On more than one occasion, when I have taught on the beauty of the Lord's day, I have been approached afterwards by a person who said that, having been raised in a home that strictly observed the Christian Sabbath, he would never submit his children to such torture. As I enquired about the practices of his home, I learned that Sunday observance consisted of morning and evening church services, family worship, and a list of things the children could not do. For these children Sunday was only a form of dreary punishment.
If we want our children to love the Sabbath, we must make the day a delight for them. As we have seen, there are activities that are not to be done on the Lord's day and, as parents, we must teach our children not to pursue such things. But our instruction must not dwell on the negative; we need to teach our children the wonderful things that they may do on the Lord's day. For little ones this entails doing things with them and providing special Sunday activities for them.
The things I mention here are but suggestions which I have gleaned from books, conversations with friends, and our own family practice.
Regular teaching of children
You lay a foundation for making the Sabbath a delight for your children by regularly teaching them the principles involved. As you explain other rules from the Scripture to your children, teach them and review with them the importance and use of the Lord's day. Help them to see that God commands them not to do their regular daily activities so that they may devote themselves to Him. Also use your instruction about the Sabbath to remind them of the importance of resting in Christ alone for their salvation. Relate Sabbath observance to faith and love for God. Teach them, therefore, that the motive for doing or not doing certain things is to please God and to have more time for His worship and service.
Since I deal with preparation for the Sabbath in the next chapter, in this chapter I will concentrate on the positive activities of the day. A positive view of Sabbath-keeping for children begins by instructing them about the privileges of corporate worship and training them how to worship. I believe that children should be with their parents in the public worship services. For a time, somewhere from 6 to 24 months, depending on the child, it might be difficult for children to be in corporate worship. Their physical development during this time makes it difficult for them to sit quietly in one place. But once they develop the ability to sit still and be quiet, they should be in the public assembly.1
If we believe that in corporate worship we come into God's presence in a unique way and that preaching is the primary means of grace2 because in it we hear the living voice of Christ, we will resist depriving our children of this privilege. If Christ were on the earth and you had the choice of letting your children hear Him teach or go off to Children's Church, what would you choose? The answer should be obvious. I once asked the same question to a five year old girl; her face lit up as she said, 'I would want to stay with Jesus.' The Triune God is present in our worship and Jesus Christ speaks uniquely in the preaching of His Word. Why deprive our children of these inestimable benefits by sending them off to Children's Church?
Sunday School Catechism Classes are important, supplementary instruction. These activities are adapted to the age characteristics of the children and assist the parents in laying the foundation of Christian nurture. Corporate worship, though, with preaching, is for the entire covenant community. Particularly, those of us who believe that our children are under Christ's Covenant Headship and have that sealed to them in baptism, should include them in the assembly of the covenant people at worship.
If then, we are to include them, we need to teach them how to worship. We must instruct them in what we do in worship and why. We ought to help them memorize the Creeds, the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and other items that are used in our services. In the church my family attends, the children are taught a new psalm or hymn each month (alternating a psalm one month and a hymn the next). We attempt to use these psalms and hymns in our weekly worship.
Furthermore, we should teach our children how to listen to a sermon. When they are very young, we might draw a picture for them that illustrates an important truth in the sermon. Later they can draw their own pictures and then learn to take notes, first writing down important words they hear, then eventually learning to take notes in an outline form.3
The preacher should keep in mind that little ones are present and use illustrations and make some points or applications that are aimed at them. Every child can learn something from a sermon. Once I was asked why I did not give Children's Sermons.4 After explaining my theology of preaching, I asked the father, 'How many things would your child get from a children's sermon?' 'One point, of course,' he answered. I asked, 'Can he not get one truth from my sermon, especially if you go over that point with him afterwards?' Therefore, both preacher and parent have the responsibility to be sure the child learns something from the sermon.
Teach children how to behave in church
We can also train our children to sit through the service. Often we take our children out of the service, because we do not want to spend the energy to train them to sit and worship. We may do a number of things as officers, parents, and members to help train children. One specific way to help children is to get them settled down before the service begins. It has been observed that the more the children run and play before the worship service, the more difficult it is for them to settle down. Little ones cannot change gears as quickly as adults can. Furthermore, parents should not worry about fidgeting and wiggling. Such activity is normal and usually worries the parents more than it distracts others around them. Those of us who have older children or no children in the worship service need to be patient with the little ones. We ought to rejoice that God has given so many children and encourage the parents to bring them into the worship service.
