As I have mentioned before, our church has changed the format of Sunday mornings so that we have one service, with everyone worshiping together, followed by an education hour where everyone goes to some type of Sunday school class. The biggest change for most people is that children are in the service for the entire time instead of being excused part-way through to go to Sunday school.
As you might imagine, this has caused a little discussion. This is not really a change for our family, since we have always kept our children in worship with us. (We actually end up with a shorter morning than we had with the former schedule.) But, since we have experience with this, I was asked what tips I have for helping children sit through the ~ hour long service.
In thinking through my response, I realized that the answer lies in so much more than just that hour on Sunday mornings. Our children have little difficulty with sitting and paying attention (more or less... they're not perfect!) for that hour because of the training we do in that department the rest of the week. If children have not had practice in sitting (relatively) still and listening for extended periods of time, then to ask them to suddenly be able to do it one hour a week is indeed asking too much of them. They have not had the practice and experience to be able to pull it off. An inability to attend to a worship service is not the problem, but is merely symptomatic of a greater issue.
What do we do throughout the week that allows our children to practice the discipline of sitting and attending to something? First, I believe, it all starts with dinner. We sit down together for dinner every. single. night. Even if one parent cannot be there (and that happens at least once a week due to J.'s teaching schedule), we still sit down together and share a meal. We serve our children and insist that they wait for others to be served and God to be thanked before we eat. If they finish before anyone else, they must sit and wait for others to finish before having seconds. If the rare occurrence of dessert happens, everyone is served dessert and must wait until the hostess (that would be me), raises her fork (or spoon or cookie) to begin. If someone is talking, they must wait until there is a break in conversation to speak. And, everyone must wait until everyone else is done to be excused from the table. Our dinners routinely take an hour. J. and I do not like to rush through a meal and so our children must wait for us. Every single night our children practice the skills of waiting, sitting, and listening.
But this is not the only practice they have. We read to our children a lot. By its very nature, reading out loud, especially long books, is a slow activity. And since both J. and I enjoy reading to our children, we are willing to read for quite a long time... especially if we are caught up in the story ourselves. There was one afternoon on vacation that we all settled in and I read a story we were in the middle of. It was a long book, and we were at an exciting part. Because we were on vacation, there was no need to stop, so we kept going. When my voice finally gave out completely, we looked at the clock and were surprised to discover that we had been reading for three hours! What's a 20 minute sermon compared to that?
This reading aloud-thing also has another benefit. J. and I choose good books to read to our children and often the books are older, so the sentence structure and vocabulary is a bit more advanced than modern chapter books. It takes a bit to get into the rhythm of it, but eventually everyone is able to to follow the story. This also provides excellent practice for listening to something, such as a sermon, where content and vocabulary might not be readily understood.
Back to Sundays, though. Even with all of this practice, J. and I still don't just assume that our children will be able to sit through the service just because we tell them to. We also want them to get something out of it and to understand what is going on. We position ourselves strategically between children, dividing up those who will need our help the most. We are constantly whispering to them about what is going on and why we are doing it. Even K. can understand the time for corporate confession if someone whispers to him that this is when we tell God about the things we are sorry for. We use worship notebooks during the sermon. Not to entertain our children so we can sit back and relax, but to help them understand what the pastor is saying as well. With our readers we will use them to ask questions back and forth and sometimes ask them to draw pictures of what is being talked about. It is a bit more challenging with non-readers, but J. and I have had quite a bit of practice now drawing (somewhat pathetic) pictures to show the child what is being said. Our children treasure these books and have kept the filled ones to look back on now and then.
I know I've heard parents say, "But what about me?! I'm not getting anything out of the service because I'm constantly bothering with my kids." Can I just be perfectly honest here and admit to the not-so-Godly emotion of not being sympathetic? If being a parent of many children has taught me one thing, it's that it's not about me. None of it. This life. What I do on a day-to-day basis. How I treat others. What my children do or don't do. How people view me. Any of it. None of it is about me. What it is about is Jesus. How can I best show Jesus to others? How can I be Jesus' hands and feet in any situation? How can I best do what God wants me to do? Sometimes that means I spend the day cleaning up poop. Sometimes that means spending time encouraging a friend on the phone. Sometimes it means hearing every third word of a sermon. God tells me to disciple my children and bring them up to know Him. Teaching my children to worship... during the whole service, and not just the easy bits... is an important part of that. And no, some days it's not easy. But worship is sacrifice and this is my sacrifice.
Now I don't want to come off all holier-than-thou, because I am a very imperfect parent. Sometimes I wonder what God was thinking when He blessed me with these children. I am impatient. I am selfish. I respond in anger. I don't always act in a loving way. Really, I am a mess. The truth is the only way I can do what I do is because through God's grace, He helps me. In His graciousness, He sends the Holy Spirit to indwell me and work through me. If I let Him. (And on some days, that's a really big if.) In my own human-ness, I cannot raise 9 children. I cannot give them everything they need. I cannot keep all the balls in the air on my own. Thank you Jesus that I don't have to do any of this on my own. And knowing this, that I have the Creator of the Universe wanting to have a relationship with me, how can I not want to share every bit of it (even the parts that may not be easy) with my children?