Ever since Anselm was born, we’ve made it a priority to keep him — and Perpetua as well, once she came along — in for as much of the main church service each week as humanly possible. It began mostly as a practical step (we had mandatory chapel in seminary without childcare) but has become something we really value for what we see it doing in our children’s lives. Our church has a great kids’ program — Anselm loves Sunday School and Perpetua more-or-less tolerates the nursery — but for most of the service, they’re in the pew. This is why.
Knowing how to behave in church comes from being in church.
Sometimes people compliment us on how well our kids behave in church. This isn’t to say that they’re never loud or wiggly, or that I’ve never had to carry a screaming child or two out of the sanctuary (ha). But by and large, they do fairly well. They sit (mostly) quietly and listen, they stay in the pew instead of climbing over or crawling under. As much as I’d like to say that this is because I am, obviously, a 100% amazing parent… what it really comes down to is that our children know how to behave in church because they’ve always been in church. It’s not a foreign environment to them; it’s just something we do. Since they were born they’ve been watching and listening to what the adults around them are doing. As they’ve gotten older they’ve started mimicking that behaviour. They can’t read, but they hold their bulletins. They stand and sit when everyone else does. Anselm can sing some hymns that he knows. They know how to behave in church because they spend time in church.
We want them to know that church is for them.
We’re Anglicans, so Anselm and Perpetua were both baptized as infants. They are members of Christ’s body. There are no second-class citizens of the Kingdom of God! God desires our children’s worship just as he desires ours; God works in our children’s hearts through the hearing of his word just as he works in ours; God invites our children into his presence just as he invites us. There are few things that make me grit my teeth like hearing someone gush about how “children are the future of the church.” Y’all. Children aren’t the future. Children are the now.
We trust that God meets them right where they are.
Can Anselm articulate a coherent, comprehensive systematic theology? Of course not. He’s three. But does he have faith? He sure does. He’s got all of the basics down: God made him and loves him, Jesus died for him and then rose again so that we can be with God forever, we go to church to worship God and learn about him, we can talk to God in prayer whenever we want, and the Holy Spirit helps us in all of that. As he grows he will learn and understand more. God’s grace meets us where we are; there’s no minimum age or cognitive level that we have to meet before he will begin to work in our hearts. Corporate worship is critically important to the process of spiritual formation, and we trust that having our children in church is impacting them in ways that we perhaps cannot yet see or understand, but which are nevertheless very real.
Bringing our kids to church reminds us that church isn’t about us.
There are times that having the kids in church feels more like a hassle than anything else. I take them out to Sunday School and nursery, respectively, right before the sermon begins, which means that I miss the first few minutes of the sermon more often than not. And I go fetch them during the Peace or the Offeratory, which means that I often miss at least the first part of the Communion liturgy. When they’re with me, my attention is divided; I may be singing or praying or listening, but I’m also keeping one eye and one ear fixed on them. It’s hard for me to completely “enter in” to what we’re doing. But you know what? That’s ok. Granted, I do look forward to the days when I can regularly hear the whole sermon and participate in the whole liturgy, start to finish. But bringing my children into church reminds me that weekly worship is about a lot more than how I feel or what I get out of it. It’s about being with the body of believers, however messy that might look sometimes. It’s about passing on my faith to my children. It’s about a whole lot of things, none of which are centred around my ego or enjoyment.
Our kids need to be in church because the liturgy forms us.
We learn to worship by worshipping. We learn to pray by praying. We learn to sing by singing. Hearing the words of the liturgy week after week lets them penetrate our children’s hearts and minds, just as they penetrate ours. We have consistently been surprised when Anselm comes out with a phrase or idea lifted from the liturgy — but we oughtn’t be. In fact, it’s exactly what we ought to expect. The liturgy is deeply formative and we want our children to be formed by it.
Jesus bids us to let the children come to him.
This is the big one, isn’t it? Jesus invites our children into his presence, just as they are. Even when they’re too small to understand. Even when they’re fussy. Even when you just get settled into the pew and then someone has a diaper blowout or drops a hymnbook or cries. Even when it’s the last thing we want to do on a Sunday morning. We don’t have to bring perfectly behaved children to church. We don’t have to bring completely attentive children to church. We just have to bring the children we have, again and again, trusting that in their imperfections and ours God is doing something beautiful.
Related Reading: Topical Tuesday: Why are there no children in church? | Children in Worship, or the Mortification of Parents | Welcoming Kids into Worship | Dear Parents with Young Children in Church | Pew parenting | Children belong in Mass