ither tell those parents and their misbehaving children to leave the church or I will no longer come!”
“These children cannot sit still for a moment!”
“I am so distracted with all these noisy children that I can’t focus on the sermon!”
Several church members shared these feelings with me, and I understand their frustration. There is another side to the issue, however, that we would do well to remember—the exasperation and distress that the parents feel. Many parents with young children are feeling stressed out and are tempted to attend church no longer. They are overwhelmed, and there are several reasons for this:
Parents have their own expectations.
Parents notice the expectations of others and feel pressured.
Children sense the stress around them.
Children feel bored.
Children of any age have ups and downs, just as adults do, and may have a restless Sabbath. A restless child, however, is oftentimes not appreciated. Running around in the backyard is OK, but not in church. So some parents may decide to skip worship service altogether. This is certainly not a solution, because Jesus wants the children to come to Him (see Matt. 19:14), and He Himself attended “church” on a regular basis (see Luke 4:16).
Teaching a child only on Sabbaths about appropriate church behavior is not enough. Parents must do it at home throughout the week as well. At the earliest age, help your children to become familiar with expected behavior in church or other worship settings. Here are a few suggestions:
Train a Baby?
Begin while the mom is pregnant. Set aside a certain time for worship every day, in the morning and in the evening. Pray specifically for your unborn child and ask God for help to train the child according to His will. Think ahead about the type of teaching methods you want to use and the rules you want to establish for your child.
When the baby is born and life consists of sleeping, feeding, and changing diapers, do not discard your personal devotions time.
Begin the good habit of having worship with your newborn baby right away. Some parents ask, “When should I start telling stories as well as praying and singing with my child?” Don’t wait. Children, even infants, may “catch” more than we think they do, and they may feel the special atmosphere when we talk to God. It also helps to establish worship time with your child as a priority.
If this is not your first child, include the baby in the worship you have with your other children. They are expecting the baby to join in the family devotional time. Well-educated, older children positively influence the younger ones (see Child Guidance, p. 27).
Some parents may believe that little training can be accomplished with infants, but in reality, it’s never too soon to start. Here are some places to begin:
Pray with your child in simple language, sing a song, and say a word of praise about God or His creation, such as “Do you see the stars and the moon? God made them for you and for me. He loves you; He protects you.” That should be enough to begin with for an infant or young child.
Always have worship in the same place in your home. Also make sure the child is quiet during devotional time. This is good preparation for Sabbath.
Don’t let yourself be interrupted by a phone call or a conversation with other family members.
Say a prayer before feeding your baby. Choose a prayer position such as folding your hands and bowing your head. If the baby is very hungry and restless or cries, do not skip prayer but say a very short one.
Think of prayer as a conversation with God. If you prefer, memorize a prayer. It’s important that you say the prayer aloud so that your children can learn from you how to pray.
Don’t force but strongly encourage your child to pray. One time during our own family worship our young son refused to pray. I didn’t want him to feel that he should pray only because his mom wanted him to; on the other hand, he was still very young, and I wanted him to learn the importance of prayer. I decided to follow some counsel another parent had given me previously. I explained to my son that prayer, singing, and the story we always share at worship time belong together, like a present. I compared the prayer and the song to the wrapping paper and the ribbon, and the story to the gift itself. This made sense to my son, and because he didn’t want to miss out on the story, he said a short prayer. Some may feel he was “pushed” to pray, but I saw it as encouragement. His prayer sounded sincere and not forced, and I was glad I had chosen this method to help teach him that prayer is important. Church services incorporate a similar “package,” which generally includes singing, prayer, and a sermon—among other facets of worship.
Most of us feel comfortable singing with a child. A song can soothe, comfort, and create a happy mood. A simple Christian song can bring your child closer to God. What if you feel you cannot sing or carry a tune? I (as a musician) don’t think it matters. Sing anyway. It’s better to sing a song out of tune to your child than not sing at all. Even God suggests that we sing (see Eph. 5:19). You also could try singing along with a musical CD.
Choose a story to tell that’s appropriate for the age of the child. There’s a wide range of devotional books for each age group. What’s most important, however, isn’t the material you use but that you take time every day for worship with your child and the entire family.
One person needs to prepare the worship. Planning ahead makes a difference in the quality of the worship experience.
Friday evening worship:
Extend your worship time on Friday evenings as you welcome the Sabbath. If you have developed a “habit” of family worship, it won’t be difficult for the baby to listen to Mom’s and Dad’s voices for a longer period of time. This home training should make it much easier for children as well as parents on Sabbath. Sure, there are various challenges to face in church, such as more noise than at home, adults who want to hold the baby, different time frames from the ones at home. But remember, the practice at home will make it easier to “survive” Sabbath morning.
Worship in Church
At home it’s easy to instruct your
child on how to behave and quietly sit and listen. In church, however, it’s best
to instruct using body language and eye control rather than verbally. Signs such as putting your finger to your lips to indicate silence, pointing to the knees for kneeling, or directing the child to a little wallet containing the offering prepared the day before, should usually do the job.
Prepare a Sabbath bag with selected “Sabbath” toys that are not used during the week and are “sermon” safe (they don’t make noise). Look for books and soft toys that relate to nature and the Bible. Notice also that some children are fine without a toy. If possible, take only one toy out of the “Sabbath bag.” If the child wants another one, return the first one to the bag and then choose a second one. Try to keep it simple; it helps children to be less restless.
Plan ahead. As your children grow, you might encounter different types of problems and distractions. Ask God for solutions. The Holy Spirit will give you ideas on how to master the respective situation.
Always be an example to your children and consider ahead of time what you yourself will be doing during the worship service. If you whisper, your child will whisper. If you close your eyes during prayer, most likely your child will too. If you go to the restroom before the worship service starts, they may do that too.
Also, be prepared for unexpected situations. Have a backup for emergencies. I usually carry a toy or other interesting object in my purse. It’s helpful to surprise your child with something a little different if you encounter an unforeseen situation or if your child starts crying.
If you have to take your child out of the sanctuary for some reason, such as their crying, do it quickly. Don’t wait too long. Then solve the problem and come back. The sanctuary is the place for worship. Of course, there are exceptions. For example, a child may not be feeling well, perhaps teething. In situations such as that, you might want to stay in the “parents’ room.”
Everyone Is Unique
God created every child as a unique individual. No two are exactly alike, so not every suggestion mentioned here will work for every child. Most of the guidelines are based on my own personal experiences, on those of other parents, and on counsel given in Ellen G. White’s book Child Guidance
. For me and my children, they have worked most of the time. I still adhere to these guidelines even though my children are grown. Other “church children” sit next to me during worship service, and I can still be an example to them with my own behavior and help to show them how to enjoy church.
Let’s together love and train the little ones for Jesus.
Geri Mueller, a soloist and flute teacher, enjoys being involved in ministry at her local church in Maryland. This article was published April 19, 2012.