Children’s Church and Christian Narcissism



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Shortly before I was to appear on Ancient Faith Today with Fr. John Whiteford, I accepted his invitation to have a brief phone conversation. Telling me about his background, he made an offhanded remark that some decades ago kids began going to “Children’s Church,” and they never left. The more I think about that remark, the more disturbed I become (and not just because I actually agree with Fr. John about something). I think the well-intentioned efforts to meet the worship needs of children has contributed to an increasing trend toward a narcissistic faith.

For those who are not familiar with the idea of Children’s Church, in a lot of Protestant churches, the children have their own worship service separate from the adults. They sing “This Little Light of Mine” and make paper mache Abels. That sort of thing.

This has been on my mind for a number of different reasons. One is that I still get comments on a post I wrote criticizing a Christian song that amounts to catchy heresy. (Theological content is barely considered in most contemporary Christian music.) The other reason is that I just finished listening to Things Not Seen Radio interview Thomas Bergler on his book The Juvenilization of American Christianity. I have not read the book, but in the interview Bergler says that the rise of youth-focused programs in the 1930s and 40s eventually contributed to a kind of Christianity lite, today.

Connor being blessed in front of the Kursk Root icon (photo courtesy of Philip Wilson).

I have seen this for myself. In my Protestant days, it always bothered me that people seemed to talk about what Jesus did for them. They would talk about how much they got out of mission trips. They would talk about worship that spoke to their souls. Call me crazy, but that seems kind of backwards to me. Isn’t the point about Jesus, Jesus? Since when do we go on mission trips to get something for ourselves? In many churches today, the point is more about having my needs met rather than cultivating a life of service to God and others for God’s sake.

Of course, I think it is too simple just to blame Children’s Church. Juvenile, Christian narcissism is just as much a product of American consumerism as it is “The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky.” (Actually, I like that song because it actually teaches kids a Bible story.) I also think it is right and reasonable to recognize that kids do have unique learning needs that the church needs to meet. A sermon might not be the best way for kids to learn, but that does not require having two different church services. I just have a hard time recognizing a difference between worship for kids and adults.

On Holy Friday at my church, the girls bring baskets of flower petals. When the congregation sings about the myrrh-bearing women, the girls go around the church scattering their petals everywhere. Of course, they also throw a lot of them directly at our priest.

Kids in church can be chaotic, and I will honestly say that sometimes I am glad when I am at church and my kids are somewhere else. It is a welcome change because I can actually pay attention (which I think is another motivating factor for Children’s Church), but I think that chaos can become a kind of holy play, which is how kids learn and worship best.

27 thoughts on “Children’s Church and Christian Narcissism”

  1. I really enjoyed your post. As a matter of fact, it was just the other day I was thinking about my own experiences at protestant church camp and how wrong the leaders got it (I should know, I used to be one of them). I know their intentions were good but the main goal for protestant youth leaders today is to create a highly emotional environment, be it through contemporary christian music, touching sermons, demonstrations, skits you name it in order to bring about an emotional response. By the end of the week, they have you realizing what a sinner you are and that without him you are doomed, hence the alter call and alas your chance to be saved! After the mountain top experience they go home freaking out that mommy, daddy and everyone who didn't make it to altar call friday is going to hell. Through God's tremendous grace I came to see clearly how damaging that can be to a child. A part of me just couldn't believe that that was all there was to Jesus. I think of the monks as some of the greatest examples we have of what our relationship with Jesus is supposed to look like. It's the simple act of sitting by His feet and just being with him and communing with him. Letting go of what is holding us back from giving Him our full faith. He doesn't want us saving the world, that's His job, he's got that covered, which is why I would never place such a burden on a child. WWJD (what would Jesus do?) I personally think he would walk right into children's church, ask kindly and lovingly for your hand and then take you for a walk.

