Helpful strategies for worshiping with children

Jesus said in Luke 18, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” As parents with little children know, bringing their children to Jesus in worship can be quite a challenge.

Our congregation went through a baby boom several years ago. Young couples began building families, adding little people noises to our worship services. My wife and I added four children of our own. It was a joyous time, which introduced to a new generation of parents the age-old challenge of getting children to sit still for worship.

The worship committee at our church offered everything parents needed to help manage their children. A cry room, staffed nursery, and children’s bulletins were available for our use. Parents and their children generally gathered in the last two rows in the back, concentrating the sounds, spills, smells, and general chaos into one area.

One Sunday,  I watched as a young couple walked into church with their baby daughter, passed those of us in the back rows and sat down—in the front row! I was pretty confident that sitting up front was not going to work out well for them. I was wrong.

As their daughter grew, her parents persisted in sitting in the front. Free from the distractions of the back rows, their daughter’s attention was drawn to what was happening in worship, and her parents had a simple expectation that a little child could sit still through a service. Certainly, it took some work. Mom or dad removed the little girl from services more than once.

Those observations and our own experiences taught my wife and me valuable lessons about introducing children to worship. The first lesson is that no one strategy works for every family.

Offered here are some thoughts to help you formulate your own strategy:

  • Make it your default expectation that the sanctuary is the place your children will be. Use the nursery and cry room only when necessary as your child learns and matures.
  • Think little victories. Today you only made it through the first hymn before having to seek refuge in the cry room. Soon you’ll make it to the sermon. Eventually you’ll get to enjoy the whole service!
  • Children are visual learners. Our worship spaces are filled with visual symbols and unique objects not seen at home.  The sanctuary is often decorated at special times of the church year like Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. Point out these visuals. Explain what they mean. Ask them to draw pictures of them during the sermon.
  • If the back pews prove too distracting for your child, consider sitting somewhere else. It is easier for them to focus on worship when they can actually see what is going on.
  • Ask the usher for a children’s worship folder. Use it with your child to connect them to simple aspects of the service.

Bringing our children to Jesus and training them to worship are awesome responsibilities. Thankfully, we are not alone in this effort. In Proverbs 22:6, God promises parents: “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” By the grace of God, and with the power of his living Word, God will bless your efforts and your children will learn to love their Savior, even if you cannot get them to sit still.

Brian Heinitz and his wife, Sue, have four children and are members of Mt. Olive, Las Vegas, Nev. 

Go with God . . . even on the detours

Our life was going according to plan. My husband and I married a year out of college, purchased our first home, and two years later gave birth to our first child.

Then it happened. God took us on our first major detour together. Our infant son had colic, reflux, eczema, and hernias due to muscle strain during bowel movements. Doctors prescribed various medications and suspected his symptoms could be stemming from possible allergies. Since he was breastfed exclusively, I altered my diet to try to ease his symptoms, but it was difficult to track what was helping or hindering the situation. Nothing brought complete relief.

Two years passed, and by this time I had given birth to our daughter who had health issues of her own. She suffered from chronic respiratory infections, ear infections, and intermittent stomach cramping. We took shifts staying up at night making sure she could breathe while she struggled to sleep.

Then it was my turn for complications. I had been losing weight and had large bruises appearing on my body without sustaining any injuries. At a doctor appointment, I heard the words no one ever wants to hear, “We should run some tests for leukemia.” It was with great relief that I received negative results, but I still had no answers.

With two sick children and my own failing health, I went on a quest for a diagnosis. Many doctor appointments later, along with two trips to the Mayo Clinic, we finally learned we had Celiac Disease—an autoimmune disorder that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.

Armed with this knowledge, we began the healing process. We changed our diet to strictly gluten and dairy free. Even this did not bring complete relief, so we started a specific diet developed to heal the lining of the intestines. It was very time consuming and involved fermenting our own foods; making our own broth; and eating all organic, homemade, raw (unprocessed) foods. Eventually, relief came, and we could reassess our life.

