Wednesday, April 20, 2011

On Children in Church

My children are weasels.

Today I got into my fifty-eleventh twitter argument over whether Sunday School should be held during worship or if we should insist that all children be in worship.

Theologically there are a lot of good reasons to keep children with us during worship, and I really have no good argument against them.

-Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." Matthew 9:14

-Our children will not learn the liturgies and rhythms of the church unless we keep them with us in worship.

-There's more, but I'm not the best person to describe them all. There are beautiful, lovely, magnificent reasons to keep children in church. A twitter friend has posted her beautiful thoughts on this here at Marginal Theology.

-Another twitter friend has gathered together the specific polity that insists children should be in worship here at 1000 Thoughts Per Second.

-And another twitter friend who is wise and hopeful reminds us that we are a connectional church here at The Viau From Here.

My thoughts at this moment:

Last week, twenty seconds before I walked up to the pulpit to begin our service, I had to take away one of my children's shoes because he was beating his brother with them. While sitting in a pew. In the church where his mother preaches. This is not at all an unusual circumstance; balancing motherhood with pastorhood is more complicated than motherhood with church attendance ever was. I am lucky to have a congregation that is somewhat amused and tolerant of our shenanigans, but I'll go on record as saying that these shenanigans raise my blood pressure to stroke levels. And if you're getting push back from angry parents who don't want you to cancel Sunday School during worship, no amount of saying "I understand, but theologically it is correct to have the children in worship" is going to get them on your side.

If you really want children in worship, you're going to have to earn the parent's trust that you can do this and still honor the parent's spiritual journey.

Years ago, when I had my second child, I discovered that the church did not provide maternity leave, nor did they pay into state disability insurance. After a month's vacation, I returned to work to lead a youth retreat in the mountains, and I brought my baby with me. A dear friend came along to help, but Saturday night during worship the baby was hungry. And as dear as my friend is, she could not nurse the baby for me. And as competent as the rest of the volunteers are, nobody else was prepared to preach. So my friend brought me the baby and I preached while nursing. It was all I could think of to do, but I later was told that students and adults were uncomfortable at my public nursing.

Not long after, I attended a training for youth workers. Mark Yaconelli led a session on contemplative prayer and I showed up with my four month old baby. Sure enough, 5 minutes into our contemplative prayer session, the baby got hungry and started to fuss. An expert by now, I latched the baby onto breast, covered us with a blanket and finished the prayer session. In the quiet of that space the sound of my child lunching filled the room, complete with smacking lips, sucking noises and a cat-like growl he liked to do as he nursed. Mark Yaconelli was kind enough to make a comment afterward to the group of how my baby nursing reminded him of his own and the beauty of children and babies and how I'd done him a favor staying with the baby etc. I don't know if anyone else in the group agreed with him, but I was grateful for his kindness.

Two years ago at a Christmas Eve service my sons came with me to church. My oldest was willing to read scripture for the first time and did a lovely job. The little guy was bored to distraction by the service and wandered up to the pulpit to lay at my feet while I finished the service.

These memories are precious and part of my regular worship on Sunday mornings. Even my children beating each other with shoes is biblical--in fact the first time I preached at Tiny Church it was on Genesis 25:22 in which Rebekkah realizes that the twins in her womb were destined to strive against each other. Just as I read the words "If it is to be this way, why am I to live?" my oldest got the youngest in a headlock. The youngest screamed and ran under my skirt. Oldest came to stand next to me and beamed out at the congregation, who were merrily laughing at the show. Since I was auditioning for a job, I was less than amused, and with some effort settled the children back into a pew so I could continue preaching.

Some people might tell me that all this is a sign that I should not be preaching--that my obligation is to the spiritual education of these children who clearly need my guidance. To those people I say, "Please feel free to pay my rent and then we can talk." To Tiny Church, my ability to juggle these children and preaching seemed to make them think I would be a good pastor for them. I'm still there and we are doing well enough, so I suppose they are right. Again, I am grateful for their kindness.

But I long for the time when I could lose myself in worship. I long for the days when I could sing a hymn through without my children trying to slaughter each other over my lap. I miss the days when I could actually listen to someone's sermon the whole way through with no interruptions. I love the days in church when I can actually preach a sermon the whole way through without having to stop and discipline my unruly, beautiful children. And those days only come when my children are not in church with me.

