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Kids in Church

Sure they squirm, giggle, talk, and wiggle, but including your children in the worship service is worth the distraction. Here's how to help them stay tuned in.

My days of quiet contemplation at church ceased three and a half years ago when my first child, Elise, was born. Before we had kids, my husband and I were able to pray with reverence and concentrate on every word of the readings. Now, church is one long hour of multitasking. I pray with one eye on my kids. I listen to the sermon while retrieving granola bars from the floor. I sing along to hymns as I fish children's books out of our backpack. Some weeks, my most worshipful moment is thanking God that my 1-year-old son, Jonah, is intrigued by the new candles up front.

Most of the time, we're willing to go through this inconvenience because it's important to us that we worship as a family. But some weeks I find myself thinking, Maybe we should give up and start shipping them to the nursery.

To help me decide if our efforts to keep our kids in church are worth it, I talked to parents, pastors, and religious educators for their opinions. They were unanimous. "One of the most important parts of parenting is teaching your children how to worship," says Georgene Burt, minister of child education at First Baptist Church of Ellisville, Missouri. "It's hard sometimes, especially if you have a child who's very active. You may even have to realize that you're not going to get very much out of the service. But, remember, like everything else, this stage, too, will pass."

Some Christian educators believe that including children in the worship service is more than just a nice idea; it's essential to their spiritual development. Myra Arnold, who teaches religion to 2- to 6-year-olds at Messiah Episcopal Church in St. Paul, Minnesota, says, "Jesus intended for us to bring children into this celebration. Being part of the community of faith is the basis of us being able to live a Christian life, and children are a part of that community. The 2 1/2-year-olds I teach love church. That seems to be the beginning of their sensitivity to spiritual things."

Even if we firmly believe that our children should participate in the worship service, we often worry about what other people will think. But according to Eric Carlson, pastor of First Lutheran Church in Stoughton, Wisconsin, that's a worry we can let go of. "It may be distracting [for other parishioners] to hear a baby cry or a toddler say something," he says. "But remember that Jesus welcomed the little ones. I often think of the time the custodian told me that it looked like it had been a great Sunday morning because there were so many Cheerios in the pews. He was right."

Making Family Worship Work

While worshiping as a family sounds great in theory, in practice, it can be tough to pull off. But there are ways you can make the task easier. For toddlers and preschoolers, the key is making them feel like an important part of the church community. Encourage your child to be involved in the service. Let her hold the hymnbook and put the money in the collection plate. In the week before the service, learn some of the songs you'll be singing on Sunday so she can sing along. Sit in the front row so your child can see what's going on and you can explain to her what's happening. If she feels welcome and loved in church, she'll have a more positive view of worship, and that can last all the way to adulthood.

Remember, though, to have realistic expectations for your young children. No 2-year-old will sit quietly for an hour, so you'll need to find ways to keep him occupied. The First Baptist Church of Ellisville makes "worship bags" for its little ones filled with crayons, coloring pages, and other quiet activities. If your church doesn't have something similar, put one together yourself. Include stickers, books, and a small snack. Help your child decorate the bag and pick a special place at home to keep it during the week. You can make the bag extra exciting by telling your child that the bag is especially for church.

Older children get bored more quickly, so helping them enjoy church means keeping them occupied. The worship bag (or backpack) idea still works for elementary kids with a few adjustments. Some churches provide kids' bulletins filled with word searches and other worksheets that make good additions to a worship bag.

If you want to go a step further, you, your pastor, or a group of volunteer parents could make worksheets that use words and ideas from each week's readings or theme. Or come up with your own unique idea using the talents of your congregation. Carlson says at his previous parish, a member who was an artist made coloring books with drawings that depicted areas of their church. This gave parents an opportunity to teach their kids about the physical structure of the church, while giving the children something constructive to do during the service.

The Other Six Days

Don't limit your prep work to Sunday morning. Talk about church throughout the week and tell your children about any special symbols or rituals that will be present the coming Sunday. Or consider creating a prayer table at home that displays items that coincide with the church's calendar, such as a nativity scene or Easter eggs. It will take a little time to educate yourself, but one of the benefits of teaching your children about faith is that you're forced to learn a lot in the process.

Children of all ages learn a great deal by repeating what they've heard. Toddlers and preschoolers like playing "pretend church." Let your 3-year-old pretend she's the pastor or choir director or mommy to her stuffed animals (she might love teaching them to be quiet).

For older children, Deb Bradley, the mother of three children who directs the religious education program for children at her church, offers this tip. "If there is someone you know well who doesn't attend church—a spouse, a homebound grandparent, a good friend, or neighbor you see on Sundays—give your child the job of telling that person what happened in church and what the message was that day," she says. Your child will feel important about her task, she'll listen better, and you'll get to hear exactly what your son or daughter understood from the service.

Living in the Church

It also helps to think of your goal on a bigger scale. Instead of making church a one-hour-a-week commitment, make it a greater part of your family's world. You may want to start a program at the church where families pair up with an elderly person and sit together during the service. (Your child will look forward to seeing "Aunt Rose" each week.) Do community projects through your church, and get involved in church festivals and events. Eventually, your church will feel like a community to your child, and in turn, he'll probably respond to the expectations of that community.

All of these ideas can help get your children involved in worship. But the most crucial step you can take is also the most obvious: make church a joyful ritual. Don't go just because you think you should. Let your children see you prepare for church with enthusiasm. Make sure they hear and see you getting excited about being part of a Christian community. "It's the parents' job to open their children's hearts to God," says the Reverend Tom Walker of Red Wing, Minnesota. "Children learn by repetition, by seeing that Mom and Dad are in church every week."

Brenda Dickel attends church every week with her husband and their 2-year-old daughter, Grace. She says, "It's true that it's hard having children in church with you. But not having them there is hard, too. My daughter is a part of our family and when she's missing, part of the foundation of our family is missing. I don't like being in church without her."

I feel the same way, and now I'm re-energized to continue teaching my children how to worship. Slowly I'm seeing progress. Elise loves to sing the songs in church and she gently quiets Jonah when he's getting noisy. I hope that in time, both my children will be attentive not only to the service, but also to the basic virtues of their faith. For me, that's worth a few Cheerios in the pews.

Michelle Leise is a writer and the mother of two. She and her family live in Minnesota.


Safe Churches, Safe Kids

How to keep your children safe in church
Complied by Brad Lewis
CPT, Winter 2002

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