My parents’ church gets a little wild sometimes. Some days it might even seem downright charismatic. It’s the small town Baptist church that I grew up in. I visited there recently, and there were people everywhere speaking in tongues, running up and down aisles, and talking to the preacher during his sermon. Of course, all of those people were under the age of five.
The church is filled with children.
And, even though the children were, well, being children during the church service, the adults continued to sing praises to Christ, to worship Him in song and in prayer and through the preaching of His word. And, I noticed, as the adults worshiped, so did the kids, in their own ways. They were watching their mothers sing and raise their hands in worship. They were bopping up and down to the music. They were thumbing through the Bible. Drawing pictures of what they heard about in Sunday school. They were resting their heads on strong Daddy shoulders while they listened–yes, listened–to the Gospel as it was preached.
My hometown church has accomplished something that some churches never do: they have created a culture that invites children into worship.
Now, not every church can or should have quite so much freedom for children during worship. My parents’ church is small, and in smaller rooms and in smaller numbers, it is easier to allow very young kids to be present during the worship service. I’m not suggesting that all of us should have a service that looks exactly like theirs. But, in order for our churches to build an atmosphere that is welcoming to children and their parents, a partnership needs to be formed between mothers and the rest of the church.
Almost all churches offer nursery services for babies through age three. It’s important that we do so. But, not all mothers are comfortable taking their children into the nursery. Church members need to be understanding that mamas have various reasons for bringing their littlest ones into worship with them. We should ooh and ahh over babies, warmly receiving their mothers, and we should exhibit endless patience and understanding when those babies make noise, as they will. I have found that church members are extremely kind about baby sounds in church. One reason is because most mothers take care to sit in places where they can easily move to the foyer or another designated spot if their little one gets fussy. The other reason is because God made babies, and when we hear babies in our churches, that’s a good sign that we are growing, and God is building the kingdom right there under our roof.
So, babies are one thing. We can all handle a few baby gurgles here and there. But, what about those four year olds? I recently received a message from a young mother who told me she is dreading the day that her son turns four because her church will remove him from the nursery roll and ask her to take him into the church service with her. She asked, “What can I do? He’ll never sit through the service. Should I just stand in the hallway and let him play and see how much of the sermon I can hear from there?” To her I say that I totally get it. When Emerald graduated from the nursery, I felt sure that I would never again hear another word that Chad preached. The first few weeks were rough. I wrestled with her through the service, and I had to get up and take her out several Sundays and give her a talking-to. But, eventually, she learned how to behave in a worship service. She isn’t perfect. She still has her days. But, for the most part, she’s figured things out.
How did that happen? One thing is that she had simply had very little exposure to the worship service. There wasn’t really any other regular event that she attended in her life that required her to sit still for 45 minutes of talking. So, it took some time. But, after a few weeks of observing how her big brother and big sister and I behaved in a worship service, she began to emulate that. The other thing is that I coached her before the services and I de-briefed with her afterward. I talked about all of my expectations for her behavior, and I reviewed the consequences that would occur if she didn’t meet those expectations. Then after the service I would talk to her about everything she did that was really great, and if she had a misstep here or there, we would talk about that, too, and I made good on the consequences I had outlined earlier. Four year olds are so much more perceptive than we sometimes give them credit for being. It wasn’t long at all until she was singing along to the worship music and drawing quietly during the sermon.
In fact, I recently took her to a funeral that lasted two hours, and she sat still and quiet for the whole thing, much to my delight. (Read more about why I take my kids to funerals here.) But, do you know why I was able to spend a few months teaching Emerald how to behave in church? Because we have a church that warmly welcomes her and other little ones into our worship service. It was as if the church and I partnered together to bring Emerald into our fellowship of worship. I was devoted to doing the work of teaching her to be still enough and quiet enough to enter into worship with us, and they were devoted to loving her even when she was being distracting, and loving us both even when I had to get up and march out with her at inopportune times.
More churches could better learn how to do this. Maybe one reason the mother who wrote to me is feeling such dread about bringing her son into the service is because her church has somehow sent the message that they don’t want him or other squirmy kids like him in the service. We should never walk up to a young mother who is settling into church with her babies and tell her that there’s a nursery. There is no faster way to make a mama feel unwelcome. If we want to make her aware of all of the resources available to her, we should start by introducing ourselves, asking her some questions about her and her children, making it clear that we want to get to know her. And then we might tell her that her children are so welcome in the service and that they are also welcome to join the kids in children’s church or go play in our wonderful nursery facility.
And, to you young mothers, let me encourage you. Some kids are harder to bring into the service than others. Hang in there. If your little boy is crawling under the pew, if your little girl just can’t seem to quit talking out loud during the sermon, just keep going. Keep teaching them. Keep directing them. Be consistent, and be assured that all of the parents and grandparents in the room know exactly what you’re going through. Take your child out of the service when you need to. Be aware that our kids sometimes really can be distractions (even to the pastor), and act accordingly. And, don’t give up. It will be worth it to watch him learn how to worship with his church family.
If our churches work hard to reach out to young mothers and their kids in worship, if we have patience and understanding, if we offer hugs instead of disapproving looks, then we will see our young families blossom right there under our noses, coloring books and Goldfish and squirmy-ness and all. This is the church culture that will develop the future Body of Christ. Children are a gift from God, even in worship. Even in the quiet moments when they are a little too rambunctious. Even when their mothers are dragging them out into the foyer for a little come-to-Jesus meeting. All of these things are blessed parts of raising a family in a loving church. Smile and know that this is where discipleship begins.
For further reading, check out It’s Okay for Kids to Be Bored During Church.