I want to go on record, on behalf of parents who dare not say it, that there is nothing worshipful about attending church service with my children. Attending church with my children makes me long for empty nest syndrome. Attending church with my children makes me think I am not Christian anymore. Just getting ready for church with my children, attending to the fifty-eleven arguments from them about why they should be able to stay home instead of go to church is exhausting.

People tell me this is what spouses are for. But I don't have one of those, and even when I did, church wasn't his thing. People tell me that all we need is training for the congregation members to know how to help me with the children in church. Or that we can adapt worship so that children are involved and enjoying worship. Or that they should just be capable of this. Or that--well, what I'm saying is everyone has a way of telling me that my desire to be in church without my children is theologically incorrect and will lead to their spiritual malnourishment. People tell me how much they love having children in the church. People tell me so many things--but what they don't say is, "Children come sit with me and leave your poor, tired, wretched, exhausted mother to rest in the arms of Jesus a bit."

Ultimately I am told that if I do not have my children in worship both their faith and the future of the church are at risk.

I concede that this may be true. I was not a product of a church upbringing. My family did not belong to a church, nor did we attend regularly. I came in the door through the youth group at age 13, quite by accident. I never would have come through the front door, nor would worship have been the place to start with me. I was like a cat hiding under a bed, and it took 10 years to fully involve me in the life of the church. 15 years after that I am still learning the rhythms of the church--it is true that my upbringing had little to do with my faith or my church membership. And still here I am.

I offer two scriptures, since my theology and faith appear to be suspect in this matter. Although several years of arguments over same gender love have led me to the belief that there's a scripture to back everything. Which leads me to be grateful that there are different churches with different ways of doing things. Which leads me to a healthy suspicion of anyone who tries to say that this or that is the theologically correct way of doing things. But if you asked me, here are the scriptures (ripped from context) I would offer in defense of at least providing the option for children to go to Sunday School during worship.
Matthew 11:28-30 “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
While there are many purposes to worship, at least one of them is to provide rest to weary souls. And this includes weary parents. If the sound of my children's laughter brings rest to your weary soul, please forgive me if the sound of their little voices saying "Mom, why do I have to be in church? I hate this." does not soothe my soul.
Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, [Jesus] entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’
So now, lookit. I know Jesus was talking about dishes and cooking and wymen's work of all kinds. I know he doesn't say, "Martha, go teach Sunday School while sister Mary worships." But I am saying nonetheless that raising children, raising them in the church, teaching them the rhythms and liturgies of our churches, that is a substantial part of our work as church members. It's as proper to do all that as it is to clean the house and cook a good dinner for the Lord. But sometimes--at least some of the times--we are allowed to set that aside and bask in the Spirit, to soak up the teachings of the Son, to commune with the Creator whose child we also are. And Jesus promised that this would not be taken away from us.

When you say, "All children should be in worship. I understand how you feel, but this is theologically correct." When you say that, you are saying to parents like me that a significant part of our spiritual life is over, kaput, dead, buried. And if you don't understand why we grieve that, then it's probably better that we go from your church.


  1. one of my favorite preaching mom stories comes from my single mom friend who preaches at a tall steeple in NYC. Dear daughter refused to put her dollar in the Sunday School offering plate and showed up in the front pew in worship with the dollar proudly clipped to her hair with her barrette.

    thanks for the inside out vision of what it feels like to be a parent with young uns in the pew.

    and thanks for nursing your baby at the youth retreat ~ you weren't agitatin you were just parenting ~ but I guess women preaching and parenting at the same time is agitation enough.


  2. Thank you for this.

    I read the twitter debate yesterday--or parts of it--and did not chime in because I am neither a pastor serving a church, nor a parent of young children anymore. By the time I was in the pulpit, my kids were 13 and 17.

    My own thoughts on the matter are mixed still.

    But I hope many will read this and absorb the reality you have so honestly laid out.

  3. Here is the problem I face in this dilemma. Parents understandably want some quiet space and CE for their kids. But youth ministry research over last 25 years shows that teens and young adults who are still actively engaged in faith communities mostly come from churches where they were part of the wider worshipping community on Sunday mornings.

    Me taking kids out of worship cripples youth programs and the Church in the long term.

