Parenting in the Pews

I love seeing little kids at church. As a mother of not-quite-so-little ones, the smiles, the giggles, the sights and sounds of children fills my heart with joy. But parenting in the pews can be anything but joyful at times. Nothing tests the limits of parents’ patience quite like Sundays. From getting everyone dressed and fed and out the door on time to handling disruptions during worship and off-schedule naps and meals, Sunday is a uniquely challenging day for most of us. With all the busyness and struggle, it can be easy to forget why we bring our children to church with us.

For those of us who are Presbyterians, we believe our children are part of the covenant community. We promise to raise them in the “nurture and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). But how do we do that practically? How do we parent in the pews?

There tends to be two extremes when it comes to discussing what to do about children in church. On one hand, there are churches that believe children don’t belong in the worship service. On the other, there are churches that believe children should never be separated from their parents for any reason (no nursery, Sunday School classes, or youth groups).

Most of us, however, fall in the middle. Our churches have nurseries for the littlest ones and age appropriate Sunday School classes, and our children are welcome in the worship service. So we have the challenge of helping them learn to worship.

There is lots of advice out there on how to get your kids to stay still/quiet/attentive in church. Some of it is helpful, some less so. It’s important to start by considering what our goals are. What are we trying to achieve?

As a parent, my number one goal for my children is that they grow up to love the Lord and be adults I’d enjoy being around. As far as church goes, I want my children to love the church and love worship. With that in mind, let’s consider some of the common concerns for parenting in the pews.

“Church is boring”

Without question, this is considered by many to be the biggest challenge for parents. How do we address the nature of church worship and our children’s response to it? There are a variety of possible answers.

Some try to make church entertaining and engaging even if it waters down the message. As we mentioned, some churches keep the children entertained in separate programs so that adults can worship without distractions. Going back to our goals and our commitments to raise our children within the covenant community, neither of these options really satisfy.

Some advice accepts the premise that church is “boring” and tells us it’s good for children to be bored on occasion. This approach has always bothered me. Yes, church isn’t “entertaining” in the same way a movie or basketball game would be. But worship isn’t boring once we understand what’s going on. Sunday worship isn’t “all fun and games, ” but it also isn’t “vegetables” or “liver and onions” that our children will eat “if they know what’s good for them!”

Along these lines are instructions on how to teach your children to sit still starting at a young age so that they can sit without fidgeting whenever you tell them to. While I agree that we do have to teach our children how to sit in church (or restaurants, doctor’s offices, school, whatever), the emphasis on outward obedience misses the point in the long run.

God calls us to worship and to rest in Him (Matthew 11:28-30) because He loves us. We go to church and worship because we love the Lord. Our obedience should never be done with a cold heart or from a sense of obligation alone. That’s not what God wants from us, and that’s not what we should want from our children.

Learning to Love Worship

Like all good things in life, we have to learn to love worship. It’s an acquired taste. And teaching our children to worship from the heart starts by example. Our attitudes about church and worship will tell our children more than anything we say to them. When we make going to church a priority for our family, they’ll notice. When we sing joyfully, they’ll hear. When we pray fervently, they’ll see. When we’re attentive, they will be too.

As we do these things, we can bring our children alongside us so that they will learn (Deuteronomy 6:7). Some of the practical ways we can do this is by encouraging them to participate in worship. We have to have age appropriate expectations though. As the saying goes, “The mind can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

When children are old enough, they can sit and stand when the congregation sits and stands. We can explain to them the various parts of the service so they understand what’s going on around them. Children can look on with the hymnal and learn to sing along. As they learn to read, they can follow along with the Scripture readings and participate with the responsive readings. And they can learn to listen to the sermon.

When my children were smaller, they carried little bags with colored pencils and small notebooks to church. During the sermon, they were allowed to color. It’s hard to sit completely still, and having something quiet to do with their hands helped them listen to what was being said. As my boys have gotten older, we’ve encouraged them to take notes during the sermon.

After church, we ask them what they remember from the service. Do they have any questions? What did they learn? What did the pastor preach about? These questions help us understand what they’re learning and reinforce that they are part of the worship service.

Discipline in the Pews

Disciplining our children during worship includes everything from gentle reminders to be still or quiet, giving “the look” or the “death whisper” (as we called it growing up), and carrying them out of the service when they have meltdown. No matter how sweet and precious our little ones are they will at one time or another throw a royal hissy fit in church. When that happens, we need to show them grace and protect their dignity as we discipline them.

