A while back, I did a short class on how our family uses worship notebooks to help our children during the 'long parts' of the weekly worship service. I thought perhaps you, my blog readers, might be interested in the topic as well. We have long been proponents of families worshiping together, through the whole service, as opposed to sending them out for part of it. I know this puts us in the minority of North American, white, evangelical worshipers, but I'm OK with that. I have written several posts about this before which, if you're new, you might find interesting. Here are the links: Worship; Unintended consequences; Worship revisited; and Expecting too much of our children?
But back to the worship notebooks. I must say up front that we have been heavily influenced by Edith Schaeffer in The Hidden Art of Homemaking and by Robbie Castleman in Parenting in the Pew in how we go about doing worship with our children. So, as much as I would like to take credit for what we do, it's really just our version of other people's ideas.
First let's talk about what worship notebooks are not. They are not child distractors. That is, it would be easy to see them as something to occupy young, wiggly children while the sermon is going on. (And it's the sermon we're talking about, really.) We do not hand them to our children with a pen and let them doodle and draw without any interaction or awareness of what is happening around them in the service. Our purpose is not to distract our children from what is happening, but to help them engage with it. In order to keep the worship notebooks special, we also only allow them to come out during the sermon.
Learning to use worship notebooks is much more of a learning curve for the parents than it is for the children, because what J. and I are essentially doing during the sermon is using the notebooks to illustrate or translate the sermon for our children so that they can understand it. It involves a lot of stick figures and is not great art, but it gets the message across. Frankly it is easier with just a couple of children, so that one child is sitting next to one adult, but as our family has grown we have adapted how we do this.
Before, when we had just a couple of children sitting in church with us, we would each take a child and we would do all the drawing, with whispered comments along the way, to clarify or ask and answer questions. We were able to manage this way for a while, because as M. got older, we graduated her to practicing her note-taking skills in her notebook and J. and I still had a child a piece. Once we were out-numbered, things got a little more tricky.
Currently, our older children (high school age) listen to the sermon. P. is now learning to take notes, so that is what she does... more or less. And J. and I each have two children sitting next to us. (G. and L. start church with us and then we do take them to the childcare room. If we had more hands we might reconsider, but I know our limitations. Once we have a couple more people who can attend independently, we will keep them in the service with us.) We try to spread it out so we each have a reader and non-reader, but it doesn't always work that way and one parent ends up doing a bit more work in the drawing department, interpreting the sermon into pictures for two. What usually happens (at least how I do it), is I draw/write a bit based on what the pastor has said and then ask them for a response... picture, words, something based on what I've written. For instance, last Sunday, the text was Jesus calming the storm. As the pastor went through the passage, I had D. draw a picture of the storm and the disciples being scared and Jesus asleep. While he was drawing that, I was working with TM. Then I give TM something to draw and work with D., or whichever pair I end up with that Sunday.
Is this the easy road? Certainly not! But it is well worth it in the long run. My older children have never felt as though the service had nothing to offer them as grew older because at a young age they were learning along side their parents and families what worship is and how to do it. Because we always assumed that they could understand (with help) what was happening in the service, as they grew older they continued to assume there was something of value there even if it required some mental effort. Worship has never not been relevant to my older children.
Yes, J. and I sometimes miss parts of the sermon. Yes, it can be difficult to manage an uncooperative child in the pew. (J. or I have probably taken out every single child from the service at one point or another. Poor behavior in church is not a Sunday, the service is too long problem, but has its roots elsewhere.) No, relaxing is not a word to describe our typical worship experience.
But, I'll share a story with you. About a year ago, due to various reasons, I had the unusual experience of worshiping without a single child sitting next to me. I was actually kind of excited about it, thinking how relaxing and refreshing it would be to be able to attend to the service and sermon without interruptions. I really did think it would be a very positive experience. I have rarely been so wrong. Instead of being refreshing and satisfying, it was the exact opposite. Without my children with me it felt very lonely. Without the necessity of illustrating the sermon to a small person, my mind wandered and I left the service not being really able to tell you what the sermon was about. The whole experience felt empty.
And isn't this usually the case? God asks us to sacrifice ourselves for Him and He promises to bless us. In this case, we, as parents, are sacrificing our comfort and ease in order to bring our children before our Lord and teach them to worship Him. And while our children benefit from this, in the end, it turns out that God really does know what He is doing and the things that we think are sacrifices are actually the very things that God uses to bless us.