A Separate Service for Children
Transcription of Article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by William C. Ball
IN this series of papers no topic lies nearer to our heart than the one with which we now propose to deal. We can truly claim to have thought often and long about it, a fact we are anxious our readers should note, as we should be pained if what we have to say here should be characterised as immature and inconsiderate. We do not expect everyone who reads this article to agree with us, nevertheless we ask for a fair and courteous hearing, and even though the verdict be against us, we trust that full justice will be done to the purity of our motives.
To come to the point at once, we desire to see a radical change in the Sunday morning services in our church. We say Sunday morning, though we know well that in many places, especially in the villages, the first gathering for public worship is in the afternoon. It will be convenient, however, to take as a typical instance an average town church where the services are morning and evening, the afternoon being given up to Sunday School work. Other cases can be considered later. In such a church there is usually a Sunday morning school which meets about nine or nine-thirty, and is expected to close in time for the teachers and scholars to pass into the preaching service at ten-thirty or eleven o’clock. In a few cases known to us the scholars are given the option of leaving altogether at the close of the school if they so desire, but in the great majority of instances they are not allowed to depart except for some very pressing reason.
This is the state of things we desire to alter. Before making our suggestions, however, let us glance at some of the almost invariable results of the present method. First of all, we have in many cases the unedifying spectacle of teachers and scholars trooping in from the schoolroom a minute or two previous to the hour of worship, often with a great clatter of feet (for every chapel aisle is not carpeted), and in any case, with more or less inevitable noise to the distraction of preacher and congregation. As we have many superintendents whose watches keep bad time, or who forget to look at them, it often happens that the procession from the school breaks in upon the singing of the first hymn. Even where all are in their places five or ten minutes before service time, there is not infrequently a babel of little voices, and a restless movement of little hands and feet, necessitating a sharp call to order from superintendent or preacher.
Having got the service well begun things begin to mend somewhat, though interruption and disturbance may still have to be reckoned with. Wise school officers distribute the scholars over different parts of the building instead of having them concentrated in one corner, and where this is done, and the supply of teachers to sit with the children is plentiful, disorder is reduced to a minimum when we are once well under weigh. But as every teacher knows, quiet is then often purchased at the price of the teacher’s perpetual distraction. He can scarcely close his eyes during prayer, he is debarred from following closely the reading of scripture, and just when the text is given out, or the best features of the sermon are to the front, he may have to give his attention elsewhere. Members of the congregation who are in the vicinity of the children are also more or less affected by the same state of things, whilst the poor preacher is frequently reduced to a pitiable state of nervous prostration.
Lest any ardent lover of children should by this time find his indignant feelings over-mastering him, and be tempted to denounce us as cold-blooded and inhuman, let us hasten to assure him that for the condition of things we have described, and which is all too common, we scarcely blame the children at all. Our quarrel is with the system. For the little ones themselves we often feel deep sympathy. They, poor things, are fagged, and eager to get into the open air. They have already had an hour or more of confinement, and were other things equal it would be impossible for them to come to the second service with the freshness and enthusiasm that the preacher and those in the congregation who are making their first appearance possess. The teachers cannot plead fatigue as the children can, for they have been talking (and how time flies when we are speaking), yet even they are tired, for if you watch them closely you will see some of them emit a few yawns, and turn their eyes towards the clock long before the service is over. From half-past nine to twelve or twelve-thirty is too long for the present generation to worship. Our Puritan ancestors it is well known endured, yea, enjoyed, much longer spells of worship, but whether for good or for evil, the people of to-day are not built that way. Even adults will not stand it; how then can children of tender years be expected to be patient under it?
