I get asked lots of questions by parents visiting our church for the first time, but by far the most common is this: Why don’t you hold Sunday school during the service? It’s so hard to have my five-year-old with me during church! We do have a Sunday school, but it meets after our corporate worship service, and children five and older are expected to stay with their parents during this service. (Younger children and babies can attend the nursery.) I get a similar question from single adults, senior citizens, and college students: Why don’t you hold Sunday school during the service? I can’t enjoy the service with all of these whiny, squiggly, rowdy children in the sanctuary!
A Jewish friend recently told me that her synagogue holds two seders each Passover – one upstairs for the adults and one downstairs for the children, who were so badly behaved that the adults banished them to the basement. Given the Bible’s mandate that adults pass on the story to each new generation, this is surely a failure. As is the current Patheos debate about babies crying during church. But whose failure is it? The parents who think the world revolves around their precious bundles? Or the other adults who feel entitled to peace and quiet and orderliness at all times?
Church, unlike my quiet times of Bible study and prayer, is a communal experience. We come together to make a joyful noise for our God. We come together to encourage each other in faith. We come together to welcome newcomers into a relationship with God and his people. And that welcome extends to children. Our job as a congregation is to welcome children into the life of the church. This job may fall primarily on parents, but it won’t work if the entire community doesn’t pitch in. Here are some suggestions for all of us. Nearly all of them are taken directly from a book that I cannot recommend highly enough, Parenting in the Pew.
FOR PARENTS: Church is not a time-out from parenting. It’s not like date night, where you and God are gonna have some special time. You have the responsibility, and incredible blessing, to lead your child in the life of your church. This means recognizing that the church is not there only for your child’s enjoyment. They are part of a community, and teaching your children to respect that community is important work. In a culture that entertains children into a spiritual coma, this is not going to be easy. But it will be worth it.
- Sunday morning starts Saturday night. Lay out clothes, offering envelopes, and gather together all you will need.
- Make Sunday morning different! Set the alarm early enough to allow for a relaxed pace. Have a simple, special Sunday breakfast.
- Allow time to get settled. Take children to the bathroom before the service begins.
- It’s often helpful to sit as a family toward the front of the sanctuary. Children who can see will feel more a part of the service. If, on the other hand, you think you’ll need to take a break during the service, sit near the back and on the aisle so you are less likely to disrupt things as you leave and return.
- If you need some time to quiet a crying baby or help a squiggly youngster re-focus, feel free to step out of the sanctuary for a bit.
- Worship WITH rather than BESIDE children. Help those who can’t yet read by singing the words of the chorus into their ears so they can sing along. Have them squeeze your hand whenever they hear a repeated word like God or Hallelujah.
- Help young readers follow along with Powerpoint and Bibles. Point out words for young readers and even non-readers who can pick out repetitive words.
- Allow children to participate in the offering by sharing their allowance and bringing it forward with your family’s offering.
- Whisper instructions, questions and comments. “Now is the time when we tell God how great He is.” “What do you think will happen next in the story?”
- When young children need a break, step out of the sanctuary. Rejoin when they are ready to participate again.
- Be firm and consistent. Apply the same discipline for worship infractions that you apply at other times.
- On the way home, ask what people did, enjoyed, and wondered about during the service.
FOR THE REST OF US: Church is not an adults-only resort. Yes, many parents need to do a better job parenting at church, but your hostile eye-rolling is not helping. Neither is your attitude that it’s not your problem to solve. How much support do the single mothers get from you? The mothers of colicky babies or special needs kindergarteners? Has your church gone out of its way to make non-Christian college students feel welcome but very little to make eight-year-old boys feel the same? If you can’t sing while a baby cries or an autistic girl bumps into you while she tries to get comfortable, might you not be the one who needs to adjust a few things?
- Remember the commitment you made as a church when children were dedicated, a commitment to encourage them to become disciples of Christ.
- Introduce yourself to the child sitting beside you. Make him or her feel welcome and important.
- On occasion, ask a parent if you could invite one of their children to sit with you during the service.
- Understand when parents need to take young children and babies to the nursery or the rest room and then return to worship.
- Have patience with the learning process, and pray for families that you see are struggling.
- Compliment children who listened attentively during the service.