It often happens that after we’ve beat back the Power of Darkness in every random cowlick, every missing shoe, and every cereal spill involved in the Sunday Morning Scuffle, the ride to church can feel a little tense. With shoulders scrunched and that little muscle twitching above my left eye, I look over at my freshly smoothed and scrubbed crew and wonder, “What’s the point, anyway? They aren’t going to listen, they don’t really care, they don’t even know what day of the week it is!"
And in one sense, I’m right. My kids don’t need to indwell the sermon or memorize its three points. They need Jesus. Taking them to church is a great habit to build, but it won’t change their hearts. Only Jesus can do that.
So why bother? Because children are natural imitators. They will learn to worship the way we do. Let’s face it: my kids are pretty aware of my need for Jesus, and of my husband’s need for Jesus, even more than their own. So we show them how this needing-Jesus mama and daddy get their worship on, how they long for the fellowship of other believers and the encouragement of a good word from Scripture. While we let Jesus do the hard work on their heart, we can model what loving Jesus, seeking Jesus, and worshipping Jesus looks like in a community of believers.
Nine Practical Ways
Now that we’ve all agreed on what we’re really doing here, here are nine practical ways to invite your children into the corporate worship experience:
- Begin at home. Talk about God’s Word when you rise up, as you walk along, etc. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). Constantly invite your children into your own relationship with God and what you are learning. Do family worship at home every night. Make this as natural as breathing. They will come to expect it and know what is expected of them. (Practical hint: this is your opportunity to practice sitting still before church on Sunday!)
- Raise expectations. Children will rise or sink to the expectations we give them. If we treat them as if they are capable of sitting through church without setting the building on fire, they will begin to live up to those expectations. If we treat them like unruly animals who must simply be contained, I guarantee you will have a Wild Kingdom experience in the pew.
- Manage your expectations. Your two-year-old is not going to sit in the same way your ten-year-old will. They will eventually learn it, but it takes time. Treat each Sunday as another opportunity to practice and give lots of grace. And don’t forget to smile at your babies. If you look miserable, they probably are too.
- Pass out pens instead of toys. I expect my kids to first prove that they can sit the whole time without having anything to play with (other than a special blanket if they’re small). Once they are sitting pretty well, I will let them get a program and they can have a pen. They can draw on their program or take notes if they can write their letters. Yea, sure, they also draw lots of little stick figures and, in my boys’ case, there are usually big explosions and guns which hopefully have little to do with the preaching, but if they can tell me something they learned or give me the gist of the sermon, I’m confident they were focusing. Remember, it’s often easier to listen if their hands are a little bit busy!
I do encourage any of my kids that know their letters to try to fill in the blanks or copy my notes. Science says that there’s something about the physical use of a pen and paper that helps us remember what we are hearing and writing. I know it doesn’t mean they’ll remember every sermon they hear, but I’m trusting that God is faithful to use the ways He made their little brains to write His name upon their hearts. (Or maybe I just mixed a metaphor with science and I should resign!)
- Ask good questions. “Did you like today’s sermon?” doesn’t necessarily invoke a conversation. For younger kids, we ask “What’s one word you heard the pastor say?” For slightly older kids, we ask them to give us the main point of the sermon. And for my older kids, we have them narrate back the basics of the sermon. They don’t need to remember every point, but I love to hear the parts that stuck out to them.
- Be consistent and provide motivation. If they know you will ask, they will pay better attention. Make it a fun challenge! To get our kids to understand that we meant business about listening in church, we asked them to take notes and they got to quiz us afterward. Whoever stumped Daddy got a hot chocolate reward. You’ve never seen such attentive little people!
- Take advantage of the trip to church. Use the time to catch your breath, reconcile relationships that may have taken a beating that morning, and encourage everyone to focus their hearts and minds. As we pull into the parking lot, my husband gently reminds everyone to prepare for worship. We go over our expectations and remind them that we love them and enjoy being able to worship with them. And we can’t wait to talk it all through with them after the service.
- Follow up after church. My husband and I discuss the sermon and try to include the kids. We’ll ask them questions about what they heard. We use this to gauge how much they really listened and if we need to adjust what we’re doing in the sermon to help them focus.
- Don’t sweat the noise. For all you frazzled parents out there, know that you aren’t nearly as loud in that pew as you think you are. What feels like fireworks and wrestling to you looks mostly calm to the rest of the world. I often imagine us like a family of ducklings, paddling across the water. Below the surface (or below eye level of the pew), we’re a frantic melee of legs and wiggling. But above the surface, we float serenely, with only the occasional stray quack. Your fellow church-goers have so much grace to give for families that are seeking to raise up their children to love Jesus. Don’t be afraid to take a truly noisy child out of the service, but remember that they aren’t nearly as disturbing to everyone else as they probably are to you.
And if you ever see me sitting in a pew with my eyes closed muttering, “Be the duck. You are the duck,” just pat me on my head and tell me how cute my ducklings are.
Lora Lynn Fanning is a wife, a mother of seven, and a member of The Church at Brook Hills, where her husband, Andrew, serves as an elder. She home-schools the children and in her “free time” blogs at Vitafamilae.