If you’ve ever taken a baby or a toddler to church, you know how long a church service can feel. If you’ve taken a baby AND a toddler to church, you may not have gotten to the end, and if you did it all without another adult to help you–go make yourself a tray of brownies, because you deserve it.
In our home, the (very few) hours between waking and getting to church each Sabbath morning are very busy ones. We get up, get breakfast on the table (waffles, a family Sabbath tradition), take turns wrangling our 1 and 3 year old boys while the other parent showers, get dressed in the clothes we laid out the night before, brush teeth and hair, make sure the diaper bag is stocked and ready to go, get everyone buckled into the car, and drive the less than two miles to church.
And we get there late.
And that’s if my husband is able to go with us.
Many Sabbath mornings my husband, who is a pastor (one of a handful at our large church), has to leave pretty early for church, meaning that anything that needs doing after breakfast will be done by me. So…usually that means we get there even later.
We’re working on streamlining the morning so that we don’t keep being late, because being prompt is actually important to us, but the point is that it’s not always easy to get to church on time with little kids. If you’ve got little ones (or even just one child), I totally get it. Getting to church isn’t easy. And getting there is only half the battle.
It’s not easy for kids to sit through church. They’re antsy, they get bored. They think that whisper-yelling is what you meant when you told them to be quiet, they’re hungry, they’re thirsty, they have poopy diapers or need to go potty, or they’re running down the aisle (which is when you lose your last shred of dignity whisper-yelling for them to come.back.right.now.or.else.
I’m not going to tell you that there’s a magic way to make church fun for everyone. I’m not going to say that if you follow my special formula, you’ll have perfectly behaved toddlers in your pew each week. I wish I could do that for you, but I haven’t cracked the code yet, so I can’t.
But, we’re in this together and I have some tips that can help you get church under control, little by little. (You still have to drive yourself there, though.)
The first step to making church more enjoyable for you and your kids is to come prepared with everything you’ll need. Every kid is different, but I’ll give you a basic idea.
- Church snacks: I’ve gone into detail on church snacks here, but think neat and quiet foods (as far as possible)
- Church toys: Again, the details are in this post, but (again) quiet is key.
- Church appropriate changes of clothes: Consider bringing one for you AND for baby.
You’ll also need to remember that this too shall pass. Whatever stage your kids are in, it’s not going to last forever. If you’re never able to sit through church and your pew is a hot mess of toys and crumbs and torn up tithe envelopes, try to remember that it’ll be different in a few weeks (or maybe a couple of months). God sees you, mama, and He’s with you, and He’s probably chuckling thinking about how it was when you were a kid doing the same to your mama, too. Hang in there.
My post, What’s in My Bag? Church Edition, includes a peek into what’s in our Sabbath bag, so check it out for more details on church snacks, toys, and even a bonus church clothing tip!
Obviously just keeping kids occupied in church is not our discipleship endgame as Christian parents, and it doesn’t really feel meaningful and fulfilling to chase our kids down the aisles or drag them out to the mother’s room kicking and screaming because you won’t let them crawl under the pews and rifle through people’s purses. In these moments especially, we’ve got to keep our eyes on the prize. Discipleship means meeting our kids where they are, and teaching them what we can to help them to learn and grow into their own relationships with Jesus. The Holy Spirit’s going to do His work on their hearts, but we’re tasked with setting an example and maintaining discipline, so keep at it with the end goal in mind. It will be worth it.
Teach kids how to participate in church
We want to teach our kids how to participate in church so that they take ownership of their own churchgoing experiences. Helping kids learn how to stay quietly through the church service is one step in the process, but it’s only the beginning. As they grow, they’ll be able to become increasingly more involved in what’s happening around them, until they get to a point of full participation in later childhood. You’re the best judge of what your child is ready for, but be sure not to sell them short. Keep checking in with your kids to see what they’re paying attention to in church so you can gauge when they are ready to start participating more. Even if you think they’re just playing, they might be absorbing and understanding more than you’d think!
In church, as with every aspect of parenting, we need to model the behavior we want to see in our kids. So, if you want your kids to learn and grow into singing during song service, you can’t just sit there while everyone else sings. Sing even if you’re a terrible singer. Teach your kids that it’s about making a joyful noise to the Lord, not about having the most beautiful voice.
Expect your children to participate in prayer during the church service, and do so yourself. At home you expect your children to maintain a prayerful attitude and posture when you pray, so why not expect it at church? Yes, the prayers may be longer and different than they’re used to, but that’s only because they haven’t practiced it yet! My son has been going forward with my husband for the congregational prayer since he was a baby, and he knows how to kneel and pray reverently for it. Is he perfect? Nope. I’m sure I could catch him with his eyes open fidgeting around sometimes. But, he’s learning, and that’s more valuable than robotic stillness, in my opinion.
We want our kids to learn how to listen to and understand the sermon. So, listen and try to understand the sermon! Take notes if it helps. Open your Bible and read along when the preacher references a text, and help your child find the text in her Bible, too. Go home and discuss the sermon over dinner, ask questions and recap the main ideas. This will help your children understand that the sermon isn’t just to fill time, but to actually make us think, learn and help us to study out biblical truths on our own.
Our kids are always watching us because we are their primary teachers about how things work. If we model engagement in church, they will learn how to engage in church! It’s not going to happen overnight, but keep at it.
Practice at home
Home is a great place to practice some of the behaviors that we want our kids to develop for church. I’m not telling you to role-play the church service every day or anything like that. Just take advantage of the teaching moments that present themselves here and there.
