Twenty years ago I wrote a column for Forward in Christ magazine titled Children belong in church. My kids were two and four, and though I believed what I wrote, it hadn’t stopped me from taking those two kiddos out of church. Multiple times. At least once, I remember hoicking one up under each arm—like basketballs, but louder and chubbier—walking right out the door and driving home.
I never found the secret to perfect church behavior. Sometimes crayons and Cheerios—let’s call them worship tools—were enough. Sometimes sterner looks and firmer hands were needed.
It’s hard. Too permissive, and our ruckus ruins the service for others. Too rigid, and the kids start dreading church.
Okay, here’s the sad truth. When three-year-old Phil trained himself to lean against my arm and sleep through the sermon, God forgive me but I considered it a blessing. Phil’s pretty sure he slept through sermons until about third grade, and I’m pretty sure I relished it. That’s some less-than-stellar parenting right there.
As kids get older, it’s the church after church—the liturgy you hold in your car on the way to the bakery—that’s almost as important as the service itself.
Mom: “Today when we confessed our sins, I thought of how crabby I was this morning. I’m sorry. I need to be more patient.”
Kids: “We understand. You were mad ‘cuz we were late again.”
Dad: “That’s one of my favorite psalms. How does that verse go again? ‘I am fearfully and wonderfully . . .’ ”
Mom: “What was your favorite part of the sermon?”
Kids: “The story about that little boy who thought Jesus couldn’t love him.” (Spoiler: It’s always the story—for all of us.)
Dad: “Did I hear Pastor say . . . ?”
Kids: “No! What he said was . . .”
In the church after church, families review, discuss, apply, even question. Sometimes we get downright Berean. The temptation, though, is to let the discussion devolve into snarkiness:
“I hate that contemporary music. . . . The prayers were so long. . . . That sermon had nothing to do with my life. . . . Did you see Mrs. Jones’s purple hat?”
And of course: “That crying baby! I wish people would keep their kids quiet in church.”
I guess that takes us back where we started. Sometimes, moms and dads, we do need to take the kids out. But mostly we do our utmost to help them stay. Help them sit, stand, bow, fold, sing, pray, listen.
Help them simply be present as the Spirit works his holy osmosis, passing the promises of Christ into the bloodstream of their souls . . . forming their faith, their character, their habits . . . cultivating in them that deep sense of belonging to something larger than themselves—something eternal.