Young Children in Worship – a parent’s perspective

My wife and I had our first child just over two years ago. She is a beautiful, brilliant toddler (as any parent is wont to believe about their own kid), and loves to be in new situations. We’ve attended a number of church services of various worship traditions since her birth. Each Sunday morning is a grand adventure, with small accomplishments of feeding and dressing the child, getting into and out of the car, moving inside the church and settled into a seat, trying to hold her within a 2-by-6-foot space for an hour, and heading home to feed and re-dress her for naptime.

Taking a two-year-old child into any worship service is a harrowing experience. So many questions run through our minds: How loud will the music be? How long is the sermon? How many people will look at us when she makes her kid noises, and how many of them will scowl? Where can we go if she gets squirmy? What should we do if they pass a communion plate toward us? Sometimes the fear alone is almost enough to keep us home on a Sunday.

For worship directors who are interested in kid-friendly planning, there are plenty of ideas out there. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • The Calvin Institute of Christian Worship resource library contains a two-part article called “Worship that is Friendly to Children” by Howard Vanderwell and Norma de Waal Malefyt. It suggests principles for intergenerational worship, guidelines for how children should participate in worship, a checklist for church staff or a worship team to use in an evaluative discussion, ideas on how parents can make their worship experience “child-friendly,” and suggestions for worship elements.
  • Carolyn C. Brown, in “Teaching Kids Worship Skills,” discusses what children need to be able to do and know in order to participate in worship, and how to help teach children to participate in worship.
  • Robbie Castleman has written an excellent book for parents, titled Parenting in the Pew: Guiding Your Children into the Joy of Worship (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2002).
  • There are also several guides to planning worship services specifically for children. One is Mark Burrows, Children First: Worshipping with the Family of God (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2010).

I have found, however, that few authors have written about pre-elementary-aged children in worship. And hardly anyone has discussed what a congregation can do to create an environment that is helpful to children and parents.

The most common perspective my wife and I have encountered in churches is the one that implies, “A worship service is no place for a young child.” It’s usually expressed in the form of a strong suggestion, accompanied by a polite smile and wide eyes: “Good morning! Welcome! Did you know we have a nursery???” Of course we know there is a nursery but, call us crazy, we prefer not to leave our infant with (probably very kind) folks who are complete strangers to us as well as our daughter. Trust us, that would be unpleasant for everyone involved.

But, more significantly, we believe that being in the worship service and experiencing the elements of singing, reading, praying, and listening is important for our daughter. We know she can’t yet comprehend all of these activities, but she certainly understands that this is a communal environment, and she senses the moods of worship. Why keep her away from this experience?

I’ll tell you why. Because she squirms. And talks. And sometimes shouts or whines. All of this distracts the people around us, and knowing that folks are annoyed is embarrassing for us.

Still, if you feel, as we do, that having young children in corporate worship is valuable, here are a few ideas from a couple of young parents:

  • I fully know how controversial the times of worship services can be. However, consider what your 11:00 service is like for a child who eats lunch at 11:15 and takes a nap around noon. Sorry preacher, there’s no way we’re staying for the whole sermon.
  • Teach the congregation the real purpose of quiet meditation. Emphasize that the point is not silence, but awareness and rest. Noise (especially baby babble) is not the enemy of spirituality.
  • Look around your worship space with a parent’s eyes. Is there room for a child to wiggle? Does a small sound echo tremendously? Do you have a place where a parent can take their crazy kid and still be an active worshiper?
  • Are supplemental activities provided for children? Anything to see, hold, or use? (By the way, adults love kinesthetic worship experiences too!)

Finally, a big idea: Help us. If you have shared our experience of having young children, encourage us and give us a few tips. And please be nice about it.

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