I have great memories of watching Lawrence Welk with my Gramma on Saturday nights, sleeping over and then waking up to attend church with her on Sunday mornings. We always sat in the balcony on pews upholstered in bright red fabric. She would intermittently pass me wintergreen lifesavers throughout the service, maybe that is why I still like that particular kind of mint. I don’t remember any messages that were preached at all but I enjoyed sitting with Gramma and being her companion.
Later, as a teen who attended church alone, I remember looking a bit longingly at the families that sat together. Our youth group generally sat en masse right in the front of the church and that was a great way for me to be established in community. There were a few teens who didn’t sit with the youth group as their parents wanted them with their own family and I admired that. Sometimes I would join the families of my friends who were sitting with their parents.
When I started dating my husband, I joined his family in their pew and I felt very accepted and included into this special arrangement, being part of their tribe. As our own children came along, in infancy they stayed with us and as they became more mobile, we sent them off to the nursery. Somewhere along the way we were introduced to the idea of keeping them with us for the entire service.
Our twins were about four years old and the older ones about six and eight when we began to catch a vision for our young family sitting as a unit. We had, until this point, sat in the front of the church. When we decided to use the church service as a training ground and keep our little people with us we were met with some questions. “Why don’t you put them in Sunday school? They don’t understand what the pastor is saying”, “Don’t you trust the childcare workers?” Really, none of that mattered to us, we just wanted our children to worship with us. At the end of one service, after hearing the message, one of the 4 year olds blurted “When I grow up, I want to be like Pastor Jim and ride a motorcycle!” He was obviously listening to the sermon to pick up the motorcycle part. But what impressed me the most, was that this little boy whom some believed wasn’t getting anything out of the sermon revered the pastor and wanted to be just like him. He knew that the job of a pastor was of value. Some things are taught and some are caught right? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if children could catch a vision for growing in the Lord, having godly character and speaking truth? “Big people’s church” is a great opportunity for our children to catch a vision for godly adulthood.
We were fortunate that our church had a balcony and a separate cry room to allow us some space to train our children. I brought a busy bag filled with age appropriate and quiet diversions but there were times when I needed to step out with a little one. The cry room had a sound system that brought in the audio of the sermon so if I was alone with my baby or toddler, I didn’t miss out on the message. On days that the room got full, the audio was drowned out by babies and conversation but that sparked a different kind of message that spoke to the hearts of young moms, encouraging each other and working through the issues that faced them that week.
Though our church did have a full nursery and children’s program, we kept our children with us. It wasn’t always easy to keep them quiet or still but just as so many parts of parenting are challenging, we were instilling a commitment to be present in the fellowship of other believers.
Planning ahead (a skill I developed early with 4 children under 4 years old) was definitely necessary to not only make it to church on time but to be prepared for the service. We always had a busy bag packed and ready. At times we would do individual bags that each child could carry in on their own and access throughout the service. Sometimes, we had a family busy bag with small toys that we could pass back and forth, coloring books, colored pencils and board books. As with so many aspects of life with kids, I felt it always worked best to change it up a bit to keep things from getting boring. Maybe it was just my boys but if things got boring, they would start to wrestle, a pastime that I really wanted to avoid during a worship service!
I have heard some parents say of their older children that they have a hard time paying attention and sitting still in church. I always wonder if they have been trained to sit in the service since their early childhood or if they were busily engaged in active children’s church. I wonder if the entertainment aspect of children’s programs makes it difficult to transition to the adult service later in life. I do think a family can raise a reverent church goer either by keeping them with the parent or allowing them to go to children’s programs. Both have their own set of challenges and every family will have to ponder their own situation to come up with their own plan.
Because we chose to keep our children with us, I would love to give you a list of some ways that helped us to manage.
- Babies- because some of my babies were noisy nursers, I liked to feed them before the service started. If their tummies were full, they often would sleep through the service.
- Older babies and toddlers- quiet toys to enjoy yet, not distract others from hearing the message.
- Preschool- books, coloring books, colored pencils (we didn’t use markers as they could damage any furniture), wikki-stix, finger puppets, lacing cards, a stuffed animal.
- Elementary age- encourage them to listen and take notes though drawing is a good option as well.
- Jr High and high school-expect teens to take sermon notes in whatever method works best for them.
- Avoid things that “clatter, click or roll”. Also avoid objects that are quiet but make a mess (Like scissors, ask me how I know). Consider even the carrying case, Velcro is noisy (tried that, I learned!)