A lot of kids go through a “why?” phase where they ask why about EVERYTHING. Our son’s version of it is “Doing here?” Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, my two year-old son asks “Doing here?”.
Approximately 762 times a day.
But while we were sitting in church a few weeks ago my son looked up at me and asked “Doing here?”, and my unfiltered (silent) response was “I have no idea. At the moment, all I’m doing here is arbitrating crayons and rationing fruit snacks.”
In our home, my husband and I prioritize teaching our children the truths of the Bible. When our daughter was born, we decided that meant making a conscience effort to have our children sit in church with us. We want them to know how to sit in church, what goes on and what is expected of them. And we want to include them in our worship habits.
We think about it from the ‘If they don’t learn it now, then when?’ perspective. We would rather have worshipping as a family be something that we’ve just always done rather than make a shift at some point.
That being said, there are many Sundays when I think, “Is this really worth it?”
My daughter is 4 1/2 and my son is 2 1/2, and for the first time since my daughter was born, we are starting to see glimpses of the fruits of our labors.
Recognizing Bible Stories
A few weeks ago, our pastor was preaching and mentioned John the Baptist. My son dropped his crayon, looked up from his coloring and shouted “John the Baptist!” with such excitement in his eyes. The story of the John the Baptist is the one my son chooses almost every night at bed time. I would have never guessed that he was even aware that someone, somewhere was talking, but my son was listening. And when he heard what he recognized, he made sure that we knew it. Hearing someone else tell the story that my son reads each night from his Bible gives it credibility and helps my son understand that the Bible isn’t just another one of our books with silly stories and characters.
In our church, the sermon usually starts with reading a passage of Scripture, and we have our kids read it with us. Neither of them can actually read, but we run our finger along the words to keep them engaged. Recently, once the scripture reading is done, my son has started taking the Bible and flipping through it. He points out numbers and letters and gets excited about what he finds.
He can’t read the words in front of him, but he’s gaining familiarity and comfort with God’s Word. We call that a win.
Church & Home Integration
Every night, before we leave our kids room, my husband and I pray the Benediction (“May the Lord bless you and keep you, may the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May He lift up His countenance and give you His peace. In the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit, Amen – Numbers 6:24-26) over each of our kids. And every Sunday church ends with our Pastor praying that same prayer over us as a congregation.
Last month, as our Pastor was saying those words, my daughter looked at me and said “Mom! That’s what you say!”.
I had to laugh.
She’s heard one of us pray that over her every night since she can remember, and she’s heard it almost every Sunday of her life, and just now, she connects the dots.
We’re starting to get the same reaction when we sing songs in church that we also sing at home. That look in my kids’ eyes when they realize that what we’re talking about and teaching is bigger than just our family is our home is priceless.
One of the ways that my husband serves at church is by being an usher. Our daughter is SUPER shy and is legitimately afraid to talk to anyone to whom she is not related. But she will “help” Dad usher. She stands next to him, hands out bulletins and greets complete strangers (to her) as they enter the sanctuary. The combined comforts of standing next to her Dad in a safe and familiar setting gives her the degree of comfort she needs to see that even she, a shy 4 year-old girl, has gifts that can be used to serve God.
My husband was born and raised in the church that we attend. Many of the people who sit in the pews around us remember when he was my kids’ age. And many of those people have come up to us afterward and told us that they are praying for us and our family. I’ve never asked what it is, exactly, that they’re praying for. If it’s that my children don’t throw temper tantrums or that I don’t lose my mind for the hour we sit there, then it is – MOSTLY – working.
But I have a hunch that it’s something more. These people are praying for my children’s hearts. For their futures. For their parents (they can tell that we really need it).
I had this ah-ha moment a while back when a nearly 90 year-old lady came to tell me – again – that she prays for us when she’s sees us in church. She said, “when I see you sitting there, I’m reminded to pray for your family.” I thought, “Wow, well, if that’s the only thing we get out of coming to church, that just might be worth it!”
Occasionally, my kids will notice something that we’re doing in church and ask why. Last week, my daughter looked at my communion wafer and asked what it was. I could have poo-pooed it and given her some trite answer, but, by God’s grace, I took advantage of that opportunity to explain to her that we celebrate communion as way of remembering that Jesus gave his body (the cracker) and his blood (the grape juice) to pay the price for our sin.
She nodded along, and when I finished, said “Okay”, then went on with her coloring. Did she understand what I said? Probably not. But did that conversation lay the foundation for her to know that whenever she has a question about what’s going on around her or in church, that she can come ask me and we can talk about it? I sure hope so.
Both my husband and I used to volunteer with high school students at our church, and we had the privilege of seeing things “click” for students as we studied the Bible.
More often than not, we weren’t telling the kids something that they hadn’t heard before. But, because it came from someone other than Mom or Dad, the students heard it with a different legitimacy.
We want the church and the people we see there every week to be that which legitimizes what we’re teaching at home. And in order to do that, our kids have to participate in church.
I think now would be a good time to insert the disclaimer that I am not, in any way, opposed to church nurseries. Our kids have gone to the nursery, we have volunteered in the nursery. As a part-time employee of our church, I am in charge of our church nursery. It is a necessary tool for ministry. But our default is not putting our kids in the nursery.
