Patricia E. Clawson
Sitting in the pews listening to the pastor preach can be very trying if you have a burbling, wiggling ten-month-old on your lap and a three-year-old intent on coloring the hymnal beside you. You're in a quandary. You do not want to disturb those in neighboring pews, but you do want your children to learn to participate in worship. What's a parent to do?
The Grove family at Grace OPC, Vienna, Va.
There are no clear rules for parenting in the pews. Training a child is still the province of parents. Experienced moms and dads with quiet children may set an example and offer tips to newer parents. The elders may encourage parents with young kids to sit near the door. But ultimately it's the parents who decide whether to slip out of the pew or stay and whisper, "Shhh!"
Experienced parents often see their children's Sunday behavior as a reflection of their behavior the previous week. "If the parents have no control over them in general, they will not miraculously behave in church," said Barbara Canik of Christ Presbyterian Church in Janesville, Wisconsin. "I wanted (my children) to learn that they were part of a body of believers and to learn to be respectful and listen to the sermon and to participate in the music."
To prepare her children for their first service, Kristen Olgren, from Falls Presbyterian Church in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, told her children: "You are going to sit with us during church. When you do, I need you to be really, really quiet.... Will you do that for Mommy?" She repeated those words for several weeks.
Mrs. Olgren's expectations for her children changed as they grew. Her goal for toddlers was not to distract others. By four, she wanted them quiet. By five, she sought participationpraying and standing when appropriate. When they could read, she expected them to sing, say the responsive reading and creeds, and put check marks next to words from a list of words typically used in the sermon, such as: worship, resurrection, throne, and heaven.
Bill and Sue Muchler, of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, encouraged their children to draw pictures of what they heard in the sermon, copy the Scripture passage, and talk about the sermon on the way home.
To practice Sunday behavior, every weekday morning Kathy Hoisington, of Grace OPC in Vienna, Virginia, has her younger children sit quietly without toys or books for several minutesfirst on her lap and then in a little chaira feat not so unusual, since children sit restrained for hours in a car seat. She rewards them with a hug.
Don Campbell, of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fredericksburg, Virginia, taught his children to sit still during daily family worship so the training would transfer to corporate worship.
The best example for children is their parents, said Mary Shaffer, also of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church. When she reminds her children to be quiet, she also makes it her practice.
Sometimes, no matter what a parent does, children are noisy and distracting. Loving their neighbor, for Terry Hoisington, of Grace OPC in Vienna, Virginia, means, "We wouldn't allow our children to walk up and take food off of someone else's plate. In the same way, we don't want our children robbing others of any part of their spiritual meal by distracting them from it."
Instead of putting children in the nursery, some parents keep them in the narthex or "crying room." Candice Davis, from Immanuel OPC in West Collingswood, N.J., took her daughter to the fellowship hall, where speakers pipe in the service. Two-year-old Naomi sat in a chair quietly and wasn't allowed toys or activities to occupy her. "I found that she corrected her behavior much more quickly than if we had remained upstairs and kept scolding her," said Mrs. Davis. She didn't take her to the nursery "since that would have rewarded her poor behavior with fun and toys."
To help children sit quietly, some parents bring special, Sunday-only stuffed animals or cloth and board books for toddlers, stickers or soft dolls for young children, and backpacks with a notebook, pencil, and a Bible for older children. To eliminate bogus bathroom runs, parents take children to the restroom before the service.
When children are removed from the service, parents often discipline them and return them to the pew. "Our children are part of the covenant community; our God is a God to us and to our children," said Faith Nakhla of Calvary OPC in La Mirada, California. "It sends a wrong message to worshipers around us if we act like the children don't belong. That's why we'd rather have to go in and out a couple of times if needed, but keep coming back, to demonstrate this to our children and to others."
Mrs. Davis includes her children in worship on the basis of Jesus' words in Matthew 19:14, "Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." "We're teaching them from an early age to come to Jesus and receive a blessing by being a part of the worship service," she said.
Indeed, the purpose of the training is more than having children simply behave in the pews. "The most important thing we do is worship God, so it's vital to their spiritual nurturing to train them," said Erin Livingston of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania. "The goal of behavior is that of a faithful adult worshiper.... Our two-year-old gets virtually nothing cognitive from a sermon, but he's learning the important principles of being quiet and stillprerequisites of listening. Our seven-year-old reads, so he can sing the hymns, but our five-year-old and our two-year-old are able to participate because of memorization."
Sometimes pastors are distracted by noisy children. The preacher's concentration may be broken and his voice strained if he tries to speak over the child's noise, said Joan Brown, the pastor's wife at Westminster OPC in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. "Children need to know that it is a privilege to sit in church with the adults, but also that they have a responsibility to be quiet and obedient," she said.
Leonard Coppes, pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Denver, Colorado, finds it difficult to focus on his preaching when children cry in the pews. "Either the child has to be taken out until the crying stops or I have to close the sermon and sing the final song," he said.
Ben Snodgrass, pastor of Falls Presbyterian Church in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, puts up with noisy children when preaching, but encourages children with his motto, SSI: Silent. Still. Involved. "Involved means standing when we stand, folding hands when we pray, and listening and taking notes when the preacher is preaching. Sure, there is noise with children, but there is a future for that church!"
Dan Clifford, pastor of Grace OPC in Vienna, Virginia, believes so strongly that children should be under the ministry of the Word that he prepares what he calls Kids' Notes each week. The brightly colored, bulletin-sized paper has fill-in-the-blank, matching, and true/false questions that will be answered in the morning's Scripture reading and sermon. "Not only do we aim to keep the children engaged, but we also want to send the implicit message that the sermon is for them," he said.
His session periodically puts a message in their bulletin: "For those attending worship without children, we encourage you (1) to lend what assistance you can to parents who may need to leave worship quickly to remove an upset child, and (2) to think of coping with these occasional distractions as a necessary part of bringing up our covenant members to know and worship our Lord and an opportunity for you to show love to young families."
"Expect the Lord to bring fruit eventually," Mrs. Nakhla reminds us. "That means eventually the kids will learn how to 'act.' But more importantly, hopefully they will begin to actively participate in worshiping the Lord in their hearts as well as in their outward words and actions."
The author is the editorial assistant for New Horizons. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2008.