I wrote (and J heavily edited) this article for our church's newsletter:
We enter the sanctuary and my parade of children heads down the aisle toward the stairs which lead to the balcony. Some scamper quickly, almost, but not quite, running; others meander behind. We make our way up the stairs and head to a pew in the balcony. Some shuffling occurs as children negotiate seating arrangements. Sometimes the shuffling erupts in mild skirmishes if too many children want to sit by the same person. The 2-year-old likes to sit by everyone and so spends his time moving from person to person. That is, until his father puts an end to it by firmly holding him in his arms.
As the service begins, the 6-year-old wants to know where we are in the bulletin. I point to the words of the hymn we’re singing and, even though he doesn’t read yet, he is content to feel he is following along. The call to worship starts and the leader’s part begins, “Clap your hands…” at which point the 2-year-old grins and begins clapping his hands together, pleased at his own ability to follow instructions. As we move through the first part of the service, I notice the 10-year-old helping her 8-year-old sister relocate her place in the song. I hear the high voice of my 5-year-old son happily singing a praise song that he likes. I hear the newly much lower voice of my 13-year-old son as he joins with the congregation in reading the prayer of confession. I lean over and whisper to the squirmy 6-year-old, “Shhh, now we are talking to God.”
These are scenes which we repeat each week as our family worships together. But for us, our experience of worshiping together doesn’t end there. We have chosen to keep our children with us through the entire worship service rather than just for the singing at the beginning. We decided that we didn’t want our children to have the misplaced idea that only the first 20 minutes of worship was for them; we wanted them to know that all worship is open to and encouraged of everyone. It seems to us that waiting until our children are older before expecting them to join us in worship just means that we miss valuable opportunities to disciple our children in worship. Of course, most 5- or 6- or 7-year-olds don’t know how to behave in worship, but that’s why we want them there with us: so they can learn. (And it’s easier to teach a 6-year-old who is new to worship than a 12-year-old who is new to worship!)
When people ask about how to get children to sit through church, what they really want to know is how to make it through the sermon. From the beginning, we have used Edith Schaeffer’s idea of giving each child a worship notebook. In it, we illustrate the sermon for our young children so that they can understand the sermon. For our non-readers, this means we are forced to draw pictures to show what the pastor is saying. Trust me when I say the level of drawing is pretty low; the books abound with stick figures. Once the child starts to read, it becomes a bit easier as we can then reduce the sermon to more manageable vocabulary and use it to ask questions to clarify understanding. Often we will have the child draw their own illustrations of what the sermon is about.
We want to communicate to our children that the sermon is as much for them as it is for the adults in the congregation. And yes, this is hard work. It forces us to really pay attention to the sermon while at the same time try to interpret it for our children. Both J and I have been nudged in the ribs by a child who thinks we’re slacking on the job. Sometimes they are more engaged with what is going on than we are.
Worshiping as a family is so much more than just making it through the sermon and ‘long bits’, though. I believe it has also brought us closer together as a family. Each month we take communion together, those who are old enough. Those who are not see the rest of us taking communion and have experience with it long before they attend the communion workshop. Our whole family gets to hear testimonies and stories from other believers which we can then discuss together at a later time. Sometimes a child will ask a question that was brought to mind as a result of something the minister said during the sermon. My children also know the Apostles’ Creed and the Doxology as a result of repetition over the course of years. And sometimes, the best, most interesting part of the service comes at the end. I was thrilled that my children were there to witness the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at the end of one 11am service.
This is not to say that each Sunday is a walk in the park; some days go better than others. When everything goes right, when the children are cooperative and engaged, it’s glorious. But these Sundays are merely respites from the hard work of teaching our children to worship. Sometimes a child is uncooperative, or grumpy, or just merely too hungry to pay attention. In that situation, we just try to do our best. I’m pretty sure that each of our children has at one time been removed from the service for poor behavior.
We remind ourselves that we are training our children to worship; they don’t know how on their own. Worship takes practice and often I feel as though I am trying to teach my children something which I know very imperfectly myself. I love this paragraph from Robbie Castleman’s book, Parenting in the Pew, “Teaching your children to worship, parenting in the pew, is entering the house of your heavenly Father and saying, ‘Daddy, I would like you to meet my children.’ Worship is seeing your Father’s smile.”
If you are a parent, you may worry that sitting with your child in worship will distract you or others around you. And that may happen. But worship is not, after all, “our” time; it is not “adult” time. Worship is God’s time. Worshipping with our children is truly service to the Lord. Even those temporary distractions can lead to moments of deep worship, if we use them as opportunities to help our children learn what worship is.
If you don’t have children, but see some in worship with their families, please give the parents a nod and a smile. Worship is work for the whole body of Christ, from the youngest to the oldest. At each baptism, as a congregation we promise to assist in raising and discipling these children. What could be more important than supporting families in teaching their children to worship? And what is a better image of the body of Christ than a sanctuary filled with worshippers of every age, praising the one before whom all creation bows.