When Steve and I started attending a reformed church soon after we got married I remember thinking there was something different about the service that I couldn't put my finger on. Of course it was more liturgical than what I had grown up with, but that wasn't it. The pastor wore a formal robe, but that wasn't it either. I finally figured it out when we sat next to a family with three small children one Sunday and all of their children were sitting in the row with them! The simple difference was the noise of people having their children sit in church with them for the entire service. It wasn't loud and obvious (most of the time), but there was definitely more general noise.
Now that we have two small children of our own I can fully appreciate the benefits and the hard work of having our children in "big church" with us. I should disclaim this by saying that I'm not an ogre about this concept. Matthew, at one year old, currently goes to the nursery during worship for many practical reasons. Ethan, however, is 2.5 and sits through the whole service. Matthew will get there, and it will probably be before his second birthday, Lord willing. But why do we bother? Why should the church encourage us to bother bringing these little ones into worship with us?
Think of your dinner table. This is where your children learn basic manners. They learn how to converse and interact with others. They learn not to put their feet in their dinner plates (oh, yes). More than that, they are fed. They are sustained and grown with people who love them, with people who model the very behavior they are supposed to strive for. I know very few parents who would send their toddler to a room full of other two-year olds, tell them to play with their food, and then expect them to love sitting at the dinner table when they turn 12. It doesn't happen. Further, I know very few parents who send their children to eat in a separate room away from the main meal because they are messy or loud or an inconvenience to everyone else.
And I really believe worship is the same way. A friend of mine once told me that when you keep your children in church from a young age they don't learn to hate the service. They learn to get involved in it. I can tell you that when my son hears the opening notes of "Come Thou Fount" or when the offering plate is passed, or when the pastor asks us to stand and sing the Doxology he is excited, he is joyful! When we say "amen" he says "amen!" when we say "Praise the Lord!" he shouts "Praise the Lord!" It is a wonderful thing, and exciting to watch. Getting him to sit through the sermon is, of course, more of a challenge. And like every other day of his life involves constant, consistent discipline from his dad and I. I'll admit there are Sundays that I don't hear much of the sermon and we spend a lot of time in the ladies room. But I believe that God is honored in what we are doing with our children during worship and He doles out the appropriate levels of grace as we need it.
Ethan does go to Sunday School prior to the service and he has a wonderful time there. But Sunday School is not the meat of Sunday. It is not where the meal is served. When he was a young baby and I was visiting my parents while Steve was on deployment, I attended their church for a few Sundays. They have special notes in the bulletin about not bringing children under a certain age into the service, and ushers are there to escort you out if your child makes a peep. I didn't place much importance on it at the time, but thinking back it makes me sad. It makes me wonder if children ever ask themselves why they are not welcome during the "real" worship of their Most High. The fact of the matter is that we are all messy, loud, obnoxious sinners. We all put our feet in our dinner plate sometimes. And God has allowed us all, through his Son to come and worship. May we all have the joy of the two year old that says "Praise the Lord!" at the top of his lungs when we come.
**There's a great post on the practicalities of having your children in church with you here.