Our debt from medical bills and the new, expensive, lifelong diet strained us financially, so we decided to downsize our house to better manage our budget.

The hard part was over. We had survived the detour.

Whenever I am asked how we dealt with all these challenges, it is so inspiring to not have to search for answers once again. The answer is simple. When God’s plans altered from ours, he held us close to him as we learned to let go and put all our trust in him. He never put us down as he taught us that hard times can bring blessings, too.

Our Christian friends and family supported us, listening with compassionate ears and never tiring of doing good. We had babysitters for doctor appointments, help with tedious food preparations, and a monetary donation to help pay off medical bills. We even inherited supportive new neighbors in the process. Accepting help was difficult at first, but through this trial, God also taught us how to rely on the help he sends through fellow Christians.

When our children entered school, we again saw God’s love in action. Parents called before parties asking what they could bring that our children could eat. Some sent special non-food projects or toys. Instead of feeling left out, they often felt special. Upon receiving a toy as a birthday treat, my daughter lamented, “I feel bad for the other kids in my class. They ate their treat, but I get to keep mine forever!”

So while life’s detours are unexpected and often unsettling, go with God because he’s looking at the whole road map, leading you in just the right direction. I have learned my life was, is, always will be going according to plan . . . his plan.

Food allergies: A chance to show God’s love

My 14-month-old feverishly scratched at his face. Huge white blisters exploded across his chubby baby cheeks. His lips swelled. He spit the food out of his mouth. He vomited. After a trip to the E.R., we received the diagnosis—my baby had life-threatening peanut and tree nut allergies.

So began a new phase of our life—a constant campaign to keep our son alive. A campaign complicated by many people’s lack of understanding.

Food allergies are on the rise. You know someone who has them. So what can others do to help? Overall the answer is simple—show God’s love.

Please be kind in your interactions with the parents and children dealing with food allergies. Families dealing with food allergies didn’t ask for this—but they have to deal with it on a bite-to-bite basis. Put yourself into their shoes—go one day thinking about every item you put in your mouth or on your body. That hand soap—has almond oil in it. We can’t use it. That popcorn—made in a factory with peanuts and tree nuts. We can’t enjoy it. That dog across the street—eats peanut butter as a treat. We can’t pet him. This is the reality of many food allergy families.

Here are a few practical ideas to show your Christian love and concern:

  1. Keep kids with allergies from harm. Check and double check ingredient labels. Even if the label stated nothing last time about a particular allergen, it may this time. Make sure things are washed up as much as possible if your church/school/family consumes the food allergen—door handles, tables, toys, kids’ faces and hands, etc. And, if a family wants to bring their own food please, don’t be offended and let them do so without guilt. That family’s first priority is the safety of their child. If they are comfortable with you, the Ladies’ Guild, or school lunch program making the food, please save the food labels for them to double check.
  2. Don’t leave kids, their siblings, and families out. Institute ways in your church, school, and home to serve safe foods—or to leave food out of the situation altogether. We have chosen to bring non-food toys/trinkets to school to celebrate our kids’ birthdays. It has gone over so well that one of the teachers asked all of the families this year to only bring non-food items for birthdays—even though there aren’t any food allergy kids in her room.
  3. Ask a lot of questions. If a food allergy individual is coming to your home, church, or school, ask, “What is the specific allergy?” Some with egg allergies are fine with cooked eggs, but not raw eggs, so baked goods would be safe. Some with peanut allergies are perfectly fine with the walnuts in the brownies you made. Check in with the families as to what is safe to eat and what is not.
  4. Know the signs of an allergic reaction and what to do. Have the contact information of the parents and local emergency line. Learn how to use an Epipen and do so before emergency personnel get there. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) has some great resources for families, schools, and churches at foodallergy.org. Mylan (the Epipen manufacturer) even gives free Epipens to schools in case there are children who experience an unknown allergic reaction. Visit epipen4schools.com.

