I settled down in the church pew, ready to enjoy another worship service. As I looked around me, I noticed that in the row ahead of me were several junior-aged young people. Nicely dressed, freshly scrubbed. Ready for church too. But as the service continued, I found that they were not at all prepared for worship, and I doubt that they got anything out of it. Neither did I with all of their whispering, drawing, playing with the bulletins, cars, rubber bands, and throwing papers. It made me think a lot about kids and church.
It has been some time since I have had to deal with this issue myself, but I frequently see young parents struggling, and I remember my experiences.
For all practical purposes, I was a single parent in church because Dick was either gone or on the platform—not much help. But many people were helpful and gave me much practical advice. I would like to share some of that.
Getting youngsters through church successfully starts a long time before 11:00 on Sabbath. It begins at birth, and then early every week.
One of the best things you can do to help children learn to sit still through church is to start when they are born and be in church regularly. Many are tempted to skip church because the children are restless or don't want to go. If you miss once, it makes it harder to go the next time, and children soon learn that they don't have to sit through a service—they can fuss, parents take them out, and that is the end of that.
It helps too if very soon after baby is born, you begin having regular worship with him or her. You may think the child is not old enough to have it do any good, but children learn a lot, much sooner than we give them credit for. They learn to sit quietly and listen. They learn about the Bible stories and about reverence. They learn how to care for their church papers and Bibles. They learn to participate in singing and prayer. They learn to love the Lord and are then able to worship in a much more meaningful way very early.
If you did not know this and did not get started early, begin now. It is never too late.
When possible, have the children participate in picking out or saving special clothes to wear to church, getting their shoes ready, etc. It all helps to make Sabbath something special to look forward to.
Having a fun worship Friday night gives a good start to the Sabbath. Read special books to the children, sing their favorite songs. Play fun Bible games. And get to bed early enough that everyone can get a good Sabbath morning start. It is always nice to wake up to religious music. It sets the mood for the day.
As I grew up, and then with our family, Sabbath breakfast was special. It was the only day of the week we had sweet rolls and hot chocolate! If possible, there was special fruit too. I still look forward to Sabbath breakfasts although I cheat and have hot chocolate more often now! When the children were small and we had no dishwasher, we used paper plates—everything disposable. After breakfast, with one sweep, the dishes were done. Everyone helped put the food away, and my husband always helped to get our children ready. There was no stress and it took very little time.
So, you see, church is only a part of a special package called Sabbath. One of the best things you can do for successful worship is to get to Sabbath School and church on time. I know from experience that if there is an emergency, or something can go wrong, it will on Sabbath morning. I'm sure that is because Satan knows how important it is to be in church, ready and expecting a blessing.
Children should be started in their own Sabbath School as soon as they can sit up in your lap. They learn very quickly and enjoy all the action, coloring, and singing in their own Sabbath School. You will be amazed how early they will be repeating what they learn everywhere, including Sabbath School! It is good to leave them alone in their division as soon as you can. You will find many times when it is helpful if they have learned to be apart from you. And I know from experience leading children's
Sabbath Schools that most children behave better when parents are not present.
I realize that for many military families, having a church at all, to say nothing of a special children's Sabbath School division, can be a problem. Many of you are isolated or near very small churches. Even if there is no adult Sabbath School because everyone is helping in the children's departments, that is okay; there should be one for the children. For military members, usually there are no other family members to help with children, and you may not have a spouse to help. But do the best you can early and consistently. It will pay off.
Between Sabbath School and church, see that everyone gets drinks, goes to the bathroom, and maybe does a few laps around the outside of the church. This is the time to tell the children that they are soon going into church and that you expect them to sit quietly and that they will not leave the service unless it is an emergency. They are going to spend a special time with Jesus in His house. Then model that behavior yourself.
You will want to have an exclusive church bag for each child. It will not be used any other time, nor will its contents. It is just for church. It will contain toys and church activities appropriate for the age of the child. Each item chosen should be soft and quiet—something that will not make noise if shaken or dropped. Suggestions are plastic or cloth books for very small children and regular Sabbath books for older children. Activity books—something to lift, move or answer are interesting. Felt items are excellent—animal puppets, pieces of felts that make pictures and scenes. Christian bookstores have a great variety of possibilities. Soft rubber or plastic toys and a special small stuffed toy or two are good. Religious coloring books are nice when the child is old enough to keep track of the crayons. Connect numbers and quiz books are good for older children. Have your child help pick out items for his/her bag—they will look forward to using it.
If you and others cannot afford to supply such a bag of goodies yourself, ask the church to buy some items and each Sabbath your child could pick out what he or she wants for that week. Or you and some other parents can get together to make or trade off items.
As children grow older, they enjoy listening for and counting certain pre-chosen words. The pastor might help by suggesting a particular word or phrase in his sermon. This helps the child to begin listening,
Other than a bottle, I don't feel that there should be food in church. If a child cannot go two and a half hours without eating, give him or her something between services. Whoever deans the church will be grateful too.
As much as possible, do not let the child get into the special bag until the sermon starts. During the early part of worship have the child participate—stand to sing, kneel to pray, have some offering to contribute. If your church does not have a children's story, do what you can to get one started. As soon as the child has the idea of reading and begins to be able to follow along, look up the scriptures. In other words, participate in worship. Then when there are longer periods of time such as the sermon, they can engage in their own quiet activities.
As much as possible, have the children do all their activities sitting in the pew beside you or in your lap—never allow them on the floor except for prayer or a quick retrieval of a dropped item.
Unless children can show that they can sit quietly beside another child, it is best to separate them with adults. When our children showed they could sit quietly with another child we allowed it, but it had to be by us or someone we knew would see that they were quiet. You will find that two children together is about the limit that can keep quiet.
Sometimes emergencies do come up, and a child must be taken out of a service for the bathroom or because of misbehavior. But if you make the trip as quickly as possible and not a time of escape and play, it will not happen often, and you will be able to get much more out of church yourself. I hesitate to recommend spanking for a misbehaving child, but I will say that for our children, being taken out of church was not something for them to look forward to.
When there is going to be a special service such as communion, prepare the children ahead of time. Explain the service and what the symbols mean. Explain that only people old enough to understand and begin participating in church activities fully can partake. Tell them that they can have something special later and be sure there is something special just for them at lunch. Then have them watch the whole communion and talk about it later. You will have to be the judge as to what age your child is ready to participate in communion. If you have prepared them well, it may he long before baptism.
This has been a lot of do's and don't's. But if everyone is prepared, things are made special, and you are not stressed out, I think everyone will enjoy church much more. Good luck. I look forward to sitting beside you and your children some Sabbath soon.