By Taprina Milburn
We have 15 minutes to get where we’re going. We can’t find shoes and the dog is licking oatmeal off my son’s face. Still in my slip, I check on the kids’ progress and decide we’re going to be late. My only pair of hose has a run, and I haven’t started to think about my hair, which is still wet.
Ten minutes later we scoot out the door, all nice and neat, but I’ve forgotten my lipstick, as well as my good attitude.
It must be Sunday morning.
Getting out of the car and walking into church, we much more resemble travelers about to miss a connecting flight than a mom and dad trying to model our faith. Once we settle into the pew, the kids bounce from my lap to their dad’s lap, and back. We make a couple of trips to the bathroom, and I then spend the rest of the service digging through my purse for every piece of candy and scrap of paper for the kids to draw on. Church ends and I leave frustrated, wondering what we’ve accomplished.
That was a typical Sunday morning when my children were small. I’d often ask other parents: Is the church experience like a precious, breakable that we’re to put away when our children are young?
A woman shared with me that she had overheard a child ask her parent in church: “Mommy why do you have on a happy face now but you were so angry on the way here?” I know my own children have wondered the same thing. Many times I pasted on a smile but in my heart I didn’t demonstrate to my kids that church was an enjoyable experience. I spent more time hushing them and making them stay still, so that we wouldn’t disturb those around us, than I did teaching them how to worship God.
As I look back there were several things my husband and I could have done differently to make the church experience much easier on our family.
Author Robbie Castleman says in her book Parenting in the Pew, “Sunday morning should be a time of joyous expectation for a family who loves the Lord. But too often it is a morning riddled with strife and filled with regret.” Some of the problems can be adjusted if families prepare before Sunday morning arrives, she says.
Parents can do two things that will help smooth out Sundays: heart preparation and home preparation. The author asks parents to examine their own attitudes about church.
“Are you eager or going through the motions? Are you more conscious of how God sees you in worship than of how others see you in church? Do your children sense that, just as they look forward to birthdays, you can hardly wait for Sunday to get here?” she writes.
Pay attention to how you can cultivate your own longing for church, whether it’s with a special praise CD you put on as the family readies for church on Sunday morning or by telling the children, “…that the very best day of the week is about to begin,” she says.
Also, Castleman encourages parents to organize on Saturdays. Take a few minutes to think about what baby will need in the nursery the next morning. Have the children lay out their clothes, shoes, activity bags and Bibles the night before. Also, the author says that parents may need to think through the Sunday dress code. Our son has always wanted to wear a suit and tie to church, but not every child enjoys dressing up. Regardless of what your family decides, have everything ready the night before.
Pay Attention to How Children Learn
Jim Dorner, a youth and family minister at St. Luke Lutheran Church in Dix Hills, New York, believes Sundays would be easier on families if they’d let their children be children.
“I see some parents who require their children to sit absolutely still and silent throughout the entire service. That’s not who a child is or how they learn,” Dorner said. “Children learn through interaction. When kids are brought up to think that church is a place for stillness and silence, then that transfers into boring, boring, boring.”
Dorner reminds parents that children are multi-taskers and that they are absorbing more of the service while coloring or playing with a small toy than adults think that they do.
“Obviously children need to know they should to do this on a quieter level than play at home, but children can distinguish between the two,” Dorner said. “Just last month after church an eight-year-old, who seemed to be busy with his own agenda during the sermon, looked to the pastor and started talking to him about the sermon and what he had said.”
There’s no reason to change the way a child learns for one hour each Sunday, Dorner said.
Robyn Stewart, mother of Will, 3, Reid, 5, and Parker, 7, said she and her husband have just begun bringing their children into the worship service with them.
“Sometimes they ask, ‘Why do we have to go to church?’ We explain to them that we go to be around other believers and to learn about Jesus. We talk about obedience to God and that part of obedience is going to church,” she said. “We also let them have little books to draw in during the service, and they bring a tithe which helps them to feel involved in the service. They usually have questions after church about something the preacher said and we find that during the week we can relate something said in the sermon to a certain situation.”
Find What Works for Your Family
Michelle Walker, mother of three boys ages 12, 7, and 4 1/2, said that after months of frustrating attempts to get her family to church, she and her husband, Mike, had to look at how they could do things differently.
The Walkers had tried the traditional approach, taking their children to early service and then attending Bible class afterward. Many times that would leave the children worn out and cranky.
“The church we now go to offers several services that we can pick from. What works for us is to pick a reasonable service time for our family. If we miss the 10 o’clock service, there’s another one we can attend. And it’s a casual atmosphere. The kids can come into the service with us if they want. We can have bottled water. By making these changes we are not setting ourselves up for failure and we feel that it’s easier to go back because we’re not frustrated,” she said. “We want to go to church as a family. It’s the one thing we can do as a family consistently. It’s a major effort that you have to stick with but it does get easier as the kids get older.”
The Ultimate Goal is Worship
For many parents of young children, just getting out the door and settling into the pew feels like a triumph. However, authors David and Virginia Edens remind us to keep our minds on the ultimate goal of church attendance—worship.
In their book, Making the Most of Family Worship, they write: “We can be so engaged in hauling our church cargo, making our rigid schedules, and delivering our religious pay loads that we overlook the essential ingredient—worship—necessary for all our progress.
Just as learning a new language is easier if you are exposed to it often, and at a young age, so is the act of worship. Find ways to bring the church worship experience into the home. Some families do this with a Bible reading, prayer time or playing inspirational music during some part of each day. Others take walks outdoors pointing out to the children all that God has created.
Cheri Weaver, children’s pastor at Crossings Community Church in Oklahoma City , said, “When families worship together, they have a jumpstart to spiritual conversation and practice all week. Children hear much more than we give them credit for. And when they witness the example of their own parents worshipping, that is something that cannot be replaced."
Our children are 10 and 13 today. Going to church as a family is much simpler than it was when they were younger. It has truly become a worship experience rather than chore and race out the door.
As I have looked around at the families with young children, those who seem to have the church experience figured out, here’s what I’ve found that works for them.
- Have a church activity bag prepared for the children. Encourage them to help put it together. Include coloring pages, blank paper, crayons, and Bible story books. One parent I know has a cloth, stuffed manger scene that can be played with quietly during church.
- If your church allows it, pack a bottle of water and few little snacks for young children such as animal crackers or dry cereal.
- Have your child follow along in the Bible or hymnal by letting him run his finger under the words. Our son liked to do this long before he could read.
- Encourage older children to take notes in church. Find ways throughout the week to bring the notes into your conversations.
- Before church begins, walk small children around the sanctuary and explain to them what things are and why they are a part of the service such as the podium, baptismal, hymnal, or microphone. When my children were small they were very curious about the choir members’ robes and wondered if the members wore clothes underneath the robes.
- Have everyone’s clothes and belongings ready the night before church.
- Look for a church that offers several worship service times. Choose a time that works best for your family.
- Remember to relax. If the children are loud, active, and messy, know that other parents have been there.
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