Now that our problem is no fancy one is clear from the fact that certain suggestions are often made to solve it. Two of these may claim a passing word. It is sometimes said that preachers at the morning service should adapt their discourses to the children. This advice, though well-meant, is on the whole impracticable. Children have neither the intelligence nor the experience necessary to appreciate many a message which an adult would welcome. Instruction of any kind must always be graded to meet the needs of varying ages. If the adult is to have your best there will inevitably be much that the child cannot grasp. If the child’s capacities are never to be exceeded the highest demands of the adult will go unsupplied. This fact is recognised by those who make a second suggestion to meet our difficulty. Such persons recommend us to include in every Sunday morning service a ten minutes’ address expressly for the young.
To this proposal in itself we have no objection to urge, but we would point out that far from solving our problem it only accentuates it. By giving to the children ten minutes that shall be all their own, you placard the fact that they are out of touch with the general run of the service. Besides, some able preachers have no gift at all for addressing the young. Preaching to adults. and speaking to children are widely different duties, as every public speaker knows. Some persons do both admirably, but their name is not legion.
What we have said so far prepares the way for the positive proposal we have to make. In many cases the adoption of a simple course would cut the Gordian knot. It consists of two steps. First, let the morning school be dispensed with. Second, let all under, say, fourteen years of age worship separately. Now the proposal to give up the morning school may alarm some, but it is made in the best interests of the children. As things are we are trying to crowd too much into the children’s Sabbath. There is a danger of sickening young people with religion. From nine to twelve, and from two to half past three we coop them up in buildings, many of them dismal and badly ventilated, and not infrequently compel them to listen to discourses that are neither calculated to edify nor inspire. Small wonder is it that some of them, when they are old enough to please themselves, elect to spend the Sabbath as far from the sanctuary as they can get. When we make Sunday an odious day, and the House of God a prison to young life we are incurring a tremendous responsibility. Let us be wise, and look facts in the face. Quality is better than quantity any day. One good service in the morning of an hour’s length is better than two feeble ones. And if there is to be one only surely it should differ in character from the afternoon service. The children will relish the Bible lesson later in the day, if the morning service has moved on other lines.
At eleven o’clock then or thereabouts let them come to the sanctuary in company with their seniors. Old and young will then separate, the former going to the church, the latter to the schoolroom. Let us follow the children. The discipline imposed in the Sunday School will, of course, be observed in the separate service. Entrance and exit will be orderly. Unpunctuality will be discouraged. Definite seats will be allocated to the different sexes. The service itself will be in every sense of the term a children’s service. Children’s hymns will be used, and solos by children will be a frequent feature. A suitable recitation or dialogue may occasionally be included.
Consistently with the aim of the service as much variety as possible will be introduced. Usually an address will be given. For this purpose different speakers will be invited in turn, those having the gift of speaking to children being specially sought after. Long addresses will be discouraged, and speakers coming unprepared should not be allowed to depart without rebuke. It goes without saying that the conductors of the class should be loyal members of our church, should have gifts of leadership and command the respect and affection of the children. Given such persons a fairly free hand might be permitted them in the drafting of programmes, selection of speakers, etc. Needless to add the service would have the stamp of spirituality upon it, and the object ever kept in view would be to attach the children to the church and claim them for Christ. From time to time the senior children would be transferred to the adult service.
Our space is exhausted, but it is impossible to close without noticing two formidable objections to our scheme. It will be urged that our plan will mean the depletion of the morning congregation already scanty enough. To this we reply that one teacher for every twenty-five scholars would furnish an ample staff of officers. This would not involve a serious withdrawal of adults, and no improved system can be obtained without some sacrifice. A far more serious difficulty is the question of accommodation. But this is not insuperable. Where it is impracticable to arise and build the needed schoolroom it might be feasible to hire a suitable room at small cost. No doubt there are cases not a few where these difficulties would effectually bar the way for some time to come, but in numerous instances the change we advocate might be brought into operation next Sunday if agreed upon. We have said our say, and there we must leave the matter. But of one thing we are certain. Sooner or later the change we propose will come about on a wide scale, and when it does, everyone will wonder that it was not made long before.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1908/695