A few weeks ago my family headed into worship at church. We found a row, empty except for a middle-aged couple at the end. We filed in and in short order, one-by-one, my children lost their minds.
The couple was polite and friendly. We shared “kids will be kids” smiles as I corrected and redirected in forceful hushes.
A few minutes into the service Tom had to step out and I was left alone trying to scare my kids into sitting in their chairs. But it wasn’t working. My Scary Mom Eyes weren’t scaring anyone into anything.
By the second round of worship songs, the couple quietly left our row and moved to, um, a quieter section.
I didn’t blame them.
My kids were being distracting. My efforts at quieting them was distracting, too.
On most Sunday mornings, all of my kids are in children’s programs during the sermon, but one Sunday a month they sit with us for the entire service. When the kids are with us, we expect them to be quiet and respectful of the service and also the people around us. We try to guide them through the service and explain why we’re asking for this behavior. We don’t want them to just be quiet because we said so — this is not a “children are better seen and not heard” moment. This is worship of a Holy God. This is different.
Focus and reverence is a lifelong practice, I know (prone to wander, Lord I feel it…) and it’s especially tricky with kids. I want my kids to understand the holiness of worship, but I also want them to feel at home at church. I want them to know that God accepts them just as they are — wild, unruly, unable to sit in a chair. He created them that way, perfectly and beautifully in His image.
So while I did say we expect our children to sit quietly and respectfully, the reality on Sunday mornings is very different. During worship there is a lot of correction, redirection, and reminders. I dole out snacks (that hopefully won’t make too much noise or mess) at intervals. The kids color, they bicker, and they laugh. We remind them to whisper overandoverandoverandover and we try to explain the liturgy, ending with the Lord’s Supper. We trust that Jesus is at work.
After the benediction, little ones rejoin their parents from nursery, and the sanctuary takes a new shape. Before the adults even have time to say hello to friends, the kids seem to explode from where they had been lying dormant and start running through the aisles. Older kids zip over and under chairs, through the rows and in and out of the sanctuary. Toddlers try to keep up. You often see moms and dads in a huff, asking their kids’ friends, “Have you seen Mary? Which way was she running?”
Nearly 15 years ago when I first started attending this church, watching the kids run and play was one of my favorite parts of Sunday. The singing would stop and the church would come alive with continued worship; children enjoying life, friends, and engaging with the place in their own beautiful way.
Kids worship differently than adults (thank goodness). They are uninhibited, curious, and sometimes even irreverent with honest questions and responses. But it is worship, and in their own, way they are consecrating the place.
Bringing kids to church is tough all around, isn’t it? It’s hard as a parent to decide what you expect of your kids, and it’s hard on kids to ask them to do all of the things that are inherently difficult for them — be quiet, don’t squirm, wear uncomfortable pants.
My kids are growing up in church, and so it’s important to me that they feel comfortable there. If they grow up thinking that church is a place fancy people to exchange niceties and smile politely, then all of this church stuff will be for naught.
Although I wish I didn’t, sometimes I worry about what people might think when they see my kids’ church behavior. I worry that the snacks look permissive, the crayons rolling under the chairs are distracting. And why won’t my kids listen?
Let’s be realistic, people probably are judging. But I also hope that occasionally someone sees me struggling with my kids and feels kinship. It’s hard to get to church with little kids, and sometimes it doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. But we’re here because worship matters, and because these unruly kids aren’t disrupting the church, they are the church. And you and your crazy family is welcome. In fact, you can come sit by us.
I will be the first to admit that my kids could stand to improve their church behavior. But I’m so thankful that in this place of worship, my kids feel at home to be themselves, and that my family is welcome, regardless of the squirming and distractions.
One day my family will all sit quietly. Feet on the floor, hands in our lap. Until then, I’ll let my kids run through the aisles.