History Helps Put Things in Perspective

Crying in ChurchI am strongly opposed to providing our kids with alternate worship experiences all the way through high school. They ought to be worshiping with adults, with their families, in “big” church, not having a special service tailored to their teen demographic.

I am a believer in parents bringing their children, even young children, with them into worship. Our kids can pick up more than we know. And even if the content is beyond them, they will learn some songs, pick up some liturgy, and see their parents worshiping Christ.

I’m a proponent of families worshiping together.

I’m not a proponent, however, of taking a good principle and making it an absolute rule. Moreover, I’m not in favor of making other Christians feel like the truly biblical (or Truly Reformed) position is to have your kids of all ages with you in church at all times.

This is where history helps put things in perspective.

In sixteenth century post-Reformation Scotland, church attendance was mandatory. Kirk sessions took their responsibility seriously to see that the Sabbath was observed and the people attended the preaching of God’s word. And yet, they were not absolutists.

One significant portion of the congregation was systematically excluded everywhere from Sunday sermons. While sermons were central, the elders knew that they had to be audible to be effective, and so they barred babies and very young children from attendance lest they disturb the adult hearers—a factor that must be borne in mind when trying to gauge actual church attendance in early modern Scotland.

The Glasgow sessions designated eight as the cut-off age; Aberdeen prohibited “young bairns [children]…not at the school and not of such age and disposition as they can take themselves to a seat when they come to the kirk, but vague [wander] through the same here and there in time of sermon and make perturbance and disorder.” These children were to be ‘kept at home, for eschewing of clamour and disorder in the kirk.’

Kingsbarns’s session ordered them not only to be kept away from the kirk, but also to be shut up indoors lest parishioners be troubled by the “running up and down of little ones and young children on the Lord’s day in the time of sermon.”

Perth’s session in 1582 actually ordered warding (gaoling) and a 6s 8d fine for ‘bairns that perturb the kirk in time of preaching’ instead of being kept at home. Such rulings would obviously have reduced church attendance quite considerably, since the adult caretakers would have had to stay at home with their young charges. Sessions routinely excused absenteeism by parents, nurses, and other servants for this reason. (Margo Todd, The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland)

Do I think children under eight should be barred from attending worship? No. A sixteenth century Scottish provision does not need to be our rule (and there is evidence that some Scottish parents disregarded the rules and were fined for bringing their naughty children to church!). But it does suggest we should not make it seem like bringing every child into the service is the only responsible choice for theologically serious people. Just as important, it suggests parents of small children should cut themselves some slack–and we should do the same–if church is interrupted for them or even made impossible at times because of the demands of little ones.

And while we’re at it, we should thank the Lord for nursery workers.