    1. thanks for posting Gladys.. this was a good read (and so was your comment)! I agree largely with both of you, i just think that the emotion and the sitting at Jesus feet are both important. I am happy to see a shift in youth ministries to embrace more of the sitting and seeking and following after Christ!!! As we know this is when the real relationship with Christ grows.. just by "taking a walk with Christ" as you said!! But again, its important to not to disregard the importance of releasing our hearts and emotions to Christ too!! Sometimes thats where he meets us smack dab in the middle of our sorrows, our sin, our disobedience and says… yes, your struggling, but i can fix that, i did fix that, and when you release that I can give you peace and be more effective for the kingdom through you. I don't know why I wanted to comment, but after reading his article, it seems so anti any emotion, and I think that's a shame too! LOVED hearing your thoughts… they challenged me immensely as a youth leader!!!!

    2. Chelsea Dupuy so glad to hear there is a shift occurring in today's youth ministry. You're absolutely right about releasing our hearts to Him since that is what He really wants. What I think youth leaders of any denomination are having to deal with these days is the tremendous cultural influence that kids are exposed to on a daily basis. Our American culture pushes us to want to think of ourselves first, it is the "my happiness is the most important thing" controversy. That mindset has leaked into our churches. "God is great, He does great things for ME", "Look all that God has given ME". It is an uphill battle. I absolutely don't blame youth pastors one bit for feeling like they have to do their very best to pull out all the stops just to fill seats on Sunday morning. The rock bands, inspirational sermons, camps (all the stuff that drew me to go) are great as long as leaders do it for the right reason. My prayer is that leaders let go of the pressure of having to perform because they think their attendance is low, their paycheck depends on it, or because the goal is to save. If leaders do that, they fall into the same trap as the kids. Who then will show those same kids that it's not all about "me".

    3. By the way, Chelsea Dupuy, It's because you care enough to stop and think about this issue is why I have hope for future youth. At the end of the day, what you really care about is connecting kids with Jesus. You know when to step aside and let the real Healer heal. I just love you for that.

  2. Certainly, there are a few churches where Children's Church takes the children entirely out of the service (thus causing them to not experience worship as a multi-generational activity), but in the vast majority that I've encountered, the children are present for most of the worship, and only go to the separate service during the sermon. Thus, I'm not sure where you get the idea that Children's Church is somehow to blame for narcissistic, "meet my needs" Christianity. Furthermore, such a separation is often touted as much as a benefit for adults as for children – you yourself referred to it allowing you to "actually pay attention" in the service – does that make your faith narcissistic?

    1. Does it make me narcissistic that I sometimes wish my kids would just be quiet so that I could pay attention and enjoy the experience? Yes. Learning to be patient with my kids is as much a part of the worship experience as the hymnody. I can enjoy worship. There is nothing wrong with that. But when my enjoyment takes priority, I've gotten it backwards.

      You and I may have had different experiences of Children's Church. At least in many of the church's I visited or attended, the kids were absent most of the time.

      I attended an Orthodox Church for a while in which the priest conceded to do the homily at the end of the service so the kids could leave for Sunday School. I'm okay with that.

  3. I think the trend of which you write actually goes back a little further than our American history. In part, we owe it to hymns that began to appear after the Renaissance and the era of Christian humanism, and yes, there was such a time. If you'll examine the texts of Christian hymns dating back to Charles Wesley and even a little earlier, you may be surprised to see a jump in the number of first-person dominated lyrics.

    This trend began subtly, but by the end of Nineteenth Century it was out in the open and raging like an unquenchable fire. Oddly, it coincided with the revival movements here in the United States. In the 20th Century, it continued to eat away from the focus on the Almighty until our seminaries began to take note and point it out to their hymnology students.

    As a result, new hymns emerged that were focused on God, but it was essentially too late for the traditional hymn genre. By this time, the chorus and overhead projectors had emerged as a dominant form of worship in youth services and separate worship services for young adults over hymns. Even more troubling, however, was the complete lack of repetition. From Sunday to Sunday, one sang a completely new cycle of choruses without printed music. Every Sunday became a completely new learning experience. The same chorus is hardly ever performed twice. Of course, I'm taking this to an extreme, but it illustrates a valid point.