Families with young children should also choose carefully where to sit. Because they might have to get up and leave during the service and since children fidget, parents often feel it is best to sit in the back. Yet, when children sit closer to the front, it is easier for them to pay attention.
But what if the child insists on misbehaving or talking in the service? It is recommended that a parent take the child out, discipline him and bring him back in. At times, children will push their parents for as long as they think they will get away with their disobedience. In public situations like the worship service, they often think they have freedom to misbehave because parents would be embarrassed to take them out for correction. When they realize that they will be disciplined, they often will be more obedient. What about taking them into the nursery when they disobey? This does not help at all. When they realize that bad behaviour gets them into the nursery, they will seek to manipulate parents to that end.
Much at this point depends on your general patterns of discipline. When parents consistently teach their child that they mean what they say and will consistently punish him if he does not obey, he will be more inclined to heed the whispered correction during the worship service.
Children in the home
Having discussed children in the worship service, let us now turn our attention to the rest of the day. We might be at church for five to six hours, but our children will be up another eight to ten hours. What do we do with them the remainder of the day?
The noon and evening meal are good times for sermon review. Our children will profit from preaching and develop their skills as sermon listeners as we review the sermon with them. Help the little ones to concentrate on an important truth from the sermon and how they may apply it in their lives. As they grow older, review the outline with them, and discuss the main points and the application. You may also use the dinner hour to discuss with them what they learned in Sunday School. Review that material with them to cement it in their minds. Later in the day look over the assignments for next week and help them to prepare for that lesson.
The conclusion of the noon meal on Sunday is an excellent time for extended family devotions, which compensate for abbreviated family worship during the week. You have more time on Sunday to spend in Bible reading and discussion. As children learn to read, they love to take a turn in reading the Bible story or Scripture portion. This aids their memory and develops early skill in Bible reading. Subsequent discussion helps them to develop the skills of biblical analysis and application. Sunday also provides more time to spend in prayer, so that all may participate in family prayer. Sunday devotions are a good time as well to devote to family hymn singing: singing favourites, learning new hymns and psalms, singing the hymns and psalms that were used in the morning worship, and practising those that will be used in the evening service.
In connection with family devotions little children often enjoy acting out a Bible story.5 We kept a box of Bible character dress-up clothes, which encouraged our children to review creatively the Bible stories. (Our children's favourite was David and Goliath.)
Children may also enjoy preparing music for the family and guests. They can prepare programmes similar to what they do for special fellowships at the church, in which they combine songs and Scripture and catechism recitation. Older children can help younger ones put together such a programme. When two or three families get together for the Lord's day, this can be a joint exercise of the older and younger children.
Sunday afternoons are good times for Scriptural and catechetical memorization and instruction. Remember, it is primarily the parents' responsibility and not the church's to teach covenant children. Many churches have memorization goals. If your church does not, then plan your own.6 Little children have a love and facility for memorization. Take advantage of this God-created aspect of their development to help them memorize Scripture and the Catechism. As soon as they can talk, begin with the Children's Catechism and then go to the Shorter or the Heidelberg Catechism.
Be creative in helping them memorize. You can use games and songs.7 When our son was about three he loved to build log cabins with a toy building set called 'Lincoln Logs'. On Sunday afternoon we would build a log-cabin mission school and he would teach the make-believe children in the school house the Catechism. He quickly memorized the Catechism and indirectly learned the importance of foreign missions.
You may make creative use of toys in helping your little children learn to keep the Sabbath. Some families keep a box of Sunday toys. This box could contain the dress-up clothes mentioned above plus other Sunday games and activities. What you want to avoid is merely playing. Rather, strive for playing with a purpose: playing to learn and review or playing to create values or attitudes. A number of games are available that are very good learning tools.
Your little children will need a great deal of supervision if they are to profit from the Sabbath and learn its beauty. You will need to resist the temptation to use games as 'baby sitters' so you can go about your own activities, remembering that as they mature they will increasingly be able to do more on their own.
Little children can profit, as well, by the use of videos. Some very good videos are available for Sunday use: various Bible stories, Pilgrim's Progress, and The Chronicles of Narnia, to name a few, are available. But do not allow the use of videos to replace your involvement with your children on Sunday afternoons.