What we should be careful not to do is discipline them for the benefit of those around us. It’s tempting to do. We’re embarrassed by their behavior. We don’t want other parents thinking we’re bad parents, etc., but maintaining our reputation shouldn’t be our focus. The goal is training and correcting our children, although we do want to be kind to those around us by limiting the distractions.

Going back to age appropriate expectations, there’s a difference between normal noises/wiggles and misbehavior. Babies coo and giggle. They wiggle and squirm. Older toddlers smile and wave and fidget. Children will want to ask questions or move to see what’s going on. As they get older, we can gently redirect their attention and encourage them to listen while not having unrealistic expectations.

Each child is different and will need encouragement and discipline suited to them. My oldest son was active and loud. I would have gladly kept him in church with us from the time he was newborn, but he needed space to move and be loud. Nursery was a blessing for him. My middle son hated nursery and was content and quiet as long as he sat with us. My youngest hated nursery and was active and loud. I listened to many sermons from the church’s cry room.

Encourage Each Other

Whether you’re a parent of little ones, your children are grown, or you don’t have children, you can still play an important role in parenting in the pews. No, the role isn’t giving disruptive children (or their parents) dirty looks. The role we can all fulfill is encouraging one another.

Parenting in the pews is hard work, and it’s easy to be discouraged. A smile and a kind word can go a long way. Serving in nursery or offering to walk a colicky baby are a couple of other ways you can help. We can also show  our love for each other by being patient and gracious with those around us, especially if we feel distracted. We’ve all been there, either as parents or as children ourselves.

As a parent, it helps me to remember that those interruptions aren’t keeping me from what I should be doing. They are what I should be doing right now. I’m not saying we should let our children do whatever they want and run wild during church. But helping them learn to love the Lord and love worship is what we’re supposed to do.

So, this Sunday as we get ready for worship, let’s think about how we can encourage and nurture the little ones in our churches (and their parents too). And let’s rejoice that God has filled our pews with so many blessings.

And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Matthew 18:2-4, NASB

Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Matthew 19:14, NASB

Do the People in the Pews Still Matter?

In the Church today, there is a move by some to “correct” an overemphasis on the individual believer. The desire is to focus on the corporate aspects of Christianity. A good example would be the work of N.T. Wright, formerly Bishop of Dunham. In his book, Surprised by Hope, Wright explains that the Church has misunderstood the Gospel and the mission of the Church. According to Wright, the Gospel is not about saving souls from Hell, but rather about how God is using His people to redeem the cosmos:

But the most important thing to say at the end of this discussion, and of this section of the book, is that heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about.

The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context-not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose.

The question ought to be How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world? …

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question – to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: HarperCollins, 2008, 184-185)

Wright recognizes that his interpretation of the Gospel and salvation will have an impact in the work of the Church:

As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality … then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence. (197)

So what happens when pastors and churches decide that what really matters is what the people of God do to redeem the world around them? What happens when pastors start looking at their congregation as a means to an end instead of a flock to shepherd? What happens when sermons become about what Christians need to do to redeem the cosmos, engage the culture, and transform the city?

From what I’ve seen and heard, although thankfully not from our current church, what happens is that the needs of the congregation are overlooked. Pastors have lost sight of their role as shepherd. Instead, they see their role as motivating and equipping believers to go out and transform the world, but not through the preaching of the Word. Pastors don’t know who’s hurting, whose marriages are in trouble, which families desperately need jobs, or how to pray for their people. What I mean is that pastors are too busy to counsel couples whose marriages are falling apart, but not too busy to organize an outreach program to show how much their church loves the city.

And what about sanctification? Well, if salvation is about God using people to redeem the world, then does it really matter where individual Christians are in their walk? In fact, the whole idea that salvation should have an effect on the personal piety of a believer is obviously outdated. What good can Christians be in the transformation of culture if they aren’t watching, reading, and listening to everything their non-Christian neighbors enjoy? If Christians dress differently, talk differently, and act differently, then they are surely not winsome and contextualized enough. Racy sermon illustrations and foul language? Just part of being authentic.

It is often said these days that “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members,” but is that really true? Don’t we exist to encourage each other, bear each others burdens, pray for each other, care for each other, minister to each other, teach each other, and most importantly worship together? The Church needs to reach out to non-believers, to preach the Word, and to help those in need, but it must not forget the needs of those in the household of faith.