    With that kind of experience, faith becomes directionless. It is open to any suggestion and any heresy that wants to creep in, because people are ill-prepared to identify anything wrong with the lyrics they must learn on the spot every Sunday. By the time they've thought about it, if at all, they're on to another chorus they've never sung and have to learn instantly. It's too much to remember; therefore, anything that might be wrong goes unnoticed.

    I'd also like to observe something about the church services aimed at older people. They too have adopted PowerPoint slides over hymnals, but they are using them to project hymn lyrics they've sung since their youth. The moment I saw that trend I was disturbed. People of that generation know how to use a hymnal. They're capable of singing in four-part harmony and using hymn tunes with different sets of lyrics. Nevertheless, the hymnals they worked so hard to obtain now sit unused Sunday after Sunday in their pews.It is my opinion, that they do not enjoy such services as much as those using their hymnals. A CCLI should never replace strong hymnody, especially if it is already public domain and the people know it well enough to sing it by heart.

    I would agree that children's church is a potential pitfall for juvenile Christianity, but I don't think it has to be that way. I'm not convinced that we shouldn't have it. There are some aspects of adult worship for which they are unprepared: for example, enduring a three-hour sermon. I don't think most adults fare well in that environment either. My church has a strict limit of 12 minutes.

    More importantly, small children do not understand abstract concepts such as washing one's self in the blood of the Lamb. They take a very literal picture away from that, and that's why I think children's church may actually be indispensable. Nevertheless, the outcome of that type of worship service depends heavily on the type of leadership directing it.

    Small children, for example, must not be expected to sit down in silence with a teacher delivers a lesson. That is the antithesis of everything we have learned about child psychology. Lesson plans must be developed to include lots of movement, and its content must be in concrete terms the child understands. For example, lessons and songs must relate directly back to things they see every day: parents, friends, pets and food.

    At the same time, however, one can teach children to focus on Jesus in a new way that will help them make a successful transition into Christian adulthood. We can start my teaching them hymns and choruses about Jesus without including abstract content or focusing on the person singing the song. There are already some excellent lyrics along these lines, but we can do better. Lesson plans should be written the level of the child being taught and they should include plenty of movement and activity instead of listening to lectures.

    As children mature, they will naturally grow weary of these types of services. Some will reach the stage of cognitive transition into abstract thinking long before others, and we have to watch for that and respond appropriately. I believe this is the way forward. Kids are not cookie-cutter learners or cookie-cutter Christians. In time, they will have to face many issues that will challenge their faith. It is best to prepare them gently at first, monitor their progress and expose them to greater challenges along with the world around them when they are ready as individuals.

    1. Bill, are you a Montessorian by any chance? Your discussion of children's learning and cognitive transitions sounds like it could have come straight out of Montessori. (This is a good thing.)

    2. The history is interesting. Do you have a more extensive blog post on this?

      I agree that having a child sit down and be quiet is not good for anyone. That is not necessarily the case in the Orthodox Church, where children can sometimes be a bit more rambunctious. But it depends on the congregation. (In my current parish, folks tend to get a bit more persnickety about kids acting up than I have witnessed in parishes with a smaller percentage of converts).

  4. Well, how about this: today I am the “traditionalist!” Having been raised in the Russian Orthodox Church, we had no Children’s Church. Children went from receiving the Eucharist to “Sunday School,” but otherwise sat and/or played quietly together in the front of the church. I vividly recall my father’s graduated increase from 1) the sharp “psst”, to the 2) shoulder tap, to the 3) “snatch & out.” If children were present, they were at the Liturgy.

    Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote a small collection of articles for the OCEC (I think it is Orthodox Christian Education Committee) titled “Liturgy and Life,” and he wrote about the presence of infants and children in church, insisting that from their baptism, they are naturally gifted with a “cognizance” of where they are and in whose Presence they are. And I must say he was aggressively true to this belief in the chapel practice at the seminary. Someone had made a number of folding seats that the children carried to first step of the amvon, and if the seats ran out, they sat directly on the amvon. Frequently in the evenings, during Vigil, there were so many sleeping children on the floor, covered with a coat, that the Deacons incensing passed through a maze.

