A while back, I was chatting with a few other women about the difficulties of taking small children to church. I've lamented before how not having a church nursery was stressful to me because toddlers cannot sit quietly and still for an hour-long worship service. As the pastor's wife, it is important for me to attend this church (as opposed to seeking one out that has a nursery or cry room, as I would if I were an ordinary person). So, I would struggle through the worship hour with a variety of tricks--feeding her cereal, confining her to a stroller, and when all else failed, taking her out and wandering the halls until the service ends. I love to worship God; I want to worship God in a communal setting on Sunday mornings--and yet most Sundays I left wondering "why do I bother?"
The other women in this conversation were not pastor's wives, just fellow churchgoing mothers without nurseries or cry rooms at their churches. While they agreed it could be difficult during the older-infant/early-toddler stage, they felt like it was important to teach kids to be able to sit in church without needing a steady stream of snacks, without having to be taken out, without a nursery, cry room, or children’s service to offer an age-appropriate alternative to the main worship service. Though I said nothing at the time, I disagreed, and have been chewing on this notion ever since.
On one level, that sounds nice, and sounds like something I would advocate (non-coddling parenting, similar to the idea of not heating bottles and not rocking a child to sleep), but it also seems inappropriate. We wouldn’t force a kindergartener to read from the King James Version (or even the NIV) when there are children’s Bibles available that put things in kids’ language and includes pictures to engage them more. Why should worship be any different? The overall message is not different, but it is presented in such a way that kids can understand and appreciate the message more.
The other moms pointed out that kids have to learn to sit still in school, too, but I would remind them that first graders are not given lectures about Herman Melville’s use of metaphor, but rather are taught the basics of reading on their own level and (hopefully) in an engaging way. Likewise, we should offer children’s worship experiences that engage children on their own level, with lots of singing, movement, and interaction, and lessons that put the Bible and faith formation into a language and style that small kids understand.
Beyond those more practical/educational concerns, however, the idea didn’t sit well with me from an ecclesiological perspective.
Teaching a child to sit in church when the sermon, liturgy, and possibly even the music are incomprehensible to him reinforces the notion that church is something to be endured. That it is something we are supposed to do even when it is boring and meaningless.
Frankly, I think too many people—young and old alike—are just sitting in church.
Too many people go to worship each week, socialize with their friends, and go through the motions. They go out of habit, because they are “supposed” to go, rather than going with a real expectation of experiencing God. Like a child being told just to sit still, stop fidgeting, and be quiet, people sit politely in their pew, mumble through a few hymns, listen to a sermon, and go on their merry way, totally unchanged and no closer to God than when they came in.
I definitely believe in the "fake it 'til you make it" philosophy, and I'm not saying one should only go to church when feeling in a worshipful mood. But I am saying that we—churches and the people in them—need to raise the bar.
Churches need to evaluate what works and what doesn’t. Are our words connecting with people, or are their eyes glazed over? Do our songs and liturgies inspire an energetic response, or are people just going through the motions? Do people live out the gospel Monday through Saturday, or is faith just a Sunday thing?
We in the pews need to raise the bar as well, expecting not just to be served but to serve. Do we listen attentively, seeking to learn and grow? Do we pay attention to what we’re singing and saying, so that the words become our own? Do we seek out ways to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world Monday through Saturday? In the words of one respected pastor, are we “standing on the promises” or just “sitting on the premises”?
No one, child or adult, should settle for just sitting in church—much less be trained to.