One of the most amazing things about our journey to the Eastern Church is the impact it has had on our children. It has become somewhat in vogue in Protestant churches of late to exclude or limit participation of children to varying degrees. It is, unfortunately, becoming more and more in vogue in more historic communions as well. Some (in our experience, few) still have the old-fashioned "cry room," where parents are encouraged to take their children if they are unruly for a short time, then return them to the service. Our current parish fits this mold, though the "cry room" is seldom used since most merely remove their children to the Narthex or the front porch for a short period before returning them to the Liturgy. Others have "children's sermonettes" that allow the children to have a portion of the service that is "just for them." Still others have a staffed nursery to allow parents to "drop off" their kids in lieu of having them in the service, if the kids are unruly or if the parents just want a break. And others, in our experience an increasingly alarming number, have "Children's Church" where the kids are excluded from the service entirely.
Now, it is not my wish to criticize those who engage in such practices for their intentions. I firmly believe that those who practice varying degrees of seclusion of children from the worship service have good intentions. Having said that, I believe that the use of the historic Divine Liturgy of the Church is the single best environment for raising children in the Christian Faith and eliminates or minimizes any concerns that may arise about having children present during the worship service.
First, the Liturgy is repetitive. That may seem "boring" to some in theory, but in practice it is anything but. For one, the readings and, for the most part, the hymnody change weekly (actually, daily, but that's another topic for another day). But the more interesting thing is that with the change of seasons, there is change of emphasis. And without going into the movement of the daily, weekly and yearly cycles of the Church year (yet another topic for another day), that change is well thought out and instructive. The repetitive nature of the Liturgy involves things that should be repetitive. Which is to say, the bulk of the Divine Liturgy is drawn directly from Holy Scripture and the Holy Tradition of the Church. How many times can one pray the Lord's Prayer, or say the Creed, or sing the Trisagion hymn or the Cherubic hymn, before one gets bored with them and needs to spice things up? To even ask the question is a fool's errand.
Second, the Liturgy is interactive. Put in a crass, materialistic sense, it gives children something to do. But it is not mere crass materialism at work here. Rather, the Liturgy teaches a proper Christian piety, a sense that what is going on is important and worthy of our attention and reverence. Because it is. Even the youngest child can have some level of participation in the Liturgy. All of our children are encouraged to make the sign of the cross, bow, orient themselves properly (i.e., toward the icon of the Theotokos, or the censer, or the priest or deacon), and so forth. They are encouraged to participate in veneration of icons and the Holy Cross. In the Eastern Church, they are blessed to participate in Holy Communion. This level of personal piety has the added benefit of maintaining a child's attention, helping them to behave properly. That is not to say our children are particularly well behaved in Church compared with others -- with three young ones, it is always a struggle to maintain proper behavior by all. But they are better behaved when they are engaged in the Liturgy than when they are not.
Third, the Liturgy has roots. Which is to say, the Liturgy gives children something concrete, unchanging and reliable. The Liturgy in primary use in the Orthodox Church has not materially changed in nearly two millennia, and one could argue has not changed significantly in the entire life of the New Testament Church. Children need structure, and there is no structure better than one which has withstood the test of time. The Liturgy provides them something in their life that is always there, always the same, always comfortable, always familiar. It is reassuring and gives a sense of solidity and security.
If you have noticed the benefits of the Liturgy to children I reference above are also benefits to adults, well, that's probably not a coincidence.
A good example of the practical effect of liturgical worship is our youngest daughter, pictured above. Emily has never "done Church" well. She is a very sweet child, but she is a free spirit, and in a quiet setting is typically loud, unruly, boisterous and bullheaded. And she is still all of those things. At our prior parish, we had an unhistoric form of liturgy (which is to say the liturgy was basically comprised of several portions of the prayer services and Common Service in the hymnal), but the settings were frequently changed and, more to the point, there was no sense of piety such as making the sign of the cross, and other than the Lord's Prayer and the Creed, there was little about the Divine Service in which Emily was expected to participate. While my wife and I still made the sign of the cross, bowed in appropriate places, etc., the example of the parish was a bit more "low church," to use an oft-repeated cliche. Lauren, who always made the sign of the cross before, fell out of the habit, and Abigail and Emily never acquired the habit in the first place. In the Orthodox Church, all three are now engaged and motivated. They want to go to Church, and they practice the piety of the Church. They still need to be reminded, but they are learning more and more where and why this reverence is shown.
When we first began attending the Orthodox Church, after maybe 2 or 3 visits, Stephanie and I were not yet comfortable with a lot of the local piety of the Eastern Church. In particular, we did not venerate icons, the Gospel book or the cross, and while we would make the sign of the cross at appropriate places, we were not particularly comfortable doing metanias, etc. But Emily always wanted to go venerate the cross at the end of the liturgy, so Khouria was kind enough to take her and Lauren and Abby for a blessing at communion and down the aisle to venerate the cross after the Liturgy. After the 2nd time Emily had done this, our priest was talking to us at a table in the parish hall, and as he leaned over the table, his pectoral cross was swinging back and forth. Emily loudly interrupted the conversation by yelling "ah, a cross!" and grabbing it and kissing it. She knew very little about the Christian faith in general apart from her "night night prayers" and the Lord's Prayer, and nearly nothing about the Orthodox Church, but she knew that cross was made to be venerated, and so she venerated it.
What message is being sent here, and what message is being received? What is taught to a 2 year old when she is given the opportunity to venerate icons, the cross, the Gospel? When she is taught to make the sign of the cross when the Name of God is spoken? When she is taught to pray -- even as young as two and a half -- "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us?" When every week she has the Creed and the hymnody of the Church and the prayers of the Church hammered in her ears over and over and over? She is simply being taught the Christian Faith. That Jesus Christ is true God and true man, that He is one of the Holy Trinity, that He is immortal, that He will have mercy on us, that He has given us His Gospel to teach us His Faith, that He lives in His Saints and they in Him. And though she cannot articulate it, these things will stick with her throughout her life and when she is taught them in a more formal manner, she will understand them because she will have lived them for the bulk of her life. She will be able to point to the places in the Liturgy where the concepts she is being taught are lived out.
Conversely, what message is sent when children are excused from the service their parents attend? When they are given a "special" sermon that is "just for them?" When they are absented from the piety of the Church (or worse, when that piety is excluded from the Church entirely)? They are taught that the service is not for them. That the Christian Faith is something that will have to wait until they are older. That nothing particularly important (to them, at least) is going on here. And by the absence of basic piety, the things listed in the preceding paragraph that they are now not taught are possibly more significant than the things that are.
Exclude children from the Divine Liturgy, or alter or remove the Divine Liturgy from the Church entirely, and is it any wonder that when children grow up, they voluntarily absent themselves from something they have been clearly taught is not for them in the first place? But include them in the historic Divine Liturgy of the Church, teach them the Faith by having them live it out, and let them know from the earliest age that this Faith is for them -- as Saint Peter said, "the promise is for you and your children" -- and it is my firm belief that they will be more likely to remain in that Faith throughout their lives. They may not remember, and they may not even know why, but the lessons taught to them in the Liturgy will stick with them long after we forget how cute it was that time they kissed the priest's pectoral cross.
"Let the little children come to Me and forbid them not, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." May it ever be so.