    I think there is more than one answer, but one thing I am thinking is how do we make worship more engaging for kids for when they are there? That doesn't mean kids service, but starting by looking at our music and prayers from the view of a six year old. Can they even read the words? Is the melody stimulating? Can they see what's going on? Kids will sit for over an hour in front of a TV. They know how to sit still as long as they are engaged. But until we find that magic formula that engages kids and adults, we do need separate programs.

  4. Okay, so I wrote a really long comment, and blogger ate it.

    The gist: I think having a place for kids is great, so that their earliest memories of church are not being shushed but of drawing freckles on Jesus.

    (Yes, that's one of my memories. I wanted to be Catholic so I could be in Sunday School during church b/c we shared our building with the Catholic service and their service was during our Sunday School time.) (I was 5 or 6.)


  5. Great post. If we really took having children in worship seriously we would do worship differently. I think many of the things that you and others need from worship is actually evidence that we've confused the worshiping life of the church with the nurturing life of the church - but that's another conversation. And the way we currently use something called t.i.m.e. is probably at the root of all of this.

    Lot's to think about!

  6. In the tiny church in which I grew up, younger children would often sit with family friends, grandparents, or youth. It wasn't planned, but it worked and gave parents a little time to sit back and worship.

  7. I can't agree with this: "there is nothing worshipful about attending church service with my children" but I think you said some really important things here. I absolutely don't think parents can or should carry this burden alone. The fact that we are so isolated and insular sitting in our nuclear families in our separate pews emphatically does not help.

    Let me be the ugly, here, and you can feel free to hate me for this but yes, a part of your spiritual life that existed before you had kids is dead. That is the clear implication of what I'm saying. It's over. Kaput. It will not be again.

    But that person you were is gone, too. This is the not the end. It's time for something new to grow. I don't know what that is but what I hear in this post is a keen sense of mourning for something genuinely lost. What new thing can be born out of its passing?

  8. I hear you on the not being able to sink into worship when sitting with your kids. I hear that from a number of people.
    What I want the church to be is a big extended family--where kids sit with their extra aunts/uncles/grandparents/cousins/whatever and those adults help them feel loved as well as teaching them the rhythms of the worshipping community. That's my dream, and something we work toward here though we are far from actually being there yet. I hope one day we can be a church that provides respite for parents and community and worship for people of all ages. Until that day, hopefully we are all struggling together rather than against each other (as I so often feel we are doing).
    (and yes...whenever I can do it without getting into trouble, I bring kids to sit with me, even on the chancel, or I sit with them while their parents sing or liturgize or just worship. Trying to be a good example at least occasionally!)

  9. Excellent post. I feel like a horrible chauvinist as I say that this is my wife's experience, but not mine, because I am able to pastor while she keeps the boys in the pews entertained. I admire your stamina.

  10. @Annie, I don't think you are being "the ugly" as you put it, I think we disagree. And while there may be something worshipful about attending church with my children for other people, it is not that way for me.

    I cling to Jesus' promise to Mary that the better part would not be taken from her, even though it went against tradition, convenience, common sense, and the betterment of the family. I am not called to sacrifice all for my children. At least in some way I am called to model for them a refusal to give up the better part.

  11. I think there's room to hear in Jesus' words, "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them..." the possibility that children need the opportunity to encounter God in Christ at their own developmental level, as well as in the intergenerational context of the worshiping community. I think it's important for young people to know they are loved and welcome in worship, but I don't think it hinders their spiritual growth to invite them to learn about God and worship God in a time, place, and way that is separate from adults.

    Where I serve as Associate Pastor, parents are welcome to keep their children with them, and we have no problem with babies yelling or feeding, or toddlers squirming and singing, or 11-year-olds sitting in the pew with their families looking bored. But after the opening hymn, we have the traditional "Children's Time," and most of the children between 2 and 10 go out for Sunday school/Children's Church. These children know they are loved by the pastors and the whole congregation, and feel at home in church (and come back in for Communion), but aren't forced to sit through something that - while there is undoubtedly formative value in the experience - is beyond both their comprehension and attention span.

    I don't have kids yet myself, but I have clergy friends who do, and they have lamented the same struggle you have named. Blessings to you in all your roles.

  12. I did the single-parent preacher thing too. Several horror stories.

    I also have had a love for the Orthodox tradition. Their services are strangely more child-friendly. First, there's more going on in terms of movement, color, sensory activity. Second, there's stuff for them to do, like cross themselves, bow, etc. Third, everyone isn't sitting still in pews quietly listening. I have seen children crawling around, sitting in the corner with coloring books, walking around looking at icons, etc. during the service. Finally, they have been engaged since infancy so they know the drill.

