“IT’S OKAY, I’M WITH THE BAND”
July 1, 2010
“Come on everyone, it’s time to sing!” announced one of the leaders of the simple church.
Suddenly the place was filled with commotion as kids emerged from throughout the house and made a beeline for the family room. Eagerly I retrieved my guitar from its case in an adjoining room, checked the tuning, and prepared for what I hoped would be some inspirational worship. To my horror I soon realized I wasn’t the only one readying an instrument to play. We were visiting one of our house churches in the Central Valley of California, a mixed race group comprised mostly of two families, each with an impressive herd of young, active, and noisy children. I was hoping that a few minutes of quality worship and praise would help to corral the young ones and focus our attention on the Lord. However, what transpired resembled more chaos than choir, more warfare than worship, more mayhem than music, more pandemonium than praise.
While I had been pulling my guitar out of its case the group’s leaders had been distributing their own instruments. Noisemakers of all sorts were hastily retrieved from a box by tiny, eager hands. Maracas, ratchets, tambourines, and wood blocks were quickly claimed and pressed into service. One child brought out a junior version of a trap set and began banging with all his might on the drums and cymbals. Another child placed the strap of a department store electric guitar over his shoulder and plugged the instrument into a nearby amplifier. As he cranked up the volume it soon became apparent that he knew no chords; he was just enthusiastically strumming the open strings. As each kid tested out their chosen instrument the decibel level rose to a deafening roar, roughly akin to an explosion in a ball-bearing factory.
While the praise leader counted off the beat for the first song I was praying for a miracle. Sadly, my plea was drowned out by the beginning of world war three, commencing with the shock and awe of an instrumental introduction that will live in infamy. Little hands everywhere sprung into action making as much noise as possible. My own guitar and voice were completely overwhelmed by the chaotic clamor. A quick glance at my wife, Babs, revealed her panicked attempt to find a way to politely cover her throbbing ears. You’ve got to be kidding! I thought to myself. How can anyone call this worship? How can you present this deafening din to the Lord and claim that we’re honoring Him?
But then I caught a glimpse of the faces of the children. They were singing their hearts outs, totally enraptured in praise to their heavenly Father. Suddenly it dawned on me that the only real sour notes were coming from my attitude. Who was I to pass judgment on their ecstatic worship? Indeed, they were playing to a much higher audience than me, one who is much more able to look past the imperfections of our feeble attempts at worship and graciously judge the hearts of the performers. For years we had been wrestling with how to involve children more in our simple churches. Now the answer was shouting back at me through the agency of these children’s unorthodox yet heartfelt praise.
For generations the church has practiced segregation according to age. While adult worship was taking place in the “sanctuary,” we committed the children to the basement where they could do their thing without disturbing our “more genuine” worship upstairs. This arrangement allowed adults to pursue uninterrupted, quality praise and worship with professional musicians, resulting in a church service that was more dignified, reverent, and “worshipful.” But what have we taught the children? And what have we missed by their absence?
In children’s church our kids learn that worship means playing games, singing fun songs together, hearing a Bible story, and eating yummy snacks. They are encouraged to ask questions and everyone is urged to take an active role in worship. When they graduate to junior church the games get more sophisticated and the songs change to reflect the appropriate age. The Bible story may be a bit longer but the pattern remains essentially the same. On through high school our kids experience roughly the same thing. Worship involves games (Come to youth group this week and bring your Super Soakers!), age appropriate songs, a Bible time when everyone is free to ask questions and make comments, and food (Bring your favorite toppings and we’ll make our own pizzas!).
Tragically, when our kids graduate from high school, they are thrust into adult worship where they are forced to sit still in rows facing forward while the professionals do all the worshipping on stage. The play time is done away with, the interaction is missing, the Bible story has morphed into a thirty minute monologue, the worship becomes more subdued (we shouldn’t upset all the old folks) and snacks are relegated to coffee and doughnuts in the foyer before the service begins (except for that tiny sliver of a cracker and thimble full of grape juice we ironically refer as the Lord’s supper). Is it any wonder that 92% of children who grow up attending Sunday school leave church when they leave their parents’ home?
On the way home from our boisterous house church worship adventure I recalled a T-shirt I once saw when I was a professional musician employed by the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. In large letters across the front of the shirt the message read: “It’s Okay, I’m with the Band!” For a musician the humor lies in the fact that this saying is a well known excuse for gaining access to the stage area in order to hobnob with the celebrity performers. I found myself wishing we had those t-shirts to hand out to all the children who frequent our simple church gatherings.
One of the most often asked questions regarding simple church is, “But what do you do with the children?” The answer is we let them on stage with all the other performers, meaning they are an integral part of what we do. We play games with them, interact with them, eat a meal with them, and sing with them. While we are enjoying a potluck meal together we ask everyone to share any “God sightings” they have witnessed since we last met. Our children love talking about experiences in which they believe God was actively involved. Some of our most deeply touching worship gatherings have occurred when the Lord has spoken to us through a child. As many others have often said, God doesn’t give children a junior Holy Spirit.
When it comes time to sing we often hand out noise makers to the kids. The music may not be as aesthetically pleasing (to our ears anyway) as it would be if only the adults took part in the praise time but it is a wonderful blessing to see entire families, young and old alike, worshipping the Lord together. And yes, we often sing children’s choruses—complete with all the motions. It’s amazing to see how much fun adults can have remembering the songs they used to sing in children’s church. Yes, I agree with those who argue that God deserves our very best, including when it comes to our worship. But do we honestly think, when surrounded by the heavenly host and all the music heaven has to offer, that God is all that impressed with our Sunday morning stage productions? As others have well said, God is not so much concerned with the state of our art as He is with the state of our heart! “From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise…” – Psalm 8:2.
So what do we do when the discussion gets too deep or becomes inappropriate for the little ones? We have another room where they can play with toys, watch a Christian video, or listen to a Bible story from one of the adults. But our aim is to involve them as much as possible in all we do in our gatherings. When one of our more lively kids gets a little out of hand he or she quickly learns that they have many parents in our church family and all adults are to be given respect. Younger or more inexperienced parents receive good advice and practical demonstrations of effective disciplinary procedures. Our children learn that they are free to ask questions and that their opinions are highly regarded. Perhaps most importantly, these children are growing up observing their parents passionately worshipping their heavenly Father and earnestly praying for one another. I can only imagine the spiritual dividends this will bring later in their lives.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: ‘I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.’” – Matthew 18:1-5.
“People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.” – Mark 10:13-16.
I can just see Jesus, after discovering that His disciples were preventing the children from “disrupting” His ministry, saying to one and all, “Let the kids come up here on stage with me. It’s okay; they’re with the band!”
Bill, a child of God thrilled to be in His band