One of the best ways to spend time with your children on Sundays is reading to them, although reading aloud is a good family activity any time. Have a family circle in which you read a story together. Even when children are older and can read for themselves, reading aloud as a family is much more profitable than watching a video and creates wonderful memories. Take time on Sunday afternoons or before bedtime Sunday night to read to your children. Again a wide range of profitable books are available: missionary stories, biographies, and Christian adventure stories. One pastor friend speaks fondly of his father's reading the Pilgrim's Progress to the family every Sunday evening. Older children may also read to their younger brothers and sisters. Such an activity builds greater bonds among them and helps the older children develop the attitude of servants.
As you build your family library, select books for your children. As they learn to read encourage them in their reading on Sundays. By this they will develop good habits and learn to keep the Lord's day holy. Early on, foster the habit of reading biographies and missionary stories. This type of reading will promote good role models and engender a concern for the spread of the gospel. As they grow older, introduce them to doctrinal and devotional reading, so that they will develop a taste for books that are more expositional and didactical.
A needful, but much neglected activity is to discuss with your children the ways of God in your life and what He is doing in their lives. Children love to know about your past; tell them the stories of how God brought you to Himself. If you come from a Christian home tell them of God's work in the lives of their grandparents and great grandparents. Use the family picture album as a way to make the stories live for them.
Speak to them as well of God's providences in your life: how 'mommy' and 'daddy' met and married; how God has provided for physical and financial needs; how you came to live where you live and do the kind of work that you do. As they grow older relate to them the struggles and temptations you went through when you were their age: what mistakes you made and what lessons God taught you, that they might learn from your experience.
Learn to speak intimately and personally to them of God, His beauty and wonderful ways. Use this time as well to enquire of the Lord's work in their hearts. Asking not only about their love for Jesus, but also what He means to them, how He affects their choices and desires. Are their affections for the Lord developing? Do they enjoy prayer, Bible reading, and worship? What are their struggles? Get them to think and talk about God's work in their lives.
Sunday evening before going to bed is an excellent time for these discussions.8 You can pull together the threads of the day's activities and help your children get the fruit of the day and apply it to their hearts. If you spend regular time discussing the ways of the Lord with your children when they are young, it is not likely they will have difficulty talking to you about personal things when they are teenagers.
Also involve your children and young people in Christian service. Take your children with you to visit the elderly who are unable to get out of their homes or are in a nursing home. This activity will breed compassion in your children and a desire to serve others. The elderly usually delight in the presence of children. My own first taste of ministry was going with a woman in our congregation to visit the elderly in their homes. She would have me read Scripture and pray. Churches that have Junior or Senior High youth groups should help them organize activities for Christian service and evangelism. Older youth can conduct devotional services in nursing homes, rescue missions, and centres for men and women in the armed services.
Many of the youth activities in our churches fall prey to the hedonism current in our culture, so young people think primarily of having a good time. It is good for our Christian young people to have fun together, but they must also learn to serve and minister. The church in which I became a Christian has been used by God to put more men in ministry than any church with which I am familiar, because, in my opinion, as teenagers we were actively involved in ministry projects. Through these projects God gave us a heart for ministry and enabled us to begin identifying and developing our gifts. Furthermore, great spiritual good was accomplished.
At this point a word about physical activity is in order. Most little children are very active. Sunday can become oppressive if they do not have outlets for their energy, so some families allow their children to run and play for a while in the yard in order to expend some of this energy. When our children were little we would get on the floor and tumble and wrestle. But in addition, you may lead them in a number of creative activities that combine the expenditure of energy with the purposes of Sabbath-keeping.
We already mentioned the ideas of skits or musical presentations. Often the planning and execution of these activities gives a sufficient vent for pent-up energy. Instructive walks are helpful. One friend fondly talks about the walks with his parents on the Lord's day afternoons when they would talk about the things that God made. We would take our children on walks and talk about God's creation. You may also use walks to review the Catechism or to talk about God's work in your lives.
Occasionally, you might incorporate these things in Sunday afternoon picnics. When we lived in the city of Philadelphia, we would often go to a park on Sunday after church to escape the noise of the city. After eating, we would have family devotions and then go for a walk in the park. On these walks we would do Catechism or talk about things God had made. We would often play a game with the children pointing out things made by God. Be careful not to allow such outings to become distractions: you need to avoid places or situations in which the surroundings turn your attention away from your intended purpose.
