Bringing Children to Worship
Have you ever been challenged by a friend at an amusement park to get on the big rollercoaster? Remember that feeling of being thrilled and terrified, all at once?
I’m guessing that’s how most of our parents feel when they think of bringing their little people to worship services. First Presbyterian Church of Orlando has a long history of multi-generational worship, but in recent years that has been largely absent.
In my opinion, this is partly due to trends in children’s and youth ministry across the US, which have segregated them from the rest of the congregation. However, the pendulum is swinging back toward the middle. And that’s a good thing. Statistics tell us that almost one third of children who don’t form a connection with their larger church family end up leaving the church altogether once they leave home. Although some do eventually return, our current post-Christian era doesn’t afford us the chance to miss connecting with them. We can’t expect them to be life-long disciples and part of a church body unless we change our approach.
Part of our commitment to generational faithfulness as a church means recognizing that children and youth are an essential part of the church family. Knowing that fewer and fewer children were present in worship, we are focusing our efforts on making space for them and helping them learn how to worship with the Body of Christ. Think about it: if a child only worships with children, and then only worships with other teenagers, and then only worships with college students… what kind of worship have we modeled for our children? How do they learn to participate in worship as adults? Not only do they miss an opportunity to be spiritually formed by worshipping with the church, but we miss that same opportunity, to be shaped by their presence.
Worship is formational for everyone present—from the youngest to the oldest (even if we think they’re not getting it) because God is present with us. Because of this, we believe children can and should participate with everyone else. Don’t underestimate them! Children are learners and will adapt more quickly than you think. There will be a learning curve but you’ll be surprised by the conversations that you can have with your children because of this shared experience. SHINE is also developing a children’s bulletin to help kids follow the service and participate in worship and to help families discuss what they’ve seen and heard together.
But . . . aren’t children disruptive in worship?
You bet. Children wiggle, whisper, squawk and cry. They may wander, they may sing too loud, they may want to dance during the music, and they may want to color during the sermon. And all of that is ok. We’d rather create a warm, welcoming environment where the church family is together, being loved, than have a perfectly calm, quiet worship service. Our ultimate goal is to worship God, and Jesus modeled a life of worship that included little children.
So, how do we do this?
Here are eight suggestions for parents as we integrate entire families into our worship services:
Be patient. Parents can remember (or maybe not) bringing that newborn bundle home . . . and then the next eight weeks almost killed you. There is always an adjustment period. The first few times your children join you in the service might tempt you to never come back. But don’t let that scare you. It will improve but it may take time for the ‘new normal’ to kick in. And just like that crying infant turns into a bouncing, happy 8 month old, you will notice your family adjusting and discovering new opportunities for sharing the joy of being together.
Come prepared. A frantic Sunday morning isn’t going to help anybody, especially a seven year old. Take some time to prepare ahead of time. Talk to your kids the night before as you’re putting them to bed. Remind them that tomorrow, we all get to go to church together. Share your expectations on the ride to church the next morning--”Remember what we talked about last night?” or “Who can tell me what we are doing this morning?” Although we will have newly designed children’s bulletins to help kids track through the service, consider bringing a quiet toy or coloring/sketch book in case you need back-up.
Have a goal. Give a family assignment for the morning. For example, everyone is expected to be able to repeat one point of the sermon. Or maybe choose your favorite song that is sung today and then tell why. Or meet someone new who is older than you.
Help your child follow along. Use their bulletin (and yours) to help them track through the elements of worship. Use the hymnal--most kids don’t know how hymnals work (singing each line rather than the whole “box”). Use the pew bibles to look up Scripture ahead of time. Let them bring an offering and place in the plate as it’s passed. Sing together!
Be willing to be interrupted. Just like every other context of parenting, you have be willing to sacrifice your own peace in order to help your children grow toward maturity. This is a season and it won’t last forever.
Use a family signal. Come up with a secret sign that only your family knows. Use the sign to communicate and redirect your children toward the service. Use a gentle hand on the shoulder or the knee to remind them. (No pinching allowed!) And whatever you do, don’t give them your smartphone. The whole point of being there is to be present with each other and with the Lord.
If you need to leave, it’s ok. If your little person becomes too disruptive, it’s ok to step out with them. A good rule of thumb is sooner, rather than later, because as your frustration builds, you are more likely to lose your cool. It is perfectly fine to step out and come back in a few minutes and return when they are ready. A calm whispered reminder can be much more effective than an angry threat. Bonus: our family room is always open and the service is live-streamed.
Remember: it’s participation, not performance. The goal of worshiping together is that we enter into a sacred time and space with our Lord. He knows us, complete with all of our imperfections, and welcomes us into His presence. The body of Christ gathers for this very purpose. We’re all in this together!
Want to know more about the “what” and “why” of including children in worship? The very first episode of our What the church? Podcast is a conversation with Kim Allen and friends on families and children in worship.