Psalm 78:1-8 "Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth! I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old, things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children, that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children, so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments; and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God."
Perhaps the most natural impulse of the redeemed sinner is the desire to communicate to his children the wonderful things which he has learned of God. This psalm of Asaph shows us that our desire to communicate saving truth to the next generation is not only natural, but also it is correct and biblical; it is the command of God. Christians must communicate “the glorious deeds of the Lord” to their children. For a church to lack a plan to instruct the young in the things of God would be more than a trivial oversight.
Since this is a duty we must not overlook, we ought to give close attention to what Asaph is attempting in his song. He is going to tell “dark sayings from of old.” His message will not be simple and easy, nor will it be up-to-date and trendy. He will instead focus on those things “that our fathers have told us,” old truths which bear repeating even if they are not the simplest. Asaph does not focus here on finding an opening with his children, some way to be “relevant” with them, but on communicating to them an old message which has lost none of its true relevance.
Asaph would communicate four specific details to his children and to all those of Israel. First, he would speak to them of the character of God. They will learn the glory of His deeds, and they must understand that He is mighty. He is beginning to teach them the basics of theology. Do we pay enough attention to the theological needs of our children?
He also intends to teach them the history of God’s work among men. The stories of the Bible are full of wonder. In fact they are more fascinating than the best works of fiction. Their appeal is greater because they are entirely true. What is more, these are stories about God, so we must understand.
Asaph will further explain to his children the covenant, which is the “testimony” which God established with Israel. One of the difficulties encountered in teaching the Bible is that so many children know the stories but do not understand how they fit together. It is important for them to understand something of the rules according to which God dealt with His people.
That brings us to the fourth element of Asaph’s instruction: the law which God appointed in Israel. He recognizes that his children must understand what God requires of them. Do we share this concern? The teaching of the law may not be popular, but what greater lessons can our children learn?
These criteria present a tall order to those who would organize a program for the instruction of children in a church. Is it likely that a youth group or children’s church would pursue such lofty goals? Perhaps more to the point, would they succeed? One can easily imagine the criticism that would be leveled against such a program. It would seem old fashioned and stuffy. It would fail to relate to the kids where they are. It would be ill suited for a generation of video games and virtual reality. In fact, it would be scarcely distinguishable from church itself!
We would quickly discover that the aims of modern children’s ministry are rather different from Asaph’s goals. Children’s church has become the realm of games, pep-talks, and other amusements. Churches engage in a futile attempt to keep up with a massive and well-funded entertainment industry in order to keep kids plugged in to Christianity. Their priority is clear: church must be fun. Doctrine must be kept very simple; there can be no “dark sayings from of old.” Stories should be juiced up to attract wandering minds. The covenant is a complex subject best left to adults. The law? Kids have enough rules as it is.
If our children’s ministry plan is to meet the goals established by the psalmist, we clearly need a whole new paradigm. The multitude of websites dedicated to CM does not yield an answer. The church that would educate its children as Asaph educated his may need a fresh perspective. Before we pursue new trails, though, one thought merits further consideration. The type of instruction Asaph was talking about does sound an awful lot like church. The very idea of children’s church embodies the assumption that church is not suitable for children. Perhaps that assumption requires reexamination.
The nature and character of God, the great works of God in history, the covenant and laws of God: these are the subjects of sound biblical preaching. If these are the topics pursued and examined in our worship services, and if they are also the very type of instruction which our children require, are we trying too hard to reinvent the wheel? Do we not already have in place exactly what our children need?
Keeping children in the regular worship service is an idea become radical in recent years. Christians have accepted the verdict of the skeptic Samuel Clemens. They assume that any child forced to endure grown-up worship will spend his time like Tom Sawyer: counting requests in the pastoral prayer and playing with flies, waiting for the agony of the service to end. No one could expect a child to benefit from such an experience! Yet for countless generations children did participate in the regular worship of the church, and the perseverance of the church through the ages testifies that some, at least, did benefit.
Yet we must certainly acknowledge that a children’s service focused on the young minds will do a better job of communicating the truths of scripture to them! Must we? An examination of the practice of children’s church tells us that it communicates very little. Emphasis on relational ministry necessarily banishes doctrine. Once children are extricated from the tedium of regular worship, the content of the message must be extracted from children’s church lest the tedium be replicated. If we assume that content such as Asaph prescribes for children is too complicated and not to their liking, then any program we propose for them will necessarily fall short of the scriptural standard.
Our church is firmly committed to ministering to our children. We are determined to give them exactly the type of instruction which Asaph prescribes, and we know where they will receive it. The things “that our fathers have told us” concerning the character, works, covenant and laws of God are being proclaimed weekly in our worship services, and “we will not hide them from [our] children.” Perhaps we will supplement this ministry with Sunday School classes and like ministries aimed at furthering their spiritual education, but never at the expense of their participation in worship.
We are not opposed to allowing the parents of the very young an opportunity to participate in worship without the added duty of caring for an infant. In fact, we encourage parents to make use of a nursery. However, we find that in the great assemblies of the Bible, such as the time when Ezra read the law to Israel, the congregation included “all those who could understand.” We realize that babies do not understand, but we have observed that children begin to understand worship at a very early age. We will not deny children old enough to understand the opportunity to accompany their parents in worship.
In the regular service fathers may lead children and instruct them in the things of God. Some may respond that this is not so since in the worship only the preacher speaks. We find, though, that when fathers bring their children with them to worship, they are able to further instruct their children and apply the message which they have heard together. Otherwise families are stranded in often fruitless inquiry: “What did you learn today?” How much better it is for children to observe the piety of their parents and to see their faith acted out in worship.
We must ensure that our children are well taught, not just well entertained. Rather than dismiss them for an hour of amusement, we are committed to bring them to the place where God’s word is preached. Asaph suggests three reasons why they must know and understand that word.
First, they must know if future generations are also to know. Our hope is that “children yet unborn” will “arise and tell [these truths] to their children.” The great message of the gospel of Christ is yet alive in the world today because Christians of ages past have taught their children the truth. We would not fail in our responsibility to those generations following ours.
The second reason is for the benefit of the children themselves. Asaph writes, “so that they should set their hope in God.” We pray to see our children acquire true saving faith, and we must not forget that faith begins with knowledge of the truth. So also does obedience, and we desire to see our children “keep His commandments.” If we would see our children trusting in God and living their lives in His service, they must be taught His law and His gospel. We must not, then, shield them from His worship.
Finally, we wish to see our children participate in worship so that they will not be like the “stubborn and rebellious” generation that preceded them. What American Christian has not bemoaned the lack of biblical morality and true faith in our day? Who has not observed the dwindling influence of the church or longed for the day when God would shake the earth with His voice and call our nation to Himself? Do we not pray that our children will see greater results than we have? Do we not wish them to avoid our mistakes, to be greater than ourselves? Then let them begin now. Let them hear the voice of God while they are young, that they might follow it when old. Let them grow strong in the things of God now, that they might not be weak when their day is come.I hope you will agree with me that this is a Scriptural perspective on ministry to children in the local church. May God bless us with the courage and faithfulness to follow such Scriptural advice.