Yesterday, after a particularly well-attended and slightly noisy morning in our family-integrated church, I was asked a question that made me think it was time to address children in church once again. I've probably blogged about this before, but for some who may be new readers, I'll spend a little time on this very important topic again...
Because our congregation comprises many large families and lots of young children, we're in a continual process of training even very tiny children to worship. For the most part, things are amazingly orderly, as each family has taken on the important responsibility of teaching their children to participate enthusiastically, to sit quietly when appropriate, and to respect the worship experiences of others.
And then there are days like today, when some families feel as if everything is coming apart at the seams (and today we were bursting at the seams!). The Papa likes to remind our church that the sounds and even the cries and occasional tantrums of little children are the sounds of treasure falling from heaven. It's good to be reminded of that, isn't it? Because most of the time it's the parents of the ones still being trained who get the most "stressed out" by the noise and the need to enforce the boundaries.
But it's true, too, that genuinely unruly children do make it difficult for others around them to worship, and this is just one of the reasons that we work so hard to encourage our kids to learn self-control and reverence for the worship atmosphere. No one, though, ever gives you a manual to learn how to teach such things, and I continue to think that the best way to succeed is to observe families who've gone before you and ask them questions! Remember, too, that some of what you'll need to teach your children is dependent on the surroundings, the furnishings, and the tolerance level of the congregation you're attending. What's acceptable and even desirable in one setting won't always fly in another.
When our kids were much younger, we actually had a list of standards that we would review with them from time to time, and then we'd do a "debrief" once we were home to provide them with feedback on how they were doing. We don't ever want this to overshadow the importance of the actual worship experience, but a child who's causing trouble and disobeying is not likely to be worshiping.
Here are some of the things we trained our kids to do (and again, some of them were specific to the church we were a part of at the time):
- When the congregation stands, the children stand. When asked to be seated, they will follow.
- When we sing, they are to sing if they know the song. Once they're four or five years old, we help them follow the song in the hymnal even if they're pre-readers, so they get a handle on how to go from line to line and verse to verse.
- They are to bring their Bibles to church, and find and follow the Scripture readings once they're old enough. Again, for pre-readers, helping them follow the text with your finger helps train their eyes for the time when they can read on their own.
- No climbing or crawling under the pews/chairs and no standing on them after about two years old. In larger churches it's sometimes helpful for a very tiny child to stand on a chair so she can see what's going on. In our current church this probably wouldn't be necessary.
- Show respect for the church's hymnals, Bibles, visitor cards, etc. No writing on anything you didn't bring. The church's offering envelopes are not meant to be note card stock :-)
- Bulletins will not become airborne in any form, with or without alien insignia.
- If the child exceeds the acceptable noise level (and you and those around you will determine the level), he'll be taken out of the service temporarily for discipline or to calm down. But it won't be pleasant--we don't want to take them out of church and have them like the change so much that they act up on purpose in order to go play with the toys or take a walk outside. They may need a spanking, they may need a diaper change, they may need to sit just outside the crowd on Dad's lap where they don't disturb but also don't feel they've "escaped"!
- After age three, no snacks in church. Once again, some of this is determined by the setting of your church and whether Cheerios are acceptable in the pews. But in our family, we needed to set an age limit on this or they'd still be bringing their bowl of cereal into the sanctuary ;-)
- No toys, ever. This was our standard and I understand that this isn't a black and white issue, and you may disagree. We did allow drawing, but not until the sermon began. Until then, the child was to participate fully in the service and not sit in the pew with crayons. Once the sermon began we allowed quiet drawing/coloring. When our children were six they weren't allowed to draw unless it had something to do with what they were hearing. Sometimes this was a stretch...David and Goliath might resemble X-men or something. But we wanted their ears to be attuned to the sermon. After age eight or so, depending on the ability of the child, any writing needed to be sermon keywords, outline, etc.
- Intra-sibling squabbles and altercations were not/are not tolerated. It's bad enough at home...but this was (and occasionally still is) dealt with severely and swiftly when it happened in church.
- I've left this one until near the end because it is, admittedly, one of my "things". But after a child is four years old he almost NEVER needs to leave a one to one and a half hour service to go to the restroom. I'm very serious. Once a child is reliably potty-trained I give him about a year and then no more leaving the service for this. Of course, your child will scare you into thinking he's about to make a puddle on the floor but I've never personally seen this happen. Not in 54 years. I'm not saying it didn't happen once in Evanston, IL when a mom dared to say no. But I'm saying it's a good risk. If your child can go an hour at home without going to the bathroom, he can do it at church. If you're in a church where he goes to Sunday school and then church, please take him right before church and then insist he wait until after the closing prayer to go again. Honest, he'll make it if you're consistent enough to tell him no every time. Seeing 26 children leave a service inside an hour is very distracting to the pastor and the congregation, and for the most part totally unnecessary. Recognize that the impulse to ask to go to the bathroom is driven more by your child's felt need to get a change of scenery during a long sermon than it is to relieve a physical need. Obviously, you know your child and you know the look she gives you if she has a stomach virus and is about to prove it. Please allow her to go to the restroom :-) (Oh, and beware of 13 year old girls who mysteriously need to leave the service together. It usually has something to do with mascara or texting.)
- Finally, teach your kids to respect the needs and desires of those around them. If they're being fairly obedient but it appears that their loud turning of the pages in the coloring book is turning heads, then they should take the cue and try to keep it quiet.
I can't count the times that visitors to our church comment on how amazing it is to have a room FULL of children, many under three, and have it be so orderly and quiet. It's not always that way, and I know that some moms begin to feel that it's never that way! But the sound of treasure falling from heaven is a joyous thing to hear. (Well, okay, especially for those of us whose youngest sons and daughters are now 12 and above. I, too, was one of the stressed young moms for several years and didn't fully appreciate the sounds of treasure. Now I do.)
One last encouragement, mainly for you moms of little ones. Maybe you've got three or four little ones, you're pregnant with another, and you feel you'll never again get to worship or hear a whole sermon. But what higher form of worship can there be than to honor God by patiently teaching your children to worship? It won't last forever...and for now God is looking on your service to Him as an act of worship.
The church of tomorrow is counting on your faithfulness today.
Thoughts? What do your standards look like?