There’s didn’t used to be a name for it; families just did it. There was no children’s church or kid’s club–except for crying babies, who had their time out in the “cry room,” all ages sat through worship together. I sat by my grandfather and begged cough drops and Juicy Fruit gum, studied the glossy illustrations in my King James Bible, re-read my Sunday school papers, drew in the margins and eventually (as the years went by) started paying attention. I also remember being taken out a few times. That was bad news. Nobody wanted to be taken out.
But somehow we got away from all the fuss and bother of little kids in church–so far away, that to get back we have to call it something in order to distinguish ourselves: Family Inclusive. It’s a welcome development in a lot of ways but since it’s no longer the norm, moms and dads may have to be a little more intentional: Just how to you train little ones to sit still in church?
Step One: recognize that you’re not just training them to sit still in church.
“Sitting still” may be the immediate goal but it’s not the ultimate goal. The whole point of keeping children in the worship service is to train them for worship. I was taught to sit still but I don’t remember being taught what it was all about. Also, church services have been going more toward spectator sport than active participation. Keeping young children–say, from the age of two or thereabouts–in worship with us is an on-the-spot, hands-on opportunity to teach them about God and his church and what we mean to him as a body of believers.
Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But how . . .
Step Two: Preparation.
First of all, prepare yourself. If your attitude is we’ll-grit-our-teeth-and-try-to-get-through-another-Sunday-morning, the kids will pick up on that. I once heard one mom tell another that Sunday was the toughest day of the week for her. I understand that and appreciate the honesty. Still . . . it’s not necessarily a state of mind we should just accept, as though for the next five years or so you won’t expect to get anything out of church. Some Sundays with preschoolers will be a big blur of juggling graham crackers and juice bottles and sitting on the edge of a blowup. Yet you can ask God to help you overcome your dread of the Sunday morning sanctuary and look forward to joining the everlasting chorus while you take your little ones another step forward in their walk with Jesus. It’s a great privilege to be able to do that. (It really is!)
This blog post made the rounds a few years ago, but it’s worth reading again as a pick-me-up when your spirits are low: Dear Parents with Young Children in Church.
You should also begin to prepare the kids. Some families attend a traditional church, with a designated Song of Assembly, Song of Praise, Song of Confession, Congregational prayer and offering, Song of Preparation, etc. Others are more free-wheeling (20 minute praise & worship, testimonials, prayer requests, message). But every church has some kind of structure or plan for worship times. Little children should learn why we do those things: “First we’re going to sing about how great God is. Then we’ll sing about how sorry we are for our sins . . .” This kind of preparation leads naturally to
Step Three: Practice
Practice at home. If you have a regular family devotional time, that’s a terrific opportunity to get prepared. If you don’t have a regular devotional time, what are you waiting for? Consider setting aside ten minutes or so on Saturday evening to talk about what we’ll do next morning, and why. For some of these prep times, if the kids are young enough to find it fun and not corny, stage a mini-worship service with older ones delivering a devotional message or a Bible reading and younger ones suggesting or leading songs. (If you know anything about music, teach them to beat out rhythms or follow along with simple sight-reading.) This can be fun, but it should never be silly. We don’t giggle and cut up when we’re talking about God.
Practice listening at home. If the kids pay attention while you’re reading aloud to them, you know they can do this. You’ve trained them since they could sit up: first with picture books, then with longer stories, then with full length novels. So why not find some good sermons online and, once or twice a week, have them sit down and listen for a few minutes. Before they get up again, they have to tell you something they heard. They’re used to your voice and know that when you start reading aloud they’ll hear something good. Now they need to learn to listen to other people, with the understanding that they’ll hear something good from them, too. Maybe not action packed or roll-on-the-floor funny, but there are all kinds of good. Start at age four, or whenever verbal skills are up to speed, and ask for four minutes of attention. If you’re starting at age five, ask for five minutes. Six-year-olds can sit for six minutes, and so on. If they can’t repeat anything they heard, have them sit for a few more minutes of listening time and try again.
Practice praying at home. Of course you already do this, right? If not, why not? I’ve been thinking about ways to make prayer more relevant to kids, and hope to have more to say about that later, but most home-prayers are about personal needs and relationships. The difference in church is corporate prayer, or kneeling before God as a community of believers with group needs. The Saturday-evening devotional time would be great for praying specifically about the church. Have the children suggest particular people and share with them specific needs that you know of. Be sure to pray for the pastor and next day’s worship service, and close the prayer with a petition that we can all pay attention and be respectful of others. If a pastoral prayer is part of your regular church service, remind them that they can be praying along with the pastor.
Step Three: Doing It. Hey, that sounds like fun! you’re thinking. Or, Okay: one more thing to add to my to-do list but it might be worthwhile . . . However, you can have a great time playing church on Saturday evening but there’s still Sunday morning to get through: wiggling 3-year-olds, whispering 5-year-olds, sulky pre-teens and a toddler under the pew ripping up visitor cards. Knowing what it’s all about isn’t the same as doing it. It’s time to call in reserves and get the whole church on board. Next week!
In the meantime, more motivation from Gospel Coalition: Four Reasons Your Kids Should Sit with You on Sunday.