This article first appeared as a meditation in the August 1984 issue of the Standard Bearer (vol.60, No.19), a special issue on preaching.
Preaching and Our Children
A big thing in the Reformed community today is children's church. The children are present at the beginning of the worship service with their parents. But just prior to the sermon the children are dismissed to another part of the building. And while the adults hear the preaching the children are engaged in various other spiritual activities. The reasoning behind this is the idea that the preaching is far above the heads of our children and thus really of no profit for them. Better that for this part of the service they do something more meaningful and worthwhile.
This practice certainly is not the pattern set by the Scriptures.
It's quite apparent that children were present in the multitudes that followed Jesus during His earthly ministry. Children not only witnessed Jesus' miracles; they also heard His preaching. This is evident for example on both occasions when Jesus fed a large multitude with just a few loaves and fishes. In both instances we are told that there were so many men, besides women and children (cf. Matt. 14:21; Matt. 15:38). In addition to this, there is at least one instance where Jesus called a little child to His side and instructed His disciples that they must be as little children to enter the kingdom of heaven (cf. Matt. 18:2ff.). This also suggests that children were never far from Jesus, even while He preached and taught.
We find the same sort of thing in the book of Acts with the preaching of the Apostles. The Apostles preached to whole households. Peter preached to the house of Cornelius, the Roman centurion (cf. Acts 10); Paul preached to the Philippian jailer and his house (cf. Acts 16:25-34). These households certainly included children. The Apostles hesitated not at all to preach to the children along with their parents. The children were not dismissed because what the Apostles had to say wasn't meaningful for them. No, the children were included because what the Apostles had to say was also of vital importance for them.
Finally, we find the apostle Paul addressing children in his epistles to the churches. In Ephesians 6:1-3 and Colossians 3:21 Paul addresses children and exhorts them to obey their parents. Quite evidently the apostle Paul by inspiration of the Spirit expected the children of the congregation to be present in the worship service while these letters were not only read but also expounded in the preaching.
From all this it certainly ought to be apparent that our children belong in the house of God from Sabbath to Sabbath. And they ought not to be dismissed from the rest of the congregation during the sermon to do their own thing. They belong with the congregation for the whole of the worship service, also for the preaching.
And there is good reason for this.
In the first place, we must bear in mind that our children are covenant children. God establishes His covenant of grace in the lines of continued generations. Therefore we receive from the hand of the Lord covenant children. It certainly is true that not all children of believing parents are true covenant children. The Scriptures are very clear to demonstrate that they are not all Israel that are of Israel. Born into the church to believing parents is a twofold seed. There is the reprobate, carnal seed of whom it can only be said that they are in the sphere of the covenant. For the covenant of God is a relationship and fellowship and is definitely not with this carnal seed. However, born to believing parents is also an elect, spiritual seed. And the covenant of God is definitely with them just as well as with their parents. It's in this sense that we say that our children are covenant children.
In the second place, we must bear in mind that our covenant seed, exactly because they are covenant seed, are also born again, even as children. The Bible gives every indication that within the sphere of the covenant our elect children are regenerated in infancy, perhaps even before birth. It's true of course that in infancy and early childhood our children are not conscious of this new life they have in Jesus Christ. Nor does that new life immediately bear fruit in their lives, at least not fruit that is discernible to us as parents. Nevertheless, the power of the new life is present, implanted into their hearts by the Holy Spirit.
We may view this new life in our covenant children in much the same way that we view other natural gifts with which our children are endowed even at birth. At birth our children are endowed with the potential of speaking, singing, walking, reading, writing, and a host of other essential things. However, in early childhood our children are neither conscious of these gifts nor are they able to use them. Our children become conscious of these powers and are able to use them only through proper development and training. In much the same way do our covenant children receive the power of the new life in Jesus Christ at birth.
And this is extremely important with respect to the preaching of the Word.
This means first that our covenant children will be receptive to that Word. A person totally depraved, dead in sin, can only reject the Word of God and the blessed gospel of salvation. His only response can be that of unbelief. He will have nothing to do with Christ and salvation. A positive response to the gospel, the response of faith, necessitates a prior work of God's grace in the heart to change it. It requires the gift of a new life. This is true also with respect to our covenant seed. Without the work of regeneration our children can only spurn the gospel. All efforts on our part to instruct and lead them according to God's Word will be fruitless. However, being born again in Jesus Christ they not only are able to respond positively to the gospel; they will give such a positive response. This is also true with respect to the preaching of the gospel in the house of God on the Sabbath day. The preaching will find receptive hearts not just among the adults of the congregation but also among the children. How out of keeping then with the realities of the covenant to pull our children out of the worship service just before the preaching and deny them the very thing to which God has opened their hearts!
