Recently, we took our newborn baby girl, Kendall, to worship for the first time. Several people stopped us on the way into worship, which meant that despite our best efforts, we didn’t actually make it into worship on time. Despite this, we went straight to the front row, believing that it is (contrary to most people’s instincts) the BEST place to worship with small children. Why? Because as my four-year old later explained to her grandparents, “That way I can see everything that’s going on.”
Kendall slept through her entire first worship service, wrapped snuggly against my chest. Meanwhile, Hope played in our church’s prayground – contentedly putting together puzzle after puzzle until it was time to get some Jesus bread.
Afterwards, several people commented on how “well” Kendall did during her first worship service. By this, they meant that she was largely silent.
It’s a well-intentioned comment, yet it’s not one that I love.
I want children – my own – as well as those I pastor in our congregation to feel welcome in worship from an early age. For that to happen, I wholeheartedly believe that we shouldn’t expect children to be silent in worship. That’s exactly why our congregation has a prayground – a place up front for our littlest people to play. It’s a place that can get a little chaotic as children dump out and build with legos, color, and solve puzzles… But it’s also a space that children know is theirs. What’s more – kids pay attention when they’re playing. I know because I see their reactions when I preach. When their hands are busy, their ears are listening. Noise is not a sign of disrespect, it’s a sign of engagement… And belonging.
And belonging is important.
We can’t bemoan the disappearance of teenagers and young adults from our congregation unless we make it clear when they’re little that they are welcome. And that they – like us – are welcome as they are… Cries, chatter, and all.
While I was pregnant with Kendall, a friend commented on how well Hope does in church but then wondered aloud, “Who knows if your new little one will be that way!”
I laughed as I later recounted this story to my husband.
Hope does well in church because she’s been attending church weekly ever since she was about 6 weeks old. It’s never been optional for her. And we’ve never removed her from worship – even when others have shot us dirty looks for allowing her to cry or occasionally talk in worship.
Hope is comfortable in church. And that’s not something that has happened accidentally. Nor has it happened automatically just because I work for a church.
It’s because we’ve instilled in her from her earliest memories that church (and worship) is important and that it’s something we do together as a family. Instead of shushing her, we’ve modeled what it looks like to be engaged in worship. We’ve encouraged her to participate in ways that are age appropriate and ask questions about things that she doesn’t understand.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We haven’t always gotten this right. There have been times when I’ve wanted nothing more than to put Hope in the nursery because it would have been easier.
But easy isn’t our goal. Faith formation is.
And so we’ve endured, even on the weeks when it’s felt like every eye in the place has been watching (and judging) our parenting as our kid cried in worship.
I have no doubt the same will happen as we bring Kendall to worship – right in the front row.
And yet, I wholeheartedly believe it’s worth it.
You can’t teach kids to love church unless they’re there.
And you can’t teach kids how to worship unless they see you (and others) do it.
So we’ll persist in bringing our kids to worship, knowing that it's what's best – for them, our family, and even our congregation.