Be a blessing to these families. Little gestures let these kids and their families know you care about them no matter the setting.

Rachel Learman and her husband, Paul, have four children. They live in Milwaukee, Wis.

All about Daddy and me

Elliana Bourman, age three, answers questions from her mom, Melanie, about her dad, Jonathan Bourman, one of Heart to heart‘s contributing authors.

‪Melanie: Does your daddy love you?

Elliana: Yup!

Melanie: How do you know?

Elliana: Because he tells me.

Melanie: What is your daddy’s job?

Elliana: I don’t remember.

Melanie: Daddy is a pastor, remember?

Elliana: Oh, yeah. He’s a pastor.

Melanie: What does Daddy do as a pastor?

Elliana: He stands on top and talks a lot.

Melanie: What does Daddy teach you about Jesus?

Elliana: That he washed my sins all gone.

Melanie: What is your favorite Bible story that Daddy has read to you?

Elliana: I like the big storm [Jesus calms the storm] and baby Jesus away in a manger.

Favorite memories of our dad

Kayla (14 years old) and Josh (11 years old) reminisce about special times that they spend with their dad, Dan Nommensen, a contributing author for Heart to heart.

When I was about seven and eight, my dad took me up north a couple times to a cottage that my great uncle used to live in. On our four-hour drive up to the cottage, we had a great time singing camp songs, talking, and telling stories and jokes.

Kayla and her dad, Dan.

Kayla and her dad, Dan.

When we got up there, it was usually dark. Being the great dad he is, he let me trudge in while he took everything in out of the cold. He lit the fire, and we watched the temperature slowly rise, degree by degree. Then, after about an hour-and-a-half of sorting, putting things in the fridge, and setting up heaters, he would finally get the bed ready and we would hop in. We sometimes watched a movie on the small screen of the portable movie player. Then we’d go to bed after saying prayers.

In the morning, I got up to a nice, warm, handmade meal. He already had everything set up and ready for us to eat and go. We then got our fishing things on and walked down to the lake just as the sun was rising. We got into the rocky boat with cobwebs and all and floated off. Dad rowed while we searched for the perfect place to cast our lures. When I finally threw a lure out with as much strength as I could, it would go off course or cross Dad’s line, but he always said, “That was a good one,” and helped me do it correctly.

I loved having those times with my dad. I love my dad and am thankful that I have such a loving Christian father to always watch over me.

Kayla Nommensen

At night when my dad tucks me in we pray five special prayers, including one in German and the English meaning that he learned from his dad. My dad learned two prayers from his mom that we also pray. Then Luther’s evening prayer. This is special to me because he is passing them on to me from his parents, my grandparents, that I didn’t get to know. He plays basketball with me, and he plays Wii with me. He is very patient with me. My dad is special because he helps me get through tough times, and I love him very much.

Josh Nommensen

A lesson from my dad

He listened quietly and patiently while I poured out my frustrations concerning the new place I was living. Out tumbled discontent with my job, the church, the choir, the location, and more. When I finished my long string of aggravations, there was a brief pause. Then, “Well, I am sorry to hear all of that. Life isn’t always easy, nor what you had hoped. But, God does have a plan and purpose for your life there. Grow where you are planted, Rachel.”

Rachel and her dad, James.

Rachel and her dad, James.

As we hung up the phone I have to admit I was far from satisfied with Dad’s answers. I don’t really know what I was hoping for, but “grow where you’re planted” was not it. At least that is what I thought in that moment.

As I considered what he said, I realized it was what Dad had been teaching me all along—through new family houses, financial hardships, the anxiety of his pastoral calls, different schools, moving hours away for college and law school, breakups, and job loss. It was, in fact, even an intrinsic part of my confirmation verse that he, as my pastor, had chosen: “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9). The context for this Bible passage was the Lord finally allowing the Israelites to enter the promised land of Canaan. God gave them the promised land but didn’t promise them a perfect life in that land.