    Slavs are notoriously intolerant of “fussy children” – sometimes their “fuss” over the “fussy child” was markedly worse – but I can’t tell you the number of times Fr. Alexander scolded parents for dragging their kids out of the chapel: “They will learn. For us, this is holy noise.” Sermons at SVS were ten minutes and under. Everyone. Always. It was the about the Gospel reading that preceded it. The kids learned, we learned, we are still around, the kids are still around – but older. Such is the pudding.

    1. Absolutely agreed, Fr. John. I wasn’t until I was 13 years old – when church school for teens was held on Monday evening – that I began to figure out exactly how the Liturgy ended.

  5. David, I found nothing to disagree with you on… just thought you might like to know…. :)

    When I was a kid, maybe about 6, I remember hearing the pastor preach a sermon on the “Carnal Mind”, but at that time I thought he was talking about the Caramel Mine, and had visions of digging up Caramel clumps from such a mine. But I eventually figured out what he was talking about. The problem with the current approach to children’s ministry is that they aim for the level of kinds thinking of Caramel mines, and when they get older and figure it out, they figure that that was childish fantasy. Better to have kids eventually figure out that it was deeper than they thought, then more shallow then they thought.

    1. “The problem with the current approach to children’s ministry is that they aim for the level of kinds thinking of Caramel mines, and when they get older and figure it out, they figure that that was childish fantasy.”

      I totally agree! Having a poor children’s ministry could be just as damaging as not having one. But that doesn’t mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We do need to stop spoon feeding our kids the same Bible stories week after week without teaching them Scripture and what the doctrines of the church are. We need to teach them what it means to be a Christian. Do we teach our kids what the Trinity means? What the Incarnation means and why Jesus came down to us in the flesh? How is it that we obtain salvation? What does the word salvation even mean? Let’s give them some apologetics, too! Teach them why we believe what we believe! Think how easy it could be to explain to our children the ideas of such great thinkers like Thomas Aquinas by, for example, simply explaining Aquinas’ First Way! “Everything that moves, needs a mover – but you can’t go back forever – there has to be a First Mover”). All of these things can be explained to kids of elementary school age and older if we do so within the bounds of their levels of language and understanding so they get something out of it.

      Fr. Whiteford – I don’t want the kids to have to eventually figure something out all on their own (what if they can’t or never do? They are kids after all.) “Better to have kids eventually figure out that it was deeper than they thought, then more shallow then they thought.” Better still – just tell them what you mean in a language they understand up front! Otherwise, they may just go through the motions not understanding what they are hearing Sunday after Sunday, and when they finally leave home, away from under their parents’ wings, many will simply choose not to return.

      As you can tell, I have strong opinions on this :-) But it is only because of my own personal experience. During my pre-teen and early teen years, I attended a Roman Catholic church and hardly understood any of the Masses I attended. It got to the point I didn’t even know most of what I was supposed to believe, let alone why I should believe it. I left the church after entering high school and wasted many, many years as an agnostic. Had I just had a good children’s ministry that taught me Christianity in ways I, as an 11, 12, 13 year old child, could understand, I may have gone a different path. As it is, I did rediscover Christianity but it took many wasted years before I got here again. I don’t want my kids, or any kid, to fall into the same trap I did.

    2. This is where a Church school comes into play. In a Sunday School class, you can talk on the level of the children… but you should not aim low, as if often done. Kids are capable of a lot more than most adults give them credit for. But as David says, nothing in the worship service, including the service, should be dumbed down.

  6. I must respectfully disagree. It sounds like you are talking “out of both sides of your mouth.” (is there a polite way to say that? :) Perhaps I’m wrong, but let me explain. First, you complain about the idea of Children’s Church, then say:

    “I also think it is right and reasonable to recognize that kids do have unique learning needs that the church needs to meet. A sermon might not be the best way for kids to learn, but that does not require having two different church services. I just have a hard time recognizing a difference between worship for kids and adults.”

    So you agree the sermon might not be the best way for kids to learn, but does not require having two services. How can you have a hard time recognizing the difference between adult and kid services but at the same time recognize that a major part of the service (the homily or sermon) isn’t the best way for kids to learn? Isn’t that a difference right there? Isn’t at least part of the reason we go to services is to learn about God (allowing us to “love him with our mind”)?

