Big Questions: Should children play in the sanctuary during services?

A church placed furniture and toys in front of the sanctuary for children to use during the worship service. Does that belong in the sanctuary?

“Pray-grounds” like the one you described have recently popped up in congregations in the U.S. and Canada. For many children, it can seem their main task in church is to sit still and be quiet or leave the service for other activities. Pray-grounds are a response to this. Having a dedicated space in the sanctuary is one way for children to feel welcome and to know they belong and can participate in worship. Pray-grounds are often set up in front of church so the children can see what is happening.

There are other ways, though, to meet that same goal that congregations might be more comfortable with. “Pew-boxes” can be made for each row that include books, paper, and markers, or worship bags can be placed in the back of church for children to take into the sanctuary. Many parents already take to church a bag of things that fit their child’s interests.   

However, these things can just be another way to distract children and adults from worship. It takes a delicate balance to identify what helps children to worship and what disrupts worship. People in churches that use pray-grounds say many adults enjoy watching the children, and the people it bothers often move to a place in church where they can’t see them. 

There are other ways for congregations to work toward being more child-friendly in worship: Does the pastor use words the children can understand? Do children take part in the liturgy through Bible reading, serving as acolytes, or helping collect offerings? Do adults feel comfortable whispering to a child in worship to tell them what is happening? Is at least one song child-friendly?

A friend of ours slid into the pew for an evening service with three little girls just before worship, feeling a little frazzled, and she immediately apologized to the older woman in front of her: “I hope we’re not too distracting!” The retired woman turned and said, “Nonsense! They belong here!” That’s the sort of attitude we want to convey to both parents and kids.

About the Author

Laura Keeley is a regional catalyzer for Faith Formation Ministries and director of children’s ministries at 14th St. CRC in Holland, Mich.

Robert J. Keeley is a professor of education at Calvin College and director of distance education at Calvin Seminary.

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