They are wiggling in the pew. They’re grinning their sweet baby smiles at grownups across the aisle. They are head-butting mom (ouch!) and irritating dad (shh!). The whole church service takes place against a background of hisses that sound like a snake convention. You want them in the pews but it’s sweet temporary relief when someone has to be taken to the bathroom.
If Mom and Dad are in agreement it shouldn’t be too hard to plan some devotional time on Saturday (or sometime during the week) that will help prepare the kids for what we’ll be doing on Sunday morning. But there’s still that hour-long church service to get through without a meltdown. Granted that there will be some meltdowns (kids being volatile and all), if the church leadership makes a decision to move toward family-inclusive worship, they should also help parents carry it out. Such as
Children’s Sermons? Though sympathetic to the idea I’m not a fan, because children’s sermons tend to put the kids (and pastor) on display—rather than meditating on the Lord or feeding on his word, we’re chuckling about how cute they are, especially that moptop who’s trying to stand on his head. A possible alternative: at one church I visited, there was no special sermon, but the children came forward at the end of the service to lead the closing song. Each picked an item from a box of rhythm instruments and made a joyful noise with the congregation, all the more joyful because they could finally get up move. I like this idea–it didn’t break the focus on worship and it probably helped the kids feel a little more a part of things.
Set aside training rooms in lieu of a nursery. Imagine you’re three-and-a-half. Church is boring. You’ve figured out that if you crank it up to a certain decibel level, Mom or Dad will haul you off to the nursery, where there are snacks and toys and room to run around. This is not rocket science.
But what if, when you get to that level of decibels, Mom or Dad takes you firmly by the hand, walks you to a dark room, and sits down with you in a lap or in a chair beside, and you don’t get up. No matter how much you scream and cry, these are the options: in the sanctuary with all the folks or in here with Mom or Dad: your choice. No spanking, no swatting, just you and me and your screams. For most kids, it only takes a few weeks before they make the better choice (and if they forget down the road, back to the training room).
Of course it’s fine to have a nursery with toys and snacks for the toddlers. But once you’ve established a pretty reliable two-way communication with a child, usually at some age between two and four, he or she is old enough to sit still.
Establish singing classes. Once a quarter, or every couple of months, gather the kids for sing-alongs featuring favorite hymns or worship songs. If they’re regular attendees, they’ll already know these songs, but it means a lot more when they know the backstory or something about the lyricist or composer. Focus on two to three songs per session, share the story and teach a bit of music theory alongside, such as rhythms, note values, and basic sight-reading.
Alternatively, if there’s time, practice a song in Sunday school. If you know what the song selections are going to be ahead of time, use some of your pre-service Sunday school time to feature one of them: talk about the lyrics and make up hand motions or body actions to go along. Or look up American Sign Language (several online sources) for key words, and teach the children how to sign them. Use the time to stretch and jump while singing.
Get help from the pastor. Most pastors will have a sermon prepared by Friday evening. With a little encouragement, they might be willing to write a three-point outline, with the key text or texts and major illustrations, and email it out to all families with children by Saturday morning. That would make excellent devotional material: for instance, read the text and talk about the context, then speculate where Pastor will end up with the three points (or whatever). A creative pastor might even have suggestions for the family devotional, such as words to listen for, definitions or Bible characters to know, or specific questions that will be answered.
Children’s bulletins. You can buy books of reproducible bulletins at Lifeway and Mardel stores. Not a bad idea, but if the bulletin has no relation to the sermon topic or anything else, it’s just another distraction to keep them quiet. Another idea: if someone in the congregation is a creative educator with access to a simple publishing program, he or she might be willing to create customized children’s bulletins to copy and hand out on Sunday. My former pastor used to email a sermon outline on Friday (unless circumstances interfered), and I would separate the main points, write summaries, and assemble clip art illustrations. This took time, but for the most part—except when really crunched for the same—I thought it was fun. Obviously, not everyone can do it, but it’s something to consider.
Here’s a .pdf of one example, a Christmas bulletin from several years ago.
If we consider kids to be “Covenant Children” (part of God’s family), the church as a whole should take some part in worship training. This can be as simple as getting to know the children and sitting beside them in the pew, like a substitute “church grandma” or “church uncle.” At the very least, it means complementing the kids when they sit quietly and encouraging the parents when they don’t.