    I think it was John Westerhoff who wrote about the efficacy of involving children in the flow of the service, rather than taking them out and ghettoizing them in the Sunday School. Our services are too boring, spectator/listener oriented, mental/unsensory, and tightassed. I have had some success with giving jobs to children and young people: acolytes, readers, font-fillers, Bible carriers, choir members, banner-wavers, etc.

    I have been in churches where people in high school had never been to a Sunday morning church service, and where teachers lamented regularly about missing worship.

  13. Not reading others' comments. Thank you. Friend, I am not a pastor and I still have a hard time being in church with my kids. Of course, I love being with them but it's the siblingness, the bored sighing, the constant nagging, the begging to get water or visit the toilet, again, that take any ounce of worshipful attitude and puke on it. It's hard. There are no easy answers. When people say they love having kids in church, they mean the kids that mine are not: cute, quiet, compliant. Mine are loud, strong willed and awesome. And that's how God made 'em.

    Also, I can't believe some of the shit you've heard from others. How bout they either sit with your kids or shut their mouths? How about they don't tell you that's why you need a spouse but be thankful that you are capable, more than capable of doing all you're called to do as a mom and a pastor. You are doing just fine.

  14. thank you for a well thought out post.
    I thought about this on Easter, I I spent a great deal of the service saying things like "alleluia, put down that dinosaur, He is risen, share with your brother." Which fortunately amused the people in the next pew, but didn't leave a lot of time for joyful worship!
    I have little kids (7 and 3) and I love how our (larger-sized) church does it. The first 3 Sundays have Sunday School, and the fourth/fifth Sundays are "Family Worship".
    So then you get the best of each - I can actually pay attention during some services and have a restful service for spiritual renewal, and I can bring my little ones during the others and be with them. Of course, we have three services each Sunday, so if you want to bring your child to both Sunday School and a service you can do so. Or if you teach, you could go to a different service.
    Another advantage of "family Sundays" is we often chose that Sunday to travel the Grandparents' churches.
    I work and my husband is a stay-at-home dad, so actually those services are about the only "couple time" we get. We love our children but sometimes it's nice to be able to sit NEXT TO each other.
    My parents' church is considering switching to this for a different reason - they do not have many people attending church. Many people bring their children to Sunday School, then pick them up afterwards and leave without attending the service.

  15. Edit for clarity!
    The first 3 Sundays *of the month* have Sunday School, and the fourth/fifth Sundays are "Family Worship".

  16. thanks for a great post. as an associate minister with a one year old and having been back working since he was 8 weeks old (although thankfully with a stay at home dad/husband) i too have fond memories of nursing anywhere and everywhere during meetings, church and whenever was needed. Although thankfully not while preaching - I am not sure how I would have gone!
    i agree that in a perfect world, kids would sit quietly and be engaged with God in the context of a service, while their parents could be spiritually fed... however not many of us live in such a place and instead the challenge is to find some kind of middle ground which engages with most of these things in some ways. i think it will always be a work in progress and I am sure once you have it figured out the kids will probably be adults and it'll be too late!!

  17. This is a horrible article. Children are gifts from God and we all go through bad services with our children but they learn from example. If they see you and others paying attention then they to will follow your lead. And if not they may need an old fashion butt spanking. And im not saying beat your children im saying love them enough to shoe them the importance of church. I have a three small children and they all sit well behaved and u couldn't imagine why your children would not want to go to church

  18. @Anonymous, actually this is a well-written piece of my writing that clearly articulates where many of us are coming from as parents in the church. Not all parents, of course, and at the beginning of the article I linked to several other blogs on the same topic which take opposing viewpoints.

    I have never applied an "old fashion butt spanking" to my children, and I would not leave them in the care of someone who did. I am glad for you that your children are so well behaved. Every child is different, every parent is different. My point in writing this (well-written) article is that no single solution will work well for all of a church's families.

    Finally, I would add that as a pastor I do not have the luxury of sitting in the pew with my children most Sundays. Managing children's behavior from behind the pulpit is extremely challenging. My point in writing this piece was to make sure that others who are struggling as I do know they are not alone. I hope that people know that there are others, like me, who can relate to their situation, and who will not suggest that the answer is an "old fashion butt spanking."

    Blessings to you and yours.