You know that front row family with their children who never make a peep, not even the youngest. Then there are the back row families. Everyone can hear what happens back there. Talking, crying, playing, going in and out of the sanctuary, running down the church aisle. Why can't they all be like the front row family?
Actually the back row families are the real champions in the church. They are staying by despite the difficulties they face. Not just difficulties with energetic children, but also the daunting stares they receive from the saints around them. Less courageous parents and they are many head home after the children's Sabbath school ends. Divine service frustration has won over their adult need for another hour of spiritual nurture. Meanwhile the front row family has long since discovered that their children are less likely to be distracted from paying attention to the service. Therefore, parents and children together can reverently engage in worship.
On Sabbath morning in God's house we fellowship with the King of the Universe, the same God who visited with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Reverence does not demand total silence. If it had, Jesus would not have commended the children for shouting in the temple (Matthew 21:15, 16). Reverence does involve an appreciation of how special is the occasion and how important the God we worship who loves to be there with us.
How can we meet the needs of all three groups gathered in the sanctuary for the divine service? Consider first the children. What goals do we hold for them? Do we want them to go away so they no longer bother us? It may well happen. Do we want them to be socialized to sit and wait for church to end? If so, the result will be the same. As soon as they have a choice, they will stop bothering us.
How much better to deliberately assist in socializing each one of the children to become an active member of the group, aware of what is taking place, and developing their spiritual life by reverent participation in the divine service.
Consider next their parents. This is the very age group we are trying to attract in order to have a growing church. If we allow the ones who are already attending to become discouraged and slip away, we are defeating ourselves.
Finally there are the others in the service who do not have personal responsibility for little ones. Their needs are also important. They have come for a spiritual blessing and should not go home disappointed.
What can be done to meet the needs of all?
I'll start with the most controversial idea first, because it is so important to the church attendance of the young parents: Many churches have training chapels where young families can sit. Too often this becomes a social room for the adults rather than a place to help children learn to reverent involvement in the church service. It would be better to organize a nursery for the babies up to three years old. You will be allowing the parents to receive uninterrupted benefits from the church service. Carefully choose two or more reliable people, maybe teenagers, who will provide a happy safe environment for an hour, ensuring that the children will not develop a negative attitude toward church going. The elders or deacons in charge can wander by frequently to see that all is well. Some parents will not choose to leave their children in the nursery. Honor their choice.
Engineer the start of a parent support group where young parents can meet and share with each other their church service frustrations, what is working, and what is not. This is more tactful, and fun, than pointed statements from the pulpit or in board meeting about the behavior of children in church.
Recently I received a pamphlet entitled,"Feed the Lambs and the Giraffes Will Be Fed." Think about it. If the needs of the children in the service are considered, then the needs of the other groups will have been met.
Children's active minds can be attentive to church service if adults do not display the attitude that they are to sit and wait for the service to end. Any age group would fidget and squirm if that were their only responsibility. Instead, children can be socialized to view this hour as a time for them, as well as for the grown ups. The more participation they have, the more they will bond to the experience. Here are a few suggestions which may change the atmosphere in your church:
1. Have a child taking part on the platform each week; perhaps reading the Scripture passage, or calling for the offering, praying or giving the special music. This gives every child in the audience the message that they are wanted and needed. Encourage the deacons to include children in taking up the offering. Occasionally have larger groups of children participate up front in some way.
2. Encourage parents to help their children participate in singing the songs used during the service. Give parents copies of the prayer song and response that are used each week to memorize with their children, or have a little class at church to help the children memorize them.
3. Have a children's choir. A side effect is that relatives and friends of various persuasions will attend church when "their" child is performing. You will feed more giraffes.
4. Allow selected children to join the adult choir. Sitting in the choir loft, surrounded by adults, they will certainly pay attention to the service, as well as feel very important and needed.
5. Have a children's story to focus on their level of thinking, but you will find that all age groups give rapt attention. More evidence that if you feed the lambs, the giraffes will be fed. Try to have the story content linked to the sermon of the day. Then children will be better prepared to listen to the sermon that follows.
6. Give children paper and pencils to use during the sermon. Educate the pastor to welcome them in his opening remarks, then give them a little assignment related to the sermon, such as, draw a picture of what they think the pastor is talking about, or keep track of how many times the pastor uses certain words. Older children can take notes on the sermon. Followup at the close of the sermon is important. Assign someone to collect the pictures to be displayed somewhere in the church; ask how many times they heard the particular words, etc. If the assignment is given then never mentioned again, the message goes to the children that it wasn't serious in the first place.
7. Occasionally have Children's Church. This may be a service for the children separate from the adults; however, it is refreshing for all age groups to have divine service where the children lead out with appropriate adult assistance
Quite a few churches provide bags of drawing materials, books and other quiet toys for children to use during the service. This thoughtfulness is very commendable; however, without deliberate instruction, it teaches the children not to listen. It adds to the sit-and-wait socialization. Much better for the bag to contain what is needed to complete the pastor's assignment during the sermon for that day. Then it contributes to the children's sense of participation in worship.
The last two verses of the Old Testament (Malachi 4:5, 6) give God's goal for the focus of the Church just before Christ's return. Adults bonding with the children; children bonding with adults; not just parents; all in the context of paying attention to God's Word. What better place for this to happen than on the occasion when God Himself promises to meet with His people, all his people, all age groups; everyone attentively praising God; reverently worshiping together.
Virginia L. Smith, PhD, is the director of Children's Ministry Department of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.