In the second place, we must bear in mind that the preaching is also of utmost importance for our covenant children.
The Bible everywhere elevates the preaching to an all important place in the life of the saint. The preaching is THE power of God to salvation. It is through the preaching that God works faith in the hearts of His people. It is through the preaching that God also sustains His people in their faith. The Reformed believer has come to see that the preaching is the chief means of grace. Without the lively preaching the child of God can only flounder spiritually.
This is also true for our children. The preaching is not the chief means of grace just for adults; it is also that for children. The Bible makes no distinction between adults and children when it comes to preaching. The preaching is the power of God to salvation to both young and old. More specifically in the case of children, God uses the preaching to bring them to the consciousness of the new life they have in Jesus Christ. And He uses the preaching to cause them to develop and mature in that new life so that they one day are able to stand before the church and world to make public confession of their faith in Christ. Certain it is that God also uses other means which may not be neglected. God uses the instruction of the Catechism room for this purpose. He uses the instruction of the home and the Christian school. He uses many other means, as well. But at the heart of it all, God uses the preaching to bring our children to faith and build them up in that faith. And so we do not dismiss our children from the preaching during the worship service; we rather take care that they are present.
However, the preaching does not accomplish all these wonderful things in the lives of our covenant children in some magical, mysterious way. The mere physical presence of our children at the preaching does not benefit them spiritually. The preaching is the power of God to salvation in their lives only to the degree that they listen and are able to understand it. This is true with all the means of grace. They benefit the child of God, young and old, only to the degree that they are used intelligently.
Hence, both minister and parents must bend every effort to promote understanding and good listening habits for our children as far as the preaching is concerned.
Certainly the preacher must remember the children of the congregation in his preaching. He must remember that the church is the gathering of believers and their seed. To that church he must bring the Word—not just to part of it but to all of it. This means, first, that the preacher must seek as much as possible to make the preaching understandable to the children and young people of the congregation. Now this is not always possible. To feed the sheep of the flock with solid food often requires that the preacher go over the heads of the little lambs. Besides, one text or Lord's Day of the Catechism is easier than another to develop so that the children can grasp it. And for this reason the churches in the Reformed tradition have instituted Catechetical instruction. Catechism instruction is the official instruction of the church designed especially for our children on their own level of understanding and comprehension. Nevertheless, the preacher must strive to make his preaching as intelligible as possible for the children and young people of the congregation. And he must also take care to apply that Word to the children and young people. Children (just as well as adults) need to hear from the pulpit how the Word of God applies to their lives and spiritual struggles. In this way the preacher certainly will promote understanding and good listening with the younger segment of the church.
But parents also have a part in this.
Parents must first of all impress upon their children the need to listen to the preaching. All too often the attitude of parents is that the sermon really isn't for children but children ought to be there anyway to develop the good habit of going to church. The fruit of this is that children really aren't interested in the preaching and make very little if any effort to listen. Parents must rather see the importance of the preaching for their children and constantly bring this importance before their children.
And parents must seek ways to promote understanding of the preaching on the part of their children, which in turn will promote good listening habits. This perhaps could be done by discussing with our children beforehand the text or Lord's Day that will be expounded in the preaching. This certainly is possible to do when the Catechism is preached in the morning and the text for the evening is announced in the bulletin. A few minutes with the children before going to church to acquaint them with the passage to be expounded and a few questions for them to keep in mind that may be answered in the preaching will go a long way to promote understanding and good listening with our children. It would also promote the same things with us as parents! It would also be profitable to discuss the sermon after the worship service with our children. This will certainly make the sermon more intelligible to our children. If our children know that the sermon will be discussed in the family on their level, this will certainly encourage them to listen more attentively to the sermon.
Rev. James Slopsema (Wife: Joan)
Ordained: September 1974
Pastorates: First, Edgerton, MN - 1974; Randolph, WI - 1982; Hope, Walker, MI - 1986; First, Grand Rapids, MI - 1995; Emeritus, July 2014Website: www.firstprchurch.org/
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State or ProvinceMI