Dad has shown me this throughout my life.

God puts us in certain places and situations for a reason. We can either follow God’s command to not be afraid and discouraged, living our lives to reflect his love and be joyful in our circumstances—or wallow in self-pity and push away our loving God who has plans beyond measure for us.

Life has changed significantly since that phone call. I have since married; become a mom of four children; moved two more times to two different states, two different churches, and three different companies, yet I continue to apply Dad’s advice.

Rachel Learman is the daughter of James Aderman, one of Heart to heart‘s contributing authors.

Put God’s love in action

I’m going to let you in on a little secret—church is something that the parents of kids with special needs dread. We are an exhausted group of people, and making it to church on Sunday is hard in big ways. It is also hard for our kids, many of whose needs result in difficult and loud behaviors during church that draw lots of unwanted attention. They’re not trying to be disruptive or naughty; often their bodies and brains can’t process the sights, sounds, and structure of a service.

But we remember Christ’s words, “Let the little children come to me” in Matthew, and we understand the importance of bringing our kids to Jesus’ feet to hear about his love and forgiveness. Sometimes we are also motivated by our desperation to see other adults during the week that aren’t our kids’ therapists. Sometimes we even dare to hope that we will be able to distract our kids long enough to make it through singing just one of our favorite hymns.

It’s hard work—physically and emotionally—for us and for our children. Here are some things for the church to think through when it comes to being the hands and feet of Jesus so that families can receive rest from the one who welcomes those who are “weary and burdened.”

Special needs present themselves in different ways. Children may have autism, PTSD, Sensory Processing Disorder, or ADHD—all diagnoses that don’t affect a child’s physical appearance. However, these are very real and challenging things to live with, and they affect a child’s brain and behavior in deep, lifelong ways. Treat the children and their families in your congregation with the kindness and gentleness Paul speaks of in Galatians. There may be more to a child’s behavior that you simply do not know about.

Provide opportunities for Dad, Mom, and siblings to worship and learn. This can be as simple as providing a staffed nursery or special helper in the pews to give families aid and respite so that everyone is given a chance to learn, pray, and sing during worship.

Be advocates for struggling families. They’re probably used to stares or unkind comments in the grocery store, doctor’s office, or park. Let your church be a place where these families are supported and encouraged. If you see others making them feel unwelcome or unwanted, reach out to encourage the hurting family—and remind others that God calls us to carry each other’s burdens in love. Notice the times when their child is behaving well or having a successful day. Tell them about the amazing qualities you see in their child.

Equip your Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and other youth programs to accommodate participation from children with special needs. Make sure that the parents of these children feel welcome and safe dropping their child off by enlisting the help of their child’s therapists to make sure that you have a team in place to make the environment safe and successful. Most therapists are thrilled to help you make your program a better place for a hurting child. No one should be excluded from opportunities to learn about Jesus and enjoy fellowship with peers.

Children with special needs call for special care. And it brings special blessings for those of us who care for them. We get to see these children held tightly in the arms of Jesus and know—we had the joy of helping make it happen. Help your congregation experience this joyful blessing. Put God’s love in action.

Carly Seifert and her husband, Joel, live in Bozeman, Mont. Joel is the pastor of Shining Mountains Lutheran Church. In addition to teaching piano, Carly is a freelance writer. She and Joel have two children—Ella, who is seven, and Benjamin, who is three.
 

Our children are watching

“Each of you must respect his mother and father” (Leviticus 19:3). This is undoubtedly a direct command from God. The explanation to the Fourth Commandment says, “We should fear and love God that we do not dishonor or anger our parents and others in authority but honor, serve, and obey them and give them love and respect.” Unfortunately, we are born into the world with a sinful nature, and showing respect does not come naturally. As parents, this means that we need to teach our children how to show respect.