We start each Sunday with the mindset and expectation that we will attend church together. And then we adjust when necessary.
I will say this; Over time, it has become a lot less necessary.
How do we get our children to sit through church?
We drug them. (I’m kidding. I just wanted to see if you were still reading.)
Here are a few things that we’ve found helpful in setting our children up for success in this area:
1 – Location
Find a spot to sit in the sanctuary that works best for your kids.
Notice that I didn’t say you. Your preference may be sitting in the back – because that’s where you’re comfortable or because that’s less time people will be staring at you as you carry out a screaming child. But, that might not be the best place for your children to sit to increase engagement.
We have found that our kids do exponentially better the closer we sit to the front. Now, we go to a Lutheran church, so the “front” is still the 5th or 6th pew, but there’s nothing between my kids’ eyes and the front of the church to distract them.
Where you sit isn’t as important as why, and that why should be minimizing distractions and maximizing their engagement in what’s going on.
2 – Set Reasonable Expectations
Instead of defaulting to “My kids can’t sit in one place for an entire hour!”, change your perspective. Ask yourself “What can my kids do?”, and set them up for it.
Our service structure is one where the first 35 minutes is made up of singing, reading Scripture, praying, listening to music and greeting people around us. The activity – and posture – changes about every 5 minutes. My kids can do that. At 2 and 4, it is reasonable to expect them to sit to listen to the choir sing a four minute song, or stand and pray for three minutes.
The sermon is at the end of the service and usually lasts about 25 minutes. Expecting them to sit and listen for that amount of time might be too much, so we plan for that.
This may be a good time to have them go to the church nursery. Or bust out an activity bag. (Read below to see what we pack in ours)
3 – Include Your Kids
During a worship service, our kids do everything that we do. They stand and sing when we do. They fold their hands to pray and open a Bible and “read” it.
Don’t sell kids short. They can do more than we think they can.
You might read that and think “My kids will never do that.” But you don’t know until you try. And celebrate baby steps of progress. The more you do it and the more you set that expectation, the more likely they are to meet it.
4 – Plan for Shorter Attention Spans
Like I said before, the church nursery isn’t a bad thing. Your kids may only be able to last five minutes into the sermon before they’re rolling under the pews (that actually happened to us), but that’s five minutes that they wouldn’t have been sitting in church with you if you would have started by handing them off somewhere.
Have a Plan B for what to do when they’re attention spans have been maxed out.
We bring an activity bag with a few activities that they have chosen (which we approved) that they are allowed to use once the sermon has started.
Scroll down to see what we pack in ours. And search for even more ideas on Pinterest.
5 – Model for your Kids what Worship Looks Like
As much as you can, do what you would do in church if your kids weren’t with you. They will learn by watching you.
This week, our sermon was telling the story of Jacob’s wives, and I was intrigued by which of his two wives bore which of his 12 sons. So, I busted out my kids’ coloring pad and their crayon and started going through Genesis 39 and making a list. My daughter saw it and asked what I was doing and when I told her, she grabbed the other pad, opened a Bible and started writing letters she saw.
My heart almost exploded. And I learned how messed up Jacob’s family is.
6 – Focus on the BIG PICTURE
Remember WHY you do this; so that your children can learn how to experience this integral part of the Christian faith. It’s not so people will think you have well-behaved kids. Or so that YOU can get an undistracted hour. Like everything else with toddlers (and elementary, middle & high school kids, I presume), this part of your life looks different now than it did before. But it’s just a season.
And this is an investment, with an Return on Investment that is better than any stock you could ever purchase.
A year ago, I never would have guessed we’d be here. Sunday mornings weren’t enjoyable and there seemed no way our children would ever learn to sit.
But here we are.
It’s not perfect.
Half of the Sundays, I still don’t hear most of the sermon. And last week, my son lunged at me while I was holding my communion cup and juice went everywhere.
But then my daughter whispers in my ear, “Mom, I read that story in my Bible” after listening to the sermon. And all the spilled grape juice and humiliating walk outs with a tantrum-throwing child are worth it.
It’s not perfect and it’s a piece of how we teach our children faith. But it’s a beautiful piece.
An imperfectly beautiful part of our family’s story.
Church Activity Bag
The two keys are:
- Less is more.
- Simplicity is best
We have one small bag for both of our children and they share it’s contents. Choose activities that are quiet (duh!) that will keep their attention, but aren’t a distraction to others.
- High 5 Magazines – These have a variety of activities in them, so packing one magazine is like packing 8 activities. We have a stockpile of them, so I switch them out every couple weeks.
- Paper pads – Something to write or color on (and something for you take notes on when you want to figure out Jacob’s 12 sons…..)
- Crayola Twistables – I love these because I don’t have to worry about them breaking
- Bible – My kids like to “read along” when we’re reading out of “big” Bibles
- Book – I choose books that are pertinent to what we talk about in church, but it doesn’t have to be
- Lacing cards – these are lightweight but can entertain kids for a long time