The benefits of making the Sabbath a delight to your children are unparalleled. Not only will they develop a delight in keeping the Lord's day holy, but also you will see the promises of Isaiah 58:13, 14 fulfilled in their lives. The spiritual maturity of young people raised in homes in which the Lord's day was carefully observed often surpasses that of those from homes that have neglected this privilege. I am not forgetting that God is sovereign in the conversion and sanctification of our children, but He uses means, and Isaiah 58:13, 14 is a promise for you to claim for your children as you teach them to keep the Lord's day holy.
Of course, each child will need to own the truth for himself. Some will turn away for a period, but most will make it their own practice as they remember its pleasures and benefits.
A practical benefit for young people is in the area of peer pressure. We all are aware of the immense pressure on teenagers to conform to the standards of the world. As Sabbath-keeping puts to death idolatry and self-gratification, it also helps children learn to live by a standard different from the world's. Sabbath-keeping will teach them 'Just Say No!' Early on, a child whose family is committed to joyfully observing the Lord's day will learn to say no to invitations to go to a party or to play ball. As they grow older, they will have developed the character necessary to resist external pressures. They will be better equipped to walk by God's standard in other areas of life, having learned early on to deny themselves for the Lord's sake.
Sometimes they will also see that they can influence others for the good by taking a stand. I remember when my son Joey was young, a friend invited him to a birthday party on a Sunday afternoon. When my son informed his friend that he could not attend because it was on Sunday, his friend went to his mother and asked to have the party on Saturday so Joey could come. Our children and youth can lead by godly example and character. In addition, who knows how many have been or will be brought to know Jesus Christ as Saviour because a Christian young person said, 'I am sorry, but I cannot do that with you because it is Sunday.'
Of course, it will not always turn out this way. Often our children are deprived of legitimate activities because of our commitment to keeping the Sabbath day holy. I know children who have been unable to participate in special sports and gymnastic activities, because the events were held on Sunday. It hurts. But we have opportunity on these occasions to teach them the privilege and obligation of self-denial. Our children, as well as we, will begin to experience the blessing promised to those who are persecuted for righteousness sake (Matt. 5:10-12).
Make the day a delight. This positive approach to the Lord's day does not guarantee the conversion of our child or that he will grow up loving the Sabbath, but God blesses the means and He will bless those who love and keep His day holy.
1. A great diversity of opinion exist on this issue. Some churches have Sunday school during worship for young children, while others have 'Children's Church'. Others have a 'Children's Sermon'. Jay Adams defends the practice of sending children out of the worship service in Shepherding the Flock 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976) III, 119. He cites Nehemiah 8:2 to prove that the congregation consisted of 'men and women, and all that could hear with understanding'. In contrast, however, there are countless references to children and babes in arm as part of the worshipping assembly (Deut. 31:12, 13; 2 Chron. 20:13; 31:18; Ex. 10:1, 2; Neh. 12:43).
2. The Larger Catechism 155.
3. Some question the use of note taking in sermons. Each person should do that which best enables him to listen. For some note taking is a distraction while for others it enables them to concentrate. For our children though it is a good tool to train them how to listen. Some will outgrow it while others will make it a lifetime habit.
4. It is my conviction that when a lawfully ordained man preaches, Christ Himself speaks in a unique way; the act of preaching is a divine, supernatural act, and a child's object lesson is not preaching.
5. I believe that drama in the corporate worship is not acceptable to God. But such prohibitions do not rule out the place for plays and skits in the life of the covenant community. In the same way a fellowship meal is an important part of the life of the church but is not a part of the corporate worship.
6. If you would like a copy of the catechism programme used at our church, Trinity Presbyterian Church in America, write to me care of the publishers.
7. Judy Rogers has put a number of catechism questions and answers to song on a cassette tape, 'Why Can't I See God?'. You may order this tape from Judy Rogers, P.O. Box 888442, Atlanta, GA., 30338.
8. Of course, these conversations will not be limited to Sunday. We want to develop the facility of spiritual conversation all the time. But as with Bible reading and other activities, we will have more leisure for these types of conversations on the Lord's day.