We don’t have to look far to find examples of disrespect. How often are grade-school gyms filled with parents and coaches who show disrespect for authority by disagreeing with every call made by the official? And what about political campaigns? Respect is replaced with mudslinging, lies, and rudeness.

How easy is it to think we have the right to talk poorly about co-workers, second-guess our bosses, lash out at a nearby driver, be short-tempered with the waitress who isn’t meeting our expectations, put devices before a child or spouse, or speak rudely to that person who just can’t see things from our perspective? Unfortunately, these examples all came to mind because at one time or another, I was guilty of them myself.

The reality is that our children are watching. I was stopped dead in my tracks one night at our family campfire. While making s’mores, the inevitable happened. My five-year-old son dropped his marshmallow into the fire. With great disgust he shouted, “C’mon! You’ve got to be kidding me!” My wife’s jaw dropped. Sadly, this didn’t sound odd to me. I had shouted the exact same words with the exact same emotion at the TV while watching a college game about an hour earlier.

More important than pointing out examples of disrespectful behavior, we can joyfully model for our children how to respect others. A great way to begin teaching the lifelong habit of respect is to teach proper manners. We can also teach our children how to respect our country and those who make it great. We should also expect our children to respect their pastors and teachers. We can do this by praying for them, speaking well of them, never questioning them in front of our children, and expecting that our children listen to them the first time.

Learning respect will not happen without a few bumps in the road. When a child shows disrespect, it is our opportunity to show love to them by holding them accountable.

Be sure to spend time with your children in his Word. Remind them of God’s love for all people. One of our family’s favorite songs states, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world!” When we show respect to all of God’s creation, we show honor to him.

Aaron Bauer and his wife, Sara, have four children between the ages of four and eleven. The couple has been teaching Love and Logic parenting classes for the past eight years. Aaron teaches at Garden Homes, Milwaukee, Wis. 

Building a strong, God-pleasing marriage

When the issue of divorce arises in another family, a child or teenager may wonder if they should be concerned about their own parents getting a divorce. This can present an opportunity for parents to talk with their children and adolescents in age-appropriate ways about steps that Dad and Mom are taking to strengthen their marriage in an effort to avoid divorce.

This can be a great time to talk about—and demonstrate—the importance of:

  • Nurturing a marriage with things like date nights, cards, flowers, hugs and kisses on the cheek, plus kind acts. Your children will observe your actions, which can help to calm any anxiety on their part. You will be providing a beneficial template for their own future marriages.
  • Communicating well, which starts with actively listening to the other spouse’s message without prejudging it, then using appropriate eye contact, body language, and tone of voice to respond in a respect-ful manner. These actions will reassure your children of your love and care for their other parent and give them a great example to follow in their lives.
  • Resolving conflicts positively using strategies like fair fighting, compromise, negotiation, and maybe even sacrifice. Teach children that conflict is part of life and part of marriage and that it can be managed well to enhance relationships.
  • Apologizing and making amends if mistakes are made. How powerful for a young person to see a parent take responsibility and repent for a sinful choice, followed by forgiveness and reconciliation. This is an opportunity for children to see the forgiveness we learn from Jesus in action.
  • Celebrating anniversaries, as these are a blessing from God. Give thanks to him for the gift of marriage by marking anniversaries with some fun tradition or meaningful gift.
  • Worshiping together. We are surrounded by temptations to turn away from God’s design for marriage. Regularly hearing of God’s love in Christ and receiving Holy Communion gives us the strength to live Christian lives.
  • Teaching children and teens about God’s design for marriage. Emphasize that Dad is to be the loving head of the household and Mom is to be his respectful supporter. Talk about how Christians should be equally yoked with a Christian spouse. Reinforce that God’s plan is for marriage to be between one man and one woman.

For teens, parents may also want to broach the topic of sexual fidelity, noting that this too is a gift from God designed to enhance the intimacy between husband and wife. Use this opportunity to reinforce that sex outside of marriage is not part of God’s good plans for us and such sin only leads to heartache.

