Helping Harried Parents in the Pews

August 1st, 2013

There is a particular Sunday that I wish I could forget. My husband was living and working out of town during the week. He came home on Friday night and left on Sunday afternoon. He missed his four boys and cherished every minute he had with them on the weekends. When it came to Sunday morning, he did not want them attending children’s church or going to the nursery. So, we all sat together in the pew, or should I say, some of us sat. The two youngest (who were under the age of 3) squirmed, stood, and they crawled. They wiggled, jostled, and jumped. It seemed they did anything but sit, and they were anything but quiet.

When the sermon was over, my husband (who seemed oblivious to all the commotion) stood up to chat with the people around us. As I struggled to get the kids and the diaper bags and pick up the mess they left behind, I said (in an unfortunately loud and irritated voice), “Come on. Let’s get out of here.” My husband was mortified. Looking back, I can see why. It was definitely not one of my more graceful moments.

In my defense, I was exhausted. I managed the house and the children all week, and on Sunday morning, when I most definitely needed spiritual refreshment I was busy again wrestling boys. I had not heard a word of the sermon. Yet, I understood my husband’s desire to have the boys with us during the service.

These days my boys are, for the most part, able to “behave” in church. They have outgrown the wiggles and giggles and understand the sanctity and reverence of the worship service. Still, I know that there are many families who undergo similar battles each week. As I read a recent blog post Dear Parents with Young Children in Church by blogger Jamie Bruesehoff, it reminded me again of these struggles.

Admittedly, some churches offer alternatives for the children so that parents don’t have to bring them into the adult service. But some churches don’t have those resources available, and some parents, like my husband and I, choose to keep their children with them. I’m sure I am not the only mother who has left a service feeling worn out and frustrated.

Still, I believe that there are benefits to having children in worship services, and there are ways that pastors, leaders, and parents can help children to not only endure but actually participate in and learn from the services, thus making it a valuable experience for all.

For Pastors

Some churches offer a short children’s sermon where children in the congregation are invited to come forward and listen to a message tailored to them. If your church does this, make sure that the messages are prepared and presented for the children, not the adults. This is a time to make the children feel special and to help children learn to be comfortable in front of their church family. The speaker should talk to the children directly and help them feel engaged. If needed, provide special training to help the speaker know how to present effective children’s sermons.

Even if there is not a special time carved out just for the children, a pastor can still make a few changes or add a couple of elements to the sermon that makes it more attractive, memorable, and easily understandable for children (and adults for that matter).

  • Make it visual. Puppets and felt characters are often used in children’s lessons, but few pastors think about visual effects in terms of adult sermons. Still, the power of a good picture can never be underestimated. By including a painting, prop, video, or slideshow with your sermon, a pastor is sure to capture the audience’s attention. Remember, whatever you use, make it large enough that everyone can see it.
  • Make it interactive. Pastors can help engage children and adults in the service by adding an interactive element. This could be a simple liturgy or repeating the Lord’s Prayer. A pastor might also ask the congregation to listen for a “clue word” and repeat a sound or word back in response. For example, every time the pastor says “love” the congregation could reply “one another.” This keeps all the people on their toes!
  • Make it understandable. While there are certain concepts that will inevitably be too difficult for children to understand, try to avoid unnecessarily making things more complicated. If there are terms that you must use that you don’t think the “average Joe” will understand, then define them. Part of the worship service is to teach, and even children can learn new vocabulary. Make it as simple as you can, when you can.
  • Make it short. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that you have to cut your sermons down to “child-size.” However, if your congregation seeks to be “family friendly” try to at least take into consideration parents of young children who only have so much of a capacity to be quiet, still, and to hold their bladders. If a service is going to be unusually long, consider offering a short break where parents can take young ones to the restroom or stretch their legs.

For Leaders

If you are a children’s pastor, Sunday school teacher, or music leader in your church, there are things you can do to help children take a more active part in the worship service.

  • Prepare the children. Ask the song leader in your church to suggest a few songs that are frequently used in the worship service and teach them to the children. You may want to record the choir or congregation singing these songs. Then play the recording in your class. Help your children learn the songs so they can participate during the service. You can also tell the children about the symbols that are in your sanctuary. Explain the significance of a symbol. Then encourage them to see how many representations they can find during the sermon. Have them write down the number and “report” back the following week.
  • Involve the children. Most pastors have a general idea of the sermon topic or a primary verse that will be used prior to the actual day of the sermon. Ask your pastor to help you prepare children’s worship folders to hand out to the children in the congregation before the start of the service. Such folders might include a Bible verse that the children can copy, coloring sheets or activity pages related to the message, a fill-in-the-blank outline that children can complete during the sermon, or a simple children’s story relating to the theme of the sermon. Include a few colored pencils or crayons for the children to use. To help motivate the children  to use the worship materials (and to recycle materials), offer a small prize or incentive for turning the completed materials and folders back in when the service is finished.
  • Enlist the children. If you are a music or song leader in your church, ask a few children to help you “lead” the music. Choose a song with which they are familiar for the congregation to sing. You may also consider asking several children to sing a song together on stage or asking children who play an instrument to perform a “special.” When asking the congregation to turn to a page in the hymnal or song book, display the page numbers on a large flashcard or overhead so that children can look up the numbers themselves.
  • Entertain the children. I know it’s not the responsibility of adults to entertain children, and I understand that church services are serious times of worship. However, I also know that even adults enjoy a little entertainment every now and then. As such, consider singing a few children’s songs during service or songs that include motions that the congregation can copy. You may even want to ask a few children to come forward and demonstrate the motions. Occasionally include different instrument specials, puppets or music videos during your worship service.

I remember one time when my young son was on his knees in church. He was not facing the pulpit but was bent with his belly touching the seat behind him. He was coloring or playing with a toy car as the preacher spoke to the congregation about Daniel. I was quite surprised when he looked up at me and said, “I know that story. The lions didn’t eat him.” Another time, a young man was performing a song that he had sung before. It was rather upbeat. Again, my son was seemingly unaware of what was going on, or so I thought. Upon hearing the opening notes of the song, he hopped up, and said, “I like it when Andrew sings this song.” I would have never guessed that he was listening; yet, he was.

Children hear and comprehend much more than we give them credit for, and they are a vital part of our congregation. These are the very ones who will one day be leading in the teaching, preaching, singing, and other ministries of the church. Yet, too often, parents with young children in church are left with the sole responsibility of tending to their children in the pews. In the very place where we are all supposed to be part of God’s family and help one another, parents of young children often feel very alone (and even condemned) as they try to keep their little ones quiet and still.

The worship service should be a training ground where children and adults experience what it means to be part of a congregation working together to learn about Jesus, to worship God, and to show love to one another. Let’s make an effort to help the harried parents in the pews and make our worship services truly family friendly.

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