Church can be a struggle for parents with children of all ages. I’ll admit, there have been times when my husband or I stayed home with a little one because we knew we’d spend the whole service in the narthex. We know, though, that taking children to church is important. So, the next week we’d head back to church with baby in tow. Eventually, we were able to spend small chunks of the service in the sanctuary. And then one day we realized we made it through the whole service in our pew.
Along the way, it can feel like we’re just trying to survive. What I wonder, though, is if survival might be easier if we found ways to engage our children in the service. How can we include our children—of all ages—in worship at church? Two Heart to heart contributors give us their thoughts.
Twenty years ago I wrote a column for this magazine titled “Children belong in church.” My kids were two and four, and though I believed what I wrote, it hadn’t stopped me from taking those two kiddos out of church. Multiple times. At least once, I remember hoicking one up under each arm—like basketballs, but louder and chubbier—walking right out the door and driving home.
I never found the secret to perfect church behavior. Sometimes crayons and Cheerios—let’s call them worship tools—were enough. Sometimes sterner looks and firmer hands were needed.
It’s hard. Too permissive, and our ruckus ruins the service for others. Too rigid, and the kids start dreading church.
Okay, here’s the sad truth. When three-year-old Phil trained himself to lean against my arm and sleep through the sermon, God forgive me but I considered it a blessing. Phil’s pretty sure he slept through sermons until about third grade, and I’m pretty sure I relished it. That’s some less-than-stellar parenting right there.
As kids get older, it’s the church after church—the liturgy you hold in your car on the way to the bakery—that’s almost as important as the service itself.
Mom: “Today when we confessed our sins, I thought of how crabby I was this morning. I’m sorry. I need to be more patient.”
Kids: “We understand. You were mad ‘cuz we were late again.”
Dad: “That’s one of my favorite psalms. How does that verse go again? ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully . . .’ ”
Mom: “What was your favorite part of the sermon?”
Kids: “The story about that little boy who thought Jesus couldn’t love him.” (Spoiler: It’s always the story—for all of us.)
Dad: “Did I hear Pastor say . . .?”
Kids: “No! What he said was . . .”
In the church after church, families review, discuss, apply, even question. Sometimes we get downright Berean.
The temptation, though, is to let the discussion devolve into snarkiness: “I hate that contemporary music. . . . The prayers were so long. . . . That sermon had nothing to do with my life. . . . Did you see Mrs. Jones’ purple hat?” And of course: “That crying baby! I wish people would keep their kids quiet in church.”
I guess that takes us back where we started. Sometimes, Moms and Dads, we do need to take the kids out. But mostly we do our utmost to help them stay. Help them sit, stand, bow, sing, pray, listen.
Help them simply be present as the Spirit works his holy osmosis, passing the promises of Christ into the bloodstream of their souls . . . forming their faith, their character, their habits . . . cultivating in them that deep sense of belonging to something larger than themselves—something eternal.
Laurie Gauger-Hested and her husband, Michael, have a blended family that includes her two 20-somethings and his teenage son.
I love having kids in church, both as a dad and a pastor. I love it when kids recite the Creed, putting emphasis on different words than I do. It helps me think about what I’m saying. I love it when they smile back at me during the Aaronic blessing. It shows me how they’re receiving it in faith.
There is so much in worship both for kids and for adults through kids in worship. Here are three suggestions to help everybody in the family make the most of worshiping together.
- Sit with or near others who are close to your kids. Even though my parents had seven of us, they never handed us off to others. We always sat with my parents. They wanted us to see them worship, but not only them. They made sure I saw Grandpa worship. I remember that one Sunday still today. I looked down the pew and saw my grandpa praying the Lord’s Prayer. I remember the sincerity on his face as he said the words that were obviously so familiar to him. And I remember getting back to praying like I’ve never gotten back to it before.
- Strategically teach your kids the liturgy. There is nothing I love better than watching my four-year-old speak the response to the words, “This is the gospel of our Lord.” I love seeing that she knows what it is and better yet knows why it is. We taught her as a 3-year-old, “Elliana, Jesus taught us everything we need to know and he saved us so when we hear from him we get all excited.” Pick some low-hanging liturgical fruit like that for your younger ones. If you have an infant son, help him fold his little hands during the Prayer of the Day. If you have a 5-year-old, help her nail the creeds. If you have a 12-year-old, show him some profound theological connections. For example, ask him to think about why we sing about the Lamb of God right before the Lord’s Supper.
- Receive the Word in faith in front of your kids. Most weeks the pastor is going to say, “I forgive you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Receive that in faith and joy as the best news you’ve heard all week. Even consider leaning over on occasion to whisper into your teen-age daughter’s ear, “I really needed that today.” And she’ll get it. She’ll remember your apology for being too hard on her earlier in the week and see how you received Christ then and there for it. Dust off the sermon too on the ride home. Tell the kids why it mattered to you so much. Then ask them what mattered in it to them. If it’s crickets, help them remember. You might just see your kids’ ears perk up a bit more next Sunday.
Jonathan Bourman is a pastor at Peace, Aiken, South Carolina. He and his wife, Melanie, have a four-year-old daughter.
What is worship?
The WELS Commission on Worship says, “Worship is the heart of all parish life, the time when the greatest number of members gathers to proclaim the gospel and receive God’s life-giving power in Word and sacrament.”
Want to read about more ways to involve your children in worship? Visit forwardinchrist.net for Brian Heinitz’s practical suggestions. Heinitz is a former member of the WELS Commission on Worship and has four children of his own. He wrote a special, online-only article with his philosophy on involving children in worship, and it includes some perspectives you may not have considered as well as tips to try with your children.
Join the conversation! Visit wels.net/forwardinchrist and look for the Heart to heart link.
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Volume 104, Number 1
Issue: January 2017
Copyrighted by WELS Forward in Christ © 2017
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