This may also be a time to reevaluate your marriage. How well are you doing the things listed above? What might you change or improve to strengthen your marriage? What might you want to request of your spouse?

Let’s teach our kids about having strong, God-pleasing marriages through our words and actions grounded in his holy Word. Remember that one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child is to love the other parent as God loves them.

Sheryl Cowling is a licensed clinical social worker who is also board certified as a professional Christian counselor and expert in traumatic stress. She provides counseling services at Christian Family Counseling, a ministry of WLCFS—Christian Family Solutions.

Diving into extracurriculars

19 ½ years! That’s how long my husband and I have been cajoling children into bathing suits; checking for towels and goggles; sitting in hot, heavily chlorinated poolside bleacher seats; or jumping in with the kids on frigid winter Saturday mornings. Six levels of Red Cross lessons times four kids (plus a couple of repeats) equals lots of hours and some good swimmers. I’m glad we made the effort to ensure our kids are safe and strong in the water, but whose idea was lessons for the six-month old?

The list of children’s activities offered to families these days is long and varied. Your kids can get after-school Spanish, chess, or STEM classes; become karate black belts or hockey goalies; master the trapeze. There are church youth groups, children’s choirs, band or piano lessons, library story times, 4H clubs. You want your children to be well-rounded and to experience it all. How to choose? What’s too little? What’s too much?

I cannot claim to be an expert on the subject of children’s activities—I often err on the side of over-involvement. (Yes, I was to blame for the infant swim lessons!) However, my husband and I have learned a little in these 19 ½ years poolside.

First, consider the options carefully and prayerfully. Is this something valuable to your child? Will it offer long-term physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual good? Choices will have to be made. A certain number of activities may be beneficial for your child, but too many may place undue stress on the child, the parents, the entire family.

Then there’s the stewardship question. Consider the time and money spent in the activity. How will your child’s participation affect their ability to complete homework, have some pure down-time, get enough rest? How will your child’s participation in this activity affect the entire family? (Will nightly 6 p.m. basketball destroy any chance of family dinner time?) If you have multiple children, think about this: Is this activity one you’ll expect each child to complete? What kind of time and money commitment is this in the long run? (19 ½ years is a long time and yes, you can say that you tried the baby swimming lessons with the oldest and it was too much, so no one else has to do it, but that excuse only works a couple of times before cries of “Unfair!” are heard.)

It’s easy to get caught up in the plethora of options for kids. When your child is young, observe him or her carefully and explore a number of different activities to determine where your children’s interests and talents lie. As they grow older, you can narrow things down and decide how many extras are manageable—one special activity per child per quarter, for instance. Take time to consider levels of activity, too—traveling sports versus school teams can make a big difference in family time and budgets. Some have found school athletics are more than enough for their child; some play one sport year round and have college scholarships to show for it. Another word of advice: make sure your own ego doesn’t get involved in the decision. “I always wanted to take ballet as a child!” may not be a good reason to sign everyone up at the nearest studio. (On the other hand, it might be!) Talk and really listen to your child about what he or she feels might be interesting and fun. Watch carefully for signs that you are overdoing it.

As we send our oldest off to his second year of college, I’m amazed at the speediness of these last 20 years! In retrospect, taking time to consider the areas in which you’d like your children to be enriched and aware—volunteer service, a part-time job, athletics, music, art, science, or public speaking, just to name a few—are things you and your child should carefully discuss and pray over. Most importantly, make sure there is time enough for the one thing needful—daily visits with God’s Word, weekly worship within a Christian congregation. If any activity gets in the way of your family’s spiritual growth, it is too much.

God’s blessings as you dive into the pool of extracurriculars! Enjoy this active time—in moderation.

Ann M. Ponath and her husband, David, and their four children, ages 20-11, may be found poolside, courtside, fieldside, concertside, or napping in Stillwater, Minn. They are members of Christ, North St. Paul/Hugo.