One of my favorite experiences while raising my daughter has been teaching her to appreciate art. She wasn’t born with an innate love of art and art museums. In fact, some of our first experiences were almost painful. I was even known to utter such enlightened sentences as “We may never get to Chicago again and you are going to see the American Gothic painting whether you want to or not!” or the equally popular “Look at this painting. One day you will learn about it in school and you will want to remember seeing it in real life!”
We continued to drag her through art museums all over the country and then one day the light clicked on in her. She asked (at a rather young age) if she could see a specific art exhibit in a rather obscure museum on the Mall in Washington, D.C. She was studying it and wanted to see it in person. Needless to say, we made sure we got to that museum. Fast forward a few years and she was actually nagging us on her first trip to New York City to get her to the Museum of Modern Art and to allow her a full morning to enjoy it. (She still whined about my need to stare at French Impressionists and Picasso, but at least she had developed her own favorites!) The pain in those early years was worth raising a child who loves art and enjoys art museums.
Many of our children are denied the experience of attending the “adult” worship service with their parents. The idea of “suffering through” wiggly and noisy children in our midst is too much for us “serious worshippers” to bear. I believe though, that one of the greatest gifts we can give our families is the opportunity to worship God together as a family. In the same room. For the entire service.
Now before you continue pelting me with i-Bibles, I believe we can do some things to help our families and our members who don’t have children worship together in a way so everyone not only worships God (the real reason for us being there), but is encouraged and strengthened for the week ahead. I think we can even help visitors and seekers introduce their children to worshipping God, without stressing them out in the process.
As with anything worth doing (or so the saying goes), this will take some effort on the part of everyone involved. I personally believe the benefits out-way the work involved. Our children will be a vital part of our church families and not just little ones rushed out of the room, so the grown-ups can have fun without them. They also aren’t receiving the subtle message that worship is so boring, we need to pull the children out so they can actually have some fun. (Don’t kid yourselves, children know when they are wanted and when they are considered a “burden” whether they articulate it or not. They can also tell if we truly enjoy worshipping God or just go to Church to be entertained.)
Here are my random ideas to help you as a parent or as a congregation introduce children back into the adult worship service. I think God would love to see families worshipping together and I can promise you it will create special memories for you and your children. (Remember, some stories become funny family legends over time!)
1. Partner families who have small children with adults who have finished raising their children, teachers or other adults with training in raising or teaching children. These volunteers can be your family mentors. Provide extra training and support for them if at all possible. Have your family mentors greet their assigned family or visiting families and offer to sit with them. The mentors can become spiritual “aunties” and “uncles” over time. As they develop relationships with the parents and children in “their” assigned families, they can provide extra support for marriage mentoring, raising children or even study the Bible with new Christians and seekers. These volunteers aren’t there to micro-manage anyone’s life, but to provide the extra support extended families used to provide each other. During worship, the family mentors will help parents train the children to not only behave in worship, but teach them why we worship and how to worship so our children are also encouraged for their week ahead. The mentors can help quiet a fussy toddler or answer the questions of a slightly older child, freeing the parents to worship un-interrupted, while allowing the family to sit together. If your congregation doesn’t provide family mentors, find one on your own. Seek out a couple who has raised children who are now faithful adult Christians. Allow them to mentor you in the ways an experienced, successful parent can. Check anything they consul you on with scripture, but consider heeding their advice if it is godly. I have seen too many parents make serious parenting errors, because they were too proud to listen to the counsel of successful parents. Sometimes “old” ways aren’t old fashioned, they are merely successful and should be repeated. “New” parenting techniques can be good or they can be very, very wrong. At least be willing to listen to your mentor’s arguments and openly consider their validity before rejecting them.
2. Prepare for Sunday worship during the week. As you transition your children back into the adult worship service, prepare them for the experience. Talk about what will happen and why we do these things on your child’s level. Explain to your children why the various parts of worship are meaningful to you and your spouse. Let them see how much you love to worship God in your eyes as you describe what they will experience to them. Train them for what they need to do during each part of the worship service. Even the youngest children can be expected to participate in all parts of the worship service with some adaptations. Prepare a special age-appropriate bag that is only used during worship services. (Watch for my next post on ideas of things to place in the bag.) Keep it well stocked and waiting in the car or by the door, so you don’t forget it.
3. Encourage your minister, song leader and other worship leaders to incorporate things in their part of the worship service that will include or appeal to the children and teens. Encourage those who lead prayers to also pray about things that concern the children and teens in the audience as well as the adults. (Every student will appreciate extra prayers at exam time or while waiting to hear back from colleges for example) You don’t have to have a children’s sermon every week, but the minister should include a question, activity or special funny story that is aimed at the children and teens in the congregation. I have even heard of ministers asking teens to text them with the answer to a question while they are preaching! Encourage creativity in your worship leaders or ask children for their suggestions. Have a place they can text or Facebook their ideas if they are teens or go around and just talk to the children. Find a way for them to add prayer requests to the Church list. (Unless they know the person themselves, most Church prayer lists sound like a hospital roll call to children.) You might just be amazed at the ideas your children and teens have and how wonderful they are. (Please note: Children and teens will tell you what they think you want to hear, especially the older they get. You must really spend time encouraging them to be open and honest with you before you will get any feedback that is truly honest and valuable. They aren’t lying in their minds, just trying to keep the adults happy and their lives conflict free.)
4. If you are a Church leader, be prepared for backlash. Make it clear how the complainer can become involved in helping the Church worship together as a family. Complainers must be workers or their complaints will go unheard! In fact complaints should be substituted with creative solutions and ideas. Be willing to consider the idea that some of your accommodations for families may be violating scripture in some way. If they are not, encourage the naysayers to become involved in finding ways the families at your Church can continue to grow and learn from each other (isolation rarely provides that opportunity in any meaningful way, instead it communicates “you are unwanted and/or have no value to the rest of us”).
5. Be patient. Learning to worship God and appreciate the experience is a little like learning to appreciate art or history. Guided exposure, over time will usually develop a tolerance if not a passion for the experience. There will be bumps in the road along the way. Some of them will become funny stories in later years and some will be forgotten. Hopefully your child will gradually learn to look forward to worshipping God each week.
6. Provide extra support for visitors and struggling parents. Ask visitors how they would like assistance with their children. Do not assume they want their children separated from them in a strange environment. Have age-appropriate worship bags available for the children of visitors and for families who do not bring a bag. Consider having a worship training class for toddlers ready to enter adult worship (although personally, our child worshipped with us from birth). Make it fun and interactive, but make sure it prepares them for the real experience and is not full of things they will never experience in the real worship service (For example don’t sing all kids songs if your song leader never leads them. Instead start teaching them the most favorite up-beat song your congregation sings. Even the tiniest of children can learn very complex songs – YouTube is proof of that!)
7. This will sound crazy, but watch the noise levels in your auditorium. Young children are often especially sensitive to loud noises and can become overwhelmed. The volume doesn’t have to risk impairing everyone’s hearing to make the service positive and upbeat. Encourage older people who haven’t bought hearing aids yet (!) to move closer to the front or provide listening devices for them.
In my next post, I will help you put together some age appropriate worship bags to help engage your children in the worship service. I might even throw in a couple of secret tips I have discovered over the years! Let me know if you have discovered other things that have helped your family worship together each week by commenting below or e-mailing me.