with new eyes; the eyes of faith that sees that their worship is pure worship before the Father of all glory.