During your daily family worship (which should be much shorter than a sermon, by the way), expect your kids to act reverently and respectfully. Obviously this will look different for kids of different ages and abilities. What I expect from my 3 year old is a lot different than what I expect from my 15 month old.
When you pray together at home, teach your kids how to listen quietly to whomever is praying. Model the behavior you’re expecting. If you want your chid to close his eyes during prayer, don’t keep your eyes open to see how he’s doing. He’s probably peeking–we all know it–but that just means he’s going to see you open yours to catch him, and therefore he’s learning that it’s not really that important to close his eyes. It’s really just important to point out when other people open theirs.
Explain ahead of time why you expect your kids to be quiet in church. It can be pretty bewildering for a toddler who, let’s be honest, barely even has an ‘indoor voice’, to be expected to take it down 25 notches all of a sudden when she enters the sanctuary. Practice talking in a whisper voice sometimes at home (my son thought this was fun…in fact he still does it sometimes without warning because he thinks it’s hilarious to whisper).
Give kids ownership of the church experience
We all participate more actively in events that we feel ownership of, and the church service is no different. Our kids need to feel that the church service is theirs, just as much as it is yours. We often think of Sabbath School as the kids’ domain and the worship service as an adult thing, but that’s not how it should be if we want our kids to grow up feeling ownership of their worship experiences.
Once your kids can sit through church reverently and respectfully with toys and snacks, begin working with them to actively take part in the service. Communicate your expectations ahead of time so that you’re not trying to reason things out during the doxology. Expect your kids to put snacks aside to participate in songs and prayers. Once they can read, expect them to open their Bibles for scripture readings.
You can gradually replace toys with notebooks or scribble pads that can still be used to keep growing hands busy, but also to help your kids focus on what’s happening. When I was growing up my mom would find a clean page in my Sabbath notebook and write out 5-10 words in a grid on the page. Then I’d make tally marks under the words for each time the pastor mentioned them from the front. After church, my parents would ask me how many times the preacher had included the word “God” or “Heaven” or “love” in his sermon, and I would be able to tell them. I didn’t realize until I was much older that what they were really doing was training me to listen carefully to what the pastor was saying.
Encourage your kids to participate in whatever they can do appropriately. If your church service includes a children’s story, have your kids go to the front for it! If they’re too nervous to go on their own, go with them. My husband takes both of my boys to the front every week (unless he’s telling the story, in which case I take them). E is getting old enough now that he could probably go on his own, and we let him sit away from us sometimes now. It may not seem like a big deal for your child to skip the children’s story, but once you start ignoring parts of the church service, you’re giving up ownership. Help your kids to see that the story is for them, and that it’s worth being a part of it.
If your church asks for prayer requests from the congregation, encourage your kids to share what’s on their hearts, too. Prayer is for our kids, and church is for our kids. When they participate, they own it.
Help your kids understand the church service
During church, you can (quietly) narrate different parts of the service to help your child understand what is happening. I know when I visit a new church I often feel unsure of what’s happening and why, so our young ones must feel that way about church sometimes, too.
For example, during a baptism, quietly explain why the pastor and the baptismal candidate are standing in the water. Don’t go into depth right then and there, keep it simple. Baby dedications, ordination of elders, offering collection, and communion symbols all deserve some narration.
Once you get home you can talk about what happened during the service in more detail. Your child may not understand the meanings behind the different things that happen at first, but as they keep experiencing the different things that happen in church, they will learn and understand more.
Find ways to plug your kids in to church roles
Don’t wait until your kids are teens (or longer) to get them plugged in to ministry responsibilities at church. Kids are more than capable of performing many of the vital roles necessary for healthy church functioning.
- Music– Does your child love music? Help him to learn the hymns and praise songs that you sing in church! As he gets older, help him get involved in leading out as part of a praise team or offering a special music.
- Scripture reading-Does your child memorize scripture well? Find out if she can recite the scripture ‘reading’ one Sabbath.
- Call for offering– Maybe your family could do a call for the offering together! Being up in front of the congregation might be too daunting for some kids at first, but if you are with them, they will feel much more comfortable.
- Children’s story– A boy who loves to tell stories might be able to tell the children’s story one Sabbath (with help from a parent or pastor).
- A/V team– Older children with interests in technology may be trained to help run your church’s sound system, or run the PowerPoint for the pastor’s sermon (if he or she uses one).
- Greeting– Smiling kids make wonderful church greeters. Wouldn’t you be happy to come to church if a little one was the first to welcome you in?
The possibilities for getting children involved are endless, really. Of course, the younger your kids are, the more support from you they’ll need to perform whatever church responsibilities they have, but honestly, it’s worth the commitment your family will be making to help your kids find their roles–first in the church service, and ultimately within the Body of Christ.
We just can’t let our kids grow up thinking that church is for later. We can’t let them journey through their formative years thinking that church is for everyone else. When we do that, we’re sending a message that we don’t expect God to speak to or through kids in church, but that’s not biblical (1 Timothy 4:12). We’re telling them that they don’t have anything to offer to the body of believers, when of course, the opposite is true and we’ve been instructed by Jesus to become like little children! (Matthew 18:2-3)
Kids are the church.
It’s not every day that I get to quote my husband, Pastor Ben Martin, but one of my favorite things I’ve ever heard a pastor say happens to be something that he said in a sermon last summer. He said, “Don’t keep telling kids that they are the church of tomorrow. If we don’t allow our kids to be the church today, there will be no church tomorrow.”
You guys, it’s true. We have to affirm what the Bible teaches us about young people being worthy of spiritual thought and even leadership. It doesn’t matter how young your kids are. Start now, and teach them that they ARE the church.
And church service will get easier, little by little. I promise.
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