    To further attempt to make your point, you say:

    “On Holy Friday at my church, the girls bring baskets of flower petals. When the congregation sings about the myrrh-bearing women, the girls go around the church scattering their petals everywhere. Of course, they also throw a lot of them directly at our priest.”

    It’s great to have fun in church service! But I would ask how does this make them better Christians or help them love the Lord with “all their heart and with all their mind” or help them better understand their faith? Rather than put them in a service where they can understand what’s being said and why (not just the sermon – but the entire service!), you’d rather them throw petals everywhere. I know I’m sounding “cheeky”, but the point is that this sounds just as superficial as what you make Children’s Church out to be!

    So, I would ask you – if Children’s Church is not the answer and that kids/adults must attend the same service, what is the solution? How do we get kids to understand what is going on in the service? Because without that, young minds wander, become intellectually disengaged and soon wonder what it is we are actually doing in church.

    Part of our kids’ Sundays must be spent actually learning about the faith, Christian doctrines, Scripture and so forth (say, in a Sunday School program or a Children’s Church). If you just want to force your kids/youth to attend adult services without talking to them in a way in which their young and intellectually immature minds can understand, their hearts and minds won’t be in it. That’s just a fact. This happened to me as a child – because I didn’t understand a thing being said in church, I left once I hit high school and college. It took me decades to give Christianity a second look and only then because I had taken the responsiblity on myself to study Christianity on my own.

    Let’s not throw our kids to the wolves in society and then, when we do get them into a church setting, we put them in a place where they are intellectually unable to comprehend the words being spoken to them and don’t understand what they are being taught. A child/youth simply can’t process the language of an adult Mass or church service. I know – I was once a kid that couldn’t understand a word of an adult Mass and it led me to leave. I now have kids who complain to me that they too don’t understand what is being said in adult services (we have children’s Sunday School/Children’s Church programs which they attend). We must allow our kids to worship in a way in which they can wholly participate, both in mind and spirit. When they reach their later teenage years/young adult status, then they should be more mature and intellectually ready to understand adult services.

    1. I am typing from my phone, so I will keep this short.

      I think the polite way is to say I am being inconsistent. (-: I would say I am being incomplete because my intention in this short post was to analyze a problem more than to offer an alternative. Actually, I think alternatives are the problem.

      It might help to know that in my church sermons tend to be shorter than they are in the Protestant world. Kids color Bible story coloring books. My daughter reads her childre s Bible. Children learn through play, and I do not want to deny them play. But let them play at our feet and learn the rhythms of church while they are at it. (I think one big motivator for Childten having separate services is so that they do not bother their parents and other members of the congregation. If so, shame on us!) I think that is how we “teach” faith. We can only understand some things after we do them again and again and again.

  7. I loved the warning about the pic at the top! :) I agree that children’s church has become as user-friendly as “big people church” has. There’s music and dancing and fun, and sometimes Jesus gets pushed to the side. I love the ways that the kids can be involved in our church – whether it’s as acolytes, Holy Myhrrbearers, touching the priest’s robe, helping make prosphora, or participating in something special for a feast – like the rose petals above or decorating Christ’s bier with flowers. All that said, I still sometimes I have an issue with things like VBS (or VCS) in the OC. My kids have gone to both Protestant and Orthodox VBS for the past couple of years and the Protestant one is usually more engaging, and they learn Scripture and Bible stories. I don’t understand why we can’t have a summer camp or VBS that deals with Scripture in the Orthodox Church. And I don’t understand why we can’t ever use technology. I think I’m in this space somewhere between both types of churches when it comes to kids.

  8. I can sort of see why you might think Children’s Church has fostered selfishness (although I disagree that it has done so). But after reading your blog post here, I am sorry to say I have no idea how you think has contributed to narcissism. Are you sure you didn’t just mean selfishness?

    1. Responding on my phone.
      I think because it sends the message that what happens in church is basically all about me. Thus love of God becomes another way of loving self.


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